Last year, we featured marathoner-climber Ting Kang Nee in the lead-up to her charity climb to Everest Base Camp. Her efforts, dubbed “Climb For Life“, managed to raise MYR17,000 for the National Cancer Society of Malaysia and the Penang Hospice; as well as funds for the family of a recent graduate of the university she works at, who lost his battle with cancer (read more in this article on the University of Nottingham’s alumni magazine, Exchange).
We caught up with Kang Nee over lunch, where she recalls her 12-day trek up to the base camp of the highest peak on earth, and talks about the joys and challenges of the trip, including the threat of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and how other trekkers along her journey were affected by the condition.
She also talks about her plans for ‘Climb For Life 2’, a trek to the peak of Naya Kanga (Ganja La Chuli) in Nepal (19,168 ft / 5,846 m a.s.l.) in April 2015, which will be in aid of preschool education for the Penan community in Sarawak (Borneo).
Wen Li for LOTR (‘LOTR’): Tell us a bit about how this expedition came about.
Kang Nee (‘KN’): It has always been my aspiration to trek to the Base Camp of the highest peak on the planet. However, I never really actively planned towards the realisation of the trip. It was a casual discussion with my Pilates instructor and friend that started the serious planning for the trip in Spring 2012. Jaslyn recruited a total of 8 of us from Malaysia and Singapore. While planning the trip, someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer and it gave me the push to concurrently raise funds for cancer patients and charities, and to create more awareness about cancer.
LOTR: Tell us about the preparations you made prior to the trip, in terms of training, equipment and logistics.
KN: I started training about 6 months before we left for Nepal. It started with climbing stairs in a high-rise condominium. Weights were later added to my backpack. About 3 months later I started joining my team mates to Batu Caves on a few Saturdays to climb the stairs there. Every week after the stair-climbing, I would walk funny with pain in my legs for almost 5 days. As EBC did not involve a technical trek, no special equipment was required other than good hiking shoes, hiking poles, fleeces and wind- and water-proof jackets. Gloves, sunglasses and hats are also useful for protection from the sun and strong cold winds.
LOTR: How much did you spend on the trip?
KN: did not calculate how much I spent in total but in average one would spend around RM5,000 for the 15-day package and return flight to Kathmandu on AirAsia.
LOTR: Did you hire guides and porters? What were the arrangements like?
KN: We went with a travel agent based in Kathmandu that provided the guides and porters. The company that we went with was really professional and I have booked my next hiking trip with the same company.
LOTR: How long did the entire trip take?
KN: It was 15 days in total. We spent 2 nights in Kathmandu and the rest of the time in the mountain range. The total number of trekking days, including rest and acclimatization days, was 12 days. The longer you have for acclimatization the lower the risk you will have for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
LOTR: Tell us about your experience during the trek.
KN: The aim of the ‘Climb for Life’ challenge was to reach Everest’s Southern Face Base Camp in Nepal, which stands at an elevation of 5,380m. This is where climbers intending to proceed to the summit of Everest via the southern ridge stay for acclimatisation before they begin their ascent. The whole journey took 12 days including two days of acclimatisation and one day of rest. We hiked more than 5,000m in elevation and walked more than 100km of different terrains ranging from dusty paths to muddy and rocky trails. On average we trekked 6 to 7 hours per day and the longest hours were on days of descent where we walked up to 10 hours.
Trekking during the day was generally pleasant with temperatures ranging from 10C to 15C, but it can be freezing cold once the sun descends below the horizon. The sky at night was usually clear and filled with stars. Such a sight was so beautiful, rarely seen in cities but the cold usually deterred us from leaving the comfort of our rooms to gaze out into the open sky. As water and electricity were scarce, we did not shower for several days once we hit altitude above 4,000m. The water was so cold that some nights I did not bother to wash my face or brush my teeth. The cost of mineral water and hot water increased with the altitude. For example a bottle of mineral water cost 20 Rupees (MYR0.75) at Kathmandu, 120 Rupees (MYR4.50) at Lukla (2,800m) and 300 Rupees (MYR11) at Gorekshep (5,160m). I bought the most expensive roll of toilet paper in my life at Dingboche (4,610m) for MYR8!
All eight of us in the team reached the EBC (5,380m) on 1 May 2013 at around 3pm local time. In order to have the best view of the Mt Everest peak, three of us attempted Kala Patthar (5,550m) the following morning. It took us about 3 hours to reach the peak and the view of Mt Everest was awesome.
The highlights of my trip included the joy of meeting local children and observing their simplicity in life; the amazing views and the sound of the mountains (rushing water in the river, the sound of bells from the yaks and donkeys, and the whistling of the wind) and just enjoying each present moment! We also witnessed a very rare phenomenon – a circumhorizontal arc on the peak of Everest while we were on Kala Patthar.
LOTR: How did the altitude affect you and what measures did you take to acclimatize?
KN: In addition to the exposure of the change of weather and strong sun rays, the risk of developing Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is very real. AMS is a result of the body’s reaction to lack of oxygen. Little is known as to why one may or may not get AMS. As altitude increases, the concentration of oxygen per breath drops dramatically. For example, at 5,000m the concentration of oxygen drops by half compared to the concentration of oxygen at sea level. High altitude and lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from the capillaries which can cause fluid build-up in both the lungs and the brain. The serious forms of AMS can be fatal.
Our journey was eventful as my team members (myself included) were affected by symptoms of AMS (headache, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, fatigue & breathlessness) and food poisoning at some points of the journey. We also witnessed a trekker from another group with High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (at elevation 5,160m) who had to be carried downhill (to altitude 4,320m) by six porters in the middle of the night. He was taken by a helicopter the following morning to Kathmandu and the last we heard, he survived. Several Malaysians whom we met along the trek were also rescued by helicopter during their trek due to AMS and extreme fatigue. In a separate more recent tragedy, a Malaysian who was attempting the same trek as us was reported to have died of AMS.
I was considered lucky to have only minor symptoms related to high altitude. Some reports recommend gingko supplements as a prevention to AMS. I took this supplement before my trip and also during the trek. In addition, I have been taking Tiger Milk Mushroom supplements to strengthen my respiratory system to reduce the risk of getting upper respiratory infections. Cold and cough are two problems faced by some hikers and I had been warned. I had headache on the first night and immediately took half a tablet of Diamox (the recommended medicine to alleviate AMS although it is not licensed specifically for AMS). Breathlessness was a daily problem for me. I was breathless even when I was sitting down repacking my bag in the evenings! Food was good and I ate well for most part of the trek, though many of my team-mates started to lose their appetites as we moved higher. I started to lose my appetite when we were at an elevation above 5,000m. It’s hard to explain the frustration of not being able to eat (I had the feeling of wanting to vomit) but at the same time being extremely hungry.
[Ed: Here are some detailed facts on the weather and climate at Everest Base Camp.]
LOTR: What would you consider to be the most memorable moment of the trip?
KN: For me it must be when I saw the circumhorizontal arc sitting on top of Everest peak when we reached Kala Patthar (Ed: Kala Patthar is higher in elevation than the EBC).
LOTR: What was the greatest challenge you faced during the trip?
KN: Staying healthy (a number of my team-mates had food poisoning and they vomited and had diarrhoea for a few days) and trying one’s best not to succumb to the more serious symptoms of AMS. We hiked between 9 to 11 hours on days when we were descending, and this resulted in the development of a number of very painful blisters on my toes and feet. Even leisurely walking downhill became very painful; every step hurt. It felt like someone was pressing on my bruises every step I took.
LOTR: What advice would you give to persons who would like to trek to Everest Base Camp?
KN: Being physically ready helps, although many reports state that there is no link between fitness levels and the risk of experiencing AMS. I also think it is crucial to maintain a healthy body before and during the trip. So I would advocate taking supplements a few months before the trip and during the trek. Most of all, enjoy every moment.
LOTR: Do you have any regrets? Would you do it again?
KN: Regrets? What’s that? [Laughs] I would do it again and again, though there are other mountains to conquer and places to explore.
LOTR: So, what’s next on your climbing agenda?
KN: This April, will be climbing to the peak of Naya Kanga (Ganja La Chuli) in Nepal (19,168ft / 5,846m a.s.l.) together with a colleague from the UK, Yvonne Mbaki, to raise funds to provide pre-school education to the Penan children in the interiors of Sarawak (Borneo). I’ve decided to call it ‘Climb For Life 2’.
LOTR: How will this be different compared to Everest Base Camp?
KN: Everest Base Camp is at an elevation of 5,364m, and Naya Kanga is 5,846m. Apart from the higher elevation, the climb to Naya Kanga requires special mountaineering equipment – crampons, ropes and ice axes. The technical difficulty is PD+/AD-*, but the snow conditions (often powdery), the height (with risk of AMS), the weather and the relative remoteness make this climb much harder and more dangerous than similarly rated climbs in US and Europe. This will pose a new levels of challenges (both physically and mentally) for myself and my team. We aim to reach the summit on April 19 after climbing up 4,376m in elevation for 11 days.
*According to international Climbing Rating Systems, PD (Peu Difficile) – A little difficult: Moderate climbing, usually requires some belaying, possible rappel on descent; exposed scrambling, crevassed glaciers.
AD (Assez Difficile) – Fairly difficult: Belayed climbing, in addition to large amounts of exposed but easier terrain; a wide range of protective systems are needed.
LOTR: Tell us more about the beneficiaries of Climb For Life 2.
KN: The Penan community is an indigenous group of people who live mainly in the deep forests of Sarawak. There are around 16,000 Penans living Malaysia, many in extreme poverty. Lifting them from extreme poverty requires starting them young with proper education, but unfortunately, almost all Penan children are primary school drop-outs.
Due to the remoteness of their home base, young Penans leave home at the age of 6 to live and study in a boarding school. Unfortunately, they do not know the national language Bahasa Malaysia or English which are the mediums of instruction in school, and many of these children are not able to cope, thus leading to punishment at school. Before long, these students are isolated in an education system that is least catered to students from the Penan community in remote areas. Furthermore, young Penan children who enter the national educational system also face multiple social, cultural, and economic issues.
Last year, the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (Ed: where Kang Nee works) assisted a Penan community in the Long Itam village along the Baram river to complete a preschool building and furnish it with books and stationery. Unfortunately, there are no committed funds to support the running of these preschools and its programmes.
There is an online documentary depicting the struggles of the community as a result of large-scale deforestation.
IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO DONATE to Climb For Life 2 in aid of the Penan community, please visit this online payment link set up under the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Kang Nee says: Choose “Donation-Climb for Life 2”. For technical reasons – you do not need to submit your IC/Passport number field in the online payment form if you do not wish to disclose (just type in a random series of numbers). For the Payment Description please type “Climb for Life 2”. An official receipt will be generated for you to print once you have made the donation.
Do also visit the website of Climb For Life 2.
Dr Ting Kang Nee is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. She is a trained pharmacist with professional memberships with the UK General Pharmaceutical Council, Malaysia Pharmacy Board and Singapore Pharmacy Council. Kang Nee won a Cascade Grant from University of Nottingham in 2014 and led a team of 4 lecturers, 19 students and 2 representatives from non-profit organizations Engineers Without Borders and Saccess to Long Itam village in Sarawak to provide the Penan community with clean fresh water, basic medical care, awareness programme on waste management solutions, and complete the pre-school building. Having started the initiative ‘Water 4 Life Project’, she plans to continue to raise funds to promote education to the young as a solution. Since 2011, Saccess (one of the Water 4 Life Project partners), with the financial support from Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Youth Committee, has started two preschools in Long Itam and Long Kawi. The curriculum and training of the preschool teachers are provided by experts from the Asian Institute for Early Child Care and Education (AIECCE).