Hong Kong teen mountaineer abandons record attempt to study medicine, but he’s not done with climbing yet
Benjamin Chan wanted to be the youngest person to climb the highest peaks on seven continents and reach both poles, but will pursue another dream – studying to be a doctor
On May 21, at 6.25am, Benjamin Chan, 19, became the youngest Hongkonger to reach the summit of Mount Everest. It was the climax of a 60-day trip in Nepal, the bulk of which was spent on drills helping him to acclimatise to the altitude between Base Camp and higher camps above.
“Almost every moment, I wanted to give up,” he said of the challenge of scaling the world’s highest peak.
In 2017, Chan set his sights on achieving the so-called explorers’ grand slam – scaling the highest peaks on the seven continents, a challenge known as the Seven Summits, and reaching the North and South poles.
He wanted to be the youngest person to complete it, and beat the current record holder, Japanese climber Marin Minamiya, who was 20 years old when she completed the endurance test. A pupil of King George V School in Hong Kong, he learned about the success of Minamiya at an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the English Schools Foundation, which runs private schools in Hong Kong. Minamiya is a former pupil of South Island School, another ESF school.
However, having just been accepted into medical school at the University of Hong Kong, he chose not to finish the final two polar adventures of the nine-leg quest.
“I decided this was an opportunity of a lifetime – studying medicine has always been a dream of mine – so I’m prioritising that now,” he said.
Chan recently returned to Hong Kong after reaching the summit of Puncak Jaya (or the Carstensz Pyramid), the highest peak in Indonesia at 4,884 metres. As well as Everest, he reached the summits of Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania, Africa, 5,895 metres), Aconcagua (Argentina, South America, 6,962 metres), Denali (Alaska, North America, 6,190 metres) and Mount Elbrus (Russia, Europe, 5,642 metres).
He reached all seven summits in the space of six months, which is incredible for a teenager.
Chan is full of stories from his climbs. He recalls an encounter with an older climber on Everest. The climber had tried to eat raw garlic – some climbers eat it, as they believe it has health benefits – but he could not keep it down, and brought it back up all over his Lhotse Face climber’s pants.
“I was not going to high-five anyone unless they used Purell [hand sanitiser] after that,” he quips.
The young mountaineer embarked on the nine-leg adventure to challenge himself, and hopes his efforts will inspire other young people to chase audacious goals, too.
“A lot of people my age downplay their dreams and what they are capable of, but at the same time, a work ethic isn’t there,” he says.
Millennials tend to expect things to be handed to them, he says. “You have no right to anything; if you want something, you earn and work hard for it.”
Chan has nurtured a love of mountaineering since the age of nine, when his father began taking him on hikes, including up the peaks on Lantau Island – some of the highest in Hong Kong.
When he was 13 a friend persuaded him to try outdoor adventures with the Scouts, and he relished the thrill of climbing waterfalls and cliff diving. He recalls vividly the first time he leapt off a cliff – but not far enough. His right arm clipped the rocky surface, leaving a chunk of skin hanging from his elbow and left his arm sprained. “They were like: ‘Dude, slide up for a photo,’” recalls Chan.
Seventeen stitches and a month later, he was back outdoors. “I wasn’t really afraid after that happened and just kept going at it.”
These days Chan thrives on high-adrenaline adventure, fuelled by a drive to push the boundaries and see what his body can do.
He has had some tough moments during climbs. On Aconcagua in Argentina, he recalls looking over a 600-metre vertical drop and thinking: do not slip into the abyss. “When I came down and looked up, I thought: ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that,’” he says.
How does he master his fear in the mountains? “If you let fear control you, then basically you stop, your body starts to shut down, you’re nervous and shaking and [that’s when you] fall down. You have to learn to control your emotions,” Chan says.
To stay in shape, Chan goes trail running. Every day before dawn, he runs from Beacon Hill to Lion Rock to Sha Tin Pass and back – a three-hour cardio workout.
Climbing is part of his physical training too. He goes to indoor rock climbing gyms, or climbs in Beacon Hill or King’s Park.
So what’s next for the talented climber? Chan is eyeing back-to-back assaults on K2 – the world’s second highest peak, and its most deadly for climbers – and Broad Peak, another peak over 8,000 metres. Situated near the Pakistan-China border, both are difficult and technically challenging climbs.
If he surmounts that challenge, Chan says with a laugh, he will tell Hong Kong-based mountaineering guide and three-times Seven Summiter John Tsang: “‘I’m going to guide you now. I’ll bring you to these mountains.’”