Coffee with: Stefen Chow, 25, mountaineer

You cannot tell, by looking at Stefen Chow, that this small, unassuming guy is an accomplished mountaineer, photographer and motivational speaker. He has conquered treacherous Everest. His photographic works have been featured in numerous publications and closed exhibitions. As a motivational speaker, he has given more than 50 talks to corporations and schools.

Yet, he isn’t a household name the way Khoo Swee Chiow is. Jeremy Lim finds out more from this accomplished 25-year-old Singaporean.

Tell me about preparations to conquer Mount Everest.

The idea was mooted by the National University of Singapore to launch its centennial year with the expedition from mid-March to mid-June last year. Ee Khong Lean, Lindley Zerbe, Teo Yen Kai, Ernest Quah and I were selected from 70 hopefuls, based on factors such as physical fitness, mental fitness, altitude performance, technical expertise and more. We underwent three years of punishing training. Locally, we trained six times a week. The physical and mental work were gruelling. We also went on six overseas expeditions, including scaling Gasherbrum II in Pakistan (8,027m) and Cho Oyu in Tibet (8,201m). It was really tough. Most of us had to put our studies and careers on hold.

Khoo Swee Chiow climbed the same mountain as you did but people remember his feat more than yours. Does that bother you?

No, not at all. That is how life is. We remember the name of the first winner of Survivor, but what about the most recent season? Can you name that winner? I can’t. The people who do it first are always the trailblazers. They have to contend with the unknown and bigger odds. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first summiteers of Everest, will always be the biggest personalities of Everest. I must say the paths of Hillary and the first Singapore Everest team in 1998 acted as markers for me to follow and benefit from. One can’t take that away from them; I salute them for daring to be the first. Climbing Everest for me wasn’t about setting records. It was personal and I have benefited from this experience in the most intimate manner. The public recognition is really secondary.

What do you think of the recent brouhaha over the funding of Swee Chiow’s record-breaking attempt for the longest scuba-dive in a controlled environment?

I have immense respect for Swee Chiow as an adventurer who went beyond his comfort zone and challenged new limits. I think this is the first time he is undergoing an extreme adventure in the heartlands of Singapore: One that involves interaction with the public. This is innovative and appealing to sponsors. But I also note this may be an inappropriate time to raise the issue of funding such events because of the National Kidney Foundation saga. I applaud his efforts. But I will not personally do it. I see myself as a mountaineer more than anything else. I am content with doing what I know best.

What was Everest like?

We were overcome by exhaustion and felt the urge to turn back many times. The weather on Everest was at its worst in almost 50 years; it threatened to prematurely stop our ascent and break our hearts. Time was also running out on us as we approached the three-month mark, the expiry of the climbing permit. Our progress seemed agonisingly slow. The wait for the weather to improve before continuing was tormenting. Standing on the summit of the world’s highest mountain on June 2 is, without a doubt, the most important and exciting chapter of my life. As I wrote in a caption for one of my photographs taken at the top of the world: “I was overcome by a plethora of emotions as I knelt on the summit, weeping uncontrollably. I had travelled overnight for more than 12 hours to reach the top, with no rest and rehydration – my water bottle froze an hour into the journey.”

The journey might have cost you your life. Why attempt it?

Feeling afraid would have made the journey even more dangerous; I was actually very composed when I was climbing. In the moment of treading on the thin ice of life and death, I felt the most alive. I am sure people who are living their dreams have felt the same way.

What have you learnt from the experience?

That, in life, few things really matter. I saw the best and worst in people; I also discovered things I never knew about myself. It made me very philosophical. Everest has affected me in the most profound manner. I have decided to follow my passion. Since coming back, I have been sharing my experiences with schools and corporations. Students and executives have told me that my talks had given them so much insight into what they want to do. I have also decided to pursue a career as a travel photojournalist. You can view some of my works at my website, Life is too short to merely dream dreams – I choose to chase them, instead.

What are your other interests?

I love to interact with people. I place myself in situations where I am never too comfortable. When one feels comfortable, one is probably static and not learning. Photography represents my aim in distilling that interaction and my own thoughts into a single image.

What personal mountains do you have to climb?

One of the biggest is self-doubt. I am not a person who is always confident and optimistic about myself. I have my doubts and these start piling up into a mountain as I see my friends have already gained footholds in their careers. But of course, there were even bigger doubts when I dreamt of climbing Everest more than three years ago. This is what makes life so interesting.

Stefen’s first solo photo exhibition of his Everest adventure will run until Saturday at Level 7 of the National Library.

(This article was published in the TODAY of 3 January 2006)