One of my Singaporean roomies had asked me to climb Mount Kinabalu with him. It was in February 2020, I was working in Singapore for several months, when I had to decide between going to an electronic beach festival in Thailand and hiking Kinabalu. Which was at 4,095 meters South East Asia’s highest mountain. Whereas I had quite a bit festival experience, climbing mountains was new to me. The highest mountain I had ascended was around 1950 meters high and in Switzerland. Fair to say, I didn’t climb it, I took the skilift. After I did some research if the hike was doable, apparently it was with a fair level of fitness, however, the decision was easy.
I was curious for something fresh and exciting.
Three weeks later Yook, my Singaporean roomie, and Leila, a German girl I knew from Yook, and I were picked up at 6 a.m. at our hotel in Kinabalu. The night before we had flown in from Singapore. Day one we would hike from Timpohon Gate at 1866 meters to Laban Rata resthouse at 3272 meters. After a short night we would ascend to the summit and then all the way back to the resthouse and to the starting point.
17.44 kilometers, 2229 height meters – and a million of steps.
The Djungle Flow
The first part led us through the dense Sabah rainforest. Living in the Business District in Singapore for the last months, it was liberating being amidst the steamy rainforest. We were surrounded by trees with thick, leavery plants and exposed roots, lianas, ferns and wildflowers. The air smelt spicy and intense and in the background there was a concert of humming, buzzing, and chirping. I was walking with Chen, another guy in our group who was two months in his gap year, behind the others. We were taking our time. Every now and then we stopped and marveled at some exotic plants. While absorbing this unique environment we were chatting about work, studies, Singapore, everything that crossed our mind.
Talks were flowing and the first third just flew by.
Entering Cloud Forest
After three hours of hiking we stopped somewhere on the path for a cookies and sandwiches. Temperature had dropped and the vegetation changed. The ground was dryer, trees shorter, shaped in bizarre formations and the fog had thickened. We had entered a mystical cloud forest. The group had split in two parts, Chen and I were behind the others.
The path was steeper and rockier now. While taking one stair by the other – the way solely consisted of stairs by now – I got out of breath. Although I had prepared for the hike (I took the stairs from my apartment, 44 floors up and down, several times a day) my legs were burning.
Slow Motion Hiking
There were only 300 height meters left to the resthouse. We had stopped talking and solely focused on walking. Due to the increasing altitude the air was thinner and breathing more difficult. It had cooled down and rain set in.
We were walking and walking and still, 30 minutes later, 250 height meters left. Frustrating.
That`s how running a marathon and having a hangover must feel like, I thought while Chen and I were pausing, grasping for air. My heart was racing. A bad hangover.
I wasn’t thinking anymore; my brain was empty. All I wanted was to be in the warm resthouse and never move my legs anymore. Or at least, until the summit ascent the next morning. My legs were as heavy as lead and ice cold from mist and wind.
We continued. Step by step. Breath by breath. Desperately wishing for the hut to appear amidst the fog.
And, suddenly, it did.
The Rest House
As I dragged myself towards the entry, I identified Larson, a Danish guy from our group. He leaned leisurely on the front door, smoking a cigarette as if he had returned from a cozy afternoon walk.
Smoking a cigarette at 3800 meters, after running up the mountain. ???
We were devouring the local food like starved wolves. My group and another girl from Brisbane, who had joined us, were chatting and playing cards. As I looked around the dining room, everyone seemed relieved. People were exchanging stories, warming up and enjoying each other’s company. The atmosphere of excitement for what was about to come was tangible.
The Final Ascent
At 2 a.m. my alarm rang. I had barely caught some sleep. Even with all my clothes on, it was freezing in the unheated dormitory. I ignored the lack of sleep, the headache and got ready.
Step by step we were moving in the dark. The path was so narrow, winding on the edge of the mountain, we had to walk one after the other; Yook and Chen in front of me.
It was dark, stormy, rainy, and ice-cold. Indeed, on Yook’ s backpack in front I discovered icicles.
I had no idea how long we were already walking and how long it would still take. I couldn’t see the peak and I couldn’t see where we came from. I couldn’t see anything despite the sparse light of my headlamp.
Later on I thought, eventually, this was our big luck. Not to see anything. Realizing how far away the summit still is, would have been disillusioning. Instead, the only thing we could do was to focus on the next step. One step at a time, each bringing us a little closer.
The Moment Gravity Won
The path ended, we were winding up the mountain by holding on to a rope. My clothes were soaked from rain and my face was numb from the icy wind. My eyes became heavier. I was tired and exhausted. Each step was a fight between me and gravity.
In a moment of inattentiveness, gravity won. I slipped and glided down the mountain several meters. Hectically I grabbed the rope and pulled me up again, blood rushing through my veins. It dawned on me.
I could have laid on a beach in Thailand. Instead I was on any mountain, undercooled and overtired. BUT, it was my decision and I was so close to the peak now. No one else would carry me up there. It was up to me to watch my steps or to slip and fall down.
The picture of me reaching the peak was clear now. I was awake and focused. We continued. Step by step, breath by breath.
Reaching Low’s Peak: Another World
Morning dawn had set in. Not far from us, enveloped in fog, there was the outline of the peak. The last part of the mountain, consisting of craggy rocks, was the toughest. We were on all fours, pulling ourselves up the mountain.
Half an hour later. We made it. We reached the summit. The summit and at 4095 meters the top of South East Asia. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the rest of South East Asia. In fact, it was so foggy I could only just identify Yook right next to me.
The expected feeling of relief and joy remained absent. It was icy, windy,-and there was still the way-down. We quickly decided to descent.
As we were climbing down the slowly rising sun revealed the surroundings: a surreal and desolate landscape. No plant, no tree, nothing was growing; only a mass of black granite and the dense fog illuminated by the sun.
I was walking with Chen, the others ahead of us. This was not the right time to be in a rush. The sun was shining, warming us and donating energy, the sky was blue and the air crisp. The fog was gone and we could finally see the mountains surrounding us.
We were walking above the clouds on an Ocean of black granite. Never before had I seen such an extraordinary landscape. Far away from Singapore’s hectic Business District with the mountain range stretching on the horizon and clouds below us, time was standing still. As we watched the mountains dipped by the sun, for this moment, we stopped talking.
When we arrived at the rest house, I glanced back at the peak of Mount Kinabalu, the granite dome rising above us. It looked mightier than before. I could barely believe we made it. There were moments where I could only dream of bathing in Thailand’s sun.
Stretching out in the sun with a coconut and some electronic beats would have been wonderful no doubt. Climbing Kinabalu in turn was freaking exhausting. However, knowing I had made it by my own effort, on my own feet was incomparably rewarding. After a few days my sore muscles got better, but feelings of accomplishment and exhilaration stayed with me way longer.