I'm writing this after knowing that Raleigh International Trust, the charity that has placed over 55,000 young people from over 100 countries in international sustainable development programmes since 1978, has ceased operations, as of 19 May 2022. This is a personal sharing of my 10-week Raleigh expedition to Chile in 1998, and the powerful leadership lesson I learnt in the mountains as a 20-something city girl.
Update: Raleigh International was acquired by Impact Travel Group in July 2023 and resurrected.
I can safely say that Raleigh changed my life. And this was even before I set foot on Chile, where I had my expedition in 1998. You see, I was a studious, indoors kinda girl who sang in school choirs from primary school to junior college. The only sport I played was basketball – and I found all excuses not to run – hated it. I didn’t join any outdoor adventure group and knew nothing about knots, making a fire or surviving in the wild.
But one day (my memory is hazy, but I believe I was slacking off during PE) in my JC 2 year, my PE teacher Ms Naomi Tan sat down to chat with me. That was when magic happened: she told me about her trip to Zimbabwe with Raleigh International. Suddenly, something clicked. I don’t know why, but I seized upon this idea like it would save my life. Immediately I saw myself going for a Raleigh expedition, roughing it out.
Fixated on the idea, I spent the next 4 years in university prepping for that day. I joined the Sports Club, took part in its famously gruelling camps, played multiple sports, and swam a lot. Of course, in hindsight, these did little to prepare me for what was ahead. In 1998, after enduring a 48-hour selection weekend in Singapore, I prepared myself for 10 weeks in Chile.
Of course, I didn’t prepare myself enough. The first week of the “adventure” phase when we had to haul 20kg packs of supplies up to our base camp or trudge for hours in deep snow and crossing rivers (and slipping in them too often) completely sent this city girl’s body into shock. My period came twice during this time. So much physical stress. I did not know that something could be THIS tough.
Gradually I adapted. I still struggled up the scree slope, but after I got blown off the slope by a sudden gust of wind and was slammed into the scree, I managed to get up, shakily retrieve my glasses and continued walking. So there.
Once, I cooked for the group while in a hailstorm. The ice rained down on us as we tried to get precious dinner going. We hunkered over the pot desperate to MAKE SOME FOOD in the whiteout hell. To keep the lid from flying off, we put a rock on it, which promptly dropped into the pot, which we fished out comically and continued our cooking, watching over the pot like a hawk – a miserable, wet, battered hawk.
I spent my 23rd birthday there in the Chilean mountains. That day, we had spent hours scrambling two steps up and three steps down a scree slope. Another venturer, who was struggling, asked if “we” should give up. It seemed hopeless to him. I shouted back “NO!”, tucked my chin down and soldiered on, a determined little Asian girl marching, maybe swaying a little, with a pack towering over her head.
The pain was all worth it. Once we cleared the scree slope, we were greeted by a vista of endless pristine snow. We set up camp next to a glacier; that night in my bivvy bag, as I listened to parts of the glacier breaking off and crashing into the void, I told myself, this would be the most incredible birthday I’ll ever have.
As our three weeks in the mountains neared its end, I began to feel frustrated that we had YET to make a snowhole. I saw it on the Raleigh website. No. No. No. There was no way I was going down the mountain without making one. But everyone else seemed uninterested. It had been a rather intensive 2.5 weeks. They just wanted to cruise and go back to HQ. I asked the staff with us – what can we do? I was desperate to get my SNOWHOLE! One of them told me – well, it looks like you’ll have to figure out how you can motivate them. This, I have to say, would be one of the greatest leadership lesson I learnt.
How can we persuade others to do something so unpleasant in the short term yet could be beneficial for them in the long run? How can I get my “troops” to fight a battle that seemed irrelevant to them? I mustered all my negotiation and people skills. I spent a few days selling the “vision” of being in a snow hole. I exhausted all the ethos, pathos and logos aspects of a good argument and finally secured a group consensus. WE WILL GO!
During the 8 hours of digging (yes that’s how long it took for more than 10 of us), I received more than an earful from them. People hated on me. But I could see why: it WAS miserable out there. We were on our knees chipping away, digging tunnels into the snowbank, sweat boiling inside our Goretex jackets.
Empathy aside, I gritted my teeth and kept my humour about me. Come on guys, we can do it, I cajoled them on. In the end, WE DID DO IT! We made a split-level snowhole big enough for all of us! It was incredible to see the vision completed.
I was so ready to hit the sack that evening as we crawled into our bivvy bags, huddled like sardines in a condo duplex. Then, nature came a-calling. Sighing, I made my way out of the snow hole, removing bags in the way, muttering apologies to those I was crawling over. As I emerged to answer nature’s call, a howling wind greeted me. But all I felt, in that sub-zero night, was a great warmth radiating from my heart. (No, I didn’t piss on myself.) I could have been Princess Elsa - singing an epic song on a frozen mountain.
There were so many other unforgettable moments from the rest of the expedition – including impaling myself with an ice axe and getting three stitches in the wild. But the first 3 weeks were the most lifechanging ones. I was stretched beyond my wildest imagination, and I experienced indescribable physical and mental torture – all so new to this city girl. Yet, I was euphoric. I had discovered the joy of the mountains and the excitement of the unknown and had seen how strong I could be as a person. In 3 weeks, I gained self-confidence far beyond my years. Importantly, I got to know other Singaporeans who were way way madder than me. They have become my Raleigh family who have taught me so much and shown me that being "abnormal" is normal, that we have choices, and that there is more OUT THERE to be discovered.
In my 30s, when faced with a devastating divorce, I drew upon all this self-belief and grit forged in my early 20s (as well as my Raleigh fam) for strength. This too, like the worst hail storm, shall pass. You will be okay.
So thank you Raleigh. I will miss you.