… like mad from the previous day’s climb, I woke up groggy and slightly disoriented at 1am, 3,272 metres above sea level.
Outside the Pendant Hut, the wind was howling and the pre-morning chill cut to the bone. The circumstances seemed daunting but my spirit was high as I prepped to head for the summit of Mt Kinabalu – in the pitch dark.
You wonder why one would brave such conditions voluntarily but I was convinced the effort was worth it once I tackled all odds to reach the peak of the 4,085m mountain, located in the provincial capital of Malaysia’s Sabah province on Borneo Island.
Mountaineers have started to grope about in the blackness of the night, each depending on just one feeble source of light from their headlamps.
I took out a chemoluminescent glow stick from my backpack and gave it to Apson Osmund Gudin, one of the local Kadazan guides.
He looked like he had never seen one before. “What is this?” he asked.
I told him that it will produce a neon glow before slowly extinguishing in about 6 hours.
“How much is it?” He asked again.
“About one dollar.” I replied.
He nodded and seemed satisfied with the answer. He smiled, his teeth reflecting the green light from his new glow stick. Green was the brightest stick I had and I reckoned he needed it more, being the shepherd of so many aspiring alpinists.
The trip to the summit was no walk in the park, as it called for a fitness level well beyond what it took to explore the other attractions in this tropical paradise. A day before, we lumbered around in the Treetop Canopy Walk, soaked our feet at the Poring Hot Springs, and burnt roughly the same amount of calories as watching paint dry.
That said, Mt Kinabalu is widely regarded as one of the world’s most accessible peaks, as no specialised climbing skills are required.
This was how our tour guide, Wong Yu Hann, put it: “Very simple, just like going for shopping, even shopping is harder than this”.
I would, however, say it was a Trek-and-Scramble style of a climb done in two stages, the second being more challenging than the first.
The first stage is The Trek, which starts out fairly easy from the Timpohon Gate of Kinabalu Park, with the Carson’s waterfall ushering us into the sights and smells of the rainforest.
Our watches pointed to 9am when we took our first steps forward, and we made it to the first major rest stop – Layang Layang power station – at around lunchtime.
After a break to eat, it was a much more taxing journey to the day’s final destination of Laban Rata, with trekkers leaving the rainforest behind and entering an area of stunted trees, strange shrubs and white mists.
At one point, I wondered to myself, “God, is that you in the swirling mist?”
Still, the eye-catching landscape surrounding the villages of Bundu Tuhan and Kundasang below was generally visible.
The memorable views made it worthwhile to take periodic breathers, but I was really using that to conceal the fact that I was out of wind and panting like a dog.
En route, I made new mountainous friends – an unidentifiable black bug on my right arm, and a furry squirrel with a funny long snout.
At 2634 metres above sea level, I sent a Tweet via text: “Inching nearer to the clouds. Twittering with one hand, feebly grabbing walking stick with other. Up, up, and away!”
I arrived at the Laban Rata camp at 3pm. The camp was Mt Kinabalu’s only accomodation, managed by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges. At this point, all I wanted was to lie down.
And lie down I did, until the wee hours of the next day. And here was when The Scramble begins, at 1am.
The post-midnight departure was so that climbers reach the peak in time to enjoy the panoramic view in all its early-morning glory.
After donning cold weather gear and downing a makeshift breakfast of ginger tea with a peanut butter sandwich, it was time to face the dark, the chill and the steep inclines ahead.
Climbing on wooden steps built above rocks and thick scrub, I had to navigate the track using my hands for balance, rather like a full-body scramble.
After some time, the scrub gave way to open rockface, which marks the onset of the most exhausting part of the journey.
The Sayat-Sayat checkpoint appeared after two hours of scrambling. Paperwork was inspected, attendance was taken, and water bottles were refilled.
The last push from Sayat-Sayat to Low’s Peak only takes about an hour. Yet, this was the part of the climb where many people gave up. 9 out of 19 people of my group got worn out by fatigue and turned back.
But the mountain’s outline loomed ahead and it all looked a bit less overwhelming. The white rope that led the way to Low’s Peak began here and I had to literally pull myself up parts of the treacherous rockface.
The heart raced, a minor headache throbbed. Rests after every two-dozen steps became a necessity.
We were advised to take it slow in the early going to warm up and ease into the climb, but I didn’t want to miss a second of the sunrise. I chanted the Johnnie Walker campaign tagline to myself, “Keep walking”. The lack of oxygen nearing the summit strangely exhilarated me. The thinning air at that altitude gave me a natural high.
The trail gradually became less clearly marked out. It was now all about clambering up the sheer rockface, keeping a tight grip on the rope and approaching the tricky sections carefully.
It was frustrating. With every crest on the last push, I thought I was near the top, but then there was another long uphill ahead. It was tempting to give up to sit and sulk, but the majestic Low’s Peak was in plain sight, albeit a thousand steps upwards.
Like silent sentinels, we trooped up while the mountain granite sparkled underneath our feet in the light of a full moon.
Then, laboriously and suddenly, at around 6am, the distinctive triangle of Low’s Peak was within reach.
With the sun just rising at dawn and the sky lightening with every minute, the views in all directions were breathtaking: to the South Peak, Donkey’s Ears in the east, and St John’s Peak in the west.
We were rewarded with a stunning orange glow of the sun. It was truly magical and I felt a great sense of elevation and achievement.
The clouds stretched as far as the eye can see over the Sabah horizon. It was the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, nothing short of spectacular.
Unforgettable was one way to describe it, but really, there were no words. I was rendered speechless by the magnificence in front of my eyes.
Yes, I have finally conquered the dizzying heights of Mt Kinabalu. It was a conquest of pure Paradise.
Anthonius Gitom, another friendly mountain guide, grabbed my camera off my weary shoulders and began aiming the lens at various angles of the paradise we stood on.
I leannt that one can never ever conquer the great outdoors, because one by oneself is simply too insignificant.
This was my first mountain and definitely won’t be my last.
“Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”