Climbing the 20th highest peak in the world is probably my greatest achievement thus far! It was exciting, daunting, exhilarating and surreal, in that order.
We started our climb via the Timpohon Gate, located 90 km from Kinabalu National Park, Borneo (East Malaysia). The first day’s target was to climb 6 km horizontally and 1300 m vertically. The initial stretch was relatively easy, alternating between clearings and small steps, amid tall trees and dense vegetation. The second half was slightly more taxing, with steeply inclined rocks and steps, where trees were gradually replaced by shrubs and bushes. The trick was to save as much energy as possible by finding an alternative way to climb the steps through rubble and using small rocks as stepping stones. The view became more scenic with height and we were shrouded in mist for certain stretches. I would typically describe it as breath-taking, but I must reserve the term for the summit.
It is mandatory for all climbers to spend the night at Laban Rata or one of its subsidiary guest houses before resuming the climb the next morning. Even those scanty hours of rest were a blessing to sore muscles. At 2 am the next morning, the entire guest house (about 20-25 climbers) was brimming with activity. Over the course of the night, the weather had become chilly, so much that thick woolen gloves offered just enough protection from the cold. Wrapped in all the clothes we had carried, my brother and I set out with our guide, determined to conquer the peak.
The dark of the night was lit by a trail of several small torch-lights making their up, up, up. If the first 6 km were challenging, the next 3 were almost terrifying! With our torches clutched between our teeth, we grabbed climbing ropes from stretch to stretch, trying to get a grip on the bare rock of the mountain. I haven’t experienced such thrill, such adrenalin rush in all my twenty (one) years. The dark, though, made the terrain less daunting, a realization that would dawn on me later.
By about 6 am and after baffling with the wind and the rain for a good half hour, we conquered the last stretch with huge rocks and no ropes. That was it! Low Peak, 4095 m, the 4th highest in SE Asia, the 20th highest in the world, the only that I might ever conquer, spectacular. We were above the clouds, almost touching the sky, and watching the most breathtaking sunrise in all of history. The round of the sun gradually emerged, it’s rays distinctively penetrating the air, a salute to all creation, a promise that nothing is significant enough, an assurance that THIS is life. My words really can’t do justice to that feeling of being at the top of the world, literally. It’s where I began my 21st year of life.
The climb down wasn’t my favorite part at all. The 900 m we had climbed since the morning of the descent almost put my entire life into perspective. In the light of the sun, I could now see clearly the vertical terrain we had climbed, and that now lay for us to climb down. One slip was all it would’ve taken, to unite with creation again, somewhere up there. It was a numbing feeling. In restrospect, I don’t know how I made it back. Perhaps a little determination, lots of good luck, and definitely a helping hand from my guide Yeta. Yeta came from a village at the foot of the mountain and has been a guide for 12 years now. She climbs the mountain, on an average, twice a week, so by rough calculations, she’s done the trail 500 times! Phew.
Light breakfast, wobbling feet and 6 hours later, we made it back to our starting point, proud and tired. The adventure has housed itself in my head. Life can be short, I know, but it can also be the single most intoxicating experience.
Get my latest article in your inbox!
I’m the founder of this award-winning travel blog about offbeat and sustainable travel, and author of the bestselling travel memoir, The Shooting Star.
In 2011, I quit my full-time job, and gradually gave up my home, sold most of my possessions, stored some in the boot of a friend’s car and embraced a nomadic life.
Connect with me on Instagram to hear more about my adventures and personal journey.