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Conquering Mt. Kinabalu!

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

"Want to climb Mt. Kinabalu"? My friend Fook Meng asked. He loves mountains and had always wanted to climb Mt. Kinabalu. He had tried asking some of his peers but none could make it. His wife would not allow him to scale the mountain alone.

"Want to climb Mt. Kinabalu with me?" asked Fook Meng. "Sure!" I replied without giving much thought to it. Fook Meng was delighted. So was his wife, Linda.

On 12th March, Fook Meng and I took a plane to Sabah, East Malaysia, ready to conquer Mt. Kinabalu. We packed our backpacks with energy bars and spare batteries for our headlights. We had clothing for warm weather and thermal wear for sub-zero weather on the summit. We waterproofed our backpacks in case of rain on our way up. Insect repellent to ward off dengue carrying mosquitoes and sun-block and hiking hats to shield us from the scorching sun were essential. We had altitude sickness pills and ibuprofen to prevent migraine and band-aids just in case we got cuts or blisters. We even squeezed in some toilet paper rolls in case of emergencies. You name it, we had it. With all our gear ready, we felt well prepared for the climb. So we thought!

We were briefed that we will start from Pondok Timpohon: It is a 6km climb to Laban Rata, 3,272.7m above sea level. We will rest for the evening and at 2.30 am the next morning, we will make the final ascent to the peak. That's about another 2.8km from Laban Rata to Low's Peak at 4,095.2m above sea level. "Sounds manageable", I thought, "That's like a 8.8 km hike."

The view on the top.

I can't even claim that I am a novice climber as this is my first attempt to climb any real mountain. I have attempted Mt. Faber and Bukit Timah Hill. That's all I have under my belt. But Mt. Kinabalu is a different ball game all together. One that I later discovered was something I was ill prepared to walk into, or should I say climb up to!

Our guide told us, "We will take the first 2km as a warm up. That way, you can pace yourself for the climb." Sounds great. 500m into the ascent, I felt I had already climbed Bukit Timah Hill three times. "If the 500m is any indication of what the rest of the climb will be like, I am in deep trouble", I whispered to myself. It turned out that the first 500m wasn't representative of the rest of the climb. The rest of the climb was even tougher. Steeper slopes, rockier terrains, an endless uphill climb, and thin air. Soon came fatigue, leg cramps, pounding heartbeats that sent explosive echoes into my head. Vehement breathing and panting followed as if I was in labour. With each gruesome step I took, the backpack felt heavier and my legs felt like magnets glued to the ground. "Can I make it? Why am I even here?"

7 and a half hours after making our ascent, we arrived at Laban Rata. We made it. At our own pace. We were the last two to arrive. Hat's off to Fook Meng. Just the day before we left for Sabah, his physician has advised him against making the climb due to some health concerns. Against all odds, we made it. But I was not looking forward to the prospect of having to start the assault for the summit at 2.30 in the morning, pitch dark and freezing cold. Exhausted and spent, the 2.8km up to the summit seemed daunting. The thought of another 8.8 km down the mountain sent streams of anxieties up my throbbing temple and into my dead-beat heart. My two bone-wearied legs struggled to hold me up.

The guesthouse where we "rested" for the evening.

I gobbled down my dinner. Couldn't taste. Too exhausted. Had a quick cold shower. Went to bed at 7pm and hoping to regain some energy for the climb to the summit. But there were people walking in and out the 6 bedded dormitory. Loud chattering in the hallways. Doors opening and closing in other dormitories. People going up and down the stairs. I don't think I slept. Tossed and turned. Turned and tossed. My needed rest evaporated like a precious drop of water in the desert. Before long, others were waking up making preparations for the climb. Tired and sleep deprived, I wished I had an excuse not to make the final climb.

"Where are my glasses?" I couldn't find them in the dark. "Hmm, if I can't find my glasses, what is the use of climbing to the summit. I can't see anything anyway. A good sleep might be better than to brave the cold and drag my 1000 ton legs up the mountain." Oh, I felt something on my back. It was my glasses. No, I did not crush my glasses. How I wish my glasses were crushed. I had no excuse now. Reluctantly, I climbed down from the bunk bed, ate breakfast at 2am, found my guide, and soon we were on the climb again. "I miss my bed. I miss my wife. Why am I doing this to myself?" My thoughts ran as I was haunted by the question, "Do you want to climb Mt. Kinabalu with me?"

Once again, my guide briefed me. "This is the pace, some say it is very slow but my experience tells me that at this pace, most people make it to the top." I didn't care much about the pace. I just wanted to be able to go home. Step by step. Breath by breath. Heart pounding with each thud. Headlights flashing miles ahead. Discouraged. Headlights flashing miles behind me. Feeling discouraged for them.

"Why is everyone stopping?" I asked my guide. "Oh, can't you see? We are just 10m away from the summit. People are stopping to take photos." I looked at my watch. It was about 6.30am. I had been prodding away the past 4 hours, one step at a time, and I now am at the summit. And I didn't even realize it. I made it. I took a deep deep breath. I looked around. A mountain top experience! NO! Still pitch dark. But I took my photos too—just had to do the tourist thingy.

I sat at a distance from the signboard and waited for the sunrise. Thoughts now flooded my oxygen-deprived brain. Maybe this is what people meant by a mountaintop experience. Alone in my thoughts. Waiting for the sun to rise. Loud chatters and laughter seemed muffled as I drowned myself with conversations with myself. It was a very spiritual experience. And a voice said to me "Will you climb another mountain with ME? MY yoke is easy and MY burden is light. Throw away your unnecessary burdens. Embrace the new rhythm of light."

My climbing buddy Fook Meng.

Thank you, Fook Meng, for inviting me to climb Mt. Kinabalu with you. If not for you, I would not have climbed it.

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