Sunrise over Mount Kinabalu

Two of my team mates have dropped out. My head was splitting from a pounding headache. I was cold, and my breathing was laboured. At 4am, salvation looked a long way away. But I continued plodding on in the hope of reaching where I had failed to reach before.

My first attempt to summit Mount Kinabalu, one of Southeast Asia’s tallest peaks at 4095 metres, failed due to gale-force winds buffeting the summit. So slightly more than a year after the first attempt, I made another attempt to reach the top of the mountain with an entirely different group.

The way up

The first part of the climb up to Laban Rata guesthouse at 3000 metres was relatively straightforward. Imagine exercising on a stairmaster for a few hours, and that’s how the experience felt like. But roughly two hours into the climb, the clouds darkened and torrential rains broke out.

Squirrel

I thought to myself, this is bad, really bad. My first climb was aborted due to inclement weather and it seemed like the second attempt was not going to work out either. The path ahead had turned into a raging stream. Visibility had dropped to just a few metres.

Drenched

But we continued plodding on. No one was talking anymore but we pushed on determinedly. Slowly, we emerged from the rainforest into the upper montane zones where the trees are stunted and covered by moss and then into the subalpine meadow zones where the trees are gnarled.  I knew then that Laban Rata wasn’t far away. Though soaked through by the rain, my spirits lifted considerably.

Nearing Laban Rata

Some six hours after we started our climb, we finally arrived at Laban Rata, our resting place for the night. After some hot drinks, we quickly got out of our wet clothes and spread them across the hut in an attempt to dry them before our climb the next morning.

The temperature outside was only 7°C. Our hut was unheated and there were missing window panes, causing the cold air to swirl around our room. I decided to go to bed early as I had a headache and felt terrible. Watching the sun set with its brilliant show of reds, pinks and oranges through the window, I slowly drifted off to sleep.

Sub Alpine Forest, Mount Kinabalu

The next thing I heard was the sound of alarms going off at around 1am. We were about to make our final push to the summit. Putting on all my wet clothes once again, I was thrilled that the summit of Mount Kinabalu was now within reach.

But barely thirty minutes into the climb, one of my teammates decided to turn back. She was suffering from a slight fever. Now left with a team of seven, our spirits were slightly dampened, but we continued plodding on with only the moonlight and our torches to illuminate the path ahead.

Near the summit

Soon, there were no more trees, just bare rock. Ahead of us – a long line of climbers. At some points, we had to clamber on our hands and feet up a boulder of rocks. Just one kilometre away from the summit, another of my teammate decided to give up and head back. He complained that he couldn’t breathe and he was feeling dizzy.

My head was starting to pound again. Every step was like running a marathon. Turning back seemed an easy, almost attractive option. But I decided to persevere. The hours went by. Soon, the sun started coming up over the horizon, layering the sky with hues of turquoise and cobalt. The whole of Borneo lay before us. We saw the steep slopes we came up from. It was an exhilarating sight.

Mount Kinabalu

But we were not yet on the summit. It looked tantalizing close, almost like a mirage in the desert. Sprinting towards it, however, was not an option because of the thin air at such an altitude. With heavy steps, we slowly made our way up as we passed climbers who were making their way back to base.

First ray of light hitting the top of Mount Kinabalu

Shortly after seven in the morning, we finally arrived at the summit. It had taken many hours, one failed attempt for me, and we all wanted to savour the moment. But our time on the summit was short-lived. Barely ten minutes after we arrived, our guide told us to start our descent. A collective groan arose!

View from the summit

The long way down