By LEE YU CHUANG
Mount Kinabalu is the centrepiece of the North Borneo “mountainscape”.
On a clear day, from the park headquarters where eager groups of hikers would usually set off every morning, one can readily appreciate its broad sheer flanks thrusting out from the surrounding greenery.
The peak bears a signature silhouette sculpted over aeons. On the left there’s Low’s Peak, the highest point in all of Borneo island.
The South Peak poses photogenically in the middle, and to the right stands the aptly descriptive Donkey’s Ears and Tunku Abdul Rahman peaks.
Starting off on a bright sunny morning, our family of five quickly realised that the trudge to Mount Kinabalu is relentlessly and unceasingly up. All 8.7km of it.
Never mind that it is said to be one of the world’s most “climbable” mountains. Never mind that in 2016, the Kinabalu run was bested by one Safrey Sumping who sprinted up the peak and down in a jaw-dropping time of two hours, 21 minutes and 33 seconds. The rest of us would just have to go at our own pace.
Fortunately, we found respite beneath perfect blue skies as we made our way through the rainforest, washed over every so often by cool passing mists.
Giant nepenthes (pitcher plant), rhododendrons and dandelions adorned the fringes of the rocky path. Mosses and ferns clung like security blankets on every surface. The atmosphere resounded with bird calls that thrilled across the forest. It was indeed a jungle paradise.
To the credit of Sabah Parks, the track is well maintained with rest stops strategically placed about 1km apart.
Each signpost reminded us just how far we had yet to journey. Highland porters wearing cheap rubber shoes (aka the beloved “Adidas kampung”) and carrying unbelievable loads breezed passed us nonchalantly.
Five to six hours from our start, we reached Panar Laban (altitude 3,270m).
Suddenly, we found ourselves staring face-to-face with Mount Kinabalu’s magnificent craggy granite musculature that seemed to push straight heavenwards.
The huts at Panar Laban where we spent the night commanded a dramatic view of the slopes as well as the distant green valley below. We were relieved to clean off our grime, after which we slipped into warm clothing which stayed on for the remainder of the trek.
The buffet spread at the Laban Rata rest house (just a short distance away from Panar Laban) tasted good, enhanced as it were by the picturesque settings, warm homely atmosphere and our famished tummies.
At 2.30am, we continued our trek. It was really cold and as if conditions were not challenging enough, the path became even more steep. Mechanically, we plodded on in grim silence, pausing every few moments to suck in precious air, while wallowing in pools of self-doubt within.
Our headlamps cut through the trail dust, illuminating the next step in garish black and white. It was a blessing that nobody could see our sullen expressions in the dark.
We were only dimly aware of open rocky spaces sloping upwards, and gravity tugging our backpacks towards certain oblivion.
Overhead, stars calmly presided over the procession of lights emanating from our headlamps.
Periodically, we encountered rope lines for which we used both our hands to haul ourselves up a vertiginous slab of granite. It was then we understood why the guides would cancel summit climbs in inclement weather. The task is already challenging enough under ideal circumstances, it would be absolutely suicidal to attempt the summit in rain or fog.
The final checkpoint is Sayat Sayat (3,668m). Only hikers who make this point by 5am will be allowed passage to the summit, as fog will engulf the area by mid-morning, obliterating visibility.
Now, the landscape transformed.
In the shimmering violet of breaking dawn, we looked in all directions and wondered if we had been teleported to another planet altogether.
We were perched on a vast sloping plateau of solid rock, dwarfed by the legendary formations that we saw from afar just a day before. Save for a smattering of hardy subalpine shrubs, the background was entirely naked and bare. We were witness to utter desolation.
Behind us, the surface declined all the way to infinity.
We pushed passed the 8km mark. Clearly, there was no turning back, now that the summit stood tantalisingly within reach.
Upon first sight of Low’s Peak, we experienced a wave of excitement mixed with dismay. The mountain was apparently saving her last laugh on us.
The final 20m is a harrowing steep climb. Numb to the core, battered by the chilly winds, and summoning our last remaining vestiges of strength, we clambered on all fours towards the plaque that marked the highest point in all of South-East Asia.
Exhausted and spent, we took in the smoky clouds broiling like witches’ brew below us, the rising sun casting her blanket of gold over us, and the lesser peaks now looking grudgingly up at us.
To be sure, Mount Kinabalu does not yield her secrets easily. But for those who rise to the challenge and persevere, the reward will be nothing short of incredible.