(That Thing I Do)

Mount Kinabalu: The Beast, The Beauty

Mount Kinabalu. Standing majestic at the far reaches of Sabah, Malaysia, it peaks beyond the clouds at 4,095 meters above sea level. What a beast ; and I was set to tame her.

Checklist before the climb:

  • Mountaineering jacket. Must be wind resistant. The wind is gonna be a bitch, and a really cold one. Count on it.
  • Head lamp. At 2.30am it tends to be pretty dark. It is possible to get by without one, if you stay close enough to people who have their own. Everybody generally has one of these, unless their batteries go dead.
  • Winter gloves. Water resistance recommended. Ever been dared to put your hand in a bucket of ice and see how long you can last? Don’t think it’s very comfortable? Yes, water resistance… water resistance is good for you.
  • Shoes with good grip. There’s a lot of rocky surfaces and they can get wet. In doubt? Get a pair of  Adidas Kampung at the park facilities before the climb, at RM10 per pair. These rubber shoes have some serious grip. It is recommended that you wear these without socks for best grip.
  • Source of quick energy, in large amounts. You may need the energy at some point. But more importantly, you may need the heat. Chocolate bars are perfect. Good excuse to gorge on Reese’s peanut butter bars.
  • Change of clothes. You will be staying overnight. Unless, of course, you’re a sky runner and can complete the entire hike up and down in less than 3 hours (you can’t, take my word for it).
  • Walking stick. Don’t bother spending on those fancy metal ones. You can get good ol’ fashioned sticks for RM3 at the park facilities. Useful on the hike up. Almost essential on the hike down. If you love your knees, that is. Also useful for fending off imaginary bears when nobody is looking.
  • Small water bottle. There are rest areas along the way where you can refill with “untreated water” (natural mountain water – hey it’s free mineral water!). There are also toilets and seating areas here. No  Touch ‘n Go reload facilities though.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen. Optional but recommended. There will be no clouds between you and the sun when you’re at the peak. The sun’s rays can get pretty harsh up there, even though it’s cold.
  • Paracetamol and altitude sickness meds. You may not need them, but if you do, these will be a life saver.
  • Camera. You will probably want something to show for all your efforts, other than a silly certificate.


Stair climbing – how hard could it be?

The first stretch of the adventure is the hike from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata (approx. 3,272 meters above sea level). The entire six kilometer stretch to Laban Rata was pretty much like climbing stairs. Didn’t seem like a big deal. At first.

Oh look, more stairs!

Half kilometer markers greeted me every, well, half kilometer. Strange though, that every half kilometer seemed to be longer than the one before it. Also, my bags seem to have gotten heavier as well. The beast was not new at wearing climbers down.

The “stairs” slowly fade away into the rocks

I kept moving. It wasn’t all that bad. It was just a long hike. With a heavy load. And I had to wake up early in the morning. No, it wasn’t that bad. Until I came down with  altitude sickness . Not everyone gets it. But I did. Every step I took was matched with a very uncomfortable thump in against the inner walls of my head. I still kept moving. The beast had to be tamed, by my own hands. Along the way, I was reminded why.

Love is in the mountain air

Love of the adventure. Love of the sport. And so, I kept moving. I kept moving…

Where did the stairs go?!

Six kilometers. It gets tedious. On the way up, I met people coming down from their hike to the summit. None of them had even a hint of disappointment or regret. Some of them reaffirmed me that it would all be worth it. I couldn’t see it. But I knew that when I hiked down the next day, it would be with the same expression on my face. And so my load felt lighter. Okay, maybe it’s because I decided to hand off one of my bags to my guide to carry when I was at the fourth kilometer marker, but that’s besides the point.

Oh joy, now it’s all just rocks…

After six hours, I finally arrived at Laban Rata, our resting point. I took two hours longer than what I think I should’ve taken, which I attribute to my altitude sickness and the awkward messenger bag that I fumbled with for most of the way before leaving it to my poor guide (who didn’t seem to have any difficulty with it).

The final stretch. It just gets tougher.

As I approached my lodge, I could barely appreciate the grand view. You could see all that you left behind, and you could see all that was waiting for you. The uneven surfaces wore deeply in every bone and muscle in my feet. As I labored through the last few steps before I could unload, the mountain served me a small taste of what awaited me at the next stretch; chilly winds were cheering me an enthusiastic welcome. For a moment, I felt nothing but the frigidness coursing through my body. That’s when I knew it wasn’t gonna get easier.

It was early evening, and our next stretch was to begin at 2.30am, so we could catch the sunrise at the peak. Until then, we had time to eat up and rest. It was so cold up there I had my mountaineering jacket on during dinner. The bright evening sun helped to warm the surface of my skin as I lapped up serving after serving of roast lamb, while enjoying the view and appreciating (read: enduring) the breeze.

As the sun made its retreat, so did I

After repacking my bag and preparing for the next stretch, I enjoyed the view for a few more minutes, and it was an early lights out for me. I needed the rest. The satisfying dinner, beautiful view and exhausting hike prepared me for a very effortless fall into the depths of sleep.

Evening twilight fills the sky as exhaustion overcomes my body

Second stretch of the adventure – the hike from Laban Rata to the peak. The beast awaits me. Bread was served for supper (breakfast?), with jam and peanut butter. I spread my bread lavishly with peanut butter. I needed the heat. Despite being indoors and wearing all my insulating gear, I was still freezing. The altitude sickness was also worsening. I couldn’t get hold of any medication. The beast had a good hold over me. It was an impossible task. Impossible! Impossible. Impossible? The beast has laid down a challenge. How could I do anything but accept? Here we go. Let’s not yield now.

Before embarking, we were told what lay ahead. I’ve come six kilometers so far; 2.7 kilometers to go. It’s not that far. Actually, yes it is. The first 700 meters would be a rockier and steeper version of the hike from the base to Laban Rata. The next 200 meters would be a rope-assisted ascent up steep rocky slopes. Then the rest of the way would be an easy hike up to the top. Easy is, of course, a relative term. Take a deep breath. Let’s do this.

The sounds of the gusting winds outside the lodge were disconcerting. The sounds almost convinced me that the lodge would collapse under the might of the beast’s gusty breath. The night was as black as black gets. Plenty of stars lit the sky, but we had only our head lamps to light our path. A painful beat was drumming in my head and it felt like my bones had been replaced with icicles. I began to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Too late for regrets.

As I headed out in the open, I moved as fast as my body could take me, in an attempt to generate enough heat to keep me mobile. However the headaches grew stronger. For the first time, it started to anger me, because apparently nobody else had such severe symptoms, if any at all. Despite the pain and frustration, I pushed on. It felt like I was bulldozing my way up, when in fact I was moving at a very modest pace. Fortunately my body was burning up all the peanut butter I had earlier. It wasn’t long though, before the frigid winds started to sap away all my strength. It wasn’t long before my steps were reduced to near-immobility. Every gust of wind worked in tandem with altitude sickness to render me paralyzed. Painfully, I literally inched my way between the merciless howls of the beast. There was plenty of time for regret. Most of the second stretch, I found myself asking why I paid good money to endure such extreme physical punishment. Desperate for heat and recuperation, I took long breaks to chew down on frozen bars of Snickers and Reese’s peanut butter bars. During this time, I wish I had saved my money for something more pleasurable. But the painful reality was, I was stuck and there was nowhere to go. If that wasn’t bad enough, the chocolate failed to keep me warm. And they were stiffened by the cold, as was I. There were even times I felt myself drifting out of consciousness, and I’d hope that it was all just a bad dream, and that I’d wake up in a warm bed at home. It was all real. I had to accept it.

Everyone was moving faster than I was. People ahead of me were disappearing from sight. People behind me were not behind me for long. For every other step that the others would take, I would slide my foot an inch, uphills. The beast was laughing, and it was laughing cold.

The sun rays disperse the cold winds

Low’s Peak – not very low at all

After many painful hours, the skies started to show some sign of light. The winds stopped blowing. I could finally take full steps. As the sun started to make its ascent, so my strength. In the distance, I could see people crowding at Low’s Peak. I stood still for a moment and told myself that’s where I’m headed. That’s where I’ll be. As the cloudy horizon started to light up with the majesty of morning, I turned around to take it all in. The was no more blasting cold to pin me down. I hadn’t made it to the very peak yet, but I knew this was it. I had made it. As I looked towards the horizon, I asked myself if it was worth it. The clouds looked up at me and told me the answer. After all, how often do you get to look down to the clouds? The horizon started glowing a glorious orange hue. It was a perfect reflection of the glow that was growing in my heart. The feeling of triumphing over the beast.

But it was not over yet. The peak was still up ahead, and my head was still throbbing with pain. The skies were bright enough for me to start enjoying putting my memories into frames, so I snapped away as I continued my leisurely hike to the peak.

The sun peeking from behind the mountain

The sun and I look down to the clouds

Me, posing with the rocks and the clouds

I sure came a long way for a whole lot of rock

Don’t rush the climb, enjoy the view and take it all in

You don’t have to be young and kickin’ to climb this rock

It isn’t everyday that you get to emerge far above the clouds

Top of the world (or, pretty close anyway)

South peak – not the highest point but still pretty damn high

As the sun rises higher, it starts to burn your skin despite the cold

Enjoying my fifteen seconds of celebration at Low’s Peak

Eventually I reached Low’s Peak. I had triumphed. Not just over the beast, but over myself. My doubt. My fears. My regret. My pain. I had triumphed. Mount Kinabalu. What a beauty .

My mountain guide is visibly bored

It’s a long way down

Was it worth it? No doubt. Will I come again? Maybe. But for now, it’s time to go home.

Thank you, please come again

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