“To be tramping under the stars toward a great mountain is always an adventure; now we were adventuring for the first time in a new mountain country which still held in store for us all its surprises and almost all its beauties.”*
George Leigh-Mallory wrote that in 1922 after his first reconnaissance of Mt Everest. He would die on its high and unforgiving peak two years later, just below the summit, to lie there frozen and unfound until the famous expedition of 1999 discovered his corpse, pale as alabaster, somewhere below 8,200 meters.
I wasn’t thinking of this as we climbed the considerably lower rock slopes of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu – I just happened on that passage reading Leigh-Mallory’s book on the plane to Kota Kinabalu. But his words describe perfectly the feeling we had that morning, at 3,900 meters and still short of the summit, with a big moon directly overhead and the Southern Cross low on our left side. Pale clouds filled the sky below us, surrounding our little rocky island in the night sky.
It was in a somewhat lesser mood that we began our small expedition up South East Asia’s highest mountain. Since we left Kota Kinabalu, capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, the sky had been pouring out water like a shipwrecked sailor baling out a lifeboat. More rain fell on the little junction town at Kundasang while we ate kway teow and roti than had fallen on Beijing in the last 12 months. The mountain itself – the view of which was our hotel’s big draw – was shrouded in cloud and mist. It rained all that night and into the morning and by the time we arrived at the park gate and met our guide, I had little hope we could make it to the huts at base camp, much less reach the summit.
Sai was an affable fellow. He’d been a guide more than a decade and had long since given up counting his summits. He wasn’t optimistic either, but we were here now, we’d paid a hefty fee for the climb, and there was nothing else for it but to climb. On with our raincoats, and onto the muddy trail.
Within about fifteen minutes I was soaked to my skin. My trusty raincoat was actually not so trusty after all – eight years must be past the lifetime of the average jacket. Like a twit I was wearing a cotton T-shirt under it, and between the torrential rain and my own sweat that was drenched too. The climb itself was not difficult, though it was steep, and as we made our way up the rough steps I thought about all those days on the Great Wall and what great physical preparation it was for a hike like this. But when we stopped for a rest I realised how cold I was with all that wet cotton on my skin. I had light hiking pants on too, and they were clinging to my legs and keeping them nice and cold as well. We punched out the rest of the climb without a break.
We reached the huts of base camp at Laban Rata in just over 3.5 hours, a pretty fast time according to Sai and the track notes. By the time we got there, water was flowing an inch deep or more down the path. The rain had not let up even a bit and maybe had even doubled down. We walked into the hut wetter than we had ever been, even wetter than the wettest days we’d experienced in Iceland.
Thankfully the huts at Laban Rata were big, warm, dry and clean. We checked in and got out of our wet gear. Bringing just the bare minimum with us meant we had one set of dry clothes – warmer layers for summit day. I couldn’t see any future other than walking down in the heavy rain, so I prepped myself for being wet and miserable tomorrow, too. We hung around for hours, chatting to a nice guy from Hong Kong in a mix of English, Cantonese and Mandarin. Like many there that day, this climb was his main reason for coming to Malaysia. He was hoping like mad the weather would break.
After a very satisfying buffet dinner – noodles, beef, stir fried vegies and fresh fruit – we retired to a small dorm and tried to sleep. It was only 8pm, hardly a regular bedtime, but if all went to plan we were supposed to wake at 2am and try for the summit. It was still bucketing down. I don’t think I’d completely given up hope, but I went to sleep expecting to be disappointed.
Two o’clock was announced by our Hong Kong friend: “it is time to wake up, and I think it is no more raining!” Incredibly, it had stopped. By then, it had been raining for nearly 36 hours, but now we had a window of opportunity. We bounced up, quickly dressed and headed downstairs for what they called “supper” – more noodles and toast. I skipped coffee and went for tea, worried about dehydration and not knowing if that would heighten the risk of altitude sickness. The summit was just below 4,100 meters – not especially high – but lofty enough to stop you if you were having a bad day. We saw a few people struggling with it later that morning.
More steps took us further and further uphill, into the misty forest. There was quite a crowd, and already people’s paces were varying, so there was some overtaking to be done. By headlamp, all you could really see was the little pool of light a pace or two ahead of you. Before long, we hit the famous rope section, the only spot I had been a little worried about.
The top of Mt Kinabalu is one giant granite slope with a few granite spires (technically, it’s granodiorite). At night, all we could see was the steep slope rising away into the greyness. With all the rain, the surface was slick and, I thought, slippery. But once on it, we found our shoes gripped readily. The rope was needed at two or three steeper pitches, each easily negotiated and left behind.
Even now, Sai was downbeat. But as we walked – I can’t even say plodded because the altitude was hardly affecting me at all – my mood bloomed. Far above, directly overhead, the huge moon had the most amazing corona of mist, a giant circle nearly a handspan wide, with the deep yellow light burning in the middle. Sai saw it too and I thought his voice revealed a similar sudden burst of hope. As we continued uphill along the wet granite, I looked out to my left.
There, resplendent like the (good bit of the) Australian flag, the glorious Southern Cross shone in the sky, so low on the horizon that it seemed to be at my own altitude. The pointer stars to its left were bright too, and I used them all to find south. A sea of white clouds filled the space beneath the sky, as thick as goosedown, fluffy as a polar bear’s belly.
“To be tramping under the stars toward a great mountain is always an adventure…”
Leigh-Mallory’s words perfectly capture what happened next, too:
“A whole group of mountains began to appear in gigantic fragments. Mountain shapes are often fantastic seen through a mist; these were like the wildest creation of a dream. A preposterous triangular lump rose out of the depths; its edge came leaping up at an angle of about 70° and ended nowhere. To the left a black serrated crest was hanging in the sky incredibly”.
That triangular lump was the summit, and the description is so uncannily accurate it’s hard to believe he wasn’t writing about our mountain instead of his. A black serrated crest, a wave of solid granite, soared up on the left side of our track, and the summit formed a sharp point beyond it to the right. On one side it was close to vertical, but a small trail of pinpoint lights showed the way up the gentler ridge at the left. The headlamps of faster climbers – or those who’d left well before us – marked the way; behind us, more dots of light followed us up the slope.
At last, around 4,000 meters, we started to feel the effect of the thinner air. This was still far lower than our climb of Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi, where we reached 5,700 meters before a snowstorm turned us back before dawn, but it was high enough to slow us down and make us catch our breath. And it was cold – perhaps 5 degrees – and still dark.
Just short of the summit, we sat down for a while. There were plenty of other climbers around and on the summit so we let them do their thing for a moment before climbing up there ourselves. We had arrived in 2.5 hours.
Summiting was a strange experience. It had not been a difficult climb, physically at least. The first push in the rain had been unpleasant, but the summit attempt itself was straightforward. I felt an inner peace which came from being up high above the clouds, beneath the moon and seemingly amongst the stars. I felt happy that we were at last reaching the summit of a high mountain in clear weather after thwarted attempts on Potosi and Omotepe in Nicaragua. But the climb just wasn’t challenging enough to feel any rush of adrenalin. Instead, it was a quiet satisfaction and a quick summit shot before we headed down to find a good spot to watch the sunrise.
As climbers continued uphill to join the gaggle hunkered down in the rocks at the top, we dropped down a hundred meters or so. I took some photos for a young group of excited locals and we waited as the eastern sky started to glow faintly. Out to our right, the big granite wave we’d seen on our left coming up had a different shape. In the gloom, by trick of the light and angles of the rockface, you could see a huge gorilla’s face there – not unlike a Mt Rushmore from the Planet of the Apes.
I veered off the path to the left and that’s where I had my moment of summit euphoria. With the actual summit up to my left, I walked up a short rocky rise which then suddenly, dramatically, fell away beneath me to reveal a deep half-circle rock valley ringed by black jagged peaks and full almost to the brim with white, fluffy cloud. It was a remarkable and beautiful sight, something from Conan Doyle’s Lost World. I half expected to see a pterodactyl wheeling and screeching overhead. I stood there, joined by Yon, and stared at this amazing place. And later, on the way down, I turned around and came back to soak it in, to burn it into my brain. To really experience it, to remember it, clear of any distractions like camera settings and temperature and time and which way is north.
By now the sun was rising and we could see it lighting up the whole scene. The black rear face of Gorilla Peak was now bright yellow, warm and enticing and as welcoming as a near vertical cliff could be. Ahead, downhill, climbers were still ascending slowly, warmed by the sun. Beyond and below them the vast expanse of cloud reached out to the horizon, and nearer us it broke onto the side of Mt Kinabalu. The big fluffy surf swirled around the cliffs, the sunlight glistened on the wet granite slope, and we both found it glorious to behold.
The other half of climbing a mountain is climbing down. We took it carefully but made progress swiftly. A crazy guy almost ran down past us, slipping a little as he went but not losing his footing until he was further down below. There, in a spectacular backwards somersault that seemed, from the look of horror on his face, to have totally shocked him, he completely lost his grip and ended up head downhill in a cute little bush. “Slow down, dude”, I told him after checking he was alright. “I should go slowly?”, he asked, apparently for real. He was lucky, too. A young German woman fell to her death on the mountain just a month or so after our climb.
And suddenly we descended back into the mist, as sad a moment as when your aeroplane climbs down from that sunlit world above the clouds to return you to jobs, deadlines, and stowed tray tables. At least it was light, and not raining, so we could enjoy the strange experience of seeing alpine-style bushes and wind-gnarled trees just a few degrees north of the Equator. But when we walked into Laban Rata, guess what, it started to rain.
We ate a bigger breakfast here and had some coffee to fight off the tiredness that came with lack of sleep. And around 10am, I took off my dry fleece layers that were good for the summit but far too hot for the downclimb. I stripped my hiking pants down to shorts, pulled on my wet and cold trunks (yes, I went commando to the summit) and put on my still-soaking raincoat that reeked of the unholy combination of tropical rain and tropical sweat. Out into the downpour we went.
The steep downclimb was not flowing with water this time but the rain pounded us the whole way to the bottom – a vertical drop of 1,406 meters in just under 6 kilometers – an average 25 per cent grade or about a 23 degree pitch. It was much steeper in places, and uniformly muddy. With the determination that comes with being wet, and tired, and knowing a hot shower awaited, we knocked that off in three hours and posed happily for Sai under a sign reading “Welcome Back! You are successful climbers!”
Back at Kundasang, I felt momentarily cocky. We had done the climb fairly quickly, it hadn’t hurt, and we had a beautiful summit experience. I showered, bundled my inhumanely wet and smelly gear into a bag to be dealt with later, and climbed into bed for a nap. Suddenly I was exhausted, from lack of sleep and from the punishment I’d meted out to calves, knees and quads. I passed out into a deep sleep.
The next day, and for a few that followed, I found walking an unpleasant experience. Everything had seized up; though the dull pain in my kneecaps had gone, my calves and quads felt like they were made of stone, not muscle.
But it was more than worth it. Even now, I shut my eyes and see the Southern Cross, the moon far above in the centre of a corona of glowing cloud. Gorilla Peak broods on my left as I take the last steps to the summit. And then the rock falls away beneath me, a vertical drop into a mysterious bay of pure cloud, and it is just me and Yon, standing on the edge of an island in the sky.
*”Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921″ by Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury, George H. Leigh-Mallory and A. F. R. Wollaston, London 1922
Mt Kinabalu is 4,095.2 meters above sea level. The climb starts from 1,866 meters, a total vertical of 2,229 up and down (that vertical gain is precisely one meter above Australia’s highest mountain). The round trip is about 17 kilometers.