Attitude the Key to Conquering Altitudes
By Tracy Chan
It is 7.30 on a fine morning with a light breeze. John Tsang Chi-sing, a tanned 41-year-old with a broad smile, is limbering up for his regular outdoor training, preparing to time himself for a run and cycle ride. Tsang is the founder of an adventure education company and a mountaineer. He is best known for being the first climber from Hong Kong to reach the summit of Mount Everest from both its south and north sides.
His mountaineering credits do not stop there. Tsang has conquered four of the world’s 14 highest mountains with summits higher than 8,000 metres. Among them is Mount Manaslu, known as the “Killer Mountain” because of the high fatality rate of climbers who attempt to scale it. But while his deeds are filled with adventure and adrenaline, his manner is composed as he tells his story.
Tsang enjoyed hiking and climbing hills as a young man and first became interested in hiking during a school trip in 1991. His love affair with mountains began on a winter climbing expedition on a snowy mountain in Nagano, Japan when he was 19 years old.
“Mountains cannot speak, but they can show you the reality in life,” he says. “If there is a gusty wind, you have to make adjustments in managing time and gathering momentum.”
Tsang says that, unlike in his childhood, people today are constantly busy. They barely have a moment to think about their lives and make plans for the future. They may find themselves putting on different masks to please others, while their true selves are hidden under a splendid cloak. For Tsang, mountains are a sanctuary, and climbing is a time for people to rediscover and better understand their authentic selves.
“On the mountain, you are not pleasing anyone. The mountain doesn’t know how to laugh, if you laugh here, it is straight from the heart and if you are displeased, you are free to lose your temper,” he says.
Tsang also appreciates going back to basics when it comes to human communication. Without the trappings of modern civilization such as televisions and Wi-Fi, the only way to get information or interact is to walk from one campsite to another and talk directly to others.
This is how Tsang forged his strong connection and friendships with the local Sherpa people, members of an ethnic group in eastern Nepal who live in the foothills, and make a living by guiding climbers up the mountains. “They do not pursue quality of life, but survival itself,” he says. Several years ago, Tsang raised money for a Sherpa family so their child could undergo eye surgery. The child has now recovered and this further affirmed his close bonds with Sherpa people.
In an attempt to further help underprivileged children, Tsang was inspired to set up a charity for the education of children in developing countries. In 2006, Tsang led an expedition to climb Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, to raise funds to build a school at the foot of the mountain. The success of this project motivated him to set up a charity called Project Care Action 8000 Association (PCA 8000) with Dr Fan Ning, the president of Medecins Sans Frontieres Hong Kong. The idea was to raise money and awareness through undertaking and leading mountain climbing expeditions.
Soon after their group was founded, Tsang and Fan headed for Mount Cho Oyu in Tibet. However, the expedition quickly turned into a disaster. Fan broke his index and middle fingers from frostbite and Tsang broke his right leg while trying to descend too quickly. Luckily, another mountaineering team passed by and soon spotted them. Tsang and Fan were rescued and taken to hospital.
Back in Hong Kong, Tsang spent two miserable months in hospital. He would stare at the television and break into tears, blaming himself for his carelessness and arrogance. “I thought the place [where the accident took place] was not dangerous at all, so I took off the safety rope,” he says. It took him a whole year of medical treatment, counselling and physiotherapy to fully recover.
After the accident, Tsang put the charity on hold. He realised mountain climbing was too dangerous for most people to do without professional training. However, he still hopes to raise funds in the future by conducting hiking activities instead, which more people would be able to take part in.
On a personal level, Tsang says he has learned to be a more humble and modest person. He does not view his mountain expeditions as a great achievement. “The mountain is an interesting place to gather people around who are more outstanding than you. The more you compare, the more you can improve,” he says.
His life so far can be seen as a constant search for improvement. Before finding his calling as a mountain adventurer, Tsang had drifted from job to job, trying to find one that he could love. After getting his degree in recreation and sports management from the University of Hong Kong, he worked as a member of the management team of a golf course. He describes himself as “mischievous” and says he could not stand the light workload, which he experienced as “drudgery”.
“I told my boss, ‘I cannot see any change in 30 years. I cannot foresee my future.’ So, I quit the job,” he says.
He also worked as a physical education teacher but found it hard to follow the rigid regulations which ran counter to his carefree style of working. So, in 2001, he opened his own company called Adventure Plus, which provides teambuilding and leadership training programmes for companies.
The business is dependent on the general economic environment, as companies have little in their budget to spend on such activities in times of economic recession. In 2003, he was brought to the edge of bankruptcy. With the fear of physical contact with others brought on by the SARS outbreak, it was impossible to provide teambuilding programmes. Somehow, the company survived both SARS and the financial downturn of 2008.
But then John Tsang is nothing if not a survivor. His perseverance has paid off and the company is now stable. His challenge now, and he is confident he can pull it off, is to strike a proper balance between his mountain climbing dreams, his career, and his family.
“As my wife knows she cannot control what I am going to do, she instead supports me along the way,” he says. Tsang and his wife have a 10-year-old son, but he does not believe you should give up your dreams when you become a parent. “They [dreams] are indispensable. Stop mountain climbing? No way!” he says.
He is also keen to share his love of mountain climbing with those closest to him. The family has a goal of going on a hiking trip together at least once a year. This summer, they went to Yushan in Taiwan but were forced to return when they were only halfway up the mountain because of a typhoon.
He recalls that his son asked him if he was tired. “If you are well-trained, you will be fine,” Tsang told him.
What he wanted his son to know was that in order to be strong, his father trained and exercised hard every day. It is not that he necessarily wants his son to follow in his footsteps, it is more that he wants to teach him about how to live.
“The hardest time comes right before the moment of success,” Tsang tells his son. “Whenever you have reached a certain place, you can always take another step forward. It is like rolling a snowball. You have no limits at all.”
Tsang says he finds resonance in the words of Diana Nyad, an American swimmer who swam from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64: “We should never, ever give up” and “You are never too old to chase your dreams”.
At 41, Tsang is far from old. He is still going on mountain expeditions once or twice a year, depending on seasonal conditions. For the Himalayas, the suitable period is from April to May, and September to October. As for his next adventure, Tsang is already planning to conquer another Himalayan giant, Mount Lhotse in early April next year.
“Make challenge your habit,” he says.