The impermanence of life is a blessing; when you leave your house everyday there is no guarantee that you will return. While you are confident in how you think your day is going to play out, there are always unexpected disasters waiting to happen, similarly there are miracles waiting to happen too. When it comes to risk, Swee Chiow knows it all.
Some would say he has faced the tallest and most vertical challenging risks in the world being the first Southeast Asian and fourth in the world to complete the Adventure Grand Slam: the North and South Poles and the Seven Summits. The Seven Summits are the seven highest mountains of each of the seven continents – Aconcagua in Argentina, Denali in Alaska, Kosciuszko in Australia, Elbrus in Russia, Carstensz Pyramid in Irian Jay Indonesia, Vinson Massif in Antarctica and of course the goddess of the sky, Sagarmatha or Mount Everest in Nepal.
For Swee Chiow achieving these feats, much like living life, was no smooth road. Facing many unexpected hazards, setbacks and the odd miracle, he has achieved what only few in the world have, but he believes that everyone has the same capacity to strive and achieve their own personal summits.
As a child, life for Swee Chiow was nothing spectacular growing up in the small seaside town of Port Dickson on the west coast of Malaysia. He was no child prodigy and a late developer in learning how to swim compared to this peers and siblings. At 16, he climbed his first mountain Gunung Ledang in Malaysia (1,276m) and had a horrible experience, going through humid and dense jungle to feelings of loneliness and fear of being swept away by floods while staying the night on the summit. This was hardly an experience to encourage the life of a potential adventurer. When he turned 19 he was clueless of what he wanted to do with his life other than wanting to study in Australia and become a devout Christian “I even thought I was going to become a pastor”. Driven by conventional career goals and based on where the market was heading, Swee Chiow got an education in IT and on graduating returned to Singapore to work.
1989 was when he first stepped on Nepali soil with the intention of doing the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek. He was 24. However, this didn’t go to plan as their flight from Kathmandu to Lukla couldn’t even get off the ground due to hazardous weather conditions. After attempting to catch this flight for three days he and his crew decided to travel to Pokara and do Poon Hill instead. A combination of beautiful sunrises, the majestic Himalayas and his experiences in Nepal allowed Swee Chiow to gauge how little of life he actually knew and realise that “there was more to life than playing guitar in a church band…God called me to be a pastor… I came to Nepal, saw the mountains and never went back. Why pray to God in a church when you can converse with him on a mountain?”
1989 – Trip to Nepal that changed my life. I’ve been back 20 times. I didn’t get to EBC as the weather stopped us from flying to Lukla. I only saw the dark pyramid that was Mt Everest from the plane as I was leaving Nepal – I knew then one day I will get there, to the top. I saw a new horizon when I saw Mt Everest.
It was this first experience in Nepal that sowed the seeds of risk taking and adventure within the soon to be South Eastern hero SweeChiow, however, the decision to become a mountaineer did not come easy or immediately.
When Swee Chiow returned to Singapore he wasted no time in signing up for a Technical Mountaineering Course (TMC) in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. However, it would be another 10 years before he would actually summit Mt Everest and he experienced his fair share of confusion, obstacles and setbacks along the way. He had spent a majority of his savings on the TMC and didn’t find the experience that enjoyable as he was clumsy with his equipment and realized he was nowhere near fit enough to take on the big challenges just yet. In 1992 he joined a scout group and returned to Nepal to attempt Mera peak (6476m), which is described as one of Nepal’s official trekking peaks. This campaign was not successful due to being inadequately equipped and getting lost on the way. Swee Chiow returned defeated, unable to find or make the summit and confidence severely wounded.
With somewhat wavering confidence Swee Chiow’s next mission was a success completing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania; this inevitably became the first of the seven summits.
1998 was when he first climbed and summited Mt Everest as part of Singapore’s first Mt Everest expedition “It took me 10 years to build up to do it. I trained for three years straight and would often travel to New Zealand for training – Summiting Everest felt like a relief more than joy. If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way”.
With ‘highs’ also came the ‘lows’ of his climbing career. Building up to his Mt Everest climb, finances became a serious concern as he was often away from work which effectively retarded his career prospects. As a Systems Analyst with Singapore Airlines which was also a sponsor of his expeditions, his supervisor would have to arrange the work according to Swee Chiow’s schedule. After summiting Everest in 1998 and completing his South Pole mission in 1999, in 2000 he quit his IT job without guarantee of income and only determination to keep doing what he loved.
His hardest and scariest climbs were K2 and the North Pole. In his first North Pole attempt he got frost bite and had to be evacuated. It was here, he had an “I’m going to die moment”. On almost every trip he has “oh no, what am I doing” moments. There were many occasions where he could have died “but things just happened to fall in my favour and I am here and alive now.” In 2005 peopled died summiting Everest. He was meant to be climbing too. In 2013 on another expedition he was meant to be on, 11 people were murdered by Islamic militants on Nanga Parbat base camp, Pakistan’s second highest peak. “I was meant to be on this expedition as well but my flight was delayed.” He learnt that “Sometimes just going with the flow is important as setbacks may not necessarily be a bad thing”.
“People ask me, what is my 10 year plan? What’s a 10 year plan? I may not live tomorrow,” he says.
Khoo Swee Chiow is a motivational speaker, takes guided tours for his own business ‘Dare to Dream’, often goes on sponsored trips and has written five books. “The hard part of what I do is leaving my family. I miss my wife and kids a lot as I am away nearly six months of a year”.
Nothing has deterred him from his chosen path, not the critics nor the fame. He says, “I’m busy exploring the world and living my dream. No matter what happens externally, you have complete power to choose what happens within. Surrender to the moment”.