Saturday, March 23, 2013

To the Vertical End of the Earth, by Steven Wong

Steven Wong writes the official account of some unlikely heroes from a small country in To the Veritcal End of the Earth: The Story of the 1st Singapore Mount Everest Expedition. He tells the story of the ten-year development of Singapore's climbing community from a couple of people who had made some treks in the Himalaya or climbs in the Alps to a group with enough skills and experience to take on the world's highest mountain. It was a difficult and expensive journey, as not many people or businesses were interested in sponsoring such a strange venture, and the climbers needed a number of training climbs on high mountains before they should make an attempt on Everest. The group, headed by David Lim (author of Mountain to Climb and Against Giants), attempt Nun Kun, and climb Dhaulagiri VII and Cho Oyu, in addition to making small-group trips to New Zealand and the Alps for technical training.Their Everest climb, during the 1998 pre-monsoon season via Nepal, goes fairly well, though they face some unexpected hurdles. They return home to both jubilation and controversy, as their summiteers were Permanent Residents, rather than citizens, but their summit photos with the climbers posing with the Singapore flag seem to smooth things over.

The book is one of three (that I'm aware of) accounts of the 1st Singapore Mount Everest Expedition. The expedition leader, David Lim, wrote an account of the expedition that also covers his coming down with Guillaine-Barre Syndrome soon after his return, in Mountain to Climb. Khoo Swee Chiow, one of the summit climbers, writes about his participation in the expedition, in addition to his subsequent life of adventuring, in Journeys to the Ends of the Earth. Wong's book is perhaps the most balanced of the three. The other two are personal accounts, and though Lim's book tells a bit more about the overall 1998 Everest experience (including the friction between teams), Wong's gives the clearest picture of the Singapore expedition. He doesn't shy away from conflict between members, though he is reticent to name names when speaking of the actions of other expeditions. (He actually has a number things to say about Bear Grylls and Mick Croswaithe, though you have to know their story to know whom Wong is speaking of.) The book is a bit of a throwback, with a number of appendices on specific topics by expedition members and experts. The chapter on the technology brought to the mountain is quite impressive, if you can remember what the internet, digital cameras, etc. looked like in 1998. The book is a pleasant read---nothing deep and philosophical, but well-written.

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