The first time that Jeremy Tong was on Mount Everest, he nearly lost his toes. At just 150 metres from the summit, Tong could almost taste the victory in the thin mountain air — but he could also feel the frost gathering in his fast-freezing feet.
“I was wearing the wrong type of socks, and they got wet, so my feet were frozen almost to the point of frostbite,” he says.
And so with a heavy heart — and soggy socks — Tong turned his back on the final hour-long stretch.
“The decision to head back was really painful, but if I pushed on to the peak, I didn’t know if I’d lose my toes, or if I’d even come back alive,” says the 28-year-old.
Refusing to be bested by a challenge as proletarian as socks on his second venture, Tong read up religiously on what to do — though he would soon find that the literature was rather scant on proper foot-warming procedures at an altitude of 8,000 metres.
And in June 2019, he successfully summited Everest, becoming the youngest Singaporean to climb the mountain twice.
He offers some of the best tips he’s garnered on his two tours of Everest for any would-be hopefuls — and even if you’re not planning on conquering any mountains in the near future, perhaps his advice may come in handy if you’re ever in a Bear Grylls-type situation. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t happen.
Everest is divided into several sections, and seasoned climbers have nicknames for each one: There’s the dreaded camp 4 located in the zone of death, the base camp which serves as a gateway to the mountain proper, and the trek into the basecamp.
Unsurprisingly, since the trek to the basecamp is the easiest, it’s also the most plied by tourists and casual hikers. Teahouses are located at convenient intervals on the path, says Tong. There, you can rest your head in a proper bed and enjoy warm, comforting foods.
Entering the basecamp is where the scenery changes a little. Instead of a cozy building with a menu, the dining room turns into two separate tents: One that serves international food and one with Chinese food, which usually serves up something light and inoffensive to the stomach, like stir fry.
But at least there are options (and a dedicated chef), because once the camps start getting numbers is when you’ll really start roughing it.
“As the camps get higher and colder, it gets really uncomfortable, so the only thing you can really cook is Maggi noodles,” says Tong. Which doesn’t sound so bad, until you realise that you’re eating that for every meal for days on end in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments.
To combat homesickness (and to provide some much needed variety in his diet), Tong often relied on the snacks he squirrelled away for the occasion. His favourite? Instant mee goreng: Hot, soothing, and deliciously spicy.
Take It Slow And Steady
People often forget that Everest isn’t a race to the top. There’s no real way to blitz past the narrow crevices and icy cliffs — but after months of preparation and actual climbing, it’s easy to just want to wrap it up as soon as possible and trudge home.
Just ask Tong. He attributes his failure to summit Everest in 2017 to his own foolhardy belief that he’d be able to make short work of the distance he had left.
“Near the end of my Everest climb in 2017, I just wanted to get it over and done with,” he says. “But you should never pit yourself directly against the mountain, because the mountain will always win.”
Everest, like any other mountain, can be unforgiving. It’s common knowledge that the route up the mountain is littered with dead bodies.
It’s part of the reason why Tong carries a stuffed tortoise with him on all his expeditions. Tong’s faithful stuffed companion was a gift from his wife — herself an avid trekker — and serves as a constant reminder to Tong to take it slow on his journeys.
That stuffed tortoise (which also bears the battle scars from the time Tong summited the highest mountains in Africa and Australia) doesn’t just remind Tong to pace himself, it also provides him with a much-needed emotional link to his home and family, one of the biggest factors that Tong links to a successful climb.
Always Keep Home In Mind
Every step on Everest was a perilous one, but none were more frightening than the ridge leading up to the summit. There, climbers are faced with the Hillary Step, one of the narrowest points on the path to the summit. It allows only one person to climb at a time, and when there’s an endless stream of people heading up to the summit and back down at the same time — sometimes in the hundreds — things can get hairy.
“Everyone is just waiting to move. Some people don’t want to give way,” says Tong. “We had to cram ourselves face-first against the ice and grab onto a rope to allow people coming down from the summit squeeze past you.”
A frightening prospect, even without the threat of plunging 8,000 meters down into either China or Nepal, depending on which side of the ridge you fell off.
But Tong kept steady. He thought of his wife and new-born child back home in Singapore, and of the cause that he was climbing for — this year, Tong sought to raise $15,000 for the Children’s Cancer Foundation through his Everest climb.
Tong’s big goal is to climb the Seven Summits — the highest mountains on each of the seven continents. He’s already checked three off his list, after all. And despite all the danger and pain that comes with his ventures, Tong wouldn’t have it any other way.
“As a human, you’re basically nothing next to something as great as a mountain,” he says. “But when you put yourself in that uncomfortable position and complete that journey, you do come back a lot more resilient.”