THE HIGHEST POINT on Earth is an irregular slope measuring just three to four square meters in size. The air is thin, the temperature is freezing and the rocks are encased in a three-meter-thick covering of ice blanket. These are sights only seen first-hand by those who successfully reach the summit of Mount Everest, people like He Yulong.
He Yulong, who prefers to be called “Long” (the Chinese word for dragon) by his friends, joined the ranks of those who have successfully reached the “top of the world” in 2019. In Chinese culture, people are proud of being “descendants” of the dragon.
The 30-year-old is a board member of the Chinese Adventure Association and an extreme sports traveler who has participated in many rescue activities. A big part of his decision now is getting himself out of his comfort zone. Long is a rare example of people who challenge themselves to their limits, and yet are surprised to find that climbing to new personal heights in education can be equally if not more challenging.
Poring over notes and textbooks in the days before final exams, Long’s thoughts turned to his experiences only two years earlier. Reaching the summit of Everest, he was finally able to look around at the snow-covered peak covered with colorful flags. He raised another for his Chinese mountaineering team, but by now his palms were freezing.
“When I climbed the eighth highest mountain in the world, Manaslu (8,163m) in the Himalayas in 2018, I said in a video that I could die for my dream. But I changed my mind completely when I climbed Everest in 2019,” said Long.
“I thought about my responsibilities, especially as a Chinese, how family is a vital part of my life. If I had the misfortune to leave this world while taking part in extreme sports, then among the people in the world feeling the greatest pain must be my parents.”
He said he has come to realize that the most valuable climbing experience is the ordeal during ascent, when climbers try their best to make it to the top but remain committed to returning safely. “If those who reach the top are warriors, then those who retreat are people with wisdom,” he added. Such a non-extreme and rigorous attitude was also recognized by many friends at home and abroad in his expedition team.
LANGUAGES ARE KEY
Not long after reaching the summit of Everest, Long started planning his next five-year plan. He had decided to realize a personal goal of “7+2”, climbing the highest mountains on seven continents and hiking to the North and South Poles. He wanted to shoot a documentary about his experiences dedicated to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Unfortunately, those plans were stalled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But that setback was also a turning point for He’s life. He returned to school seven years after graduation in 2021, giving up substantial career development opportunities in mainland China.
“I have always believed that language determines one’s world outlook, so I came to Hong Kong Baptist University to study in an all-English environment and broaden my horizons while improving my language skills,” said Long, when asked why he decided to break out of his comfort zone on the mainland.
When he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 2014, Long was very interested in long-distance travel and had an ambitious plan to travel from Beijing to Africa by hiking and hitchhiking across the Eurasian continent. He spent eight months traveling to 12 countries, making friends with many people from different countries and cultural backgrounds. But the language barrier often meant he could only communicate with them through body language or by consulting an electronic dictionary.
“I had the desire to continue studying when I realized that only by overcoming the language barrier, could I chat with more foreign friends. I wanted to tell them more stories about Chinese culture, and at the same time, I could learn from their stories,” said Long. He added that he would devote himself to exploring the field of “we media” in the future where he would have more opportunities to communicate with younger generations from different countries, so a more diversified environment and better language skills are more important than the graduate degree.
For Long, everything under the pandemic still seems uncertain. But because of his climbing experience, he says he approaches life challenges with the same risk management he uses for outdoor sports. He says he needs to be aware of how much he is capable of, just as much as he must be aware of factors such as knowing the best window for climbing, and then he can plan for his next challenge in life.
“People always have a goal in life,” he said, “it can be money, it can be losing weight, it can also be Everest.”
THE CHINESE SPIRIT
Khai Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American who lives in the US state of California. He met Long on their 2019 expedition to Everest. They both joined the trip through Pioneer Adventure, a local Nepalese outfitter that organizes climbing expeditions to high mountains in the Himalayas such as K2, Lhotse and Everest.
Nguyen said his fellow climber Long is a solid athlete who is stronger because of his superior mentality. One of the most unforgettable moments Nguyen recalled was when he and Long were on the trek to the Everest Basecamp. The journey took several days of ascents to higher altitudes every day, stopping overnight at villages along the trek.
On the day they reached Tangboche at a height of 3,860m, Long and Nguyen visited the local monastery in the village. They found local monks and youths playing volleyball. For most people who live at sea level, just climbing to 3860m requires intense effort. While both men had experienced this kind of altitude before, it still takes time to adapt by not exerting much energy. But when Long saw the volleyball game underway, he joined in and played a few sets while Khai had to take it easy.
“It was impressive that a person from a place near sea level like Long was able to play like a professional, and play very well despite the altitude, and with an optimistic attitude during climbing,” said Nguyen. Both Long and Nguyen are driven by the beauty of the mountains and motivation to achieve the great challenge of climbing Everest.
“I also believe we both shared the common goal that is safe climbing and helping each other on the mountain. We shared our experiences on climbing or how to take care of ourselves and each other in the harshest environment such as Everest,” said Nguyen.
Years later, those values continue to play a positive role in Long’s life, inspiring him to make the right choices in the face of uncertainty. At the same time, more and more Chinese young people as well as Long share Chinese values and stories through their own narrative ways, so as to shape worldviews for people around the world.
Image at the top from Hendrik Terbek/ Flickr. All other images, copyright He Yulong