What heights of love: climbing Everest to save Hong Kong's country parks

Local mountaineer Fred Bowers aims to scale the world's highest mountain to raise funds and awareness for the Save Our Country Parks campaign.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2015, 3:52am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2015, 9:26pm

To what heights would you go to protect Hong Kong’s country parks from destruction? For Fred Bowers, he’s going to the highest point possible: Mount Everest, the roof of the world, at 8,848 metres.

The American, who has resided in Hong Kong since 1991, hopes to use his self-funded expedition to raise awareness and funds for the city’s Save Our Country Parks campaign. which aims to protect the territory’s 24 country parks from development. In recent years, the parks have faced an increasing threat of destruction to make space for residential and commercial projects.

Bowers’ target is to raise HK$400,000 to cover the cost of hiring a junior staff member for the Save Our Country Parks alliance for two years, to orchestrate and administrate campaign activities. The funds raised will also cover related campaign expenses by the alliance, which is a coalition of more than 20 green groups.

“I want to give something back to the local community here in Hong Kong. It’s nice to have a strong personal connection to the charitable purpose,” says 47-year-old Bowers.

“I’ve benefitted greatly from the presence of the country parks and I’m worried about their future. So I’m hoping that this Everest expedition can raise some money and awareness to make sure the parks will be there for people to enjoy for a long time to come.”

Bowers will leave for Nepal on March 27 and hopes to hoist the Save Our Country Parks flag on the summit of Everest around May 15.

A trader with small local investment firm, Bowers has been training twice a day, going to the gym in the morning before work and hitting the trails with a 20kg backpack at night.

Over the past five years, he’s also done a number of mountaineering expeditions, including the 6,194-metre high Mount McKinley in Alaska (North America’s highest peak) and 8,156m Mount Manaslu in the Himalayas (though bad weather forced him to turn back at 7,500m). He’s also made trips to New Zealand’s Southern Alps, the Cascades in Washington State in the US, and the Minami Alps in Japan, including a winter summit of Mount Fuji.

Hong Kong’s country parks, however, have been Bowers’ main training ground for his mountaineering objectives. And when the Boston native first arrived in this city 23 years ago, the parks were a major factor in his decision to call Hong Kong home. He uses them as his playground not only for hiking, but also rock climbing and canyoning.

“[The country parks] are a daily part of my life,” says Bowers, who is single and lives in Kowloon. “Most people think of Hong Kong and its urban environment, but it’s actually a great place to be an outdoor person because the parks and outdoor life are so easily accessible.”

About three years ago, when training for the Mount McKinley expedition, he joined the Hong kong Hiking Meetup group, the territory’s largest organised hiking group with more than 13,000 members. Joining group hikes, he says, has helped keep him motivated during training.

In support of Bowers’ expedition, the group will also be organising some hikes to raise money for the Save Our Country Parks campaign. (Last Christmas, the group did something similar where they raised HK$40,000 for 400 sleeping bags, which were donated to street sleepers.)

The Everest expedition is the realisation of a dream that Bowers has harboured ever since he was a young boy.

“I remember reading in Sports Illustrated about the great mountaineers and thinking that one day I’d do this myself,” he says. “Around seven years ago [when I turned 40] I decided that I needed to do something about it.”

Bowers has paid US$44,000 from his own pocket to join an expedition organised and led by US-based International Mountain Guides, who will provide all infrastructure from camps to cooks to weather forecasting. Though the expedition group will include 25 to 30 climbers, he has chosen to actively climb with only one personal Sherpa, so that he can progress at his own pace.

He considers himself in “decent shape” for the climb, though he admits he is “uncomfortable” – not afraid – of heights.

“You need to be in good shape to climb these mountains, but you also need to have an enormous capacity for suffering and to be mentally comfortable being in difficult conditions,” he says.

Bitter cold, difficulty breathing at altitude, extreme exhaustion, and weakness from the loss of appetite are just some of such difficult conditions Bowers has braced himself for. Desensitising himself to the suffering and discomforts, he says, is his strategy for keeping motivated.

“When you’re there, you’ve gone too far to turn back. You just need to accept that that is the reality of your situation and continue on,” he says. “But there will be days that are fantastic, the sky will be blue, the mountains will be beautiful, you’ll be climbing well, and you’ll look around and pinch yourself. So it’s also the good days that will keep me going.”

Sherpas called 2014 a “black year” for Everest. On April 18, 2014, 16 Sherpas died when a monster avalanche of snow and ice barreled through the Khumbu Icefall, a notoriously dangerous zone between Base Camp at about 5,350m and Camp I at about 5,900m.

Did Bowers fear he could have the same fate on the mountain?

“I fear the process of dying,” he says, “not death itself.”

“But I also don’t expect to die. I suspect the biggest cause of death and injury on Everest is probably ego. Some people feel committed to make it to the summit at virtually any price.

"But I’m not climbing this mountain just to get to the summit; I’m not climbing this mountain because I’m the first whomever to make it to the summit. I’d like to get to the top but if I don’t, it won’t be a disaster. I’d have a wonderful time spending some weeks in a beautiful environment and enjoying the challenge.”

 

One hundred per cent of funds raised by Fred Bowers' Save Our Parks Everest 2015 expedition will benefit the Save Our Country Parks alliance. Designing Hong Kong Limited, the secretariat for the alliance, will collect the funds for the Save Our Country Parks campaign. Cheques can be made payable to “Designing Hong Kong” marked on the back 'save our parks' and sent to Designing Hong Kong, 507, Eastern Harbour Centre, 28 Hoi Chak Street, Quarry Bay.

Or donate online at the Save Our Country Parks Everest 2015 website.

For more information, join the Save Our Parks Everest 2015 expedition Facebook page.