Mountain-climbing can be an amazing or a nightmarish experience, depending on the person. Being naturally clumsy and having an aversion to exercise (although blessed with good metabolism), I had long tended to subscribe to the latter view.
Strangely, however, when presented with the opportunity to scale Borneo’s tallest mountain, I jumped at the chance. If there was any peak with the power to make me a believer, it would have to be Mount Kinabalu.
Known as Gunung Kinabalu in Malay, it stands a daunting 13,435 feet – that’s 4,095 metres – above sea level. The national park which shares its name is home to almost 5,000 species of plants, birds and mammals and has been listed by Unesco as a World Heritage site.
The locals believe it is a sacred place and that when a person dies, his or her spirit floats to the top of the mountain. Previously, every time a climb was made, a chicken would have to be sacrificed at the summit to appease the gods. These days, hundreds of treks are made to the top daily, so the ceremony is only performed on an annual basis.
Mount Kinabalu’s steep, rocky slopes have made it the ultimate challenge, bringing both amateur and veteran climbers to Borneo’s Crocker Range.
The experience certainly sounded like a major adrenaline rush and never having climbed a mountain before I was determined to give it my all. But when I arrived at Timpohon Gate, where the 8.72km trek begins, my initial enthusiasm began to wane. It was bitterly cold and each time I exhaled my breath lingered visibly in the air. Wouldn’t it be better to hand back that natty head-lamp and return to the safety of my cabin at the base of the mountain?
Travel books and blogs had suggested starting regular cardio and stair-climbing exercises two months in advance of any ascent. I was positive that I was by no means fit enough to endure such an exhausting trek and the extreme altitude sickness for which Kinabalu is infamous. I was certainly setting myself up for failure, I decided. So, over breakfast, I adamantly stated to the other members of my party that I wasn’t going to go through with it.
And if it hadn’t been for my travelling companion, the 57-year-old travel editor of another newspaper, I probably would have turned back then and there. If I can do it, he told me; you can definitely do it. And afterwards you’ll be so proud of yourself, he reasoned.
So we set off on what was to be a two-day journey. The first leg was a six-kilometre ascent to the Laban Rata resthouse, Mt Kinabalu’s only heated accommodation. Offering hot meals and showers, it’s a sanctuary for weary climbers, a pitstop where one prepares for the final heave to the summit, a gruelling 2.72 kilometres.
The hike to Laban Rata usually takes around six hours, we were told. But on that particular day it was going to take a good deal longer. A heavy shower, two kilometres in, quickly turned into a relentless downpour. I was thankful for my rain poncho and waterproof gloves. The rocks became slippery and it was almost impossible to see through the mist ahead. We soldiered on, braving the elements, and were always grateful to reach one of the shelters spaced at one-kilometre intervals along our route.
The modest lunch of sandwich, hard-boiled egg and chicken drumstick tasted like a Michelin-star meal. At rest stops we met hikers from all over the world – Singapore, Hong Kong, New York. And since there’s a signal-relay tower on Kinabalu, climbers were able to use their mobile phones; I saw many chatting on their Blackberrys or taking texting breaks along the way.
Our guide was unbelievable. Twice my age – and a smoker to boot – he was showing me up in stamina. Later he revealed that he’d already done this climb hundreds of times. He’s been scaling the mountain at least twice a week, every week, for the past 10 years!
Dozens of porters – women as well as men – could also be seen negotiating the trail at lightning speed. They carry as much as 30 kilogrammes of supplies on their backs, their loads attached to a strap which snakes around their foreheads. Sore knees and the unending rain were making my mood increasingly crabby, but I knew that what I was going through was nothing in comparison to their lot.
Finally, after about eight hours of climbing, we reached Laban Rata. I was able to kick off my wet shoes and socks and trade them for comfy slippers and a bathrobe provided by the resthouse. We didn’t have long to savour our arrival, though, as it was soon time to head for bed.
At 2.30am, wearing head-lamps and thick sweaters, we left Laban Rata and headed for the summit. The terrain was much more challenging, primarily stretches of naked granite, so for much of the way we had to pull ourselves up using ropes. Breathing became more and more difficult the higher I rose. Clutching the rope, I saw climbers below me panting, their cheeks alarmingly red. I even heard a few throwing up; some people are more adversely affected by the high altitude than others.
Worried that I, too, might succumb, I took things slowly. So I didn’t quite catch the sunset at Low’s Peak, but that didn’t matter. The view from the top was spectacular: a panorama of lush tropical forest interrupted only by an occasional track or human settlement; a scene worthy of the attentions of a landscape artist.
More pleasing than all this natural beauty, however, was my satisfaction at having accomplished such an intensely physical feat.
But the Mt Kinabalu expedition should – in my humble layperson’s opinion – be extended to three days. While I was in Sabah I spoke to many other climbers who’d tackled this ascent and they all felt the same way. For, after making that difficult 2.72km climb to the top on the second day, one then has to negotiate the treacherous trail all the way to the bottom – meaning over 11 kilometres in one day.
The descent is made a bit easier if one has a walking stick to lean on. These can be purchased at the base of the mountain for three ringgit (29 baht) or at the Laban Rata resthouse for M$10. I’d strongly recommend buying one, especially for the return leg – which many people find a lot more difficult than the climb up.
By the time I reached Timpohon Gate again, I was praying for death, or at least a piggyback ride for the next few days. It was then that I finally understood a joke I’d been told about the nearby city of Kota Kinabalu being inhabited by zombies. If you see a tourist walking slowly along the street in KK, stiffly erect, his arms held out in front of him, you’re probably looking at someone who’s recently conquered Mount Kinabalu!
My journalist companion – who didn’t quite make it to the top – wants to try the ascent again at some future point. He’s started a daily regimen of jogging since his return, whereas I’ve reverted to stuffing myself with pad thai and potato crisps.
But now that I can truthfully claim to have climbed a mountain, I’m not sure that I’d ever do it again. I wish I’d had more opportunities to look at the flora and fauna along the the trail, but the inclement weather nearly made that impossible.
Still, the satisfaction of reaching the top was incomparable. During the climb I may have spewed my share of curse words. But now, at a distance, I can say that Mount Kinabalu was definitely worth the trouble.