Tall Tales

Dr Kumaran Rasappan reached the summit of Mount Everest at around 7am on 26 May 2012, where he saw the sun rise. It was beautiful, he tells me. Very, very beautiful. At around 4am the first light on the horizon appears, and as it gets brighter you could see the curvature of the Earth – the whole Tibetian plateau, with peaks jutting here and there through the clouds.

This magnificent view came after 11 hours of non-stop climbing, and there and then, standing at the top of the world and taking care not to tread on prayer flags, Dr Kumaran quickly snapped photographs and radioed the people at the Everest base camp to tell them the good news. ‘Congratulations!’ he heard. ‘Now come down as soon as possible.’

‘I was too tired to think of anything at that time, when I reached the top,’ he recalls. ‘I thought I’d feel very accomplished, or I’d feel very emotional, but no. Because going up is only half the journey. Coming down is the other half. The more difficult half.’ He was facing another 13-hour climb back down Camp 2.

Still, Dr Kumaran says that even though many think that climbing Everest is very difficult, it just requires proper training, planning, and lots of preparation. He deems his greatest accomplishments during his year off his medical career to be the ‘non-Everest aspects’, which he says were more meaningful and more difficult to achieve — the other climbs he did in preparation for the mountain (he was part of the first successful all-Singaporean team to reach the summit of Ama Dablam, a Himalayan giant more precarious than Everest itself), the clinic he set up in Phortse, a Sherpa village on the way to the Everest base camp, the $30,000 he raised for the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Community Charity Fund, the 20 computers he brought to a school in the Nepalese town of Gorkha, the fact that he had managed to secure sponsors to fund his climbs and support his charity efforts in the first place. Yet the media focuses on his Everest ascent, and for good reason. Everest towers at 8,848 metres; above the 8000 metre mark, climbers enter the ‘death zone’, where high winds, altitude sickness, frostbite, the lack of oxygen, and cerebral edema are very real, life-threatening dangers. Dr Kumaran was still recovering from first degree frostbite when I met him. ‘I guess it’s been the same since I got it; I still can’t feel my right big toe. But luckily it’s my toes and not my fingers. I want to be a surgeon in the future, and if it had been my fingers, surgery would be out of the question.


Vertical ladder crossing in the ice fall

There were 11 deaths on Everest in this year’s climbing season; the highest number of deaths since the infamous 1996 tragedy which claimed 16 lives. The climbing period had been pushed back, and because of that, the first weather window on 19 May saw 250 eager climbers clamouring for the peak. A bottleneck inevitably formed, and climbers had to wait in the harsh elements for prolonged periods of time. On his way up a few days later, Dr Kumaran saw five bodies along the route. Four of them were climbers who had died on the 19th itself. ‘I thought that as a doctor, I’d seen bodies before. But when you see them face to face and you know that they are your fellow climbers who tried to do the same thing as you, you think: This can happen to you as well.’

Dr Kumaran scaled Everest with just his Sherpa guide, whom he says spoke pretty good English despite having no formal education in the language. Many of the Sherpa guides who accompanied the climbers are 13, 14-time Everest summiters who also reached the top of other 8000 metre peaks more than 20 times. ‘These guys have dedicated their whole lives into climbing and it’s just a job for them, something that they don’t like to do. They do it because of the need for money, the need for supporting their families. Very few men in the village actually reach an old age and pass away naturally; most of them die from mountaineering accidents,’ Dr Kumaran explains.

Before his Everest attempt, he and his fiancée Dr Gayathri Nadarajan had run a small clinic in Phortse, a Sherpa village enroute to the Everest base camp from the nearest airport. Dr Kumaran describes the atmosphere of the village; how everyone was preparing for the expedition, and how only women and children were left behind once the expedition started. ‘It’s amazing that these humble guys have climbed Everest many times, but when they come home after the season is over they become potato farmers,’ he says. ‘It’s no honour and glory, for them, climbing Everest. It’s just something they have to do.’ Dr Gayathri stayed on to help at the clinic and impart knowledge and skills to the local healthcare worker after Dr Kumaran left to climb Everest. She had taken two months of no-pay leave for this cause.


The entire village of Phortse (as seen from Mong La)

Dr Kumaran had always wanted to do medical work overseas – he was inspired by initiatives like Doctors Without Borders – and although he was still relatively young and inexperienced he realised that ‘there are many people out there who just require basic medical care, which can be administered by someone without a medical degree’. So he went straight to the ground – he asked a Sherpa guide he had previously trekked with if his village needed help, and the guide said yes.

Dotted throughout the Everest region are four satellite healthcare posts – extensions of a hospital Sir Edmund Hillary had set up for the for the Sherpa people following his famous 1953 climb. These are manned by locals who had received only a few months of training in Kathmandu, and they service the villagers with basic healthcare, dispensing medication for chronic illnesses, providing cures for minor ailments and giving health education advice. However, as time passed, these local healthcare workers lost confidence in their skills, trusting themselves to dispense only the simplest medication – Panadol for fevers, or maybe charcoal pills for stomach ache. Villagers got used to suffering in silence, waiting for their ailments to get better on their own. If their condition gets worse, they had to be stretchered to the hospital; a full day’s hike away. Dr Kumaran and Dr Gayathri wanted to provide the villagers with free medical care, make the healthcare post system more sustainable, and help the village healthcare worker familiarise herself with advanced medicine so she would feel more confident about practising it.

Dr Kumaran set up the clinic in a small building. With the help of sponsors he refurbished it, replenished it with new medicine and contributed new equipment. During his three-week stint in the village, a Sherpa guide acted as his host and translator (during off-peak hours he would go outside to continue with his regular job – potato planting). Many patients came to see Dr Kumaran and Dr Gayathri, even patients who lived in villages a day’s trek away. He relates several memorable episodes – fishing out a huge chunk of wax and dirt from the ear canal of a man who had difficulty hearing and cleaning the spectacles of an old woman who was mystified by her worsening vision. But above all, he remembers the villagers’ grateful, incandescent smiles.


A home visit to one of the men in the village. The patient in bed props himself up and smiles for the camera.


Dawa, a Sherpa guide who had accompanied Dr Kumaran, was delighted with the new stretcher he had brought to Phortse.

(Tan Tock Seng Hospital has uploaded more of Dr Kumaran’s photographs on their Facebook page. Be warned though; it includes a photograph of the afore-mentioned earwax.)

After three weeks in the village, he bade goodbye to Dr Gayathri and set out for Everest. The Everest base camp consists of a collection of tents; due to the ever-shifting glacial landscape it was impractical to build any permanent structures. It included a very important tent with power outlets (for charging electronic devices), and an even more important tent housing the toilet – a hole atop glacial rock crowned with an unhygienic fabric seat. Dr Kumaran continued to maintain his blog throughout his stay there by making 1.5 hour trips to a nearby village with internet access. Fortunately, a generous fellow climber also graciously let others tap onto the Wi-Fi his satellite phone was transmitting despite the astronomical cost.


The Everest Base Camp spread all across the moving and melting Khumbu glacier

The process of climbing Everest is a long one. Climbers acclimatise themselves by slowly making their way up and down between the camps for about a month and a half before making their ultimate bid for the summit. Dr Kumaran’s journey there and back again took him six days. He is the first Singaporean to scale Everest for charity, and through his project, No Mountain Too High, he managed to raise nearly $30,000 for the Tan Tock Seng Hospital Community Charity Fund. It helps low-middle income families who do not qualify for the subsidies with their medical bills. ‘I have a lot of passion for my hospital where I work at, and I got to see the plight my patients were in. Everest is not something everyone climbs every day, so why not do something meaningful while climbing it?’ he says.


Bad weather brought lots of snow upon Camp 2. Lhotse, illuminated by the setting sun, can be seen in the background


Dr Kumaran’s desire to reach out to as many people as he could in his one year off also led him to help out at Sree Saraswathy School in Gorkha; this despite already being fatigued from his successful climb. In fact, this school was where his Everest adventure began – as a Secondary 3 student in RI, his teacher, Mr Krishnan Pillay had brought him and his peers to the school as part of a community project. It was there that Dr Kumaran caught his first inspiring glimpse of the snow-capped Nepalese mountains and asked his teacher if he could climb one of them one day.

13 years later, he has come full circle. Dr Kumaran visited the school with Mr Krishnan once again, this time together with Dr Gayathri. They were warmly welcomed and bestowed with garlands made of flowers the students had picked from their gardens. With the $10,000 that his title sponsor Brands donated, Dr Kumaran bought 20 desktop computers, as well as furniture and accessories. Mr Krishnan, who is presently the vice-principal of a West Grove Primary School, brought along a large number of letters his Primary 5 students had written for the Nepalese children, and returned to Singapore a few days later bearing letters the Nepalese students had written in reply.


Students receiving letters from their Singaporean peers


Dr Gayathri, Mr Krishnan and Dr Kumaran were warmly welcomed with garlands


The computer lab

Perhaps Mr Krishnan captures the significance of Dr Kumaran’s deeds best. ‘Every teacher wants his students to aspire to be the best they can be. Every teacher also derives satisfaction when his students give back to society through tangible and intangible ways. To witness all this up close is a rare privilege and an honour this teacher will cherish forever,’ he wrote in a letter which was eventually published in The Straits Times.

Mr Krishnan is not Dr Kumaran’s only major influence. ‘What introduced me to the outdoors and what inspired me to sign up for the Nepal trip in 1999 was the 01 Raffles Scouts,’ he reveals. ‘I’m the person I am today because my involvement in Scouts moulded me. And the 01 Scouts alumni, the Gryphons, were very supportive as well. They were proud to see that someone from Scouts was doing this. Some of them sponsored me themselves and gave me contacts for sponsors.’

He pauses, then adds: ‘For a person like me, to come out of my shell, to go out and get rejected many times and still find sponsors and get enough money to complete my climbs… Wow, there’re a lot of people who’ve helped me along the way.’

Dr Kumaran has come a long way since his first successful climb in 2008. The mountain he and his friends from NUS Mountaineering Club had picked was Kilimanjaro; a mountain, they later realised, that they had underestimated. But the difficulty of the attempt, coupled with the fact that it was actually doable in the end, inspired Dr Kumaran to take on the challenge of reaching a much higher arbitrary goal – Everest. ‘It’s like signing up for a marathon,’ he tells me. ‘If you just keep telling yourself that you’re going to run the next day, you won’t do it because there’s no motivation. But if you commit yourself by signing up for a marathon and paying up with money, there’ll be motivation for you to run every day. To make things easier I set Everest as a goal, but I knew that even if I didn’t reach Everest, the journey I undertake will bring me to a lot of new things. I would be very happy with the journey itself.’

And this certainly rings true for him. Every mountain Dr Kumaran climbed during his one year off was a mountain he had dreamed of climbing. These expeditions had to be scheduled back to back according to their climbing periods – ‘Two weeks after I came back from my first mountain I was going off for my second one’—and along the way he found himself braving not just exhaustion and high altitudes, but also riots, earthquakes and floods. Although he did not manage to reach the summits of the first two peaks he scaled during this period – Muztagh Ata in Xinjiang and Cho Oyu in the Himalayas – he says these ‘failures’ have opened his mind and taught him a lot of things.

‘A guy who turns back half an hour away from the summit after climbing for 10 hours wouldn’t be in any book of records, but I would consider him to have reached the peak. The feeling, the process, the preparation is the same. The view you get from the summit and the view you get half an hour away from it are almost the same. If he’s an experienced climber, I think he would have reached what he wanted to reach in the end,’ he says.

It was amazing, listening to Dr Kumaran’s stories and seeing the photographs he took on his journey in Nepal – even the snapshot his Sherpa took of a body that had been lying in the snow for years (Dr Kumaran enlarged the photograph on the laptop he had borrowed and pointed at the green skin on its hand with his cursor). More amazing were the pictures of the smiling faces of people he met, the lofty villages, the rugged, hostile peaks. ‘I’m very fortunate to experience things that very few people in the world get to see, first-hand. Then there’s the feeling when you achieve something you’d only dreamt of and never thought possible,’ he says.

I tell Dr Kumaran that he has inspired me to try my hand at climbing Mount Fuji – something I had planned to do a few years ago but decided not to in the end because I could not find a climbing partner – and he laughs.

‘You know,’ he says, ‘I was asking so many people to join me on this one year journey to Everest, and I still think it is more meaningful to share something with someone important to you, or to have a companion while doing it. But in the end, no one wanted to commit the time and money and just go out of their comfort zone for just a few months. For me, now’s the best time to do it, so even though no one wanted to do it with me I thought I shouldn’t give it up just like that. Just do it! Along the way you will inspire people, and others will join you after that.’


Dr Kumaran Rasappan’s blog can be found at

© The article was written by Inez Tan (Executive, Communications).

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