« There’s no way. »
« Why not ? Lots of people do it all the time. »
« No, there’s no way. »
« Come on, you can totally do it. Think of the achievement it’ll be. »
« No, there is no way I am climbing a mountain ! »
This conversation happened three days before we headed to Borneo, while in Kuala Lumpur doing some research. We had not intended to go to Borneo, but after much debate and flights from KL being so cheap, we took the leap.
We had decided on Kota Kinabalu (home to Mt. Kinabalu – the highest peak of Southeast Asia), Sandakan to visit the island’s primates : Proboscis monkeys and Orangutans, and the preserved forest of Danum Valley. My expectations for Kota Kinabalu were for snorkeling and island hopping but J’s eyes were on that peak….
We arrived at KK airport late on a Saturday night, a taxi ride from KK airport to our hotel cost 30 MYR (less than USD $10). We checked in at Asia Adventure Lodge, where they had not received our booking so we slept in the fanned dorm room for 20 MYR (USD $6.23) per person per night instead of a double room. Luckily, we had the room to ourselves. We had dinner at one of the eateries around and went to sleep.
The next morning as I awoke, J had already inquired about the possibility of hiking the beast on such short notice (Monday). And, it was possible.
Our hotel offered us 850 MYR (USD$ 264) per person for 2 days, 1 night at Mt. Kinabalu – all inclusive: entrance fee, permits, insurance, food, accommodation and guide.
Sutera Sanctuary Lodges – the operator of Kinabalu National Park – offers the same package for 650 MYR (USD$ 202) when booking directly with them.
« How are we supposed to hike the highest peak of Southeast Asia with our three t-shirts, shorts and Chucks ?! Not to add in my fear of heights…»
« Don’t worry, there is a big mall here where we can shop for our gear and there will be a guide with us, it is mandatory. It’s perfect, we can climb it tomorrow morning .»
I wanted to cry.
I have no problems ascending. Descending is another issue… Mental dilemna…how was I supposed to do this. Or, how am I supposed to convince him that this is not a good idea ? At least there is a guide, if anything were to happen we could get rescued. It would be nice though to be able to take on this challenge. Here we were, five months into our trip and I survived it all. Maybe….maybe I have it in me.
As I was battling this expedition in my head, we were already heading to Suriah Square mall. Two beanies bought at the Sunday market of Kota Kinabalu. Gloves, jackets, long pants, headlights, shoes (basic sneakers) and snacks – all purchased at the mall. And, we were ready to climb. Or J was, I felt only fear at this point. One moment I was seeing myself reach for the top, the other I was a tiny person in this world with little hiking/climbing experience.
We read blogs, TONS of blogs about people’s experience climbing Mt. Kinabalu. Some did not make it to the top (due to their shoes, weather, or own fears) and the ones who did, felt fearless after conquering the Mount – even though they were afraid of it. I, of course, only took note of the ones who did not make it.
« See, she didn’t have the appropriate shoes and didn’t make it. »
« Yeah but see this one, he also has a fear of heights and made it without any problems. »
I was not easy to convince, even though I had my biggest fan at my side. Always pushing me to do the things that scare me the most. I was the Wuss, he was the Rock.
It was going to happen. There was no way backing out. He was definitely into it. I could not convince him otherwise. I tried to tell him it would be a big cost on our budget…but that did not work « I don’t mind paying for a once-in-a-lifetime experience »…..alrighty then, I guess we are going.
The next morning, at 6am, we woke up. I felt nauseous. We grabbed our two backpacks and headed to the public shuttle by 7am to get to Mount Kinabalu for 20MYR (USD $6) per person. Our van was filled with tourists, all young adventurers who were eager to start the hike. I was quiet during the two-hour ride. Stress arose as we could see the peak of the mountain in the horizon. And, wow ! It was really, really, really, really, high ! And, I thought « Will I be at the top by this time tomorrow morning ? Am I really doing this ?! ».
At Mount Kinabalu, we filled out the paperwork, paid for the hike, hotel and guide. You can also leave your bags at check in. We left one backpack and took the other. We got our passes, a breakfast box and met our guide. It was 9 :45 am and it was about to start.
The schedule was as follows : hike to 3000m to reach the Laban Rata Resthouse where we would spend the night, and at 2am start ascending to reach the peak by sunrise.
« Lots of rain lately, yesterday’s group did not make it to the top. Too slippery. Dangerous. » said our guide, a local of Borneo who takes tourists up every other day. Well, that’s reassuring. Did I find myself praying for rain all of a sudden ?
The trail up to the Laban Rata Resthouse is not difficult at all : technically. Just long and tiring, just long and tiring, just long and tiring. There are well-maintained trails, stairs, handrails and lots of stops for water along the way.
« Oh my Goooood, is that all we’ve done so far ?! » said a fellow climber as we reached the 2km mark. « I am never going to make it ». As I overheard her, all I could think was « If I can do it, you certainly can ».
As we, sometimes, struggled to catch our breath, our guide was gliding through the forest. There was a cool and soothing breeze which sometimes came to sweep our faces as we got drenched in sweat the more we advanced.
It took us 4.5hrs to climb 6.5km. We drank what felt like 10 gallons of water along the way and at last, we made it to Laban Rata by 2:15pm. I immediately sat my butt on the ground at the sight of the lodge. We were out of breath (air starts to be thin at 3000m) and tired, but, we were here. J sat next to me, silently, and we both gazed at nature’s beauty. We were above the clouds. I was peaceful. I could not believe what we had just done. I felt spoiled, and for a second there, I forgot about the fear wanting to keep me from this expedition. Sadly, a second goes by pretty fast, and I remembered that this was not over.
We settled into our shared bedroom and met our Japanese roommates. Four climbers, all equipped with what appeared to be the latest gear («Wow, they must be pros. ») while we looked like amateurs.
At 4pm, once almost everyone had reached the cottage, dinner was served. Continental and local buffet to get our energy back on.The food was very satisfactory with variety for all taste. I usually get quite ecstatic when a meal is served, and J was all about the buffet, but my stomach wasn’t having it. Apprehension and excitement don’t really open up the appetite.
At 6pm, it was time for bed. J and I slipped into the crispy white sheets and hoped to fall asleep immediately. That did not happen of course, too excited for tomorrow. Or, too scared for tomorrow? He was most likely the former and I, the latter. I was mentally preparing myself to reach the peak, I wanted to be that person. I was summoning all of my courage. Pushing away all the fear, as the desire to reach the top was the most important one – and, not the desire for a major rainfall.
1:30am came too soon. We got up, layered our clothes on, strapped on our headlights, grabbed our snacks and went down for breakfast. I could not swallow a thing. Our guide popped his head in the kitchen area to indicate that we were all set to go.
It was not warm outside. We put on our wind-breakers. The first kilometer was mostly stairs. The only lights we could see were from other climbers’ headlights. It was pitch-black. Not seeing a thing probably helped me pull through and make it to the top.
We walked in the darkness. Time, surprisingly went by pretty fast, we could only hear steps and breaths. We then reached an area where the ledge is so small that you have to hold on to a rope to get to the last 800m. If I’d seen that rope in broad daylight, I would have chickened out. But I didn’t, ergo : I made it.
The last 800m were probably the hardest due to the altitude. We could see the peak, the air was thin and we started walking slowly to conserve energy. In the horizon, there were the little lights of the other climbers who had made it, it felt so close yet so, so far.
Almost there. I could not believe it. It was almost 5am. The sky lightened up. We were right below it, one last ascension of a couple of meters to reach the peak…
And, WE MADE IT ! We climbed Mount Kinabalu! 4,095m or over 13,000ft in the past 24 hours, and we reached the top of the highest peak in South-East Asia !! Aaaaaah !!
The wind was sweeping so hard, we were shivering and our teeth chattering. But we wanted to enjoy it (which is actually quite hard to do as there are dozens of people taking pictures, asking you to take theirs, and the cold slapping your face every now and then). We were literally in the skies, there was nothing surrounding us. A blissful moment we now get to cherish.
I went climbing down on my butt, J spent more time at the top while I started my descent since I knew I would take time. Our guide accompanied me and we ran into the same girl we met at the 2km-mark. She was sitting down, defeated : « Do we still get the certificate if we don’t finish ? I am not going to make it. » The guides and I tried to give her words of encouragement but she was done. She was so close. This could have been me.
Back to the rope and this time, the sun was up. I held onto it, pushed my weight back and made my way down. « Try to walk down, you don’t need the rope », J said.
« I need this rope », I said, firmly. I guess I was one of the few having a hard time as most people passed me without even reaching for the chord.
The way back to the cottage felt light and easy. The pressure was almost off. We had done what scared me the most and I felt good. Tired, but good.
We made it back to the cottage, all happy and amazed by what we had just achieved. Thank you brain for helping me push through my fears, thank you J for being the best support and waiting for me when I was having panic attacks.
We used everything we purchased the day before and ate all the snacks we had. We also bought reusable water bottles.
Now, all we had to do was climb down all the way to where it all started 24hours ago. But, going down was going to be the hardest for me. My brain could not relax just yet. I had to stay strong. It definitely was not glamorous or victorious, and probably painful to watch. Especially after I hit a huge rock with my knee, but who cares – we just climbed a mountain!
It took me so long, after a while we did not see anyone pass us. We were almost the last ones. I did not care, J cared a little.
I had done the hard part, now I could take my time. Needless to say, our legs were out of commission after this.
We made it to the bottom at 2pm, got our certificate (for 10MYR each=USD $3.11) and backpack left at check-in. A quick WiFi connection and we had booked our hotel in Sandakan. The bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan stops by Mount Kinabalu, and it arrived at 4pm. Perfect for our timing.
We painfully dragged our legs to the bus stop and hopped on the bus to arrive in Sandakan at night time.
This was most likely the craziest and most intense hike of my life (at least until…) But I pulled a warrior princess and made it to the top. We had the nicest guide, whose next challenge is to make it to Everest (!!). This hike will be engrained in our brains forever.
Never had I thought I would ever reach the peak of a mountain. We were not even that fit. A little brain power and great support will get you there! Do not give up, it’s worth it!
Did you climb Mt. Kinabalu too? Or do you intend to climb? Share your stories with us and any questions you may have, we love to hear from you ! Visiting Malaysia & Borneo soon? Click here for our Malaysia itinerary!