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At my peak

Trainee teacher and Everest conquerer Nur Yusrina Ya’akob reflects on the valuable lessons she learnt during her 77-day expedition
by Nur Yusrina Ya’akob

  • Nur Yusrina Ya’akob climing Mount Everest in Nepal
    The memorable morning of 22 May 2017 at the summit of Mount Everest that Yusrina will never forget.
  • Nur Yusrina Ya’akob, Jeremy Tong and Dr Arjunan Saravana Pillai taking a selfie on the way up Mount Everest in Nepal
    The 77 days that Yusrina, Jeremy and Dr Saravana (left to right) spent together on Everest will impact them forever.
  • Nur Yusrina Ya’akob, Jeremy Tong and Dr Arjunan Saravana Pillai fly the NTU flag on Mount Everest in Nepal
    The 77 days that Yusrina, Jeremy and Dr Saravana (left to right) spent together on Everest will impact them forever.

Growing up in a kampung on Pulau Ubin, my childhood was different from most other kids in Singapore. It was during this time that my love for the outdoors grew, and I enjoyed every moment of it.

However, the demands and pressures of everyday life quickly caught up with me.

Like most Singaporeans, I became preoccupied with work, school and other pressing daily matters. In between jobs for about a year at one point, I worried if I could give my parents their monthly allowance as well as pay the monthly instalments for my scrambler.

But sometimes, you need a jolt to bring things into perspective, and the importance of living every moment to its fullest. This came during my 77-day expedition to Mount Everest with Dr Arjunan Saravana Pillai, my former teacher at the National Institute of Education, and NTU alumnus Jeremy Tong, whom I got to know through our common objective of climbing the world’s highest mountain.

We hear many stories of fatalities on Everest. But it doesn’t hit you until you actually cheat death yourself.

It happened soon after I started my descent from Everest’s 8,848-metre-high summit. Coming down from the peak can be just as, if not more, dangerous than getting there. Having achieved their goal of summiting Everest, climbers sometimes let their focus drop. This is made worse by the intense fatigue and severe lack of oxygen. There’s a very good reason why being more than 8,000 metres above sea level puts you in the “Death Zone”.

Near the famed Hillary Step, one of the other climbers in my group slipped and fell. As we were all hooked onto the same climbing rope, I got pulled along and fell off the side of the steep mountain face. It all happened in a flash, but I recall thinking it was the end for me. I’m only 30 years young, and still have a lot of things to tick off my bucket list!

As I was airborne, I was suddenly pulled back towards the mountain like a slingshot. Miraculously, I somehow missed all the rocks and jagged edges protruding from the side of the mountain. Not only was I unscathed, I literally landed on my two feet on a rock and managed to haul myself back up!

Had I fallen all the way, it would have been a drop of about 3,000 metres down the south face of Everest. The rope saved me, but I simply couldn’t explain why I escaped without a single scratch. That led me to believe I must have been protected by a higher being.

That close shave was a lesson to live in the moment and not be weighed down with worrying about things beyond my control.

The Khumbu Icefall on Everest’s south face with the highest peak of the mountain in the backgroundPumori, the highest peak in the background, overlooks the infamous Khumbu Icefall (foreground) on Everest’s south face.

Even before my summit attempt, I was plagued by unproductive thoughts. For example, when we approached Pumori, a mountain known for its excellent view of Everest, I became apprehensive and refused to look at it. A massive earthquake in 2015 resulted in a deadly avalanche on Pumori. That earthquake also ended another expedition that I was a part of. But eventually, I forced myself to confront Pumori as we had to climb it to get used to the high altitude. Besides, I had to see where I was going!

At Everest, the weather can change in an instant, from bright, cloudless skies to howling blizzards in the blink of an eye. Not surprisingly, we often had to wait for bad weather to clear. We learnt patience to weather the storm.

Spending 77 days away from home, in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places on this planet, has made me appreciate the little things again, including my parents.

I inherited my parents’ resilience, work ethic and sense of adventure. My father used to paint buildings, suspended with ropes, and he’s also worked in a quarry. My mum, like me, rode a scrambler and joined a uniformed group when she was in school. She played hockey too.

All that I went through in the past decade – from first setting eyes on Everest during a trek up the nearby Mera Peak in 2008, to toiling for my dream and finally braving the perilous conditions, including the infamous Khumbu Icefall – culminated in just 30 minutes at the pinnacle of the world’s highest mountain. But it was worth it.

The Khumbu Icefall at an altitutde of 5,486 metresThe treacherous Khumbu Icefall at an altitude of 5,486 metres.

When I finally got home, I had to re-acclimatise to the heat and humidity after spending almost three months in sub-zero temperatures. One of the first things I did was hop on my beloved scrambler. I really missed taking her for a spin.

I don’t know if I’ll ever set foot on the top of the world again, but this expedition has been a humbling journey. I am all set to scale new peaks.

During one of our acclimatisation climbs, I was star-struck at meeting the famous Swiss mountaineer Ueli Steck. But two days later, he fell and died. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Build your dreams today – and dream big. While bigger dreams are more challenging, nothing feels as awesome as overcoming the toughest parts that will also define your character. That feeling of accomplishment is priceless. So just do it. And let go of those hang-ups.

Nur Yusrina Ya’akob is a trainee teacher at NTU’s National Institute of Education. In May, she became the first Malay-Muslim woman from Singapore to reach the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain.