SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEO: Reaching Everest was just the beginning for these six women. It’s shown the winners of the Her World Young Woman Achiever of the Year 2009 award they can take on anything
MEET THE NATAS SINGAPORE WOMEN’S EVEREST TEAM
Joanne Soo, 39, runs Ace Adventure, an adventure company; Lee Li Hui, 28, is a financial consultant; Sim Yi Hui (co-team leader), 27, is an experimental education officer; Jane Lee (team leader), 26, runs Wild Atlas Expeditions, a niche adventure company; Esther Tan, 28, is a copywriter and Lee Peh Gee, 32, is a major in the Singapore Army.
Q: How have your lives changed after Everest?
Jane Lee: Quite a bit. Many people say reaching Everest marks the end, but honestly, it’s just the beginning. It has shown us what’s possible in the world. When I got home after the climb in May last year, I felt this crazy, consuming desire to go back to the mountains and just be out there.
It became clear to me that I wanted to continue climbing and being outdoors for the rest of my life. So when my work contract as a student development officer ended in February this year, I didn’t extend it. Instead, I started my own business called Wild Atlas Expeditions, which organises niche adventure expeditions, such as women-only trips.
Lee Li Hui: You know, we didn’t make any long-term plans for five years simply because we didn’t know if we would survive Everest. So I came back feeling lost and sad—there was nothing else to look forward to. I spent many nights just watching television at home and feeling like I was wasting my life away.
After Everest, I realised that I needed to find value and passion in the work that I do. I was in pharmaceutical sales because it gave me flexibility and the money was all right. I was actually interested in doing something else for the last few years but I had never dared to do anything about it. But four months after returning from Everest, I made the career switch and am now working as a financial consultant. I guess I realised that I didn’t want to just do any job anymore.
Esther Tan: Well, things have been quite different for me. I got married in May this year. My boyfriend had proposed a month before the expedition but I hadn’t wanted to give my answer then. It would have been irresponsible. I was going on a dangerous trip—who knew if anything bad would happen? It was only after I reached the summit that I wrote “yes I do” in the snow, snapped a picture of it and gave it to him when I returned home.
Q: Has conquering Everest made you feel invincible?
Esther: Well, the experience has made the biggest of problems not so intimidating to us anymore. Everest is a big mountain and we’re small Asian girls, but we made it to the top. So now, we don’t really sweat the small stuff anymore. I work in advertising and in my company, the pressure is great, there are deadlines to meet and things that need to be launched. It’s very easy to get stressed or emotional, but I don’t. After all, I’ve faced life and death on Everest. If an advertisement doesn’t get sent out by tonight, no one’s going to die. It’s put things into perspective for me.
Joanne Soo: Doing well on Everest has given me that extra boost of confidence to start a mountaineering school within my existing adventure company, Ace Adventures. Running a business isn’t easy, but if I don’t give it a shot, I will never know if I can succeed.
Li Hui: I think Everest has shown me that when you have a goal, you must put in hard work to achieve it. We were climbing stairs on Friday nights when other people were partying with their friends. That showed me that if I wanted something bad enough, I must be willing to make some sacrifices. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be pleasant, and it may even be downright boring. But you must believe that you’ll get there.
Sim Yi Hui: My experience was quite different from the rest. I didn’t get to the summit because I had to grapple with chest pains. To be honest, I was really excited for the team and couldn’t sleep all night when they were going for the summit, but wished I really was there too. But then, I realised that I wasn’t willing to risk everything just to get to the top.
Initially I thought “die die” I had to go but it’s quite different when you’re in the situation. I was actually able to cope better than I thought and come to terms with everything. Of course I was disappointed, but I think I’m stronger now as I’ve learnt not to be so fixated on results. My philosophy is to do what you can and be prepared to fail even though you’ve done your best.
Lee Peh Gee: I still feel the same anxiety, same self-doubts and fears whenever I choose to venture into something unknown or uncertain. But, I have also learnt to see that there are often ways to approach and overcome obstacles, and there is also wisdom when we choose not to continue if it is not in our time and space to have it.
Q: Do you feel pressured to set a new goal that will surpass Everest?
Esther: Everest was just one of our life goals, not the ultimate goal. It may be the highest mountain but there are other challenges like staying happily married. These are the kind of everyday goals that seem very ordinary, but are actually not easy to fulfill.
Q: Whose lives have you touched so far because of Everest?
Esther: When we gave a talk at Boys’ Town Singapore, the boys bombarded us with questions for one-and-a-half hours because they were just so interested. The teacher was telling us that they usually get restless after 15 minutes. That was really encouraging!
Joanne: One day when I was rock climbing, I bumped into a good friend who’s a climbing coach at Outram Secondary School. He asked me to give his students a pep talk as they were preparing for a climbing competition and I did. I told them that you can’t control others but you can control yourself. If you’re not disciplined enough to train, no one else can help you. The students were so inspired by my words they put in a lot of effort for the competition and won their first National Schools Climbing Championship. That made me feel really good. It showed me we’re doing the right thing by sharing our journey.
Peh Gee: Joanne’s story reminds me of one person who told me that she became motivated to run 5km after hearing me share my story. I don’t actually know whether she eventually did it, but the mere fact she had shared that she was motivated by what we did, well, that’s good enough for me.
Q: Has the experience made you look at other aspects of your lives differently?
Li Hui: It made us realise who’s important to us. It weeded out the friends who didn’t stand by us because we didn’t have time for them and we became closer to the pool of friends who were there for us. And our families, we know that they were there for us and dealt with the long hours when we weren’t at home and didn’t have time for them. Realising all these things has made me want to try to be a better friend and better daughter. Now is the time to be there for them.
Yi Hui: I agree, though I didn’t have to do a lot of weeding in the first place. For me, it was mainly about the relationship with my family. I became closer to them. For instance, my mum didn’t approve of me doing this in the first place, but she supported me. That has made me determined to be more filial and I help out more with the housework now to make up for lost time. My family is still number one, and so are my close friends.
Jane: You know, there’s something Li Hui said earlier that I wholeheartedly agree with. She said it’s important to find value in what you do with your life. Everest made me realise that some things I did in my previous job were senseless, like I would spend an entire day spacing my documents according to a specific format. To me, that’s ridiculous. Why should I waste hours of my time spacing my words? It made me feel very disgruntled. On Everest, everything we did had meaning and immediate consequences. Like, the number of packs of Oreo cookies I carried in my backpack made a difference. Carrying more meant I had more to eat but it also meant extra weight to lug around. I guess Everest has placed a lot of things in perspective.
Li Hui: Oh! I also don’t like bumming around and hanging out in malls anymore. I used to not mind having coffee with friends… Maybe I’m growing old, but I don’t like jostling with the crowd and looking for things to buy. I’d rather spend my time doing something fulfilling or at least physically active with like-minded people. Actually, Esther and I formed a mountain biking group, and we meet up every Saturday to try out new stunts. It’s different from what friendship used to be like for me. It used to mean hanging out over coffee and things like that. Now it’s about egging each other on to improve our biking skills and fuelling each other’s interests. I like that.
Q: What’s next in the pipeline as a team?
Jane: We’re writing a book about our experiences, but we didn’t want to have a typical climbing book, with just one voice documenting everything in chronological order. But writing the book is harder than we thought because all of us are writing it and we’re doing it thematically. We’ll have themes like “fear” and each of us will be interpreting the themes the way we see them.
Q: Lastly, what would you want written on your tombstones?
Yi Hui: I want it to read, “She made me laugh”. I want people to remember me for having a connection with them.
Esther: I’m torn between a few things. One is that “She made a difference in my life”. One is that “She loved God”. There’s a bigger journey for me…
Yi Hui: Actually, I think it’s not so much what we do but rather about how we live our lives.
Jane: That’s true. I want to be remembered for leading a life that was completely my own. Not in the sense that it was selfish or self-seeking but that my life went the direction that I wanted it to go. It’s very easy to get diverted into a path that seems more appropriate or safe or that people say you should follow even though it may not be what you really want to do. It’s not about whether you eventually get there, but it’s about the process of having tried to stay to a path that’s true for yourself. HW