I made it! There I was atop Low’s Peak on Mount Kinabalu. I’d had more than a few doubtful moments fraught with chill, exhaustion and disorientation, but finally, after an arduous two-day climb, came absolute exhilaration. I stood amid the clouds of Borneo.
At 4,101 meters, Gunung Kinabalu is the highest mountain in southeast Asia, yet it presents a rare opportunity for the beginner climber. It is a tough, steep climb but requires no special skills or equipment. Anyone possessing the stamina and will to make it to the top will likely get there.
After living in Malaysia for six months as a volunteer with Canadian Crossroads International, I had the opportunity to travel around the region, and the island of Borneo was high on my list. It is an island full of wonders. For nature enthusiasts, Kinabalu National Park is a bit of paradise on the coast of Sabah, East Malaysia.
Once in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital, I went to the Sabah Parks Office where it was straight forward to reserve rooms, hire the mandatory guide, and purchase my bus ticket to Ranau, the gateway to the park. Cost was truly not a major concern for this excursion. Once in Sabah I spent less than RM$150 (C$60; US$40) for fees, accommodations, meals and transportation.
I left KK early in the morning and arrived at the park two-and-a-half hours later with the day ahead to enjoy the sights before the big climb the next day.
Gunung Kinabalu is a clean and tastefully developed retreat. There was nothing unpleasant to distract me from the excited buzz among the visitors. The sight of the giant rocky peak, ringed with plumes of white clouds, gave me a rush and made me feel like I was among the Everest league of climbers . . . a little delusion is good for the ego every now and then.
I had booked into a hostel, which gave me the chance to mingle with others who were making the climb and firm up in my mind that I was indeed prepared and ready to go. I roomed with nine other climbers: a group of Malay high-schoolers on a break, a taut and sinewy German couple, and three other singles. We all had mixed expectations as to what the mountain may hold for us.
To strengthen my confidence and feed my growing anticipation I attended a slide show in the administration building that afternoon. It was definitely worth watching. I had no idea there was such a wealth and diversity of flora and fauna in the park.
The next morning my Kadazan guide, Mikel, met me with gentle, reassuring smiles as we boarded the bus to the power station where the trail began. I had asked Mikel to lag a bit behind so I could enjoy the solitude of the climb, and focus on my labored asthmatic breathing. He was willing and glad to be able to light up a cigarette as he strolled effortlessly up behind me, always just out of sight.
Several times I was flabbergasted to see old, withered, native women near sprinting past me with propane tanks mounted on their backs. I felt pathetic, but still determined, I took it on one step at a time. The rest stops were well spaced and appeared each time I felt as though I couldn’t go on. The few moments seated with other tuckered climbers proved to be revitalizing social interludes to the long haul. The trail up the mountain extended from lush tropical rainforest through gnarled montane oak, wispy alpine meadow, and right up past the tree line to sheer rock face.
About two-thirds of the way up and about an hour behind the rest of the crowd, I spied Laban Rata Resthouse. It was like water for a desert thirst. I had a late lunch, and collapsed into a cold damp bed.
To reach the peak before sunrise, guides awakened their charges at 1:30am. After a bizarre breakfast of half-cooked egg and noodles, we all clambered out onto the icy rock face and stumbled onward in the dark like lost sheep. Without Mikel, it would have been intimidating to manage the ladders and ropes. A long single file of faceless voices struggled upwards step by breathless step. Some fell prey to altitude sickness and had to turn back. But even with asthma, I held on for the final reward: to see the first rays of morning glimmer like golden champagne fizz upon the clouds below.
Next, the requisite picture at the summit, then a fast, knee-shaking descent clinging to fixed, icy ropes. Improvised sock-gloves were my only protection from hand-numbing cold.
At the bottom, just before heading to soak my tired and spent body in the natural sulfur hot springs at Poring, I stopped to collect my certificate – otherwise no one would believe I’d made it to the top. Yes! I had done it. Look out Everest! Here I come.