SINGAPORE: Singaporean adventurer Khoo Swee Chiow, 57, was winding down the frigid night excessive within the Himalayas on Might 6 when he began coughing out blood and yellow phlegm.
“That made me fearful,” he advised CNA on Friday (Jun 3) through a WhatsApp name from Lukla, Nepal. “Did I get COVID or one thing?”
For a traditional individual at 6,500m above sea degree on the icy slopes of Mount Everest, this sort of cough – particularly because the pandemic rages on – would have been greater than a trigger for concern.
However Khoo isn’t any regular individual.
He has summited Everest thrice and climbed the tallest mountain on every of the seven continents – the Seven Summits dream that many mountaineers hope to realize.
Subsequent in his sights had been the 14 tallest peaks on the planet that stand above 8,000m, referred to as the eight-thousanders.
Khoo has climbed the tallest three – Everest (8,848m), K2 (8,611m) and Kangchenjunga (8,586m) – and three extra additional down the checklist: Makalu (8,485m), Cho Oyu (8,188m) and Shishapangma (8,027m).
This purpose of this yr’s journey was to climb the fourth tallest mountain on the planet: Lhotse (8,516m).
Khoo had tried to summit Lhotse in 2015 however failed due to an earthquake. One other try in 2016 additionally resulted in failure following an accident that occurred to a climber in one other crew.
This third try at Lhotse was additionally a return to his yearly mountain expeditions after COVID-19 successfully cancelled final yr’s season.
So when the skilled Khoo began coughing, he instantly knew that it was a throat an infection, primarily based on the same sickness he had caught on earlier journeys.
The subsequent morning, he left camp 2 to return to base camp, realizing that he might get drugs there and recuperate higher at a decrease altitude.
Nonetheless, Khoo didn’t rule out the likelihood that he had COVID-19.
“It (getting contaminated) was a relentless factor in the back of my thoughts,” he mentioned. “That is why this expedition was very robust.”
So why did Khoo nonetheless resolve to embark on the expedition regardless of the specter of the pandemic?
The veteran mountaineer mentioned it was a “last-minute” resolution, spurred by the truth that he would get vaccinated earlier than the journey.
After efficiently reserving his vaccination appointments, he began planning for the journey. Then the doubts crept in.
“The principle fear was the outbreak in India and due to the porous borders, individuals might simply come over to Nepal, which occurred, and Kathmandu was locked down and all that,” he mentioned.
“However I wasn’t certain how the state of affairs was going to be within the mountains and on the base camp.”
Khoo spoke to a couple individuals within the business, and opinion was divided on whether or not he ought to go.
“It was a 50-50 factor; some mentioned sure, some mentioned no,” he added. “So, I mainly took the danger and went.”
The resolve to take this threat was pushed by an excellent need to tick off one other eight-thousander.
“I imply, I’ve been wanting to return and do Lhotse for a very long time,” he defined.
“It’s simply my unfinished enterprise. I wish to attempt to end it.”
Khoo left for Kathmandu a few week after his second vaccine shot. He took a swab take a look at 72 hours earlier than his flight in step with Nepal laws. As standard, he posted common updates about his journey on Fb.
“I swear I’ve been right here and completed this earlier than!” he joked in a standing replace on Apr 23, accompanied by an image of 5 giant duffel baggage stuffed along with his belongings and kit.
CALM BEFORE THE STORM
In Kathmandu, Khoo was swabbed for a second time in his resort room. The subsequent day, he took a flight to Lukla, which he described as a small city with a “mountain airport”. Lukla can also be the beginning of the trek to Everest base camp.
Nepal’s tourism business suffered a devastating blow final yr when the pandemic utterly shut down its summits, costing tens of millions in misplaced income.
This yr, authorities eased quarantine guidelines to lure again overseas adventurers, and issued a file variety of climbing permits – greater than 400 – for Everest, AFP reported.
Extra than 100 permits had been issued for Lhotse, Khoo mentioned.
Climbers initially observe the identical path to get to the summit of Everest and Lhotse. After camp 3, the route splits at 7,700m above sea degree. These heading to Everest flip left whereas the Lhotse-bound take a proper farther up.
Khoo instantly observed that there have been fewer trekkers on the journey to base camp. The usually bustling lodges alongside the best way had been largely empty.
When Khoo arrived in base camp on Might 1, he noticed some climbers sporting masks and utilizing hand sanitiser. Khoo washed his fingers recurrently and stored a secure distance.
Totally different groups additionally had their very own tents and didn’t mingle with one another, and Khoo was cautious to not go to associates in different groups.
The often vibrant Puja ceremony, the place monks chant prayers and bless the climbers, was extra muted too, he mentioned.
“Base camp was extra quiet and the temper was extra subdued,” Khoo mentioned. “Throughout mealtimes when you find yourself within the eating tent, you attempt to sit a bit farther away from different individuals.”
On Might 3, he posted on Fb that he observed many climbers coughing. “Feels just like the calm earlier than the storm,” he wrote.
Khoo advised CNA that coughing is widespread in base camp because of the altitude. Climbers even name it the “Khumbu cough”.
Khoo mentioned all of the coughing made him really feel “a bit uneasy”. “You may’t inform whether or not it is COVID or the Khumbu cough,” he added.
Regardless, Khoo pressed on.
He left for camp 1 on Might 4 and arrived at camp 2 the following day to spend two nights as acclimatisation. The yellow tents there supplied some safety, however it obtained so chilly that Khoo slept in his thick pink downsuit.
The second day in camp 2 was when Khoo began coughing out the yellow and pink “stuff”. He returned to base camp, took some antibiotics and recovered after 5 days.
Whereas this reassured him that he doubtless didn’t have COVID-19, the fears weren’t over.
“WHAT IF I GET IT?”
On Might 7, AFP reported that greater than 30 sick climbers had been evacuated from base camp, elevating fears that COVID-19 had hit the mountain.
An skilled climbing information later estimated that the coronavirus had contaminated at the least 100 climbers and help employees on Everest.
“With COVID spreading in BC (base camp) and disaster in Kathmandu, that is probably the most tough expedition I’ve beneath taken,” Khoo wrote on Fb on Might 8.
“Had I identified, I’d not have come. However I’m right here. So, simply should take it a day at a time.”
Khoo quickly obtained information that associates who fell unwell on different mountains had been evacuated by helicopter to Kathmandu earlier than testing constructive for COVID-19.
On Might 9, he witnessed a climber who was coughing badly being evacuated from base camp after coming back from the Everest summit. He later examined constructive for COVID-19, Khoo mentioned.
“We shared the identical eating tent and noticed one another daily,” Khoo added.
The helicopter pilot didn’t put on private protecting gear and easily went about “his regular flying job”, Khoo recalled.
For Khoo, issues began to get “very worrying” as he thought “on a regular basis” about getting contaminated.
“You recognize, what if I get it? After which how about going dwelling, is it going to have an effect on my household and all that,” he mentioned. “So, there was quite a lot of fear in my thoughts on the level in time.”
Throughout these few days, Khoo thought of aborting the expedition and flying dwelling. However then he found that worldwide flights out of Kathmandu had been suspended due to COVID-19.
“There isn’t a flight, and Kathmandu is so chaotic with the outbreak and all that. So, the most secure place to be is within the mountains,” he concluded.
Khoo determined to persevere along with his climb. Issues appeared brighter when Sherpas mounted the rope to Lhotse’s summit on Might 10, earlier than a spell of excellent, windless climate the following day.
However Khoo was nonetheless recovering from his an infection, so he needed to give the window a miss. “Might 11 was the most effective day,” he mentioned. “Many individuals summited Everest and some on Lhotse as effectively.”
From then on, it was a case of learning the forecasts for good climate and enjoying “the ready sport”, as Khoo described in a Fb replace on Might 17.
The window from Might 20 to 21 appeared appropriate till robust winds confirmed up within the forecast, growing the danger of frostbite. Might 22 appeared high quality however the climate modified once more.
Khoo mentioned he managed to beat the uncertainty of the climate and the pandemic by attempting to not be too anxious.
“All you are able to do is simply keep on along with your day by day precautions,” he mentioned, including that he stored in contact along with his spouse. “She was (fearful), however she has seen many expeditions so she is aware of I’ll do my greatest.”
Khoo determined to make a push for the summit on Might 25, when the forecast mentioned the winds would wane. The plan was to hit camp 1 on Might 25 and summit 4 days later.
“By the point we had been on the summit push, COVID was behind me already,” he acknowledged. “We’re targeted on the summit try.”
However one other spell of unhealthy climate meant Khoo delayed his summit try until Might 31. Then on Might 29, he obtained information of an avalanche threat above camp 3, so he waited till the following day to get there.
The climate at camp 3 on Might 30 was good, and so the ultimate plan was to attain camp 4 the following day earlier than summiting on Jun 1.
This was positively the final likelihood for a summit push, Khoo mentioned, highlighting that it was uncommon for climbers to succeed in the height of Everest or Lhotse so late within the climbing season.
As June beckoned, Khoo mentioned the seasonal monsoon dumps heavy rain decrease down in Kathmandu and better up within the mountains, creating heavy snow. This makes climbing tough and marks the tip of the season.
Khoo left camp 4 at 11.30pm and climbed for about three hours to some extent 8,020m above sea degree. There, he found all hope was misplaced.
The 4 days of heavy snow from Might 25 to Might 28 had utterly buried the rope resulting in the summit.
“It was not possible to drag up the rope,” Khoo mentioned, noting that there have been solely 4 Sherpas and 4 climbers round on the time – not sufficient to perform this hefty process.
“So as to add to that, the wind was fairly robust – greater than most likely 30km/h – so it was rattling chilly. And Lhotse may be very steep, steeper than Everest, so and not using a rope, all it takes is one mistake and you’ll tumble down all the best way.”
Khoo mentioned he had anticipated the rope being buried, however he couldn’t be certain “so we simply have to present it a go”.
“In fact I used to be very dissatisfied; that is my third try,” he mentioned about being pressured to descend. “However the resolution to show again is the correct one, and you do not wish to threat a fall.”
When requested if worries concerning the pandemic at base camp affected his preparations for the climb, Khoo replied: “I assume it is in the back of my thoughts – attempting to remain secure and all that.”
A LONG JOURNEY HOME
Now in Kathmandu, Khoo will take a flight to Istanbul on Jun 10 earlier than hopping on one other airplane to Singapore. The one flights out of Kathmandu till Jun 30 are to Delhi, Doha and Istanbul.
Khoo mentioned he’s cautious of the outbreak in Kathmandu and can take the identical precautions there, together with not going out or assembly others.
Nepal started recording a pointy rise in coronavirus circumstances in early April that peaked in mid-Might at greater than 9,000 infections a day. The day by day rises have declined barely however the healthcare system stays beneath stress.
Khoo may also take a swab take a look at earlier than leaving for Istanbul, as per Singapore laws.
“That would be the subsequent problem,” he mentioned. “If I – contact wooden – take a look at constructive, then I can not fly.”
On how he would reply to individuals who would possibly name him irresponsible for travelling overseas through the pandemic, Khoo reiterated that he was undecided on the time about whether or not the mountains can be affected.
“Mainly, I took the danger to come back,” he mentioned. “Life is about evaluating threat and all that.”
Khoo mentioned he’ll see “what subsequent yr brings” earlier than deciding on one other try at Lhotse, including that so much relies on the COVID-19 state of affairs.
For the second, Khoo is simply wanting so far as the 21-day stay-home discover he has to serve after touching down in Singapore.
“It is a very long time away from household and residential,” he mentioned. “If the quarantine rule nonetheless applies, I do not suppose I wish to do one other journey.”