A mountain of memories

Where dreams are made: Mohandas showing the gloves he wore while climbing the summit of Mount Everest. The insulated suit he wore is stashed in the glass cupboard behind him.

YOU would think that reaching the summit of Mount Everest is the ultimate achievement for those who make it there. Especially if you create history for a country.

Datuk M. Magendran and Datuk N. Mohandas are names etched in history for being the first two Malaysians to successfully climb Mount Everest.

For Mohandas, that feat meant so much more.

‘‘I feel it ‘woke up’ other Malaysians to do whatever they dream of and to do things out of the box.”

Everest “woke” Mohandas up too. It ignited a fire in him to climb more ‘‘mountains’’ and ‘‘summits’’ in life, says the 56-year-old.

Interestingly, he places his work achievements even higher than climbing Everest!

When he first started working with Shell 38 years ago, he explains, his job was to refuel aircraft at Subang airport.

‘‘When I came back from the summit, I was given an instant triple promotion on my first day back at work. That was unexpected.

“And after that, I got promotion after promotion.

‘‘Now I am an accounts manager. I am very comfortable in terms of lifestyle and my finances.

‘‘I never dreamed I would be an accounts manager! Even if I had worked my way up for 20 years , there is no way I could get to the position I am in today.

‘‘So the mountain pushed me and put me at a place where I was not even able to dream of!”

Mohandas feels he owes a lot to Everest and has a picture of the mountain in his office.

That way he can be reminded everyday of crossing crevasses, climbing ice blocks and - basically doing whatever it takes - to get where he wants to go, he says.

He keeps all his Everest gear, including the insulated suit, face mask, gloves, boots, and goggles he wore to the summit, in a glass cupboard in his living room – all still in pristine condition even after 20 years. He even kept the oxygen tanks, the oxygen hose, harness, crampons, alpine ice axe and walking poles that he used.

Mohandas admits it was never his dream to climb Everest as he wasn’t even athletic in school.

Climbing started out as an outdoor hobby for him. He went to the Outward Bound School for a short course in 1989 and got a merit award. Buoyed by that, he joined the Malaysian Mountaineering Association (MMA) and went on one of their mountaineering camps to climb Gunung Tahan.

And when he learnt that MMA was planning an Everest Expedition in 1997, Mohandas thought “Why not just give it a try?”

About 100 people signed up but after fitness tests and training, including alpine training in New Zealand and Nepal, they were shortlisted to 10.

In May 1996, Mohandas was one of six Malaysians on a joint Malaysia-New Zealand expedition to Mount Pumori, which is about 10km from Everest.

Their leader was renowned high altitude guide and climber Guy Cotter.

But before their climb, a blizzard hit Everest, leaving two expedition leaders struggling to get their climbers down. Cotter rushed to the Base Camp to help.

One of his close buddies, Rob Hall, was stranded on the mountain. The rescuers could not reach them in time. Eight people died in that tragedy, said to be one of the worst on the mountain, including both expedition leaders, Hall and Scott Fischer.

The Pumori Expedition that Mohandas was on got aborted.

The deaths of Hall, Fischer and the other climbers hit him hard.

Cotter and Hall had been communicating regularly before the expeditions and Mohandas got a chance to speak to Hall.

“I even wished him luck and success on his expedition,’’ he says.

It did not help that things turned sour after the tragedy. Cotter – who was training the Malaysian team – was not given the contract for the 1997 Malaysia-Everest climb.

When the team got to base camp in March 1997, there was a lot of negative chatter about them being inexperienced and that the expedition was a waste of money.

But they did not let the negativity stop them, he recalls.

Getting to the summit and back was tough, with over 200 bodies left on the mountain, Mohandas says he just staggered on despite coming face to face with the deadly reminders of how dangerous the climb was.

He says when he saw Magendran waiting for him at the summit, his first desire was to rush towards his team mate to celebrate the moment, but because of the altitude and exhaustion he couldn’t even “run 10 feet”, says Mohandas, who regularly runs 8km three times a week to keep fit.

The two Malaysians stayed on the summit for about 45 minutes before heading back down.

‘‘When I came back, I was totally exhausted. It felt like I had finished a marathon then ran back the same distance. But I was happy. We had climbed Everest and made it back!”

He says the experience taught him a lot, especially how to be humble.

“I learnt you shouldn’t try to be a hero and show off when you go up mountains, even in Malaysia, because a lot of tragedies can happen up there.

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