Firsthand: S'porean special needs climbers summit Mt Fuji after 12 weeks' training

"Even though it's tough and every step is difficult, we move on and we become stronger."

Julia Yee | October 15, 2023, 02:06 PM

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In the early hours of Aug. 26, 10 ambassadors from the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Special Needs Inclusive Challenge Team crested the peak of Mount Fuji in Japan.

It had been a gruelling 12-hour hike up the rugged trail. They’d stopped at the halfway mark for the night, before rousing at 3am to continue their climb.

Along the way, altitude sickness descended like the plague.

They had trained for 12 weeks straight, but headache and nausea weren't things you could stave off by flexing muscles.

Within the first couple of hours, one climber had vomited four times.

All this faded in the wake of their triumph, as the group ringed the crater on the mountain's crown, a hair’s breadth from the clouds above and miles away from the ground below.

Photo from YMCA

That was about a month ago.

Now, the ambassadors are back in Singapore, where the climate is familiar and the terrain more forgiving.

But that doesn’t stop them from reliving the thrill of the climb.


Every Saturday morning, friends with special needs from YMCA gather for a weekly hike.

These include youths aged 20 to 33 years old living with Down Syndrome, Global Developmental Delay, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Intellectual Disability.

They’re accompanied by family members, caretakers, and volunteers, who tag along for moral and physical support.

For YMCA youth support specialist, Alfredo, these regular walks are instrumental in helping the members hone their social skills and build confidence in a safe space.

"We formed the nature hike to support youth in reaching new heights, both literally and figuratively."

In the wake of the Mount Fuji conquest, I’m invited to join group's next, less arduous expedition — a 7km hike from Stadium MRT to the iconic Amber Beacon Tower at East Coast Park.

When I show up to the meeting point, the gang is already warming up.

They start off with some side reaches and lunges to loosen up their muscles, before transitioning to jumping jacks and squats.

It's a standard exercise, and the seasoned hikers slip naturally into each rep without much prompting from the leader.

Gif by Julia Yee

They do so standing in a tight circle, backlit by the glow of the morning sun.

The routine feels oddly intimate, from the outside looking in, and I'm afraid to intrude.

But one of them notices me and breaks away to strike up a conversation.

His name is Weng Siong, he tells me. He's one of the superstars who made it to the top of Mount Fuji.

He wears the title like a badge of honour, smoothly launching into a recollection of his feat.

“I was in front. I was the first to pass the finish line,” he preens.

I catch the underlying glint of pride in his voice and hear the unspoken message: You’re in the presence of a winner.

That’s until Alfredo chimes in: “What do you mean you were first? I crossed first to help you across.”

The jibe is savage, but executed in friendly jest, and I see nothing but brotherly affection in Alfredo's eyes as he pats Weng Siong on the back.

Photo by Alfie Kwa

“Oh yeah. Okay, you’re first,” Weng Siong admits sheepishly.

Everyone else around us breaks into laughter.

Alfredo shoots me a knowing smile. And I think, somehow, I’ve just been initiated into the group.


The hike itself is a quiet affair.

Besides the occasional murmurs of conversation between pairs, most embark on the walk in silent vigil.

"For me, it's to help him overcome the mental stress from day-to-day work and life. The hike itself has a very calming effect," says Lucy, the mother of an ambassador with Global Developmental Delay, Ek Jin.

Ambling along the track that winds through Gardens by the Bay East to Tanjong Rhu, a contemplative sort of solitude settles over the group.

Photo by Julia Yee

The trekkers are lost in their own thoughts, but the group keeps close together, each maybe one or two paces behind another. Uneven gaits fall into a complementary rhythm.

Suddenly, a call from up ahead drifts down the line: "Runners coming through!"

A bunch of runners come thundering past us, lifting their hands in friendly waves and shouting, “Good morning!”

It's palpable, how the YMCA group's spirit soars when they are recognised by others — saluted as equals on converging expeditions.

Gif by Julia Yee

We veer into the road along Keppel Marine East Desalination Plant and the cityscape gives way to a jungle.

I get what Lucy means about a "peaceful hike that quiets down the spirit".

Above the trees, the high-rise buildings still loom, and the critical eyes of the outside world remain.

But here, under the shade of the trees, where the sunlight filters through the leaves and casts dancing shadows on the hikers, they're free to be themselves without scrutiny.

Photo by Alfie Kwa

Moving on

We turn into East Coast Cycling Path and my stamina starts to falter.

"Are you not tired?" I ask George, one of the participants who's been walking beside me for a while.

"Nope," he answers brightly.

To the Mount Fuji climbers, this is child's play.

In the months leading up to their summit in Japan, the ambassadors pushed their limits each week by hiking at MacRitchie Reservoir.

On top of that, they'd scale 200 floors worth of steps while practicing breathing techniques for high altitudes.

"It's really amazing that none of our 10 ambassadors complained [during the Mount Fuji climb] about waking up at 3am. They just woke up, and [were] fast and ready, and within half and hour we were out there and ready to hike. None of them gave up because of pain or difficulties," Lucy informs me.

As we break for water under a sheltered canopy, I'm the only one bent over catching my breath.

For the climbers, no mountain — not even a 3,776m-tall one — is too great a feat.

Not with friends by their side.

Photo by Alfie Kwa

"I had to keep my pace slow and check on him [during our Mount Fuji climb]. Such experiences are for us to understand [our kids]," says Howard, the father of an ambassador with Down Syndrome, Ryan.

The most unbreakable of bonds are often forged from adventures like these.

Up on that mountain, the group only had one another to rely on, turning the 20 hours isolated from the rest of civilisation into precious heart-to-heart time.

It allowed parents, like Howard, a chance to strive towards a common goal alongside their kids and witness their fighting spirit.

"Giving up is really not on their minds at all. They want to move on and reach the summit. This is something I learned from them, they really don't give up easily," Lucy adds.

I see this same strength of will as we hit the home stretch on our hike to the tower.


We're on the last leg of our journey. The Amber Beacon Tower looms in the distance.

George has the perfect soundtrack for this home stretch: "Danza Kuduro".

You know, the song from that one "Fast and Furious" movie.

He plays it on repeat for the last half hour or so.

I don't understand the onslaught of Spanish words strung together in an eccentric melody, but the spirit is infectious.

Later, I look up the lyrics and realise they're a fitting accompaniment for our finale:

"Don't get tired now, because this is just the beginning... Who's gonna control the power that runs through your veins, and the heat of the sun inside you making you move?"

George and Weng Siong vibing to "Danza Kuduro". Gif by Julia Yee

Mount Fuji, in the grand scheme of things, isn't the biggest challenge in the lives of these ambassadors with special needs. It certainly won't be the last mountain that they'll have to climb.

But they won’t be climbing alone.

Photo from YMCA

“Step by step we went up, and we succeeded,” Lucy recounts.

It doesn't matter how long the climb is, nor how bad the hand of cards they've been dealt.

In the late morning of Sep. 23, 14 Singaporean hikers reached the top of Amber Beacon Tower in Singapore.

Photo by Alfie Kwa

I ask Ryan how he feels now. Was it like how he felt then — that moment when he reached the top of Mount Fuji?

He takes a while to respond, to the point where I’m thinking he probably won’t reply after all.

Then all of a sudden, his mouth breaks into a slow grin, and his answer comes, plain and simple:


To the young man, doing something with your friends and the euphoria you feel at the end are reason enough to endure the strain.

After all, reaching the top or crossing the finish line is easy — all you have to do is keep putting one leg in front of the other.

Which isn't difficult at all when you have people who care for you cheering on your every step.

Ryan and his dad Howard in Japan. Photo from YMCA

As for me, I’m slumped on the steps of the tower.

I’m tired, I’m sweaty, and my feet hurt.

But I understand exactly what he means.

@mothership.firsthand It wasn’t easy, but they did it anyway #tiktoksg #fyp #personswithdisability #mountfuji ♬ original sound - Firsthand

Top images from YMCA