PEOPLE

Mountaineer says he's at a peak as he nears 50

Mr Khoo and his sherpa Mingma atop the 8,463m high Makalu mountain on May 19. A team member died on the climb. Mr Khoo with his wife Wee Leng, 46; son Sheng Feng, 11; and daughter Sheng En, eight. He has insurance policies in place to make sure his f
Mr Khoo and his sherpa Mingma atop the 8,463m high Makalu mountain on May 19. A team member died on the climb. Mr Khoo with his wife Wee Leng, 46; son Sheng Feng, 11; and daughter Sheng En, eight. He has insurance policies in place to make sure his family would be provided for if he were to die. His wife, also an avid climber, supports his passion and says she is mentally prepared every time he climbs.PHOTO: KHOO SWEE CHIOW ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Mr Khoo and his sherpa Mingma atop the 8,463m high Makalu mountain on May 19. A team member died on the climb. Mr Khoo with his wife Wee Leng, 46; son Sheng Feng, 11; and daughter Sheng En, eight. He has insurance policies in place to make sure his f
Mr Khoo and his sherpa Mingma atop the 8,463m high Makalu mountain on May 19. A team member died on the climb. Mr Khoo with his wife Wee Leng, 46; son Sheng Feng, 11; and daughter Sheng En, eight. He has insurance policies in place to make sure his family would be provided for if he were to die. His wife, also an avid climber, supports his passion and says she is mentally prepared every time he climbs.PHOTO: KHOO SWEE CHIOW ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Khoo Swee Chiow dices with death on each climb but has never felt fitter

On the morning of May 23, Singaporean adventurer and mountaineer Khoo Swee Chiow sent the press a terse e-mail. It read: "(I) reached the summit of Makalu 8,463m on 19 May, 6.45am Nepal time. This expedition was very long and tough. One of (my) team members died..."

Behind the brief message lay a reminder. Mr Khoo, 49, who conquered Mount Everest in 1998, dices with death every time he climbs.

This time, 39-year-old Yannick Gagneret did not make it down the mountain, the fifth peak above 8,000m (there are 14 in all) that Mr Khoo has climbed.

The Frenchman, whom Mr Khoo met last year, succumbed to altitude sickness after rejecting advice to descend.

Mr Khoo reached the summit after a gruelling 121/2-hour push from Camp 3 at 7,500m.

He has walked in death's shadow for years. He has lost friends.

Last year, a Chinese climber fell to his death on Makalu mountain. "I know exactly where he died," he said. Last June, two friends were murdered while climbing Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, in a notorious attack by the Taleban.

In 2012, on the way up the 8,611m high K2 - considered the most dangerous peak in the world - he negotiated a treacherous area where 11 climbers died in 2008 in various incidents including ice falls and avalanches.

One out of every four people dies climbing K2, the second highest mountain in the world.

"I was very aware of where I was," he said back then. While descending, four of his team members nearly died when they fell into a crevice.

Another Sherpa friend died a few years ago climbing Mount Everest when an ice tower fell.

The list goes on. Mr Khoo paused when asked how this nearness to death has affected him. His reply shows he is not one to tempt fate.

"My first reaction is one of sadness, of course, you lose a friend... but the thought quickly turns to: 'I'd better be careful. What mistakes did he do?'"

Climbers should only take risks they can manage, he said. "You don't do something you're not comfortable with. That's how some of my friends died."

He is no stranger to risk: He is only the fourth person ever to have completed The Explorers' Grand Slam: reaching both poles and climbing the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

And in 2003, he cycled from Singapore to Beijing, a distance of 8,066km. The next year, he swam across the Strait of Malacca.

But he knows where to draw the line. In 2004, he turned back out of exhaustion, just 400m from the summit of Everest while attempting to climb it without bottled oxygen. He always climbs with a sherpa, as "they know the mountain well".

"I think it's a fine line. Just because there is danger you don't stop what you love to do. You minimise the risk," he said. "You have to be true to yourself. This is my passion."

What will happen to his children if he were to die? He is prepared. He has insurance policies in place to make sure his family would be provided for - all his expeditions are fully insured.

"That is my responsibility to my family," said Mr Khoo, who also gives corporate talks and runs his own adventure consultancy.

He spoke to The Straits Times at his condominium home in Yio Chu Kang, where he lives with his wife Wee Leng, 46; son, 11; and daughter, eight.

His spouse, a housewife who is also an avid climber, shares his view on life.

"Every time he climbs, I have to be mentally prepared. Anything can happen," she said.

"But life is short."

Her husband, she said, is determined to climb all 14 mountains above 8,000m in height. He has nine more to go, and aims to conquer them within four years.

"He would say: 'I'm doing only three, I'm doing only four, but as he climbs I can tell he wants to do all 14," she said.

Only about 30 climbers have achieved this feat. All the peaks are in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges in Asia.

They include the 8,091m high Annapurna I in Nepal, where one out of every three who has attempted climbing it has died.

Mr Khoo, who is turning 50 in November, said he has never felt in better shape to climb.

And it is only at this age that life has crystallised for him.

"I have this feeling that everything has come together now. People say 50 is too old but now I feel I'm at a peak.

"Things are clearer to me now. Climb a mountain, simple. Life is short, you've just got to do what you feel is meaningful to you. And the rest will come into play, whether it is money, kids, family."

davidee@sph.com.sg