Sunday 17 June 2012

Dr Kumaran Rasappan: The boy who grew up to climb Everest

I'm no mountaineer, says the doctor who first glimpsed the peak on a 1998 school trip
By Rohit Brijnath, The Straits Times, 10 Jun 2012

For a few seconds, no more, Dr Kumaran Rasappan disappears. His young body is here, on a wooden chair amid clinking cutlery at a Starbucks in Yishun, yet his spirit has flown, escaping the stone fortress of the mall and gone travelling to the mountains.

Shush, listen, and you can travel a while with him. 'There's a sense of being free,' he says, as if out there, with only snow and rock for company, a city man can feel unimprisoned. 'It's just you and the mountain. There's no sound. It's almost spiritual, as if you're closer to God.' Nature, evidently, can unlock the poet in any man.

Dr Kumaran, 27, is us and yet he isn't. He is born to a vertical glass city, where ascents are achieved by escalators and where the cool is controlled air-conditioning. Yet he looks beyond.

To a minus 40 deg C cold where his chocolate turns to brick; to a 23-hour ascent of Everest, at 8,848m the world's highest peak; to a discovery of himself in the wild.

Now even his mother, V. Muthulatchimi, who visits a temple to calm her anxiety, appreciates what his journey has given him. 'I thought it was not worth it. But what he has got, I cannot give to him.'

To appreciate what he has got is to travel with a man layered with stubble and honesty. Everyone wants to talk about The Mountain, yet he'll tell you: 'I don't consider myself a mountaineer, it's a label for people who devote a whole life to its art and craft.' He will volunteer that Everest - hardly easy for every peak is a living beast of constantly changing form - is not quite the technical challenge of Himalayan peaks like Makalu and Kanchenjunga.

Yet, Dr Kumaran, whose thick glasses, fine manners and medical degree make you think briefly of Clark Kent, is more than an Everest climber. He is a reminder of our possibilities as people. He is an RI boy, the good son of a retired Education Ministry official and a teacher, with an elder sister who is a physiotherapist, who wins prizes in reciting Tamil poetry and fencing, and play writing, and becomes a doctor. Just your regular over-achiever.

Till he abruptly lurches off the conventional path and his mother sighs for she knows her only son has a risk-taker lurking within. It's a path that takes him this past year to a remote Himalayan village which has no doctor, to raising funds ($30,000 so far) for Tan Tock Seng Hospital, to carrying computers to a school in the Nepalese town of Gorkha. His CV speaks of a man who takes a life beyond dreaming and into doing.

For us, locked in a concrete world, it is baffling: How does a man from a family not tilted towards adventure decide to over-reach his ordinariness?

Does it begin in 1999, when he first flies on a Raffles Institution school trip, on a community service project led by his teacher Krishnan Pillay, to that same town of Gorkha, peering out of the cockpit only to see Everest peering back at him above the clouds?

On that trip, as they climb a hill one day, he sees the sweep of the white Himalayas and asks with a boy's guilelessness: 'Can we climb those?'

Or does it start in 2008, when a Romanian student studying here climbs an Argentine peak, puts up photos, and he sees them and goes, 'Wow'? Yet he also thinks, 'I can do it, too'.

He searches for a peak easy and high and comes up with Kilimanjaro. And so, during a break between years at medical school, he goes, innocent, unprepared, underestimating the mountain, coughing - often a symptom of pulmonary edema, yet choosing to think it's not - and remembers the guide telling him: 'Your life is more vital than this rock.'

Yet, he persists, summits and discovers. First, that 'it's the last time I do something so stupid'. Second, that adventure enthralls him. The hills are only beginning to become his teacher.

Two weeks later, in 2008, he says, 'I thought of Everest'. And it's always Everest because it's the mountain, at least publicly, with the grandest appeal. In 2010, he writes to about 200 sponsors and receives mostly silence. Till some buy his dream. Till the Lee Foundation, Gayatri Restaurant, the Trailblazer Foundation, Mini Environment Service and the Singapore Sports Council chip in. Till Brand's Essence weighs in heavily.

Restless, always, he reads about climbing, watches climbing on video, talks to prominent Singapore climbers. His full registration completed as a doctor, he takes a year off starting from last year and people think he's crazy. We live safe lives, but his spirit is provoked.

He wants to ascend Everest, but if he doesn't, he shrugs: 'The journey would take me to places, peoples, cultures, other mountains.' He shouldn't really wish too much for adventure for, as he does his climbing apprenticeship across six mountains, he finds more than he bargains for.

There are riots in Xinjiang region when he attempts Muztagh Ata (7,456m) and an earthquake when ascending Cho Oyu (8,201m), which causes his tent to slide and nearly slip off an edge.

Discovery is everywhere, for nature leaves no man untouched. He relishes trekking, for 'you can stop and appreciate the distant beauty of a mountain'. But climbing is different, and once he ventures upwards 'there's no time to appreciate beauty, you're concentrated, locked in, feeling the challenge to the spirit'.

Discovery is people, like the Sherpas, rugged folk who climb and farm, and to a village of them, Phortse, he brings himself, his girlfriend Dr Gayathri Nadarajan, better medicines, a new stretcher and a social conscience. Three weeks this March, before Everest, he practises in this village of no phone, where the nearest hospital is a day away.

It is not about saving lives, it is the simple act of offering service. It is just wiping a woman's spectacles with a clean cloth to allay her fears her eyesight is deteriorating. Or pulling a plug of wax, hair and dirt from the ear of a man whose hearing is fading and being paid back with a smile.

Or walking a day to see a sick man and doing a novel consultation in a yak shed. Yet given to a sense of proportion, he says: 'They gave me more than I gave.' And not just endless cups of tea.

Then Everest summons. His group (50-60 Sherpas, 40 clients) is an expedition run by a company called International Mountain Guides. Now, through 45 days, he will acclimatise, walking from Base Camp (5,300m) to Camp 1 (6,000m), then back, then Camp 2 (6,400m), spending a night, appreciating the cold. The terrible cold.

At home, in an ordered, old-fashioned condominium in Sembawang Road, he is in shorts, the quintessential Singaporean. There, he is unrecognisable, padded, like some ancient, woolly ice creature.

'Thermal underwear,' he explains. 'Then base layer, fleece layer, down jacket. Liner gloves, mid-layer gloves, mittens. Thick boots. Balaclava. Beanie. Neck warmer. Goggles. Oxygen tank.' This is armour of its own kind for a battle of its own sort.

Then he is at Camp 4, just below 8,000m. 'We're supposed to rest and conserve energy but I can't sleep because there's always fear.' Men, exhausted, sometimes can't go on, or are beaten down by a wind that climber Chris Bonnington called 'mind-destroying, physically-destroying, soul-destroying'.

Men, 10 of them, have recently died on Everest. Men, some of whose bodies he sees. 'You walk in a line up the mountain and there they are on the trail, as if they're sleeping, and it's unnerving, it affects you, because it's a reminder of your mortality.'

But he keeps going, onwards, upwards, until he is there, on the summit, as if in God's arms. He is satisfied not triumphant, aware, as the Austrian climber Peter Habeler once said: 'I have not conquered Everest, it has merely tolerated me.'

Dr Kumaran says: 'I was on the summit for 20 minutes, but there was hardly time to appreciate the view for I was taking pictures and videos and raising banners.' Then he trudges down and a tiredness settles deep into the bones.

But he isn't done and youth is an inadequate explanation for his energy. Perhaps it is a sense of mission. For he returns to Phortse to say farewell, travels to Kathmandu, then onto a school in Gorkha.

As a boy, in 1999, he first went to this school; as a man now, children throw flowers at him as he arrives with computers, furniture and books that Brand's Essence has sponsored. He is embarrassed yet humbled, for it reminds him of the privileged world he arrives from.

So then, what does a young man gain from this, can it be listed and tangibly weighed in newspaper clippings? No, for the adventurer, reward is internal. Maybe it is quiet pride, validation of hard work, exploration of the self, finding of conviction.

George Mallory, claimed by this mountain, wrote in 1922 that there was no use in climbing Everest, no gold to be found there, no earth discovered to plant crops.

Yet, Mallory, who climbed in a harder time, noted, 'If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy'.

So, maybe it is that, just the joy of a journey done and a young life stretched to an unknown limit. Maybe Dr Kumaran, now looking to be accepted into an orthopaedic surgery training programme, simply returns from the mountains a better man.

And also, no longer a single man. For on the peak, in the sunlight, he photographs himself holding out a marriage proposal. This, too, is about an unfinished journey, one taken by him and Gayathri. On the plane home, he shows her the photo of his proposal. On the plane, she accepts. Up there in the cold, thin air, all manner of romance occurs.


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