“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” - John F. Kennedy
Team Singapura Everest
Nur Yusrina Yaacob
Muhd Hilwan Bin Mohd Idrus
Seumas Yeo Jian Wen
Ismail Bin Latiff
Mohamad Sufian Bin Sulaiman (not in interview)
Zulkifli Bin Latiff (not in interview)
Jonathan Tee Shao Ming (not in interview)
The Burger King at Toa Payoh Central is rather crowded at 9pm, filled with boisterous children, couples dreamily eating their late dinners and teenagers scarfing down burgers whilst joking with their friends. This is where I have arranged to meet with the members of Team Singapura Everest, after their training in the nearby HDB flats. As the members of the team walk in, there is a brief cessation in the volume of the surrounding conversations. After all, it isn’t everyday you see a group of people lugging massive backpacks and climbing gear into a busy fast food chain.
The motley crew of 7 is made up of Sufian, Yusrina (Yus), Zulkifli, Hilwan, Seumas, Ismail and Jonathan, and one can tell the exertions of the day have worn them out a little. Still, they are great sports, and gamely greet me with enthusiasm. Despite the fatigue, the team remains upbeat throughout the entire interview, bantering, joking and generally enjoying each other’s company. There is an unmistakable camaraderie between the members of the team – a chemistry derived from genuine friendship. They’re a team, but more importantly (and more accurately), they’re simply a group of close friends with one common goal: to summit Mount Everest in 2015 as part of the celebration of Singapore’s 50th birthday. It’s both symbolic and fitting, celebrating milestone with milestone, arduous journey with arduous journey. The conquering of 50 years commemorated with the conquering of the world’s highest peak.
National pride, achievement, personal satisfaction, these are all the things that come into play when one embarks on as ambitious an endeavour as this. But ultimately, it is the friendship and the remarkable bonds that these people have formed, as well as their conviction in achieving their goal together, that truly make these “ordinary individuals” extraordinary.
How did this all begin, and what made you guys want to climb Everest?
YUS: It started off with the Singapore Blade Runner, Sharif Abdullah. He wanted to form a team to support his climb to Everest. He knew Sufian, and Sufian knew me, so we formed a team together. We then began to advertise in newspapers to publicize our team and our intentions, as well as get people to join the team. That was around September 2010. So people wrote in to us, and we held interviews as part of the selection process. We accepted roughly about 20-odd people into the team. January 2011 was when our very first team meeting as Team Singapura Everest happened, and there were 24 people at the meeting. It all started from then.
How did that get whittled down to only 7 current members?
YUS: Basically along the way people chose to drop out because of their own personal reasons and commitments. Sharif himself dropped out late last year because of his own personal issues.
What about personally? What made you guys want to do this?
HILWAN: Why not? (laughs)
YUS: For me, it’s because I’ve been in mountaineering since university. I wanted to go further than what I did in uni, so when Sufian asked me to be in the team, I just grabbed the chance. It’s been a dream of mine to go climb Everest. In the past I thought just going to the base camp would be good enough. I never thought about going to the summit, which is what we’re trying to do now.
ISMAIL: My reason is a little bit different. I have no mountaineering background, but I’ve always been involved in a lot of adventure racing, mostly overseas, in places like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. So outdoor life is second nature to me. I chanced upon this team through my elder brother Zul. He came up to me and asked me if I was interested in a “project”. (laughs) I asked him what kind of project this was, and he said climbing Mount Everest in 2015. I asked him if he was sure, and he said yes, so I sent out an email to Yus. Looking back, although I didn’t know anything about mountaineering, I’m glad to have learnt a new skill and met new friends. It’s a new adventure. I think I’ve also gotten to know myself even better.
SEUMAS: Mine is a bit similar to Yus, in the sense that I was in my school’s trekking club. It was during that period that I realised I enjoyed trekking, and I wanted to form a team in school to go up to Everest. But finding people was a bit difficult as we were all students, so when I saw Sharif (the Singapore blade runner) appearing in the newspapers recruiting people, I felt like it was a gift from heaven. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I took it. I didn’t want to wait.
What has been the hardest part of your endeavour so far?
SEUMAS: People might think it’s the training, but finding sponsors is the most difficult part. You need to have a very cohesive and attractive plan so as to allow people to see value in investing in you. And it’s something you have very little control over. When it comes to trainings and expeditions, you know that every drip of sweat you put in will be rewarded. But it’s not the same for sponsorship.
Is it very difficult to get government support?
SEUMAS: When it comes to the government there is a lot of bureaucracy, and you have to slowly make your way through all the levels. Now we’re looking for a way to go straight to the PM and work from there.
All of you guys have occupations, and training for this trip is taxing both physically and mentally. What keeps you guys going, and what has made you all stay on for so long?
HILWAN: I ask myself the same thing actually. (laughs) I have no idea. I do kind of wonder why I’m still here. But well I’m in charge of the web stuff, the postcard designs, the t-shirt designs and what not. Somehow I’ve formed a sense of ownership over all these things. It’s a kind of purpose. It’s my baby lah. So because of that, I’ve become unintentionally self-driven to be an active part of this project. There really isn’t any reason why you do it; you just do it because you want to. That’s how it is for me.
YUS: Sufian and I made a pact that we would push ourselves and each other, and see this project that we started all the way to the end. In any case I’m stuck. (laughs) But I really want to be there. I really want to do it. Every time I find myself asking why I’m still doing this when I can be out with my girlfriends watching movies and having a normal girl’s life (laughs), I remind myself how much I want this. There’s a very simple answer to your question. I just really want to be there, and I will persevere no matter how tough it gets.
ISMAIL: What keeps me going? Simple. The six of them.
YUS, SEUMAS, HILWAN: Awww… (laughs)
ISMAIL: It’s the best answer – the diplomatic answer. (laughs) But it’s true. All of us have our day jobs. Training is after office hours, and because Yusrina and I work shifts at odd times sometimes we have to sacrifice work hours to train. There have been a lot of sacrifices along the way and a lot of ups and downs, but we have to take it in our stride. The thing is, seeing them during training always motivates me to keep going. I always look forward to trainings.
SEUMAS: This is something that I really like to do. And I see a goal at the end, so it’s not that difficult in a sense. As long as I keep the goal in mind, I see all this as steps in reaching that goal, so I don’t find it a hassle to go for trainings and all that. I see all this as little milestones that bring me closer to my target. The goal at the end is enough for me.
How have you changed personally since the start of this project?
YUS: I’m fitter. (laughs)
ISMAIL: I agree.
YUS: I think during my training days in SCDF I was fit but not this fit.
SEUMAS: What about character?
ISMAIL: Eh, are you the interviewer or what? (laughs)
YUS: Character-wise nothing changed lah, I’m still the same. It doesn’t have to be life changing right away. It’s a process; I’m getting there.
SEUMAS: After I joined the project, I realised that nothing is impossible. Whenever I encounter anything, I just think, “What could be worse than Everest?” (laughs) When you go through something very difficult or traumatic, you use that as a gauge of what your threshold for hardship is. And when something isn’t as difficult as what you’ve been through, then it’s not that bad. Throughout this entire journey, the bar keeps getting higher and higher, and more and more things seem possible. Maybe even after Everest I’ll consider going to the South Pole or the North Pole. The thing is, why not? After you’ve done all this, what’s next?
ISMAIL: I think I’ve gotten to know my elder brother much better. After doing all these things together, our bond is much closer and stronger. It applies to the other team members as well. We were strangers before, but now I think we know each other very well. Okay, I’ll ask you guys a question. What’s my favourite colour?
ISMAIL: See? Good question, right? (laughs) Okay, Hilwan’s turn.
HILWAN: I feel more grounded. There was once the whole team went on a technical mountaineering course in India, but I couldn’t go because my office didn’t allow me to go on leave. So I went one month later, alone. It was a life changing experience for me. When you travel alone you have a lot of time to reflect on yourself, and over there it was only a guide, a cook, an assistant guide and I in such a huge area. And I was the only one with my own tent. That was when I started questioning why I was doing this. I mean I had to hike up one hour just to make phone calls, and then I call home and want to talk to my mom, and she’s in the toilet. (laughs) I felt very small in this world. In that way I felt very humbled and grounded.
We often say that Singapore is so small, but we don’t really know how small is small. When I went on the long trek up, the guide asked me if I could see the city in the distance, which was 45 km away. I could see patches of buildings. To put that into perspective – Singapore is 42 km long. So what I was seeing then was the length of Singapore. And if I could look across that whole area, which was longer than Singapore, then how small is Singapore? And in comparison, how big is the whole world? You can’t realize that and still act tough, or “talk big”. I felt so puny in this whole wide world.
When I reached the top of Mount Shitidhar at the end of the mountaineering course, I turned around and saw the view of the sun rising behind Hanuman Tibba (a 5900m mountain peak). It was so inspiring and beautiful that I teared and cried. (laughs) I felt humbled, and I also felt very alone. I was looking at this awesome view, and I wanted to share it with someone, but I didn’t have anyone to share it with. Then I cried again. (laughs) That was kind of horrible. I wouldn’t say I’ve totally changed from that experience, but now whenever I look at something I try to put it into that perspective. I don’t want to be boxed up and just think about myself. The whole world is so big, and it does not revolve around me and my problems. I felt very humbled by that experience, and that’s how I’ve changed.
Do you fear the prospect of failure to accomplish the summiting of Everest?
SEUMAS: Actually, I don’t. I view all this as a journey, and I’m already very blessed that I have this opportunity to climb all these mountains in the first place. Everest is the end, and everything else is the process. And the process is more important to me. I mean, of course I’d want at least some in the team to summit in the end. For me, as long as anyone in the team summits Everest in 2015, then I’m happy enough.
HILWAN: I’m not really afraid of failure. I’m not trying to be cocky, but I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to do it. There was a point in time a few months ago when we became the only 7 people left. Instead of feeling upset, I felt like we really did have a shot in summiting Everest. I don’t know why I felt that way, but I just did. It was a gut feeling. I am pretty confident that we can reach the summit.
YUS: I agree with him. It never crossed my mind that we wouldn’t reach the summit. I’ve always seen ourselves there.
HILWAN: I’ve been watching videos of the Hillary Step, which is the last part of Everest just before its summit, and I’ve been thinking about what it’ll be like when I’m there. It’s so possible. I don’t think it’s overconfidence. It’s a positive feeling.
What makes your team different from the 6 other teams who have summited Everest since 1998?
SEUMAS: A sponsor asked us what the unique thing about our team was before. So I asked myself that same question, and I realised that the answer is kind of a paradox. The unique thing about our team is that we are ordinary. We’re just ordinary people trying to do extraordinary things. We all have our day jobs, we’re not into full time mountaineering, we’re not into full time adventure seeking. This is our passion. We all have a common goal of summiting Everest to celebrate Singapore’s 50th birthday, and so we’ve come together to plan and train…it’s just that simple. We have a dream and we’re trying to fulfil it. And if you really want to find something unique about our team, I guess you could say we’re multi-racial? And I’m the youngest person to ever attempt to do this. (laughs)
I guess in a way, any team that summits Everest is already special.
SEUMAS: Yeah. Looking at it statistically, there are around 7 billion people in the world. Only 2000 people have ever summited Everest since the first guy went up. 2000 of out 7 billion…I mean if you just do the math it’s already a tiny, 0.0000 percent.
HILWAN: And it’s not everyday your country turns 50.
What’s the first thing you will do when you guys reach the summit?
ISMAIL: Thank my sponsor…(laughs)
YUS: Thank my legs…
ISMAIL: I think I’ll catch my breath first.
HILWAN: I’ve never really thought about that. (laughs)
SEUMAS: I’ll hug Ismail first.
ISMAIL: I think when I catch my breath the entire journey here will come to me in a flashback. How it all started and everything.
HILWAN: All the blood, sweat, and frozen tears. (laughs)
YUS: When I summited Mera Peak, the first thing that I did was mentally thank all the people who were in our team before. I think when I get to Everest I will also think back to all the people who have helped us get there.
HILWAN: I think it would be great if we could make a phone call back home. Give a shout out or something.
SEUMAS: Oh! We were going to sing the national anthem.
ISMAIL: I think I just want to savour the moment lah.
HILWAN: It’d be good to take a video of that moment and upload it onto our Facebook account. That would be really great. Something like a near live feed.
YUS: More like we should be glad to be alive. We all always forget about that part. How dangerous Everest can be. We always put it at the back of our minds.
SEUMAS: The danger is always there, although we try to keep it out of sight and out of mind.
That’s true. So how did you persuade your family to let you go on such a dangerous trip?
HILWAN: (laughs) My grandma is constantly trying to persuade me not to go.
SEUMAS: I try to assuage their fears. I guess they don’t really know how dangerous it is, and I try as much as possible not to tell them. But I am very aware that the danger exists.
ISMAIL: We don’t want them to worry. And I have my brother up there too, so it’s okay.
But…is this worth the danger?
SEUMAS: I think I’d rather live my life doing things I really like.
HILWAN: There’s a saying that goes, “the brave may not live forever, but the cautious do not live at all”. I think that’s something very, very true.
Any other things you’d like to add?
HILWAN: There are a few things going on now in terms of sponsorship and fundraising. With a minimum donation of $15 and above, we will send a postcard back to you from Nepal when we reach there. So far we have raised about $1067, and we will be sending out postcards to these donors.
ISMAIL: It’s our way of saying thank you to our donors.
HILWAN: It’s a form of appreciation. It’s our way of saying that with their donations and their support, we’ve managed to get here. We are also selling stickers and supporter t-shirts. No matter how much you donate, we’ll give you a sticker. As for the t-shirts, they’ll be going up for sale at $25. The team would also like to thank their sponsor, Onsight ((http://onsight.com.sg/2012/), for their support and belief in the team.
– Profiled by Natalee Ho