Mountain climbing not for 12 year old kids!

By Goh Meng Seng

The Trekking at Mount Kinabalu

First and foremost, my deepest condolences to the families of the students and teacher who died from the Sabah Mount Kinabalu Earthquake. I believe those students and teachers who survived the tragedy must have suffered tremendous trauma and I hope that psychiatrists are sent to provide the necessary counseling to help them overcome their traumatic shocks and pain.

This article does not seek to pin the blame of the earthquake deaths on anyone. It is true that no matter whether you are an adult or a child, you are subjected to the same risk to death from such sudden acts of nature. However, there is really much to fault MOE and the school for approving and allowing 12 year old kids to go on such a "Mountain Climbing Expedition".

The common excuse given was that the Primary School has been conducting this expeditions for the past few years without incidents, so we should assume there is nothing wrong in having such expedition for 12 year old kids. This is absolutely wrong argument to deflect responsibility for both MOE and the school. It is like saying you have won a few rounds from the Casino and thus, gambling in the Casino is absolutely safe!

The other flawed argument is that when we walk on the street, we also face risk of being injured or killed by car or other accidents. The key thing is, you do not have a choice to face such risk in our daily life but we do have the choice whether to allow our young 12 year old kids to face unnecessary risks for such expedition!

Some people say that we do not want to cultivate kiasu kiasi (timid and cowardly) people so we should continue to support such expedition for 12 year old kids. This is totally a erroneous perspective. We should not cultivate the mindset of recklessness in a bid to secure gungho (overly tough) training for our kids! We should tread the middle path, learn how to take calculated risks and deal with them.

What is risk? What is risk assessment and management?

We face risk everyday, with or without knowing it. For some of these risks, we can afford or mitigate with some training or preparation (like teaching kids how to cross roads, take public transport, take escalators...etc). But there are some activities which contain risks that cannot be mitigated due to age considerations. For example, a 12 year old attempting to drive a vehicle.

Age may be a multiplier for risk factor. For example, asking an 80 year old man or a 12 year old kid to climb a mountain as compared to a 20 year old man. Why is a 12 year old kid is unsuitable for mountain climbing in general?

I have been active in outdoor adventurous activities in my younger days and I have brought groups of students of ages 17 and 18 to climb mountains. As a trainer, instructor and leader of such expeditions, it is always taxing because you know that you are responsible for more than 10 young lives at any single instant. Their parents have entrusted you their lives and expect you to deliver them back, safe and stronger.

Ironically, as an adventurer, we have to be extremely paranoid when it comes to planning and putting up safety measures and contingencies. First criteria for a safe and meaningful expedition, is to have only suitable participants go on the trip. They must not only be physically and medically fit, but also mentally prepared for all sorts of emergencies. As the leader of the expedition, we have to believe in Murphy's Law: what can go wrong, will go wrong.

Participants for mountain climbing expedition must also be able to take care of themselves as well as others, in times of need. They must be able to administer first aid procedures, possibly conduct search and rescue missions plus evacuations on their own. They must acquire jungle survival skills to cope with instances when they are lost or stuck in the jungle for whatever reasons. Instructors and leader of the expedition are also humans and unfortunate things may also happen to us; be it injury, coma, death or otherwise. The participants are expected to have the ability to save our lives as well!

On top of strenuous physical training, there are a whole list of skills for participants to learn (rope skills, jungle survival, first aid, evacuation drill, map reading, contingency drills etc etc) and those instructors are expected to know their stuffs as well. They are not just some tag-along nannies; they are pretty much expected to be proficient in the above mentioned skills as well.

Thus I was surprised that 12 year old kids were allowed to take part in amountain climbing expedition to Mount Kinabalu! They would have failed the basic fundamental risk assessment of being unsuitable participants. They do not have the necessary physical and mental build to deal with any emergencies, least of all formulating any sort of tangible evacuation plan.

There are a list of outdoor activities with different risk levels and for 12 year old kids, they should not be involved in high risk or even medium risk outdoor activities. Risk level for outdoor activities depend on quite a number of factors which include, but are not limited to, the following:

1) Place of conduct. Is it under a controlled environment with easy access to main evacuation routes? Is it deep in the forest, high up the mountain?

2) Terrain. Is the terrain easy or tough? Water? Height? Rocky? Thick forestation? Generally speaking, terrain with water is considered medium to high risk. A 12 year old kid may know how to swim well in a controlled environment like a swimming pool but the risk factor will definitely be extremely higher when it comes to the sea, with uncontrollable natural forces like under currents. Physical strength will be vital for survival if the undercurrents are strong. Thus, age plays a very important role in risk assessment. Similarly, for steep mountain climbing, age will matter a lot because unlike simple flat terrain trekking, going up and down the ridges adds risk of falling to death or injury. Most 12 year old kids have not developed their body fully and the risk of falling off the trail gets higher.

It may look deceivingly easy and safe, but it is not.

3) Weather. Adverse weather has different impact on people of different ages. Young kids are more prone to slip and fall during wet weather.

4) Preparedness. Are participants well trained and prepared for the activity? Are the instructors well trained to deal with emergencies and contingencies?

I do not object to the idea of cultivating our young ones with outdoor activities. However, we must also select the appropriate activities for such cultivation, in accordance to the participants' physical and mental capabilities and development.

Even for my Ventures and Rovers scout troop which consisted of 17 to 18 years old JC students, we start right from the basics instead of jumping right into relatively higher risk mountain climbing expeditions. A progressive training process is planned, right from simple camp craft learning, rope skills, map reading, jungle survival, first aid, simple leisure camp, annual training camp, then towards training for mountain expedition...etc. This process may take up to 9 months.

For the instructors, we will have to do a complete recce of the site, meaning, we have to conduct our own climb along the route a few weeks before the actual climb. This must be done no matter how familiar we are with the mountain because the physical terrain may change drastically over a short period of time.

So if anyone tells me these 12 year old kids are suitable to climb Mount Kinabalu because they have gone through some 3 months of physical training, I say you must be either kidding or are insane.

This is what Mountain Climbing at Mt Kinabalu is all about

In my view, these 12 year old kids have neither the required physical and mental build, nor the necessary training to go for this mountain climbing expedition. They are only suitable for the low risk camping activity in controlled environment aka, a designated campsite.

If the idea is about "leadership training", there is no necessity to go for a mountain climbing expedition. In fact, mountain climbing does not provide much "leadership training" as compared to a properly conducted training camp in a designated campsite. It is through such training camps, with a higher level of difficulty, that we select the new generation of leaders to lead our scout troop. We do not identify or choose new leaders through mountain climbing expeditions.

The list of outdoor activities with different degree of risk levels are as follows:

Low Risk

Camping in school compound

Camping at designated campsites on Singapore mainland

Trekking along flat and less dense forested terrain, near to road access

Intermediate risk

Camping at campsites off Singapore mainland (outlying islands)

Camping on small hills

Trekking along slightly dense forested terrain with uphills and downhills, away from road access

Medium Risk

Canoeing at reservoirs

Swimming in lagoons with safety net

Camping overseas

Trekking along dense forested terrain deep in the forest

Mountain climbing of less than 500m in height taking less than 2 days 1 night

Medium High Risk

Canoeing along the Coast of small islands take less than half a day

Swimming in pools with waterfalls or rocky features

Mountain Climbing of less than 1500m not more than 3 days 2 nights

High Risk

Mountain climbing of height above 1500m taking more than 3 days 2 nights

Swimming in open sea with high waves

The dangerous Ferrata (see here about Ferrata routes) climb which the students are said to be climbing. The simplest Ferrata route includes the following:

1. Walk the Torque

This is a shorter and simpler version of the ferrata and can be completed leisurely within 2-3 hours. Length of route is only 430m. You will still get a taste of the ferrata and get to try out a few obstacles such as the 2 cable Monkey bridge, Tyrolean traverse and Balancing beam (you’ll get to do all these in the low’s peak circuit too!)

The number of days you spent in the wild will also increase your risk exponentially, mainly due to fatigue which will result in loss of focus and concentration of the mind. Age will also matter. For example, if you put a 12 year old kid to enroll in an activity which may be medium risk, the nature of risk may as a consequence of age become HIGH RISK instead. Thus it is only wise for planners to choose their activities carefully in accordance to the age of participants.

I do not think 12 year old kids are ready for any activity which is in the category of medium risk or above as we need to take into consideration that due to their age, the risk factor may just increase exponentially. In my view, they are only suitable for intermediate risk and below, which may be considered as medium to medium high risk to them already.

Thus you can see that to allow 12 year old kids to go for Mount Kinabalu climb is to put them on extremely high risk outdoor activity. Is it prudent for MOE to approve such an activity for Primary school kids?

I seriously wonder how MOE do their risk assessment. Are they totally ignorant of the multiplying effect of risk due to young age for such outdoor activities? Are they totally ignorant of the risk involved in mountain climbing? Height and gravity can kill! Not to mention rocky mountains! Are MOE so naive as to fully believe and rely on commercial information provided by tour agencies without doing their own due diligence by engaging independent experts and conducting its own set of assessments? Are MOE so silly to believe that 12 year old kids are fit to climb mountain when SAF only enlist males for National Service at a minimum age of 16?

MOE has the greatest responsibility as the gate keeper of safety for any excursions conducted by schools, especially Primary Schools. It owes its responsibility to the parents who entrusted them the lives of their children. It is ironic that as an education ministry, it doesn't understand the limitation of age and the need of progressive cultivation at all. Allowing students with unsuitable age to engage in high risk mountain climbing activity without any progressive training is totally irresponsible and unacceptable. That is totally insane.

Risk management is to mitigate or reduce risk. Even my 12 year old daughter understands that. But to send 12 year old kids to high risk mountain climbing expedition is not reducing risk but instead, exacerbating their risks to unacceptable levels!

I hope MOE will stop all these nonsense immediately. I would grudgingly agree to let students of 16 years old to engage in intermediate mountain climbing (I started my first mountain climbing at 16 as well) but for anyone younger than that, it is definitely a big no. Even for that age, a progressive training program should be put in place to prepare students for the climb.

For those who keep defending MOE or the school for such an act of insanity, think twice before you do say anything silly. Would you dare to try it out yourself or send your 12 year old kids for the Mount Kinablalu climb again? If yes, good luck to you. You will really need that.

Goh Meng Seng

This article first appeared on Singapore Alternatives on 10 June 2015. It is reproduced with permission.


Tanjong Katong Primary School has my full support for the Mount Kinabalu Program

The Mount Kinabalu tragedy: what are schoolchildren doing there?

Letter to the parents who lost their children in the Sabah earthquake