On a weekend in February 2020 I set off for my first mountain climbing experience in Sabah, Malaysia. In a group of five we hiked from the steamy rainforest to the foggy wetlands to the summit of Mount Kinabalu at 4095 meters.
While we were hiking through one of the most extraordinary environments, my mind was roaming freely. Coming from Singapore’s Central Business District and suddenly being immersed in nature felt like pure relief. The hike made me rediscover powers of nature and reminded me why it’s essential to seek places where we can disconnect and truly be ourselves.
Here are six lessons I learned from climbing Kinabalu.
1. It’s about people
Thinking of my Kinabalu experience, what comes to my mind at first are the people I hiked with.
There was Chen; a German engineer three months in his Sabbatical. Most of the time we were hiking together as our group of five had split into two parts. When we were wandering through the rainforest, marveling at exotic plants we were pretty much chatting all the time. About his Sabbatical, recent adventures, my experience in Singapore, an electronic festival he had organized. Everything that crossed our mind. I really enjoyed his company and his stories.
Later on when it got exhausting, we were sharing this experience. Struggling together, complaining and also motivating each other. I remember a time we were pausing and grasping for air, he was like “this is not something I wanna do every weekend.” And I replied “if my final exams would have been physical, it would have been Kinabalu..”
Then there was Yook. My Singaporean roomie who made this trip so much sweeter only because of his laugh. Yook has the most contagious laugh I’ve heard in my life. Every time he was laughing I immediately started laughing as well.
The whole experience was precious itself, but sharing it with people made it memorable. They make the sweet times more beautiful and the difficult times easier to bear.
2. It’s the quest for intense emotions
The mountain climber Reinhold Messner once claimed the quest for an intense life and emotions as the reason we’re going into the mountains. Up to that weekend in February 2020 I had no clue what he was talking about. 17,44 kilometers and 2229 height meters later, it dawned on me.
Climbing mountains by no means is all easy and fun. There were parts I truly enjoyed but also parts that sucked. Dragging yourself up a mountain in the icy cold on a never ending path of steps. Sleeping in an unheated hut in your soaked clothes. Twisting, headache; all that stuff. However, we know climbing mountains isn’t a walk in the park and we still do it and it does something to us.
I guess, it’s the process as a whole. As we were hiking through the rainforest it was all easy and fun. I felt excited and euphoric. Soon after a fog came up and so did our exhaustion. Later, as we were climbing higher, the air became thinner, steps steeper and I was seriously doubting myself.
When the sun came up and revealed the mountain range stretching out before us with the clouds under us, it was magical. As I glanced back at the granite dome towering above us, I felt proud that we had made it on our own feet.
It’s all those emotions we don’t experience in our everyday lives we’re craving and that add more spice to life.
3. Some things are beyond our control and that’s beautiful
Before we set off to climb Kinabalu, I went shopping. I got gloves, a scarf, warm pants and a headlamp. Also, I asked a friend to lend me his water-resistant jacket and his bag pack. I did my best to prepare physically by taking the stairs from my apartment in the 44th floor up and down several times a day. When we arrived in Malaysia we went to the supermarket and bought all kind of energy bars and nuts.
On the day of the hike, it got really moisty, foggy and it started to rain. And the rain didn’t stop. It rained so much we almost had to cancel the climb. As we continued from the resthouse the ground was slippy and very soon we were all soaked.
As much as we prepare, we have zero control over forces of nature. If a thunderstorm is coming, it doesn’t matter how many stairs I had climbed to prepare or how many headlamps I’m wearing. When it comes to sudden weather changes, we’re equally exposed.
We like to pretend we’re on top of everything, but in a wild environment it’s not like that. It’s something to be respectful of and not to underestimate, but also something to be in awe with. To be in awe with and appreciate that there are forces bigger than ourselves.
4. It’s every step that counts
I remember a moment when I got tired, tripped and glided down the mountain a few meters. I didn’t watch my steps, was inattentive and had stopped holding the rope as a precaution measure.
Nothing happened, I dragged myself up again. However, something had happened. It dawned on me that every single step throughout the journey counts. In the mountains, one wrong step can be fatal. It can lead to a chain of events, deciding between staying on the path or falling in the abyss.
In life, it’s not that clear. We don’t see the effects of our daily actions that obvious. However, what we’re doing on a daily basis is what defines us. When we’re signing up for a marathon one year from now, it’s the daily actions that count. From that point on, it’s about every run we’re doing. Even a 10 minutes run. Which leads to another 15 minutes run the next day. And another run the day after. It’s connected, in the mountains as in life.
5. We need spaces of anarchy for ourselves
It was during a period I was working in Singapore when I climbed Kinabalu. The contrast was mind-blowing. From Singapore’s hectic, noisy and highly technologized Central Business District to the plain wildlife-rich Sabah rainforest.
In Singapore as in the rest of the Western world, we’re consuming all the time. Information, food, clothes, any kind of stuff. We live in a world where to buy, hoard and upgrade is the default mode. Where it’s socially expected to spread information on a daily basis.
Being immersed in nature and crossing one ecological zone after another was like wellness. A detox from consumption, social media and competition. I never felt more refreshed after a three day trip. There’s so much power in going into wide-open spaces. Nature doesn’t judge nor does it compete, we can simply be ourselves.
A year ago my best friend told me for his 30th birthday he would travel to Georgia and we would catch up when he returns. As a birthday present he would gift himself with two weeks off the internet. My reaction was like “Wait, what?? I wanna talk to you! I wanna congratulate you! I wanna see pictures!”
Meanwhile, I got it. We live in a wired planet where it has turned out to be the greatest luxury to disconnect and get offline once in a while. As the world gets more complex and uncertain, we crave places where we can be quiet. Seeking out spaces of anarchy, where it’s just us and powers of nature, where we can be ourselves, is more important than ever.
6. Spaces of anarchy need us
It’s all about nature. Our planet was in a crise mode long before the pandemic and it’s still. The pandemic has proved that our actions effect all of us, that we’re all connected. Due to economic fallout and the progress of the climate crisis individual action is needed.
Mindfulness is important: We should start by considering our own actions. Adjusting our heating and lighting habits, eating less meat, wasting less food; there is a lot we can do on a daily basis. The least is, being kind to each other. Also, we can and should all start with reducing plastic consumption. When we all do a little, we can make much of a difference. As the saying goes, if everyone would clean in front of his own house, we would live in a clean world.