August 25, 2023
SINGAPORE – In the heart of the Karakoram range in Pakistan, a fleeting break in the poor weather granted Ms Vincere Zeng and Ms Sim Phei Sunn a narrow window of opportunity to make history.
The two Singaporean women had spent seven days scaling the face of K2 which, at 8,611m, is the world’s second-tallest mountain. Adverse conditions – heavy snowfall, wind and fog – had dimmed their hopes of reaching the top.
But on July 27, the bad weather cleared up, allowing the pair to make the final push and become the first two local women to ascend K2. Even then, it was no walk in the park.
Ms Zeng, a 31-year-old transformation programme manager at IT firm SAP, had to stand for six hours just metres away from the peak, with the flow rate of her oxygen tank turned to a minimum to conserve it, as she was among 200 anxious climbers all waiting their turn to make the last trek up.
She said: “At every moment, with every step I took, my legs were shaking and my heart was pumping… yet I had to be extremely cautious and focused because there was no room for mistakes.”
Speaking to The Straits Times, Ms Zeng said it was a slow trek to the peak, partly because there was a rescue operation going on, involving a man who later died about 400m from the summit.
On July 27, Pakistani porter Mohammad Hassan slipped off a narrow trail near the peak of K2 and died there several hours later, reported the South China Morning Post.
What made Ms Zeng and Ms Sim’s achievement more remarkable is that both had climbed Mount Everest (8,848m) previously, with Ms Zeng doing so just 70 days before reaching the K2 summit.
The two mountaineering enthusiasts met through Singapore’s local trail running community in 2018.
Ms Zeng’s mountaineering journey began in 2015 when she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro while volunteering as a primary school maths teacher in Africa.
She started training seriously for mountain climbing in 2018, and kept her regimen consistent because she wanted to be “ready to climb Everest at any time”.
This included various weight training exercises and endurance runs five to six days a week.
“I didn’t like, and was not good at, sports when I was younger, but I enjoyed Kilimanjaro so much, and I found myself pretty good at climbing the mountain,” Ms Zeng said.
She added that she has since climbed over 30 mountains taller than 5,000m.
Ms Sim, a 47-year-old who works at the Land Transport Authority, also relied on a rigid training regimen.
She has been an endurance athlete for 20 years, running 100-mile (160km) races across mountains around the world, and coupled this with weight training while preparing for her most recent climb.
She was first exposed to mountaineering during a recruitment nearly 20 years ago to form Singapore’s first women’s Everest team.
Even though that expedition did not materialise then, it sparked Ms Sim’s love and passion for climbing, leading her to summit the world’s highest peak in 2019.
“I finished Everest and the Seven Summits (the highest mountains of each of the seven continents), so I thought, how else to challenge myself?” said Ms Sim, explaining her motivation to climb K2.
She added that she felt K2 was “a lot harder” to climb than Everest, as it required more technical skill.
Ms Zeng agreed, noting that K2 was steeper, and that the exposed terrain demanded exceptional skills in the areas of rock climbing, ice climbing and mixed terrain climbing while carrying heavy bags and wearing crampons – a traction device.
Both women navigated through two different journeys heading up K2, although both were equally challenging as they found themselves at the mercy of nature.
“The fear was very real,” said Ms Sim. “With unpredictable weather on the Pakistani mountains, there were so many unknowns.”
Unstable weather patterns and stormy conditions forced all the climbers to wait for brief moments of clarity, and also delayed rope fixing to the summit. But the climbers’ patience was rewarded on July 27.
A line then formed at the Bottleneck – a narrow gully over 50 degrees steep which is considered the most dangerous part of K2 – as climbers waited at a nearly vertical cliff face for hours to make that last push.
Despite the treacherous journey and dealing with the risks of frostbite and loss of oxygen, both women reached the peak, after they shared a proud moment together holding the Singapore flag at the base camp.
Ms Zeng said: “We live at sea level, and we train at zero metres to 163m, but that does not mean we cannot excel at high-altitude mountaineering. I proved that we from Singapore can do it.”
Singapore’s highest point, Bukit Timah Hill, stands at 163m.
Ms Sim, meanwhile, said that she felt a sense of disbelief, but also pride and humility as she stood on the summit of K2.
“But also, I was mostly thinking about getting down safely,” she said.
Mr Khoo Swee Chiow, the first Singaporean to reach the summit of K2, lauded their feat.
The 59-year-old adventurer and motivational speaker said: “Since I climbed K2 in 2012, I had been waiting for the first Singaporean woman on K2.
“Now, we have not one, but two women who have reached the summit of K2 on the same day. That is a fantastic achievement for both Singapore and South-east Asia.”
He added that K2 is much steeper than Everest, and there is a greater risk of avalanches and rockfalls.
The weather at the peak is also less stable.
Mr Khoo said: “I am very happy to see the next generation coming up and doing greater things in the mountains. Ms Zeng and Ms Sim will be the inspiration for the younger climbers.”
Ms Sim said she would continue climbing and pushing herself, although she has no fixed plans for her next adventure.
Ms Zeng, meanwhile, will return to her normal work routine, but being on top of the world has spurred her to continue inspiring young girls and give back to society.
“My love for mountains will never stop, and in one way or another, I will continue to climb and put our little red dot on more summits on the world mountain map,” she said.