The plane’s window gave me my first glimpse into the Borneo rainforest below. A blanket of canopy could be seen from above, with few villages and towns dotted throughout. The plane finally rested in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Malaysian Borneo’s eastern state, Sabah. I would be spending a few days in the city before heading towards Malaysia’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu.
Sadly, the cities in Borneo don’t quite have the personality or variation of those on the Malaysian Peninsular. Without much to do, I carefully treaded around the town in order to not cause any last minute injuries, and kept my exploration to a minimum. It wasn’t long before I was packing myself in a cramped local minibus, and was driven towards Kinabalu national park and my mountain host, “Jungle Jack”.
The mountain camp was simple enough, with character added by Jack’s insatiable spirit and enthusiasm. Cheese on toast was available in plentiful supply (a luxury in Asia!), and the camp’s local puppy called “Wifi” provided company alongside the other travellers.
Despite dwarfing any other mountain nearby, it was impossible to see Mount Kinabalu through the mist and clouds that draped over the surrounding lands. Rain was a daily inevitability that you would expect and endure regardless of whether you were inside or out. At 1500m altitude, the environment was temperate, whilst maintaining that Malaysian humidity that you would tirelessly follow you wherever you were.
However, I had finally arrived at the amazing rainforest which I had hoped to see for much of my life. Wild green growth stretched to the horizon, and the constant buzz of nature echoed in every direction. There was a sense of satisfaction of just reaching the jungle, and I’d have been happy to just wander and enjoy the scenery for my entire stay. I was part of a group of 5 travellers hoping to traverse to the peak. This included two British women, a German called Ilka and a Norwegian called Odd. We excitedly chatted about what to expect in the coming days, which could be neatly summarised as wet clothes and sore legs.
After an early night, we rose to reach the start of the climb at 1800m. The climb to the top was scheduled over two days, with an overnight stay at the base camp at 3200m, before ascending to the peak at 4095m the following morning. Despite not being a particularly lengthy in distance or duration of climb, the continuous steep slope would test any legs.
The surroundings visibly evolved every metre of height we gained. Whereas tall and mossy trees towered above at lower altitudes, they would not survive higher up the mountain and were therefore replaced by smaller trees and scrub which nestled between the large boulders. As expected, heavy rain started to fall about halfway through our climb on the first day, which forced your eyes towards the floor to watch every footstep. The pathways became small streams, which although were certainly walkable, were still made harder to navigate.
We reached the base camp to a pleasant surprise of luxury. Somehow, Jack had upgraded our stay to a “VIP dorm room”, which had an ensuite, a hot shower and soft beds. This comfy room somehow betrayed my notion of mountain exploration, but I wasn’t complaining.
On the second day at 2:30am, we attached our head torches and stepped out into the pitch black mud to start our final ascent. There were around 120 climbers heading out that morning to the peak. The narrow path became an illuminated snake of people clambering upwards.
I wasn’t near the front, although I was keen to hasten past many of the slower climbers so that I may maintain my own pace with some room ahead of me. After an hour of climbing, we left the muddy path and green plant life and instead found our feet falling on huge slabs of granite. The granite was sufficiently rough to make a pleasant walking surface, with the exception of sections where water was running down which became very slippery. It wasn’t long before the path opened up over the sea of stone, and I could comfortably walk at my own speed.
A single rope was the only marker towards the top, although it was easy enough to see the general correct direction anyway. My group had separated so that everyone could continue at their own pace, and I trudged forward at a determined pace to reach the top. Suddenly, all the head torch lights ahead of me disappeared, and there were no more climbers in front. Without knowing, I had become the first climber.
Towards the peak, you could feel the air thin and every breath becomes a deep gulp. The final section involves scrambling over large boulders, which I enthusiastically hopped through. The end was finally in sight, and what a great feeling that was!
I had arrived early at the summit, and found a relatively comfy spot to sit down and hide from the chilling wind. It was of course approaching freezing temperatures at the summit, although my confidence had meant I only wore shorts to the top (and was the only one on the mountain doing so). Still, with my big jacket I remained warm and could still move my toes. Like the stars above, head torches twinkled from the climbers below. I still had 45 minutes before sunrise, so I calmly sat and waited from my mountain throne. I even surprisingly found some phone reception at the top and sent some cheery messages to family and friends.
By 5am, the Sun rose and cut the sky open to colours of orange, yellow and blue. Our fears of an overcast morning at the top were quickly swept aside when our stunning view presented itself. Pools of clouds could be seen below, hovering over hundreds of miles of forest and mountain. The mountain ranges slowly stepped out of their silhouettes and showed their jagged lines spearing downwards. The granite flowed like liquid over the mountainside. It really was a unique place to be.
Weirdly enough, this was in fact the first time I had seen the mountain. In the back of my mind, I knew of the aching legs and fatigue to come during the descent and over the coming days. But for that one moment above the clouds, it was certainly worth it.