Climb Every Mountain – Step Up

After the initial shock of knowing we had to climb a mountain in three months’ time wore off, we got down to planning. We asked two friends to join us for the climb as the ‘tour’ package made more sense for a group of six. I was certain S would be game and wouldn’t find it too much of a stretch as she was exercising regularly. XY, I wasn’t sure about but she travels well with S. That was all I was counting on. To my and S’s amazement, XY was keen and our group was complete.

I arranged a meeting for the girls with Ed and David so they could understand what they were getting into. At 4,096m, Mt. Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in the Malay Archipelago. The mountain is all steps from the starting point till base camp, Laban Rata at 3,272m, then more steps and rocky terrain to the top. It sounded easy enough – who hasn’t climbed stairs? Besides, loads of people have climbed it. But the guys warned us not to underestimate the mountain. We heard stories of people who struggled and didn’t summit or didn’t enjoy the climb.

“This won’t happen to you. You’ll summit and have a great time. Training is the key,” the guys said confidently and casually.

To wit, one more module was added to our programme, which S and XY also had to do – trekking in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.


Our starting point

Our first trek was eventful. We arrived at the nature reserve more than an hour past the meeting time, thanks to a traffic jam and an overflowing carpark. The guys were calm and accepted our lame apologies. We were briefed about our route: it’d take us about 90 minutes to complete the circuit; the path is relatively flat and easy with some steps throughout; the most challenging part will be two long flights of stairs to climb, one of them affectionately named Thigh Buster. OK, sounds manageable. In less than five minutes, we came upon our first set of steps. It didn’t look difficult, yet halfway up I was breathing so hard I felt my lungs would burst out of my chest. Thankfully there was a rest hut at the top. We stopped to stretch and I was able to catch my breath. This was just the warm-up we were told. Riiiiiiiiiiiight.

Watch out for those tricky roots

And what goes up must come down. You’d think this would be easier but the steps were narrow and high so it took some effort. Thereafter, the route was a trail of uneven ground, nature’s own steps, many of them knee high, various short flights of stairs, and fallen trees to scramble over unglamourously and nervously. By the time we reached ‘Thigh Buster’, the heat was uncomfortable and my energy was flagging. I climbed slowly and was determined not to stop for a breather. To no avail. Huffing and puffing, I stood to the side while others went by. Many were uncles and aunties I noted embarrassingly; S and TH were doing great while XY looked to be in similar shape as I, my only comfort.

At the top of Thigh Buster, I looked at my watch and realized we had already taken more two hours! Ed and David showed us a map of the area and pointed out our route – we had one more section to go. With the sun almost above head and the beginnings of a headache, I was eager to complete.

We trekked for another twenty minutes and came upon a barrier. I looked in the only direction that made sense and saw a long flight of stairs. But of course.

The stairs that stood between me and brunch

Nothing is ever easy towards the end. It feels cruel how the last stretch is always the most difficult and one has to dig deep for reserve. I suppose that makes victory sweeter.

“Take your time. Drink some water if it helps. You all are doing well.”

Kind and reassuring words but pointless at this stage, I thought. I cursed the flight of stairs in my head and pushed on. Ahead of me, S and TH climbed steadily. They weren’t as fast as before but they were coping well. Behind me, XY was taking a step at a time, stopping for a breather every now and then. Me? I felt like weights had been added to my leg. I dragged the bottom leg up and heaved it to the next step, repeating this motion with great effort. Breathless again, I stopped. A rest hut stood on the right and ahead of me the steps were wider and flatter. I was sure the most difficult bits had passed and told myself this spot would be my ‘feel good’ point. Every time I passed this, I would truly be at the home stretch.

By the time we got back to our starting point, it was closer to 12:30pm. It took us twice the estimated time, I was hungry, my legs were sore and my head was pounding. To top it off, we received a parking ticket.

No other trek in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve topped our first (although TH suffered a bad sprain when he tripped on a tiny stump on the ground once). Each time I trekked, it got easier. Even when we started training with a 5kg pack, it was never as difficult. Unfortunately for XY, she could never shake off the terrible headaches she developed after no matter what. This was worrying.

(Note: Timelines are off for this series of posts as they were meant to be published in the last quarter of 2013)


Climb Every Mountain – The Early Days

I now had one-and-a-half years to prepare for Mt. Rainier. Well, we had.

“Plenty of time!” said David. “Don’t worry. We’ll get you there.”

I wanted to believe ‘cos I was so nervous and unsure. This really was going to be the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Did I really say I wanted to climb a mountain for my 40th?

The first order was to have our fitness assessed so the team can design an individual training programme for TH and I. “Oh joy,” I thought. Not only will I have to embarrass myself in front of supreme athletes, I’ll also have it on record about how poorly I’m doing. TH, on the other hand, was all pumped. He saw it as a chance to further improve his fitness and get some handy tips on how to work his ‘problematic’ calves.

On the day of the assessment, I was feeling edgy. Not because of it but ‘cos BDE was taking part in a Singapore Specials contest and she’d have to show a talent. I had no idea what this was going to be as BDE only knows a few basic commands and she’s not liable to do them on command. I was plagued by the thought of standing on stage in front of a crowd addressing a dog determined at times to do her own thing. I’m not sure if that affected me but the assessment didn’t end well. Everything was fine till I completed a set of back extensions. I stood up and the room spun. Then I started to feel nauseous and my head started throbbing, my saliva thickening. I was finding it difficult to swallow. It felt like the onset of a migraine but I knew it wasn’t. I didn’t know what it was though. I told our trainers I wasn’t well and we wrapped up. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to get home, as I was feeling worse by the second. I took some painkillers and climbed into bed clutching my head, trying to breath normally and whimpering. I wanted to chop my head off! Exhausted, I fell into a fitful sleep, all the time worrying about the contest. After a couple of hours, I managed to recover sufficiently to take BDE for her competition and to our surprise and delight, she took first prize. First prize!

BDE looking cool

BDE posing with her trophy

We were so proud of her, so extremely proud of her. Best! Dog! Ever!

Till this day, I don’t know what hit me. I think it was a combination of things.

I'm marginal

I’m marginal

When we received the report from the team, I was classified as ‘marginal’  and my goal was to reach good or high performance. I had 11 strength training exercises of 3 sets each with 8 – 12 reps on top of cardio work. Back extensions were part of it but I’ve never done them since.

Looking at the programme, life, as I knew it, wasn’t going to be the same again. For a start, I’d have to exercise consistently. In fact, the right word is train. I would need to factor in the time and really block it off, no excuses whatsoever. I would need space in the wardrobe for a whole new set of clothes. There will be sacrifices and pain. I had to develop healthy living habits – eat better, sleep earlier. I needed a new life!

Once I thought it all through, I was psyched. I felt ready to embark on this great big adventure except no one sent the memo to my body. My first gym workout was a disaster. I could barely run for more than 10 minutes and I was lifting weights that felt heavy though in reality read 3lbs. It wasn’t even the pain after the session or how tired I felt that killed. It was the pain the following day and the day after that, and after that. And somehow I had to motivate myself to do it all over again?

I moaned and whined to TH. Fortunately he understood and patiently explained the ins and outs of starting a training programme, especially for novices like me. You know what I learnt at 38 years old? That everyone feels pain, even pro athletes. They’re not immune contrary to what I always believed. Honestly, I found it comforting. I don’t know how or why I thought that people were either born able to do all this sports stuff or not. It never occurred to me that people struggle initially. Anyway, TH suggested ways to better manage each session and egged me on.

The gym became my second home

The gym became my second home

So I kept at it. The first few weeks were difficult. I couldn’t see the benefits of training and I wasn’t feeling any buzz from exercising. Where’s that feel-good factor that everyone talks about? Then one day, snap. Without realizing it, I was running longer and feeling less tired, I was able to complete my weights training comfortably and I felt goooooooood. Slowly, I was able to increase the weights too, one bar at a time. But I won’t lie; it wasn’t all up, up and away. Some days were rough and my training went back to square one. Groan. TH assured me that this was perfectly normal.

We were reviewing our progress with David and Ed one day when they said: “We think that you guys should climb Mt. Kinabalu this year. It’s a good test for your fitness and adaptability in high altitude. It’s 4095m, close to Mt. Rainier. July will be good.”

What?? It’s now March.

“There’s time. Don’t worry,” David said calmly.


(Note: Timelines are off for this series of posts as they were meant to be published in the last quarter of 2013)

Climb Every Mountain – The Big Bang Moment

“Climb every mountain!” implored Julie Andrews in Sound of Music.

Thanks, but no thanks, Julie. I want to climb just one mountain.

Two years ago, I made the decision to celebrate my 40th birthday with a bang. But this wasn’t going to be an ordinary ‘bang’. No lavish meals, extravagant holiday or pampering day at the spa. It had to be a big Bang. I ran down a list of things I had never done before and came upon mountain climbing or what I thought would be walking to the top of a mountain.

I assessed the idea for a few minutes and felt I’d hit the nail on its head. It’d be awesome, right? Challenging, tranquil, fulfilling, far, far away. BANG!

I chose Mt. Rainier immediately. Mount RainierIt was an obvious choice to me for several reasons. I wanted to visit the Pacific Northwest in the summer, we’d be able to spend time with friends, I found it familiar from years of watching Grey’s Anatomy, TH mentioned an ex-colleague who had climbed it and I thought if she can, so can I, and lastly, I saw ‘Climb Mt. Rainier’ on one of those list of things to do before you die.

See? Obvious.

What was not obvious to me at that point was what it really meant. In my head, a summer climb = a trek up. Walking shoes, trekking poles, bag with food and water. Period. Then I did some research and realized my bag would need to weigh about 18kg and it may be summer, but there’d still be snow. I panicked. Big time. Years hunched over a keyboard staring at a computer screen have left my neck and shoulders permanently sore. I can barely carry a shoulder handbag now. And what do I know about snow? It falls when it’s cold, it’s white but can turn brown or black from dirt and it can be slushy or icy.

What do I do? What do I do? I had already declared my ambition in a note on Facebook and friends had commented on it. Yeah, but who’s going to remember a silly FB note? Nobody. I could even delete it and there’d no longer be any evidence of it. The only problem is I would remember. I would know what I did one summer. I had made a commitment to myself and I knew that if I didn’t try, it’d eat away at me. So really, what was I to do? Sign-up with a mountaineering guide service of course – this part was easy. But how do I go from zero fitness to mountain fit? You know back in school when you had to do a yearly physical fitness test? Every year, I either failed or was awarded the bronze cert, and the only way I managed a bronze was when I cheated. This part would require herculean effort, and I could only think of one person who might have a clue.

I hadn’t seen my high school friend, David, since errr…high school. In the 20 years that had passed, I had contacted him only once to get the phone number of my ex-roommate whom he dated for a few years after we left school. How would I find him? And then I finally realized how useful FB can be. Not only would I be able to find a lost acquaintance, I could hide behind a message and not deal directly with the awkwardness of seeking help from a stranger.

As luck would have it, David and his friend were just embarking on a venture – an adventure consultancy that takes clients on incredible journeys (incidentally also the name of the company), and their specialty? Mountaineering! Among their many accomplishments, I learned that David was part of the Singapore Antartica Expedition, and his friend and business partner, Ed Siew, was the first Singaporean to summit Mt. Everest. I found the right help, and I was relieved.

When I met up with them, the magnitude of what I was trying to achieve hit me. This was no Mt. Everest to be sure, but it wasn’t going to be some walk in a national park with a trek up a mountain like I thought.

I was awed and terrified; and this was just the beginning.

(Note: Timelines are off for this series of posts as they were meant to be published in the last quarter of 2013)

Daring to venture

I had wanted to take a MOOC on Coursera since it started but many of the courses that fascinated me also intimidated me. I was afraid I wouldn’t understand the subject and would fare badly on the tests and final exam, or worse I’d give up.

When I received the last e-mail, I was prepared for that familiar feeling of curiosity, want then fear and disappointment (at myself and not being able to participate). I opened it and yes, there they were slowly washing over me. Curiosity and Want. As I clicked on each course, read the description and watched the video, there was Fear and ultimately Disappointment.

But something different happened when I looked at Change, Innovation and Creativty. Fear was still there but instead of Disappointment, Curiosity and Want stood in the way. (I think exercises and project work helped.) Before I could rationalize further, I signed up.

We’re into Week 3 now and I’m enjoying various moments of discovery and action. Last week, one of the exercises we could do was Ventures. To put it simply, it required listing two things to take on and declaring that “I give myself permission to try…” and “I will play at these ventures, learn rapidly…have fun.”

Sounds easy but I had a hard time with this one. I have several things I’d love to do so I decided my first step was to list them all down. This in itself was a challenge. As I discovered in Week 2, even though I understand the concept of divergent then convergent thinking, I tend to do divergent-convergent thinking. This meant that truly listing all the things I want to do is difficult as I’m self-censoring before I even start evaluating. After some struggles, I finally managed the task, picked my two ventures and completed the exercise. (Which reminds me, I gotta finish this quickly to start one of them today.)

Too lazy to cook dinner that night, TH suggested having a salmon sandwich with salad and sweet potato on the side. I wasn’t peachy keen but couldn’t think of anything better. I figured I could add eggs to make the sandwich more interesting. Specifically, scrambled eggs. The problem is I can’t scramble an egg. My attempts have always ended disastrously so much so that the last time I tried, I told myself not to bother again ‘cos it’d be better to go without than ruin a good egg. I considered fried and boiled. Nope, no can do. And the least desired – without. Argh. Then it popped! I can make this a venture – my third one. Several things I’ve learned suddenly came to the fore.

It was a sublime moment of pure discovery and joy, and I felt eager and up for the challenge. Out came the cookbook and frying pan. I will play, learn, remind myself that failing is par for the course and most importantly HAVE FUN!

My first venture wasn’t a success but it’s closer than I’ve ever been to scrambled.Image

The day I found my voice

I listened to two talks over the last two days. One by a monk, another by a musician. Before we get to that, let’s go to the beginning.

Two weeks ago, I received a text from TF. It read: You should listen to a talk on Bowing and Repentance by Ven Heng Sure…at the temple down the road from you.

My defences went up immediately. I seethed. Texts from TF are rare and most times it’s logistical in nature – when is the next gathering at grandma’s, what time we’re meeting for lunch, where to go for dinner, etc. The tone and type of message of this particular text was typical of our relationship though, and what I view to be his opinion of me. I felt very certain that as an educated man, he knew what his intention was and chose those words deliberately. But after I calmed down, I decided that I’d reply without prejudice.

I asked: Why? Are you going?

TF replied that he’d like to listen to the talk. I left it as that and took it to mean he wanted some company, so we made the necessary arrangements.

On the day of the talk, I picked him up and headed home as it was still early. The car ride started out well. I told him I attended a friend’s wedding the night before, possibly the last among my friends. We ran down a list of friends and relations and he concluded that certainly, there’s a cousin who would never be married as he’s intellectually disabled.

I asked: “Why not? It’s possible.”

TF ripped in. I defended my position – just ‘cos someone is intellectually disabled, it doesn’t mean they can’t understand, want or find love. Presumably, his parents and the girl’s parents would have an understanding of how it’d turn out. It’s difficult but not impossible. He thought I was mad and derided my ‘modern’ opinion, then said: I suppose you think gays are fine.

I replied: “Yes, of course.”

A snort and I knew that was the wrong answer to keep my peace and calm. I stayed mostly silent during TF’s blasting of gay people even though I was screaming inside. It’s what I do to keep myself out of the picture during times like these, as anything I say has a boomerang effect coming back to hit me. No, let the gay people be ignorant in this case, let them bear the name calling. Far better for me to stand back and preserve my sense of self.

The evening had one other incident installed for me but its details aren’t important. I would only say that I often disagree with TF’s point of view.

So two talks, two days, two very different careers, two very different people, two very different topics. Upon reflection, I realised that they shared something similar – both speakers started at the same point. Both of them wanted a voice to send a message to the world.

I told TH that I think people like Master Heng Sure and Dave Grohl are born to lead, to be heard. It’s their destiny. They recognised at a very young age what they had to do. What of the rest of us? As I thought more about Dave Grohl’s keynote at SXSW, I began to entertain the idea that perhaps I too have a voice, even though I’ll never be singing nor giving speeches in front of a crowd.

There is no right or wrong. There is only, YOUR VOICE. Your voice screaming through an old Neve 8028 recording console, your voice singing from a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner, a cello, a turntable, a guitar, serrato, a studer, It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it and scream until it’s fucking gone. Because every human being is blessed with at least that, and who knows how long it will last . . .

It’s there, if you want it…And, as a proud father, I pray that someday that they (my insertion: his daughters) are left to their own devices, that they realize that the musician comes first, and that THEY find THEIR VOICE, and that THEY become someone’s Edgar Winter, THEY become someone’s Beatles, and that THEY incite a riot, or an emotion, or start a revolution, or save someone’s life.”

Many years ago, I made a promise to myself that no one I interact with should ever walk away feeling like I made their day worse, even if they were horrible to begin with. I’m a glass half empty person and I’ll be damned if I make someone else’s the same way or worse, empty. I don’t know if my voice will ever inspire, start a revolution or save someone’s life, but I recognise now that this is my voice: It’s one of fairness, kindness and understanding. A voice of reason and free of judgement. It will not be pushed to accept dogma nor to believe in the shallow constructs that others make of me.

I will nurture it and make it stronger, and hopefully one day I won’t be silent.

A dog is just a dog but it isn’t just a dog

Tomorrow (08/03/13) marks BDE’s third year with us. As she lies on her bed looking at me, like a statue, I remember clearly the first time we saw her at the SPCA.

BDE kept looking out towards the door

BDE kept looking out towards the entrance

She stared out of the kennel, unbothered by and displaying no interest in us. How things have changed since.

Getting a dog was my idea, cooing at strangers’ dogs – me, imagining my future dog’s name – me, reading books about caring for dogs – me. Wary of animals – TH. But he gave in to my constant hounding. So although he was very much involved in the process of choosing our dog – he went along for puppy viewings and also chose BDE – when she finally came home, he had no idea what to do.

The weeks and months that followed were not difficult really, not by a long shot compared to what many new dog owners face. TH though couldn’t figure how to connect with BDE. He couldn’t get her to do what he wanted and she seemed afraid of him, which made her listen and respond even less, which of course made him angrier, which made her more fearful and so the cycle went. Then one day, he got it! He finally understood her, on his own terms, and began building his own bond with her. Don’t get the wrong impression – I’m still Alpha.

Over time, as BDE settled in and opened up, a few things became evident. BDE is obsessed with food. Obsessed. A lot of people say their dogs are greedy and that most dogs respond easily to food. BDE is a cut above that. When there’s food around, she goes into a frenzy. She’d approach strangers, plead, jump on them, follow them like the pied piper and I’m all forgotten. So it follows that BDE has no loyalty. Feed her and she’s yours. BDE dislikes being physically close. Hug her and she stiffens, lie next to her and she turns away. You can literally see her discomfort. But she would come to us for pats. She’d rest her head on our laps and look ever so lovingly. And the second we reach out to pat her, she’ll turn around and sit, giving us her back. BDE mostly does her own thing. Any command needs to be given as a command. Say it nicely and you might as well be talking to a wall.

I have no stories to share about BDE sensing my moods and comforting me. When I freak out over my number one horror, she runs away. A friend once remarked that her new dog is “just a dog”, unlike her previous dogs which she determined had superior qualities. It occurred to me I could say the same of BDE. This revelation hit me and honestly, I felt somewhat disappointed. Yet, I know better than that. BDE may not have great doggy-human senses and there will be no tales of heroism or undying love, but she’s not just a dog.

BDE's happy smile

BDE’s happy smile

BDE makes us laugh with her antics, she helps diffuse stress and tension with her constant seeking of pats, her smile puts a smile on people’s faces, she is an ice-breaker. She brightens up every single moment.

In fact, I could say that of all dogs who share a bond with their human. You won’t see a scowly, grumpy owner and dog on their walks. Can’t say the same for parents and their kids.

One day, TH and I were talking about stuff when he said: “Let’s clone BDE so we’ll never lose her.” It’s funny how many of us would accept the death of a person. It is after all inevitable. But when it comes to our dogs, I know many wish they could clone theirs and hold on to them forever.

Happy 3rd Anniversary BDE!!! We’re so glad you’re in our life. We call you the best dog ever but you’re so much more than that.

On a hill I live

On a hill I live
Not too high above a busy street
The sounds of tin cans
Rattle my soul
When the day breaks
When the night falls
Silence eludes
Where trees once stood

On a hill I live
Not too high above a busy street
The gentle breeze teases me
In this sweltering tropical heat
There is no reprieve
Not amongst the grey and cold

An occasional chirp
A distant bark
The faint scent
Of freshly cut grass
It’s open fields I see
When the shades are down

Drilling, hacking
Whirling, rumbling
Knocking, slamming
The green turns to grey
On a hill where I live
Not too high above a busy street