So why did I sign up for this course? Simply because mountaineering is my new found love, I can do it & I want more!!! However, after climbing the >6000m peaks last October, I’ve been told by the Everest Summiters in my life that I shouldn’t go any higher or any further for my own safety unless I go to mountaineering school. It’s beyond just endurance & strength. It requires alpine technical expertise which I don’t have.
Of course, I’m not going to accept being stuck & stagnant on the same altitude forever. I’m only in my early 30s with >30 more years to climb anywhere in the world as long as my health & bank account allows me! Just imagine… the world can be my playground if I can sail the oceans & scale the mountains! When I was chasing my tennis dream 15 years ago, Dad once said to me “You can play sport only when you’re young. If you love it & you’re good at it, DO IT!” I’m thankful I found my 3rd fire & I’m going to fan this flame & create one hell of a bonfire, firing off fireworks too!
Here’s my personal journal of my Intense Incredible 1sts in my 9 Days of Military… oops i meant Moutaineering School. 🙂
Mon 4th Feb – Day 1 – Tune Up
8:30am check-in at Alpine Guides HQ. I met Chris, my instructor & Matt, my classmate. It felt like a private tuition because there’s only 2 of us in the Tune Up course. It’s an introduction to climbing & refresher on rope skills prior to the actual course. I’m so glad I signed up for this because I’ve never done prusik problem solving before!
We finished at 5:30pm & my hands were beginning to blister. Bad sign… Hopefully, it won’t get worse once I have gloves on the glacier.
Tue 5th Feb – Day 2 – Official Start at 12:30pm
School started just after lunch. Thank goodness for that!! I’ve been sleep deprived from super early morning bus ride & super late night star gazing (Best ASTRONOMY CLASS ever!!!). So here we go…
- Introduction – We were introduced to Jamie & Roy, both full IFMGA guides with loads of international experience in mountaineering & heli-skiing around the world. We did a round of introduction stating our names, where we are from, why we are here, our objectives, our dreams & something interesting about ourselves besides climbing. Of course, I declared my Himalayan dream & introduced my other love – Sailing! (I noticed our instructors were taking notes as we speak!)
- Equipment check – We had to empty our bags, line up our personal clothing from head to toe first, then line up any technical gear & go through them with our instructors. We were provided with any technical gear we didn’t have. The check was to ensure we have the right clothing, gear & optimum weight for the helicopter. Immediately, I knew these are my kind of people, it’s my kind of place & we’re going to rock the rocks & ice ice baby! Once done, we signed our life over to Alpine Guides, completed the paperwork & all the other non-sexy formalities.
- Course briefing, then back to Win Lodge (an exclusive lodge run by New Zealand Alpine Club for climbers only). Dinner was back in the pub & more mingling, getting to know each other.
Wed 6th Feb – Day 3 – Indoor Wall Climbing & Under the Bridge Climbing
7am alarm clock – Brekkie time! Can we chopper out this morning? Nope. It had been raining all night. The morning was too windy & the visibility was too poor for the chopper to fly. As a backup plan, we headed to Twizel for indoor wall climbing, which was about 45mins drive from Mt Cook Village. We were taught basic climbing skills from setting up our harness to top roping, lead climbing, belaying & all other bits & bops like being consistent in language/commands with our partners and knowing our knots. Geez, it was my first top rope & lead climbing up a 20M wall! (This is just the beginning!!!)
After lunch in Twizel, the weather cleared up which enabled us to get some fresh air under the bridge close to Mt Cook Village. We did more prusiking (no problem solving this time, which was easier than the 1st day at Tune Up). Then, we moved across the bridge & learned abseiling which was a bit scary because we had to jump off the bridge to go down, then let go at mid-air to TEST our safety prusik! It should stop us from falling! OMG, it’s slopey, rocky & gushing water pretty close to the landing spot!!! What if my safety didn’t work since it’s my first time?!? Ok I did it! And oh wow, the blister on my left hand burst… bad bad sign!!!
Back at Win Lodge, Roy cooked spaghetti bolognese & after dinner, we had a session of recapping the day & planning the next day. Then, some of us did our own homework before retiring for the night.
Thu 7th Feb – Day 4 – It’s Chopper Time & Off to the Glacier we GO!
6:30am wake up, 7am breakfast & 7:30am pack up & clear out. Off we went to the Mt Cook airport, which is basically a hut with an airstrip. We had to split our load into personal belongings, sharps & provisions. Our instructors had the mobile numbers of the helicopter pilots! (How cool is that!) We were split into 2 groups – 1 instructor & 3 clients each. I was with Jamie, Lacie & Ash. Roy, Mike, Karina & Matt were in the other chopper. Exciting exciting exciting because I love chopper time!
The flight journey was about ~30 mins up Tasman Glacier, which would otherwise take us 2 days to trek. Yeah let’s skip the boring bits & get into action!!! The minute we got off, we had to put on our crampons, ice axe on 1 hand & get roped up for glacier travel. We had immediate basic briefing about crampons, ice axe & glacier travel. Then we had to carry our luggage to Kelman Hut in glacier style, empty them in the hut, then go back down to carry up all the other provisions.
After lunch, we went back down to the glacier for crampon & ice axe techniques on repeat & getting ourselves familiarized with travelling on snow, ice & steep slippery slopes. We expanded our knowledge on:-
- Roping up for glacier travel including dressing up & rope coilling,
- Building anchor points with ice stakes & ice screws, then
- More practice climbs & abseiling across small seracs & crevasses.
By now, my head was on OVERDRIVE! I felt physically tired, challenged & can’t remember how to do everything especially my fish brain for knots & say what? It’s SUMMIT day tomorrow! Seriously, homework & bedtime!
Fri 8th Feb – Day 5 – Summit Day to Hochstetter Dome (2810m)
5am wake up time! Have breakfast, make your own lunch, kit up and leave the hut by 7am. And what did I do?? I got my harness twisted & incorrect that I had to take everything off & wear them again. ARGH! I wasn’t very late but I got very frustrated with myself because I kept getting small things wrong & had to redo. It’s important to get things right, otherwise, they could become a safety hazard & Team Hunny Bun would be told off again for not looking after each other & not doing proper checks! Nevertheless, it was a gorgeous morning with a beautiful sunrise. Brave the cold & life gets better when the sun rises!
On this day, we had to apply everything that we learned so far about climbing in real life situations:-
- Looking after each other,
- Communication – Using consistent commands between you & your partner,
- Taking turns to lead / belay an ice climb including building anchor points & locking off belay & using ice screws & ice stakes,
- How to abseil & travel on rock & ice terrains with ice axe, ice hammer & crampons, and finally,
- Taking turns to lead glacier travel – Micro & macro assessment!
During my lead, Jamie saw how much I was struggling & came up next to me. I was already nearly at the top when he said to me “Don’t forget to breathe!”. I wanted to laugh but I also wanted to cry because I was getting pretty nervous on my ice axe, hammer & crampons with all 4s dug deep into the snow. I was such a loooooooong way up that I couldn’t even see Lacie down below. All I saw were other peaks, clouds, snow & rocks all around. There I was, I lead my first ice climbing pitch to the top, built an anchor point with my ice stake & belayed Lacie up! Go Team Hunny Bun!
I made some mistakes along the way because I couldn’t remember how to do them. I struggled at a lot at different stages such as removing the ice stakes that got stuck, safely securing all the stuff to my harness & my pack & me being stuck at rock point in some stupid awkward position with my crampons. Eventually, I realized some of these issues were a small person’s issue. I figured I must find my own style & not just follow what everyone else were doing. We got back to the hut by 4:30pm and had about an hour’s rest back & then headed out at 5:30pm for more lesson. This time, we were learning how to self arrest & build a T-anchor for rescue.
By 7pm, we were still out there building T-anchors. I think my brain froze & malfunctioned before my body did. Matt nearly froze, too. Eventually, I bailed because I got too cold once Lacie rescued me in the simulation exercise. I was insufficiently dressed with just my fleece without my goretex or down jacket but the wind had started to blow hard. I went back to the hut & helped Jamie cook dinner instead. Everyone else came back at nearly 8pm!
We celebrated Karina’s birthday, did some homework & went straight to sleep! I couldn’t sleep that night because the wind was howling at >40 knots in the stormy weather. It reminded me of that scary night at Mera High Camp (5800m) where I was nearly blown off the cliff in my tent. I think I have PTSD against strong winds in the mountains. I knew I shouldn’t worry because nothing was going to happen in the hut & on my bed!! Or perhaps, I was also feeling disappointed & pretty shit about myself. I know I shouldn’t because I did a lot, too but OK let’s try again! 😦
Sat 9th Feb – Day 6 – Bad weather & classroom
So its bad weather outside & a brand new day! Everyone was feeling pretty sore so we didn’t get out of bed until 10am. Given we couldn’t go outside, it’s classroom time. Back to textbook, drawing board, practice, practice & more practice. We continued with more techniques & systems (oh it gets more & more complicated each day!) starting with the theories on safety, rescue & systems:-
- Roping up & safe travel EXTRAs
- Crevasse Rescue 101 – Self & Buddy
- Rescue systems – Assisted hoist & Z-Pulleys
- More abseiling & prusiking practice…
I think we were all quite glad to have this break from the real stuff on the glacier, at least I way. It felt like we did more homework on this day after dinner than any other day to give ourselves an opportunity to digest & absorb all the new knowledge we have learned. Lacie even created a cheat sheet for crevasse rescue! LOL … Go Team Hunny Bun!
Sun 10th Feb – Day 7 – Crevasse Rescue – The MOST FUN Exercise!
Ok so yesterday we learned about building rescue systems, self rescue & rescuing your buddy. It’s practical time in the real life situation! Do you trust me enough to jump into the crevasse? I should be able to stop your fall & build a system to get you out.
That morning, the weather cleared & we could finally go out to play! We began with Buddy Rescue mission. I volunteered to jump into the crevasse first. Lacie was like “WHAT!?! Are you serious?”. I said “Yes, of course. Why not? I trust you Hunny Bun! You’re the BEST!” Ok so let’s check each other 1 last time & off I went to the lip of the crevasse…. 3… 2… 1… GO! Apparently, my screams were more realistic than the actual situation. The safety knot I put on my rope worked too well that I got stuck after 2m into the crevasse. Roy had a hard time untieing the knot that he sprained his finger. LOL. Within 30mins, Lacie got me out. See she’s amazing! Go Team Hunny Bun!!
Then it was my turn to rescue Lacie. When I finally stopped the fall & started building my system I yelled, “Hunny Bun, hang in there!!! I’m coming to rescue you!!!” Everyone… HAHAHAHA… I think I did a pretty good job. See my Hunny Bun was so comfy in the crevasse that she could brush her teeth for a bright shiney smile when I finally got her out in about 30mins, too. My first crevasse rescue!
What didn’t work so well for me? I got very confused with my body position after the self arrest because my legs were up on the slope (which is a good thing) & head first down the slope. Somehow my legs got tangled under the rope when I was transferring the load to my ice axe. But afterwards, I was alright & built a system for assisted hoist.
After buddy rescue, it was self rescue time. Our crampons were removed so that we couldn’t cheat but only use our long prusik, short prusik & sling. We had to jump in with our bags on & learn how to offload our bags so that it won’t pull us down or worse still pull us upside down! My first time prusiking myself to FREEDOM –
- Step 1 – Offload excess baggage
- Step 2 – 1 step, 1 loop, 1 pull at a time…
- Step 3 – Stop & breathe when tired, then repeat 2 until FREEDOM!!! Woop woop!
It’s our last evening on Kelman Hut, our home for the past 5 days. I had the privilege to cook for everyone. It’s Sweet & Sour pork & tofu with rice & sauteed vegetables for dinner. ❤
After dinner, I sat down with Jamie to go through my gear list & chatted about what worked well, what didn’t work, what I should change, what I should invest on & what I should do next. Conclusion – I need to find my own style for a small person like me. Some immediate pointers:-
- Every single gram counts when gearing up – packing or buying,
- Always hang longer slings, ice stakes, ice screws, ice axe/hammer higher on my pack instead of my harness because I’m short,
- Get rid of fake karabiners & only have proper climbing karabiners on my climbing pack.
I will be sharing My Wish List soon for future Xmas presents, birthday presents or just lucky “ang pow” money! (Just saying because I have too many things that I neither want nor need. So I’d rather people give me what I want/need or just the kind thoughts with love will do.)
Mon 11th Feb – Day 8 – Ice Wall Climbing & Outdoor Rock Climbing
6am wake up time. 6.30am brekkie time, pack up & clear out. 7:30am we left the hut & headed down the glacier for some ice wall climbing before chopper time.
We learned more about glacier travel – Micro & macro assessment! We learned that just because the people ahead of us travelled a certain route, it doesn’t mean that we should be travelling the same route!! We should use our senses all the way!!!
When we finally got to our destination, Roy & Jamie took all our ice stakes & ice screws to build anchor points all around the glacier & created 3 ice wall pitches about 10m to 15m. It was my first ever ice wall climbing & it was super duper exciting for me!!! However, either my technique was bad (kicking into the snow or picking the ice & pulling myself up) or my arms were not so strong that I struggled a lot. I could barely finish 1 pitch but I did 2 pitches.
On the 2nd pitch, a flat ~15m vertical wall, Jamie was shouting from the opposite side of the glacier giving instructions on my technique & Matt, my belayer wouldn’t let me down until I game! “If you’re tired, you rest but keep going!! You can’t give up because you CAN DO IT!!!” Geez, what would I do without these 2 guys! I’d be so sad if I didn’t finish & it would annoy the hell out of me for the rest of the trip because I absolutely hate unfinished business!!!
When I finally reached the top Pitch #2, my hands & arms were so tired that I lost all grip & strength. I sat in my harness & carefully did a balancing act with my ice axe & ice hammer 1 by 1 on my nose to move my grip to the head of the equipment to hold them like a walking stick. Then, instructed Matt to let me down. I didn’t want to risk dropping them on his head & he will definitely drop me 15m straight to the ground. Again this was a small person’s issue. The hand loops were too big for me (probably too heavy too) & we couldn’t adjust it to lock onto my wrists.
I completed 2 out of 3 pitches. I couldn’t complete the other one because I couldn’t get past the overhang at two thirds from the top mark.
By 1pm, our 2 choppers landed on the glacier to pick us up. I was feeling sad but also tired & quite glad. It was the first time in 8 days, I felt somewhat relieved from being overwhelmed everyday but what I didn’t know was, THERE IS 1 MORE to go!!!
We got back to Win Lodge, got settled & made lunch. Then, there was an option to go rock climbing at Red Arete, a short drive down the road. All the girls said YES including me but maybe no climbing for me … the boys weren’t sure at all. I guess everyone was feeling pretty broken by then. Ash stayed back while all of us went.
When we got there… Roy took the girls up. As Jamie was getting ready, Mike said Yes, Matt said No… then Jamie stared at me & said, “Xjilien Tan, you are going UP! We’re not going swimming, not DOWN… this is climbing, UP!!” in a very persistent voice. Uh oh… Reluctantly, I put on my climbing shoes, harness, helmet & rope UP! I was mentally, emotionally, physically exhausted but I guess he saw much more in me than I knew about myself. I wouldn’t have moved if he hadn’t pushed. Although I was very sore, I also didn’t want to miss this opportunity to do my first outdoor rock climbing. And if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have known today that I could do it! Hanging at >20m, I freaked out at 1 stage when I couldn’t find my way. I didn’t realize with just 2 fingers & less than a cm supporting your toe, I could balance myself, push & pull myself UP! Walla! After that, it was fairly easy & simple but my confidence was shaken. Again there was no reason to be afraid because Jamie got me on belay!!! Anyway, when I finally succeeded, he didn’t push me to go up the 2nd pitch. I later found out, as a beginner, that most people try out with 5-10m first & not straight up a 30m on a single pitch! TA DAH – My first ever outdoor rock climbing – Level 15, 30m single pitch.
That evening, I had my 1st shower in 9 days. My shower experience was unlike my 1st shower in 22 days, which was a total Yeti experience. This one however, was the first moment of truth – I felt all the stinging sensations & saw all my broken wounds. More broken than my 3 Peaks expedition. I had scrapes & cuts on both arms & elbows (from rock climbing I guess!), bruises all over (worse than sailing) & the blisters on my hands looked worse now besides the rope burns. I SURRENDER!! I couldn’t wait to get back on the boat & very much looking forward to going back to boat life. ❤
Tue 12th Feb – Day 9 – Special session (Jumar/Ascender) & Wrap Up
Its the last day of the course. 7am wake up, 7:30am brekkie & 8am pack up & clear out. We cleaned up Win Lodge & headed to Alpine Guides HQ. We did a special session on Jumar / Ascender as a special topic. They must have tweaked the lesson to meet my objective of fulfilling my Himalayan dream. They did this instead of going to through all the details of avalanches, first aid & weather, which they later recommended to take specific courses vs scrapping the textbook surface in this course. We wrapped up, debriefed, returned all the technical gear we borrowed & said goodbye. 😦
Dare to sign up? Your response should be “HELL YES, it’s my dream!!!” Otherwise, don’t bother & stick to trekking. This is NOT a holiday camp. It’s a training ground to do some serious mountaineering. If you sign up & couldn’t pass, then maybe technical mountaineering is not for you. If you pass, then,
- Climbing a Himalayan 6000m peak is fairly straightforward at PD+ rating,
- You’ll know what you’re made of when the going gets real tough (these veterans won’t make life easy for you because you signed up to learn to climb higher & harder right?… Mwahaha)
You’re now qualified – Forward & upwards from where you were (because the next level up of the course means you can even guide!)
It’s not so easy to make me cry but this one nearly did. It was out of frustration against myself more than anything else. I remember telling Karina on Day 5, “Shit! I got it wrong again!! I don’t know if this sport is for me!” Her response was “It’s OK. Just fix it… We are all struggling & learning!” Ironically, it was summit day & I was feeling at my lowest point. But unbelievably, I did them ALL till the end… fixing all my small person issues, my fears, self doubts & self limiting beliefs day by day, 1 by 1 like my 1 pick, 1 kick, 1 breath at a time.
What would I do differently if I could turn back time & do it again?
I start rock climbing for about 6 months before this course. That should sort out about 30% of what I have to learn on the go & build my confidence in climbing. However, I have also learned to accept that this is my way of making any kind of game changing move – It’s Zero to Hero or nothing at all. Therefore, signing up to do rock climbing in Singapore for 6 months & sacrificing my sailing weekends will just make me miserable. So that won’t work because my entire world will collapse.
How will I make this sustainable? A question I have not figured out yet but bouldering after work on week days work for now. I still make it home in time for my conference calls & homework time.
Nevertheless, this is a journey & this is my beginning… not just a checklist. In the end, all those wounds will heal & the scars will grow with me like all these amazing friendships I’ve made. Same applies to my bank account, too. And WHAT IS NEXT? WORK!… haha… Yes, there is a next! Watch this space… I have a job, too, you know! ❤