On 25 May 1998, the Singapore flag fluttered on the peak of Mount Everest for the very first time ever.
The Singapore Everest team posing with the National flag at basecamp. Photo: David Lim
Two members of the 12-person team accompanied that flag. Expedition team leader David Lim was not one of them, but it was, nevertheless, a collective victory for all, following years of planning and preparations, and weeks spent on the colossal mountain itself.
The team had brought Singapore to the world’s highest point.
20 years on, the lessons and values derived from this expedition has continued to resonate for Lim. On the anniversary of this national triumph, he took the time to reflect on the experience and on mountaineering’s progress in Singapore.
“It was a life-changing event and I knew it when I started the project in late 1993. I knew that if we succeeded and came back alive, this would change us. Not just the face on Singapore mountaineering, in terms of what could and couldn’t be done, but also for me as an individual,” he shared.
Back when scaling such high peaks were associated to more elite and skilled groups, the climbers had to charter their own routes and find ways to sustain themselves. This spirit of adventure and self-sufficiency has unsurprisingly stuck with Lim till today.
A member of the Singapore Everest team,Mok Ying Jang, on the Khumbu Icefall. Photo: David Lim
He emphasised: “Climbing has its risks. Sometimes, you don’t come back. Once you realise this, there’s a whole spectrum of risks that you must be willing to take. To me, this is much closer to what mountaineering is, rather than just hiring a guide and being a paid client.”
“It’s also the logistical challenge, building rapport with other teams, having a collaborative mindset. When the crunch comes, you discover how you can count on these relationships,” he continued, adding that the team had halted their careers for years just for the Everest expedition, with funding also proving to be an issue.
Indeed, there were many obstacles that stood in the way of their extreme expedition, and Lim emphasised the importance of accepting that not everything was going to go smoothly.
“Every year, the idea of the expedition becoming a reality was in doubt. It wasn’t until mid-1997 that we knew we were financially secure, six to eight months to the date of the expedition,” he revealed.
According to Lim, the Everest expedition was also “not [about] a group of buddies who came together, cooked up an idea, went away, came back, and lived happily ever after.”
David Lim high on the Lhotse Face, with the Western Cwm stretching out below. Photo: David Lim
“The team was selected based on qualities, and it’s impossible that everyone’s a brilliant climber and gets along with you. You put together a group of highly opinionated people for over 60 days, coupled with some attitudes that must have developed over the previous years, and you’ll find that [not everyone gets on with each other],” he explained.
Yet, they strove on, fuelled by personal ambition and, above that, the knowledge that there was a larger cause. It was, ultimately, not just about their individual selves reaching the summit, but ensuring that at least one from the team did.
“You must want it for yourself enough. The challenge is then siphoning this energy into the collective goal,” Lim noted.
Today, the 54-year-old has traded the “quality of achievement” for the “quality of experience", leading teams attempting virgin peaks, as well as expeditions to big-name peaks, for the sheer enjoyment of it all.
However, he was hopeful that others out there would continue in the same spirit that his team embodied two decades ago, seeking new and difficult routes, and climbing for the sense of accomplishment.
He expressed: “It’s about being independent, pushing for the greats, doing technical climbing.”
“There’s a new generation of climbers that I consider true mountaineers. They’re harder, edgier, and pushing the limits. I’m glad to say that there are young Singaporeans doing this,” Lim concluded.