Singapore Women's Everest Team (2009)

The Singapore Women’s Everest Team (SWET) was the first all-female expedition from Singapore to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,850m above sea level. Lee Li Hui was the first member to scale the peak at 3:45 am Nepal time on 20 May 2009, followed by Esther Tan nine minutes later and Jane Lee at 4:43 am. Another two members of the team, Joanne Soo and Lee Peh Gee reached the summit on 22 May, while Sim Yi Hui did not make the final ascent due to constant pain arising from costochondritis.

Team formation, training and fund-raising
In mid-2004, the team was formed by co-team leaders Jane Lee and Sim, and two others as part of the Make It Real Student Mountaineering programme at the National University of Singapore. One of the original members was Linda Tan, who later left the team and made an unsuccessful solo attempt to scale Mount Everest in 2008. A recruitment drive saw more than 30 women sign up for the team, but after strict fitness tests and interviews the number of members was reduced to 15 by August 2005.

In Singapore, the team’s training incorporated long-distance runs, gym work, climbing Bukit Timah hill and load-bearing treks from Bukit Timah to MacRitchie reservoir. A number of days each week, the team also climbed a 30-storey block of Housing Development Board flat up to 12 times, carrying backpacks weighing 15kg and 22kg and utilising ankle weights. In late 2004, the team underwent a technical mountaineering course at the Aoraki-Mount Cook National Park in New Zealand, where they learnt snow- and ice-climbing, rope techniques, mountain navigation and weather forecasting, glacier travel and crevasse rescue.

In the years leading up to their expedition, SWET climbed five other mountains to prepare for Everest. These were Mera Peak (6,476m) in Nepal in 2005, Mount Siguniang (5,276m) in Sichuan and Muztagh Ata (7,546m) in Xinjiang in 2006. In 2007, the team climbed Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest peak at 8,201m, together with Mok Ying Jang, who was part of Singapore’s first Everest expedition in 1998. The last mountain they scaled before Everest was the 5,200m Camel Peak in Sichuan.

The team had planned their Everest climb for May 2008, but postponed it for a year after they could not raise sufficient funds. The expedition initially had a fund-raising target of S$1.8 million, but this was later revised to around S$500,000 for a six-member team. In 2008, they still had only raised around S$100,000 through giving motivational and training talks, online fund-raising as well as corporate and government sponsorship. Team members also took no-pay leave for training and used personal funds for the expedition.

In November 2008, the National Association of Travel Agents (NATAS) announced their sponsorship of the team’s climbing permits (US$10,000 per person), sherpa guides, and logistical and other costs, which brought the team to within S$50,000 of its target. The team was named NATAS SWET and the members also conducted charity and social work for the organisation. Other sponsors included the Singapore Sports Council, the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, the National Youth Council, the People’s Association as well as SingTel and other companies,

Everest expedition
On 21 March 2009, SWET left Singapore for Kathmandu in Nepal with 650kg of luggage. The team members were Jane Lee, then 25 and a student development officer at Republic Polytechnic, Sim Yihui, then 26 and a training facilitator at Raffles Junior College, copywriter Esther Tan, then 26, Lee Lihui, then 27 and a pharmaceutical product specialist, Joanne Soo, then 39 and the owner of an outdoor adventure firm and Singapore Armed Forces officer Lee Peh Gee, then 32. Three of the team’s members underwent Lasik surgery before the expedition to avoid complications with contact lenses and the risk of eye infections. SWET was also accompanied by Lim Kim Boon, the team’s base camp manager, training coach, adviser and liaison officer.

From Kathmandu, the team flew to Lukla before undertaking a five-hour trek to Chumoa. They then went on to camps at Namche and Dingboche to acclimatise to weather and altitude conditions. On 5 April, they set up at Everest’s Base Camp (5,400m above sea level), and by the third week of the month had completed their first acclimatisation cycle which saw them climb to Camps 1 and 2 together with Nepali sherpas. On 1 May, SWET completed its third and final acclimatisation cycle, a six-day ascent up to Camp 4 (7,950m above sea level). After the successful completion of the third cycle, the team climbed nearby Himalayan peaks like Pumori and Kala Pattar to maintain their physical conditions.

On Everest, SWET faced weather conditions of between -26° to -73° Celsius, the danger of avalanches, 118-mile an hour winds and oxygen levels down to a third of conditions at sea level. A day before they were to cross the Khumbu Icefall, an accident saw three climbers from another expedition swept into a crevasse, with only two eventually rescued.

During their time at Base Camp, the team socialised with other Everest expeditions and obtained weather information from other camps, but avoided extended contact to minimise the risk of picking up viruses such as the Khumbu Cough. The team members held nightly talks in their tents to support each other and kept in touch with their families and friends through satellite phone calls and text messages. They also maintained contact with their supporters in Singapore through their website and emails. In April, SWET met a six-member, all-female team aged between 15 and 17 from Singapore at Base Camp. This team from Christ Church Secondary School had been inspired to make their expedition to Everest Base Camp after SWET conducted a motivational talk at their school.

On 8 May, the team split into two groups to begin their ascent to the summit, with the goal of reaching it on 12 May. However, adverse wind conditions forced them to postpone the ascent. On 15 May, the first group began their second ascent, with the second group following three days later. The first group made their final push for the summit from Camp 4 on the morning of 19 May, and reached the summit two days later. Lee Li Hui was the first to the summit at 3:45 am, while Tan and Jane Lee followed at 3:54 am and 4:43 am respectively. When they returned to Base Camp, the trio received a congratulatory call from President S. R. Nathan. On 22 May, the second group of Soo and Lee arrived at the summit at 5:31 am and 5.56 am respectively. Co-team leader Sim did not make the ascent as she was suffering from costochondritis, an inflammation of the sternum and ribcage which causes chest pains with every breath. Tan said of the climb: “The stress of climbing Everest is incredible. Every day you see potential fatalities happening, actual fatalities happening, people flying out because they cannot take the stress or the real thought of death.”

The team returned to Singapore on 1 June 2009 and was welcomed home by their families, friends and around 150 supporters including Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan.

In a congratulatory statement, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the SWET expedition as a major milestone for Singaporean women and the local sporting community. He added that he was deeply impressed by their detailed preparation, determination, courage and perseverance, and noted the expedition took more than five years of hard work, in physical training, team building and fund-raising.

After the Everest expedition, the women conducted motivational talks and workshops for schools, companies and the public, and promoted mountaineering among Singaporeans. In April 2010, all six members of SWET were recipients of Her World magazine’s Young Woman Achiever award.

Chan Meng Choo

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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Mountaineering expeditions--Everest, Mount (China and Nepal)
Mountaineering expeditions--Singapore
Sports, recreation and travel>>Outdoor life>>Mountaineering

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