It came as a surprise to Benjamin Chan when he became the youngest person to reach the summit of the 8,047m Broad Peak in Pakistan without the use of supplementary oxygen in July. He returned to base camp and someone suggested he may have set the record.
“Oh. Cool,” Chan replied, unfazed by the accolade.
Chan, 20, is also the youngest Hongkonger to summit Everest. He is now back in Hong Kong.
“When you go from being in the mountains every day, where the are so many things going on, you are on edge and have to live in the moment,” he said. “But now I’m thinking about the past, present and future. It is distracting, and sort of like anxiety.”
Chan said on the day of his summit he was feeling unusually strong and was overtaking climbers with oxygen, but that does not mean it was easy.
“There are sections that are pretty sketchy, you can lean back and see a 1,000m drop,” he said. “It’s a bit dangerous because of the altitude. You can’t control your heart rate or breathing.”
He would begin to hyperventilate but had been warned before hand that there was nothing he could do regain control other than wait.
“If it kept happening I’d pass out,” he said. “There is nothing I can do but say, ‘Please don’t pass out, please don’t pass out’. There’s no safety net, I can’t just get more oxygen up there. So I have to be very aware of the line where there is risk I am OK with, and risk I am not.”
The climb was less enjoyable than other climbs with oxygen, he said. Without oxygen rich blood, his extremities became colder and it was hard to take in the view, or contemplate the experience beyond moving forward. But nonetheless, it was ‘type-two’ fun.
“It became more like a mission, something I had to finish,” Chan said. “I loved doing it without oxygen. It’s such a physical challenge, you really have to push yourself.”
He is considering more 8,000m peaks without supplementary oxygen.
Chan’s Broad Peak climb was supposed to be an acclimatisation ascent for the higher, much more dangerous, K2. The mountains are near each other and it’s common practice to link the two during an expedition. But when he returned to base camp he found that his agency representative was packing up.
Chan and his team had paid for base camp services, such as food and tents, for the entire K2 season unless they summited earlier. The departure of their agency rep sparked an argument and Chan is still confused why they left, aside from the fact the representative wanted to get home earlier.
Some of the team, such as Chan, had the option to stay in other tents and still try for K2 because they were not using porters so were self-reliant. Others either did not have the option of other accommodation or felt uncomfortable pushing on without support.
So, Chan and the others decided it would be unfair to split the group. They had started it as a team, so they would finish it as a team in the future. But for now, they headed back down the valley.
“At best, I have to try it next year,” Chan said. “It was hard this year for all the wrong reasons.”
It was a tough pill to swallow, and adjusting back to life in hectic Hong Kong is equally tough, but time heals all, said Chan.
“You lose muscle at base camp, you get so worn down, you’re like a stick,” he said. “Emotionally, you are so fragile.”