Been there done that

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 12:00am

COOPED UP AS a child with 10 other family members in a 200-square-foot squatter's hut in Lok Fu, Cham Yick-kai longed for the freedom of open spaces. 'My parents could never keep me at home,' the 44-year-old says.

As a boy, Cham would often escape to the surrounding hills, and later, driven by the desire to be free and to learn more about the world, he fell in love with travelling while visiting Tibet in 1982, when he first became mesmerised by the sight of the area's snow-capped mountains. 'It must be beautiful up there,' he thought to himself, and at that point he knew he had to learn to climb.

Cham joined a mountaineering club and practised on Fei Ngo Shan and Lion Rock before he conquered Sichuan's Mount Gongka, a snowy peak notorious for avalanches, and four other climbs in China. Cham became hooked by the sense of achievement and the success of his endeavours. He continued to climb whenever he could and in 1992 became the first Hong Kong Chinese to stand on top of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. As the world today celebrates the 50th anniversary of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary's historic climb to that peak, Chan is reflective. 'I would love to go back again,' he says. But money is a problem. He says he nearly couldn't raise the cash for his Everest attempt. 'I thought it would be easy to raise funds, being the first Hong Kong Chinese to attempt Everest,' Cham says. 'But no. I sent out over 200 proposal letters and didn't get a single reply.'

In the end, together with his friend, Chung Kin-man (who climbed with him but failed to reach the top), Cham managed to raise the $500,000 needed for the Everest expedition led by New Zealanders Rob Hall and John Ball - both of whom had accompanied Hillary's son, Peter, on his first expedition to the summit in 1990. Cham funded his Himalayan trip by climbing up the outside of Worldwide House. The ascent of the 28-floor Central skyscraper was quite hard work and took about 45 minutes, he says.

Apart from money, the most important prerequisite a climber must have before conquering Everest is adaptability, Cham says, adding: 'And that is something you're born with or without.'

In April 1992, after one and a half months away from home, his dream of scaling Everest came true.

Cham does not boast about his Everest achievement. 'I climb because I love climbing, not because I want to be famous,' he says. 'It's about achieving a goal you set yourself, and climbing Everest is a challenge of its height.'

Cham says his ascent was exhilarating, although he remembers thinking: 'Why am I doing this?' And once he was on top of the world, Cham says his initial feeling was one of anti-climax; he'd achieved his goal, and the goal was no longer there. 'However, that feeling is replaced by the pride of success,' he says. 'But the best part was the descent because I knew I'd soon be home to be comfortable again.'

Cham remembers the climb's hardships, especially the lack of oxygen turning the slightest task into an immense effort. But that paled into insignifcance when he saw the depth of a Sherpa's endurance. He recalls seeing one teenage guide, not part of their expedition, walking in the snow in his bare feet. 'His plastic flip-flops were tucked away on one of the backpacks he was carrying,' Cham recalls. The young man thought it was better to wear out the skin on the soles of his feet, which would grow back, than his flip-flops, which he couldn't replace because he had no money. 'Reports always hail the success of the climbers, when few of us would have got there without the Sherpas,' he says.

Cham, who still climbs whenever he finds time, says he will continue to do so until he can no longer walk. As for Everest though, once, it seems, will have to be enough.