I survived, and I reached the summit!
When we landed in Kinabalu it was drizzling. We went to a coffeeshop and ate chicken rice, which was, rather strangely, shaped into pyramids, with a platter of chicken and green vegetables, and a basin of wonton soup. That was pretty much the highlight of the day. From then, it was a drive through splashy streets to Rose Cabin, a motel where we would spend the night before doing the climb the next day. My room had a view of
It got dark quite soon. The water in the shower was not icy, but not warm, so I showered with all possible speed. The light in the room was dim as a candle, without the romantic flickering and honey-colour of a real flame. So I didn't read. There wasn't anything else to do except to pack and re-pack our luggage – one bag to carry on our backs up the mountain, one bag to hand over to the porter to haul up for us, and one bag to store in a locker at the park headquarters, to await our (hopefully) triumphant return.
In the bag that I would carry myself I put water and food, a rain jacket, medicines and plasters. I lifted it and found it surprisingly heavy. The bag for the porter contained winter clothes for the summit climb, headtorch, toiletries, slippers, a change of clothes and all the other essentials for a night's stay. That felt even heavier than my own bag.
Dinner was simple. For me, a bowl of sweet corn soup, a mound of white rice and a large and oily omelette. Then, it was an early night for everyone.
I slept fitfully. The pillow was too high and gave me a neck ache. So I took one of my little bags filled with clothes and stuffed it into a pillow case which I stripped off the pillow, and slept on that instead. That felt a bit better. But it was not a restful sleep as the improvised pillow was too lumpy, and I think I felt too excited about the climb to switch off my mind.
The next morning we got up early for breakfast. I ate scrambled eggs, and, to the awe of my travel companions, had 4 slices of toast, versus the 2 slices everyone else ate. (I thought I had better carbo-load for the long climb ahead.) We drove to the park headquarters to register ourselves and meet our guide, who was a short young man of few words. Our collective luggage for the porter to carry turned out to be 16 kg. Embarassingly, mine was almost 5 kg. To our shock, our porter turned out to be a makcik who looked like she was in her late forties. She was a stout looking woman, but not someone you would have thought could climb mountains. She had slippers on her feet, a scarf around her head, and an umbrella packed into a canvas bag into which she bundled all our little pieces of luggage. The whole thing was tied up with a string. She hoisted the sack onto her back, and the strap ran across her forehead. She had no walking stick. On the short drive to the checkpoint where the climb began she took out a knife and started to whittle away at what looked like a betel nut.
I had on my t-shirt of dry-fit material, my gore-tex rainjacket, my two alpine retractable walking sticks with rubber tips and wood handles, my water-proof hiking boots with ankle protection, my rucksack with rain cover and special padding to wick away sweat from the back, and straps for lumbar support. I had a tumbler of plain mineral water and a tumbler of mineral water mixed with hydration salts. I had a bagful of energy gels and energy chews and muesli bars. Each prepared in our own way, according to our own level of fitness and ability, we started the climb.
The climb itself was not very eventful. The terrain was similar to a lot of other mountains I have walked up. Lots of pebbles, moss-covered rocks and mud, with trees lining the sides. Big steps consisting of large cracked stones. On occasion, slippery wooden steps, with slightly rickety railings. Step after step. Sometimes a big step, sometimes a little one, sometimes a long step, sometimes a short one. Sometimes a shallower bit where you could almost walk normally. Usually just long uphill stretches to labour up. I was an ant, with a sugar crystal on my back. Every step seemed to bring me no closer to the top of the rock. My walking sticks were like crutches, and I hauled myself along, one step at a time.
There were rest stops along the way where we drank and ate our tongue-curlingly sweet energy food. But I couldn't stop for long because the air was cold, and if I was still, I would soon start to shiver.
As we plodded along our guide would be busy talking on the phone or messaging, as if he was just walking down the street. His feet in their thin canvas shoes seemed to find their way up without any thought, without scuffing any rocks or kicking any pebbles. The porter moved up methodically and silently in small steps. Lots of other climbers passed us. Climbers on the way down gave us encouraging smiles. I saw one lady climber who seemed to have sprained her ankle. She was holding her guide's hand for support, and uttered a low cry of pain with every step she took. Then there were the porters who were carrying things up and down to the Laban Rata hut (the main hut in the rest-house area). Awesomely heavy things like sacks of rice and gas tanks. They had wooden frames tied to their backs, with straps around their foreheads. I knew they were coming from behind from the swift sure footfalls I heard. And then we would all stand aside and be overtaken by men (and sometimes women!) carrying what looked like small boulders on their backs. The porters coming down were even faster, since they did not have full loads. Most of them descended in a series of little hops and leaps. It was rather depressing.
As we ascended, the vegetation changed, from tall leafy trees to stunted and sparse bushes. I was disappointed that the guide did not tell us about the flora and fauna around us, which I think would have been very interesting, and broken up the monotony of the climb. His role really seemed to be that of a babysitter – making sure that we ascended and descended in one piece.
Anyway, after about 5 hours of climbing, it started to rain. I had gone ahead with one of the group, Elaine, and we were about 5 minutes away from Laban Rata. Mist curled up around the rocks in front of us like ghost snakes. Then big fat raindrops started to fall. By the time I pulled the rain cover over my bag and took my rainjacket out I was wet all over. We scurried to the main hut – it's actually quite a large building with a big dining area, a tiny shop selling essentials at exorbitant prices, and an industrial sized kitchen. Damp and shivering, I ordered a hot milo and watched the rain through the steamed up windows. The world outside looked white and foggy, with shadows where the mountain ridges were.
When the rain stopped, we joined the rest of the group, who had gone straight to the Pendant Hut, where we would spend the night. The hut was tiny, with a few dormitories, and a very steep flight of steps leading to a bath/toilet area. The water was ice-cold, and I was a blob of trembling jelly by the time I finished my shower. Everything felt damp and clammy and vaguely unclean. There were musty-smelling sleeping bags on the double-decker beds, lined with what I hoped were fresh linen. But I tried not to breathe too hard.
We had a briefing on the via ferrata, which we were going to do the next day, and on the summit route. Then it was a trek to the Laban Rata hut for an early dinner – pasty rice, chewy vegetables, tough chicken. I didn't have much appetite, as it was spoiled with the vast amounts of energy food I had popped throughout the day.
Then it was back to Pendant Hut to pack our summit bags. There was nothing else to do, and in any case, no one had the energy to do anything. I did a bit of sketching, and then turned in at about 7 pm. Everyone else had already climbed into bed. No one could sleep, though. The light was on, and stragglers from the day climb kept coming in, unpacking their bags, talking, taking photographs, and making the beds and floorboards tremble when they walked. One cretin took a photograph of his travel companion using a flash. I opened my eyes and uttered an involuntary expletive and he disappeared. The late-comer beside me was ill and coughing constantly. I stuffed ear-plugs into my ears, and managed about 2 hours' doze once the lights were out, which I think was at about 11 pm. But it was a pretty horrible night. At half past one I got up, had a wash, and went outside to eat many slices of toast, in the hope that more food might make up for less sleep.
It was cold. I had a beanie on my head, water-proof winter gloves on my hands, a sweater, a long-sleeved shirt, a t-shirt, a rainjacket, track pants, trousers, and I was still shivering. I strapped a headlamp on my head, and laced up my boots with numb fingers. In my small backpack was only water and energy chews. It still felt heavy.
At 2:30 am, we all set off. I was tired even before we got to the start of the summit route. But, glory be, it was not raining, and the sky was a field of stars. Our guide took us at an unreasonably fast pace for the first 20 minutes until we told him we couldn't keep up. The air was thin, and that, and the rigours of the previous day, and the lack of sleep, all sapped us. The steps seemed made for giants, and I had to push off with one leg and often both arms just to get up. I grabbed onto rocks with my hands as I had no walking sticks for the night climb – we would have to be on all fours quite a bit, and use ropes, and the sticks would just get in the way.
This tortured scrambling went on and on and on, and then we reached a place which the guide briefing us yesterday called “The Danger Zone”. It was where we had to use ropes to get up. There was hardly any vegetation on the mountain by this altitude. The terrain was mostly granite slabs. Actually it wasn't as hard as
I trudged up large granite plains, set at steep inclines, with pools of icy water in their cracks. The world seemed reduced to the circle of light from my headlamp. Time was broken up – the seconds needed for each step made up a day. The days strung together made up an eternity. Now and then I would look up and feel my heart sink when I saw a string of bright pearls bobbing far ahead – the headlights of climbers in the impossibly far distance. Sometimes I looked down, but it was too dark to see how far down it was. Perhaps that was just as well, or I might have gotten vertigo. There was a sickle moon in the sky, blurred at the edges, as if it was glowing through a pane of frost.
We passed the checkpoint near the summit, and the made the final push to the top. Lots of scrambling among the rocks, sometimes with ropes. I panted with exhaustion, like a dog on a hot day. The summit was crawling with brightly dressed climbers, little animated pac-men against the grey rock. The sky lightened, and we saw a streak of orange and pink fire rise up from behind a black ridge. In minutes, all the midnight blue leaked away from the roof of the world. The stars faded like dreams. The sky became a shell of light blue ice.
By the time we got right to the very tippy top, where everyone posed for group photographs with the little green sign announcing that they were at Low's Peak, the world was diamond bright. Vast planes of silver-grey rock stood on all sides, before us and below us, terminating in curls and points and rectangle shapes. The wind whistled cleanly and harshly, and the sun began to anoint everything in its path with gold. We whooped and took grinning photographs.
I think it was about 6 am.
We had mere minutes to enjoy all this, before the cold, the continual surge of other climbers into the tiny summit space, and the press of time, drove us downwards. We had to make it to the summit checkpoint by 8 am in order to go down by the via ferrata. Shuffling, hobbling, hopping, grimacing, sighing, we made a slow progression down to the summit checkpoint. White clouds mushroomed in the sky – huge heavy masses, stained with an ominous prussian blue at their soft round bases.
At the checkpoint we were togged out in helmets and harnesses, and had carabiners clipped to our sides. Then, with our gear, we scrambled down with gritted teeth, past the Danger Zone, and down to the place where the via ferrata was supposed to start. There, I saw folds of granite pockmarked with a few steel rings. There was a metal cable running alongside the rings. Our ferrata guide, Fazli, roped us together with green rope. It looped through our harnesses in large complicated knots. The idea is that the leader is supposed to inch along the path marked out by the metal cable, holding the cable for support. When she reaches a ring, she loops the green rope through it, and then hooks her carabiners (essentially, just large hooks attached by straps to your waist) along the cable. She then inches along, reaches another ring, unhooks her carabiners, re-hooks them further along the same cable, and so on and so on. Everyone else does the same, except the ones behind the leader have to undo the rope the leader has slipped through the ring and then loop their own section of the rope through the ring. The idea is that if someone falls, he will be held aloft, dangling but safe, by the collective strength of the group, by virtue of the collective rope running through all the rings. Personally, I had my doubts about the efficacy of this safety system, because we did it so inexpertly that our ropes were often slack and popped out of their loops. So I clung onto the metal cable for dear life and slid on my bum from ring to ring in the most inelegant fashion. I am quite positive that real mountaineers would not slide around in a sitting position, but be like spiders or monkeys, moving from rock to rock with their agile feet and hands.
But, oh well, at least I got down safely, though the seat of my trousers was torn to shreds.
The route we took was steep enough to make it impossible to stand upright or lie flat. One could only sit or crouch leaning into the mountain with one's feet squashed into the nearest available toe-holds in the rock. Anyway, this went on and on and on – there were about 200 rings. Crawl-shuffle-climb forward, move slack rope into position, unloop rope, loop rope, unclip carabiners, pass under the rope, clip carabiners, crawl-shuffle-climb forward again. I often got the carabiners tangled up in the rope or with the cable and had to unclip and re-clip them. Exhausted, and wilting under the glare of the increasingly white sky, I felt a rising swell of irritation with the whole exercise. Sometimes I tried to stand up and walk using the carabiner straps for support, or hold the metal cable, as I thought a real mountaineer might do. But that was either scary or tiring, and so I didn't do that for long. Mist began to lap around us, like an incoming tide. I had a vision of us climbing in the fog, having to blow the air around us, in order to clear it like smoke, and find the next steel ring. I had a vision of the rain pelting down, making the granite we crawled on as smooth and slippery as glass. But I felt too tired to go any faster than I was.
The highlight of the journey was supposed to be the crossing of a two cable bridge. One cable underneath the feet, and one cable overhead for the hands to grab on. The carabiners were clipped to the cable above. I was second behind the leader, Elaine. Elaine bravely ventured forward and managed to find her balance quite easily, it seemed to me. She inched across at a good pace, and the rope holding her to me grew taut. This meant I had to start to move, or else she would not be able to progress. I put a foot on the cable, which felt as thin as a wire under my chunky boot. But try how I might, I could not seem to find my balance on the thing. I wobbled dangerously, and Elaine gave a yelp as I jerked the cable that she was balancing on. The guide thought I was scared of going onto the bridge because I thought the cable could not take my weight, and so he shouted unhelpfully to me not to worry, because the cable could take more than two tonnes of weight. I had a few choice remarks to make in response to that, but no energy to make them. I think I said “I can't seem to balance!” Then the guide said to lean back. I leaned back, forming an isoceles triangle with my arms and legs and that seemed to work. I inched half-way across the bridge. And then, to my horror, my legs started doing a St. Vitus dance. They trembled as if I had a severe case of Parkinson's disease. The cable jerked about like an ECG line of a heart attack patient. I arched my back so far that I must have looked like the letter S from a distance. The trembling stopped. Gasping, I hurriedly inched my way along. I think I had another trembling fit along the way, but eventually reached the end, and stepped with relief onto solid rock. After that it was more of the same clipping unclipping thing until we got to the end.
We then had a long and tedious walk back to the Pendant hut – more stones, more steps. At the hut there were sausages on a hot plate, boiled eggs and toast. I wolfed down 3 sausages, two eggs and 3 pieces of toast in 15 minutes. We had to quickly re-pack our stuff – empty the summit bag, pack the day-pack, pack the stuff for the porter to carry. And then we started the climb down, just before one. Most people leave by 11 am, so we were pretty slow.
I kept thinking that the journey downhill might be faster. But it wasn't. Apparently downhill is where everyone gets injuries, so I kept reminding myself to be careful, which was mentally very tiring. My knees were hurting. I used the walking sticks to lever myself down the steps. So my shoulders and upper back got sore as well. It started to rain. Luckily, not in a torrent, but only in English drizzles. Dampness, cold, slippery pebbles. That's all it was for hours. After 5, the light started to fade. It was as if someone had lowered a large shadow-sheet over the whole landscape, muting all the colours. Fed up, I hurried ahead, leaving the rest of the group behind, trying to catch up with Lilian who had gone ahead fastest of all – to make sure that our driver would not leave without us (as he threatened to do if we were not there by 6 pm).
I finally emerged at the entrance checkpoint at about quarter to six, very damp, very grubby, and very tired. I got into the bus, wincing at the steps up. A chocolate-covered nut bar provided some cheer as I watched the darkness grow in strength like a bad mood. The porter was the next to come, looking unperturbed and in the same physical condition as when she started the climb. Then everyone else arrived in the twilight. We went to the park to collect our luggage and certificates, and made a detour to pick up the bag that I had absentmindedly left inside my improvised pillow at Rose Cabin. Then we had a long dark drive to Shangri-la Rasa Ria.
What a relief it was to see the hotel at last! The long driveway was lit with lamps that glistened like flaming torches in the rain. Sitting in the lobby on soft chairs, drinking fruity welcome drinks, listening to music floating over from the bar, I felt so grubby that I wondered if it would be more considerate for the other guests not to sit down and dirty the cushions with my mud and sweat.
Anyway, the rest of the story of this trip is both pleasant and predictable. Hot showers, soft beds, big meals, buffet breakfasts, drinking ice-water while lying on beach chairs, soft beach towels, swimming in the warm sea, splashing in the blue waters of the pool, foot massages, reading while listening to the wind whispering through the trees...Bliss...
At the moment, my legs are still aching, particularly my quad muscles. But I feel quite inspired. I never thought it would be possible to do so much exercise for such a long period with so little sleep. And it was a wonderful thing to reach the summit. How many times in life do we achieve what we set out to achieve? In climbing a mountain, everything becomes so simple. You put one foot in front of the other. You struggle. You reach the top. For those few minutes when you look down, there's a burst of euphoria, like a sugar rush into your bloodstream, an explosion of sunlight in your head. This well of happiness in your heart that just overflows and bubbles for a while, like uncorked champagne.
I told myself that this would be the first and last “real” mountain climb I would ever do.