Mount Kinabalu: Back from touching the clouds
When the seven of us decided to scale Mount Kinabalu, Asia’s tallest mountain at 4098m high (even taller than Mount Fuji in Japan), I was skeptical. Two of my best friends, Mavis and Vivien, had done the climb 3-4 years ago and they loved it. I figured if they could, why couldn’t I, right? But I knew I had to get in shape, and my stamina was very bad; climbing up a fleet of stairs got me huffing and puffing. Plus, I’ve never had a gym membership in my life before; I only ran and did yoga. So six months before the climb, I signed up with Virgin Active in Singapore. And whipped my body into shape.
For a week, I rotate between high intensity interval training (HIIT) at their altitude studio, which supposedly mimics mountain elevation. Then I threw in yoga, working on the stairsmasters as well as running on the treadmill. On some weekends, I try to do some walks around Botanic Gardens or Macritche Reservoir.
By the time May 2017 approached, I was getting butterflies in my stomach. The night before my flight to Kota Kinabalu, I couldn’t sleep; both excitement and nervousness hit.
What if I don’t make it?
Last year, a few of us scaled Gunung Ledang, or Mount Ophir its name in English, and it was pretty tough. The part that scared me the most was scaling down huge boulders with just a rope, and I heard Mount Kinabalu had a section just like that.
Stay mentally strong, I tell myself. It’s always about pushing and challenging your mind over body.
Six of my friends flew in from Kuala Lumpur the morning of Friday, and I met them an hour after, from Singapore, where I’m currently based for work. So much love for my family.
Arlena, who was a Sabahan local got everything arranged for us, down to the villa we were staying at the foot, to the driver that would take us around. And our climbing expedition package was pretty affordable; we each paid about 900 ringgit Malaysia. Foreigners would have to fork out close to 2k, if I last remember. And the prices go up yearly.
So we drove to the chalet named Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, where we would be spending a night here, before making our way to Laban Rata guesthouse, located at the base of Mount Kinabalu. The accommodation was nice, and cosy. Food however, we noticed how everything was cooked with sugary base. Fried mihun was sweet. And the rice porridge was cooked with their local rice which doesn’t crumble softly.
Saturday morning, with spirits high, we started the walk before 10AM. Our luggage were left behind at the lodge, which we had already checked out.
So, a normal being takes about five to six hours to hike up to the base. Sherelyn was timing herself, and I was just trying to make it up in one piece. Two hours into the trek, while our phone still had signal, I got some messages. Matteo, whom I’m dating now, texted to see if I was okay, and that spurred me on. Then few minutes later, the crew checked in to say Jade’s tummy was acting up, so she and her hubby Omar will not continue the trek. My heart went to her, and hope it was nothing serious as she was not feeling well in Cambodia before Kota Kinabalu trip.
Once a while I would stop at the small rest stops along the way, and watched eagerly hungry critters like birds and squirrels scrounging for food. Then I’d continue on.
I had already split from the group: Sherelyn was already ahead of me, whilst Khye Lynn, Jade’s sister, was with Arlena and her fiance Andrew.
Another message came through our group chat; Andrew’s knees were getting fucked up, and they were slowly threading behind.
Time walking alone, proved to be quite a meditative process. A lot of things went through my mind, and I was pushing bad vibes away, creating space. The air got cooler, trees were so beautiful in different forms and fixtures, and clouds were just whizzing by.
The last two kilometres of the trek was very, very tough. There were large yellow boulders, slightly slippery too, so best you have on your hiking shoes. Then there were steps, steps, steps and more steps.
By the time I reached Laban Rata it was about 2pm, and my legs were so jelly. My glutes were screaming murder and I was super hungry. Sherelyn and I ordered hot milo (12 ringgit Malaysia a cuppa) and waited for the rest to join us.
When Khye Lynn strolled in, we cheered her on. Then came Arlena and Andrew. Andrew definitely couldn’t make the way up to the summit; he was wobbling so badly. Arlena, who had scaled Mount KK twice, was staying back to accompany Andrew.
We play futsal once a week! Andrew and Omar chimed in about their preparation for the climb. Me and Sherelyn had tsk tsk them because we knew they were so getting fucked.
Sherelyn stayed on, catching the sunset with a Polish climber, who later joined our group. I checked into my bunk bed and fell asleep after 6PM. We were to be awoken at 2AM for the midnight hike (of Sunday), but we woke up earlier to grab breakfast.
Pitch black, with my headlight and small backpack, I started the ascent with Sherelyn and Khye Lynn. Three girls out of 7 were going to make it! Wooden stairs were sturdy, leading the pathway to the stop. A huge group of climbers from Hong Kong were right behind us, so I definitely wanted to trek faster.
Then Khye Lynn stopped to say she couldn’t breathe properly. This was what I was afraid of: altitude sickness. I had taken two pills the night before as a pre-measure. Our guide stopped and accompanied her, then we started to move.
By the time I was gaining momentum, I was on my own again. And I can tell you, the air got very very thin, the winds were furious and the stars were twinkling as if telling us, go on, go on! I was getting very, very cold. My layers were not thick enough; I had a base layer over a sports bra, a normal shirt, followed by a heat jacket from Northface, but still it wasn’t thick enough. It felt at least 2-4 degrees up there!
At all times, you must wear your lanyard with your registration details on you. I had lost mine, and someone picked it up and left it at the guesthouse, bless them! By the time I got to the Sayat-Sayat checkpoint, I knew I was just a few kilometres up nearby.
You see, the climb before that Sayat-Sayat checkpoint, where there’s a man in a booth taking down your details as headcount, was crazyyyyyy. You’d think rock climbing at Gunung Ledang was tough? This was tougher. I had to use whatever core strength I had left, to pull myself up. My arms were shaking, and my legs were already on auto-pilot. There was no safety rope, and I really didn’t want to look behind me; the sun was slowly peeking, and dawn was setting in.
After Sayat-Sayat, my guide and Khye Lynn decided to trek back; the poor girl had already popped four Panadols but her headache wouldn’t go away, and we couldn’t risk it.
Now it was just up to me and Sherelyn.
There were already a few climbers before me, so I walked with them. Sometimes I’d stop and sat close by, to catch up on my breath. Then I’d continued on. Truthfully, I didn’t know which direction but there were ropes and white markers on the ground so that was helpful. It was steep, but after a while you could walk upwards without the aid of a rope.
And boy, how she was beautiful. The sun slowly unraveled herself, casting orange-goey soft colours over the dreamy clouds. I looked back about 5.30AM onwards to soak in the moment.
The formation under my feet was something out of the movies; rocks carved out with sleek lines, like I was walking on the moon or another alien planet altogether. Little mountain flowers grown out of creeks. Small rocks rolled down. I felt contented. I was overwhelmed. Then I started to tear while singing, ‘keep on swimming, keep on swimming.’
By the time I got to the summit, the sun had rose after 6AM. I saw Sherelyn climbing down and she joined me for some photos.
Momentous! We made it!
We hugged each other tightly, lingered on a little bit, then started making our way down. We had to trek all the way back to the foot where the lodge was, as the weather was not going to be kind with us. So we got to Laban Rata, but without some hesitation; you see, by now you’d be able to see everything in full view, how the rocks were 45 degrees slanting and that you’d have to descend downwards now. Our guide met us before Sayat-Sayat and really guide us down.
When we got to Laban Rata, we only had an hour’s of rest, packed up our things (we didn’t shower because it was too bloody cold, thanks Dettol wet wipes!), and slowly trekked back.
This was the HARDEST. Our body was almost regressing; it was giving up. Arlena had some magic pills she used on her patients (she’s a dentist, so she gave all of us one each). Within 10minutes my eyesight got brighter and I felt light; I was flying all the way down to the foot. Sure my legs hurt but it seemed to hurt less, and the faster we got, we could reach earlier. All of us made it down, all in dire pain, and Sherelyn joined after.
The driver picked us up and 7 of us met again, greeted with joy! It was another 2 hours on the road as we slept all the way to our next destination, Borneo Beach Villa, where we stayed for a night to catch the Harvest Festival and treat ourselves at the beach after a tumultuous climb.
Lovely villa and view! The beach was clean, and we laid on the sand, just basking. It was a pretty secluded area so we didn’t get any of the touristy nonsense. We’d definitely recommend this villa for a nice getaway.
The Harvest Festival was so interesting! There were homes hoisted on wooden stilts (which we call kampung homes in our local language), and people jumping on makeshift mats that were used back in the days for harvesting rice. The festival also hosted a bazaar at the cultural center, so we got to try some local wine which was predominantly used for cooking, but we drank it like the city people we are. Of course I got so shitfaced just drinking 1/4 of the bottle, I was already sleeping in our Uber back to our hotel in the city (we had checked out of the beach villa then).
By Tuesday it was time for us to bid goodbye to Kota Kinabalu, or Jesselton, the name of the city it was given by the British government. Everyone was very friendly and nice to us; and the local food was very yummy, provided if you know where to go. The seafood, divine and fresh! I could have had more!
It’s true the beaches of Sabah have plenty to offer, and I do want to return again for some of the memorable spots. I was also humbled by my experience atop Mount Kinabalu, as one once said to me, it wasn’t about conquering the mountain, it’s about the humbling experience you get respecting it. I couldn’t agree more.
Perhaps Annapurna Base Camp, Mount Fuji and Rinjani next?