I was sitting at work flicking through a magazine when I saw it, Mt Kinabalu. It hooked me immediately, and I knew with such conviction that I would climb this mountain. It took me about a month to sort out my flights, convince my friend Fiona that it would be a good idea and then a stressful week locking in two of the last spots to climb Mt Kinabalu, with a guide, on the weekend of the 28 February 2015. There was something about this mountain, a mixture of the fact that it was relatively easy to climb (low risk, high success rate), and that it metaphorically stood for something I needed at this moment in my life. A belief that I could achieve something, conquer something, that if I put my faith in one foot in front of the other, eventually it will lead me somewhere worthwhile.
I arrived in Kota Kinabalu, a developed beautiful coastal town of Malaysia, Borneo on Friday morning. For a long time I had thought of Borneo as one wild and rather dangerous jungle, full of malaria borne mosquitos and leeches. I hadn’t been prepared for its stunning beauty, it’s quite developed cities, how safe it was and its friendly people.
I checked into my hotel at around 10am and set forth to satisfy my hunger, having been airborne for the last 10 hours, I remembered that I was in Malaysia and so my mission was to find delicious Laksa in a food court. It didn’t take long for me to accomplish my first goal, for a cheap $3 I found myself in one of the most picturesque food courts and looking at a delicious bowl of seafood Tom Yum. It tasted as good as it looked, burned on the way down and melted my face like good asian food should.
Borneo is famous for its Orangutans, and with nearly a full day ahead of me I decided to visit the Shangri La Orangutan Sanctuary for orphaned orangutans in rehabilitation. They had two resident boys both of whom were 6 years old, and were simply a joy to watch.
Later that evening, Fi arrived and we set about eating our last decent meal before the big adventure the next morning.
We were picked up at 6:30am and drove an hour an a half from KK to the Timpohon Gate, we were excited and feeling fresh in our new hiking clothes. We met our guide, rented our 10RM walking sticks and set off!
The hike up was hard on my lungs, as I took each step and climbed each stair and rock I surprised myself at my own strength. Both physically and mentally. I was fitter than I remembered, and I had the will power and determination to get to the top.When I climbed Mt Warning 4 years ago I remember puffing and complaining the whole way up. What a different person I am now to the one I was before. Each step brought me closer to my goal. ‘I will climbed this mountain’ I told myself over and over again ‘I will climb this mountain’.
As the elevation changed it got harder, past 2800m I started to feel it in my lungs. My limbs needed more oxygen and more blood and my heart struggled to keep up. Although my limbs were not fatigued, I needed to stop to catch my breath. As we ascended the climate cooled and the beauty of our scenery increased. The landscape changed from thick rainforest, to mossy undergrowth to sparse yellow arid rocks. We climbed above the clouds and watched as they blew past us, almost as if we could reach them.
After 6 hours we had finally made it to base camp, at the sight of Laban Rata a grin burst from my face, we were above the clouds and had reached the mid way point. Fiona and I were complete exhausted and covered in sweat. We checked into our dormitory, took off our dirty clothes and baby wiped ourselves down (the showers were closed due to a lack of rain), then popped on the only other clothes we brought – warm hiking clothes for the early morning climb. They were perfect as the climate was much cooler at Laban Rata (3200m elevation) and having only one set of clothes meant our load was light the whole way up. Our shared dorm was relatively unheated so these would keep us warm as we slept as well.
Dinner seemed delicious given how ravenous we were, afterwards we went straight to bed. I had mild altitude sickness at this point, a sharp headache that was persisting. I was already disappointed with myself, once again my body was letting me down.
In the morning when we woke at around 2am I struggled to get out of bed. My headache was splitting and I was nauseas. Acute mountain sickness hit me. I looked at Fi, gutted as I wasn’t sure if I could make it. She looked a torn as the prospect of another 3 hours hiking wasn’t appealing and was happy to just go home having made it this far. But I wanted to go so badly, hadn’t I come all this way to conquer this mountain? Hadn’t I been so determined to do this? To take a photo of me at the summit? The dread sank in, I didn’t want to not achieve the things I set myself out to do, too often have I felt that I did this. Fiona got me a hot cup of water and dry toast to comfort me, “This will help make you feel better”, she said.
After chowing down the toast and hot water I felt much better and once I got on my feet and packed a light bag for the morning hike my headache and nausea subsided and I was ready. It was dark, we left closer to 3am, about a half hour later than everyone else. The day before I had wanted to summit for sunrise, but this morning my goals were much more humble, I simply just wanted to reach the summit.
It was dark and our head torches did a great job of leading the way. We climbed several flights of steep stairs before we got to the rock face where we needed to haul ourselves up with rope. Again, I was surprised at my own fitness, although my lungs and heart were feeling it. At this elevation everything became a struggle. The last 1km was the hardest I have ever done to date. When we got to the flat rock face on top of the mountain, it felt like walking up the concurrent travelator only without enough oxygen. I needed to stop and rest every 20 steps or so just to catch my breath.
As we saw the peak of the mountain, in the frame of our vision, I could see the sunrise to our right. It was spectacular. As we were above the clouds, the sunrise was crisp and clean and so vivid. In front of us we could see all the lights of those who had made it already, many of whom was already clambering to get the right photos to capture their achievement. Behind us were those, like us, who was still battling with their internal struggle and pulling on their will power to just get to the top. Fi at this point was so exasperated she told us all she wanted to just be a ‘mountain goat’ and live on the rock face, feeling that she could neither move up or down and happy to watch the sunrise from here. “No!”, I said to her “We didn’t climb all this was not to make the last few hundred meters, we will summit this mountain!”. I pushed on, letting her take her time knowing that she was tired.
By the time I got to the bottom of the “peak” (a little offshoot to the mountain that you scramble up to reach the summit) I felt a new surge of adrenaline. I rock scrambled up there, pausing every few steps as it got harder and harder, we were now at over 4,000m. About 3 metres from the top I stopped, I would wait for Fi to summit, we had both made the struggle together and we would have this moment together.
I was sitting at one of the highest points in South East Asia, who would have thought my one simple goal of climbing a mountain would come to fruition! I had only imagined this a few weeks ago and here I was sitting above the clouds. I started smiling, then grinning then crying, crying tears of happiness, I had made it! I had made it! And I had done this completely by myself. Fiona finally joined me, she was tired… But she had made it too! We waited for our turn to take a photo with the summit sign, and then it was done, we conquered Mt Kinabalu.
The wind was relentless at the rock face, my face burned, and it was cold, our windproof jackets then was a god send.We spent a good half hour sitting on the rock face admiring the view, catching our breath and trying to have the sun warm our cold tired bodies. But we soon realized that the sun could help whilst the bitter wind blew harshly over us, so we started the decent down.
The decent down was just as gruelling, 3 hours it took us to climb up and 3 hours it took us to climb down, back to Laban Rata, in parts half abseiling down the rock face. We reached Laban Rata at 9am for breakfast and some rest. We would need to decent to Timpohon Gate that day, something I think we both pushed out of our heads in complete denial.
At 10:30am we headed down with our guide. The climb down was long and hard. It strained our knees, ankles and feet. The rocks were uneven, every step was precarious and could leave you with a sprained ankle. Half way Fi’s knees gave up, but like the trooper she is she continued without much complaint. My ankles were aching and I had stubbed both my big toes, they were now painful little things in my shoes. The journey was made more pleasant by the conversations we had with some fellow climbers that we had met going up the previous day and had stay with in the same dorm. They were a group of 3, all professors in electronics about the age of my father.
It was close to 4pm by the time we reached Timpohon Gate, the entrance to the climb. “This is it”, I thought as I ascended the last 10 steps to get to the gate. I bought two cans of cold 100 plus and waited for Fi as she struggled up the last few metres, completely destroyed by our little adventure. She limped through with her dazzling smile and sense of humour in tact as she joked about being the ultimate granny. We laugh, swallowed our drinks whole and took one last photo.
We had done it, we climbed a mountain! No, we conquered it! It didn’t feel like it at the time, through all the pain, but it’s a memory I’m sure that will be with us for a while.
REGION: South East Asia, Island of Borneo
TOWN: Kota Kinabalu
MOUNTAIN: Mt. Kinabalu (4,095 m)
Flights: Flights from Brisbane stop via Kuala Lumpur (8hrs) then direct flights from KL to KK (2hrs 35mins) or Singapore (2hr 30mins)
Accommodation: KK has a selection of affordable hotels in the city and in Mt Kinabalu National Park. On Mt Kinabalu overnight stay is limited to Laban Rata Hostel (bunk beds and basics) or Pendant Hut (multi person or private 4 person bunk bed rooms). Dinner and breakfast is provided and accommodation is usually included in your climb package
Summer Weather: Warm and humid at sea level (25-25C), Cold and windy at summit (0-5C)
Costs: 2 Day 1 Night packages start from RM 815
Notes: It is possible to turn up to KK and book packages or a guide on the spot with local agencies, but make sure you pre-book for busy holiday seasons and also check the website for dates the park and climb is closed. Always check conditions before climbing and it is mandatory to have a guide and pass.