The Team at the Top of Mt. Kinabalu

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There are two sides to every story, every truth, every question.

“So we’re climbing Mount Kinabalu!” As if we dropped a ticking time bomb, and before we were almost ready to start a countdown, a split second’s silence broke into one-liner combinations:

Are you crazy? You are crazy! Can you do it? You can do it, BUT!

“BUT, we can.” Perhaps we dropped the bomb too early, yet nothing’s too early with a weeklong expedition that would happen in less than three months’ time. Miles and miles of cycling, walking, rafting and hiking—maybe too much, too soon to prepare for—were up in the queue like some vital missions in a video game set to test our survival skills.

If torture were a mountain, it would stand like Mount Kinabalu. It didn’t help that almost everyone around us was thinking alike. Match it up with looks that size you up for a good ten seconds when you tap your friends for moral support.

Defending our case of seeming insanity, “We will do it.”

This might have sent some very supportive friends in fits of laughter, as though it was one of the best jokes ever told, but in our countdown to D-Day, we were getting ready and steady through day hikes in Bukit Kiara and Broga Hill, several runs and occasional rides around our office area.

If you think that sounds like some serious training; doing thrice, once or never in a week across two months will make you think twice. Well, not us.

Never did we think of backing down. We tackled write-ups after interviews in a vicious cycle—a mountain of its own.

Feeling stuck in a traffic jam of work for weeks and weeks, we were still in state of disbelief when we finally set foot in Kota Kinabalu.

“We’re here!” has never felt so good after an overdose of deadlines just a few hours, not even days, before our arrival. As soon as these words were out, a safe distance was set away from the rush of office life, and a nervous laughter almost breaking free.

We knew then that our only way is up.

 

Kilometer Zero

Start from kilometer zero and end up in infinity. So we did, with two extra pairs of eyes in the team—Auther and Wilson. The two adventure junkies-slash-founders of Trek Finder Tours who would be the action heroes to our version of damsels very much in distress in this short ramble in Sabah.

 

A Muddy Start

All suited up in our Fox cycling gear and apparel, we rode on our bicycles from kilometer zero to pure adventure.

While Auther and Wilson would spot and stop to see stray creatures hanging around the trees, we would treat ourselves to waterfront views and fresh breeze, which, to speak true, are very hard to come by in our hood.

Our appetite for stories led us to encounters with perfect strangers on the road—and fresh coconut water, lots of it, not forgetting the Rojak dish! All filled up and weighed down with more terrible puns from the two, we tried to survive the remaining off-road miles to Kiulu.

The real fun began when we went off-road. Leaves that were larger than life and stems that were taller than us set the background. Thick greens grazed our arms and faces, as we were chasing wind downhill. When we conquered every uphill, we would burst out in laughter. Well, that was the only way we coped up with all our energy spent!

When we’re out from the tunnels of the forest and had a moment to feel the rays of the sun, we caught the silhouette of Mount Kinabalu covered by thick velvety clouds. They said, we’re travelling higher up. From the ground it seemed impossible, but little did we know that the entire journey would be the collection of each small step taken.

The pak pak line the children were belting out from the Kadazan-Dusun folk song Jambatan Tamparuli, right before we brought, not our high heels (as the song goes), but our two wheels up the hanging bridge itself, echoed the heritage closer to our footsteps across planks of old, worn wood. It was almost heartwarming until our two fellas joined the chorus of such innocent voices. Ehem, that’s how you know the song bridges the generation gap.

We crossed bridges that were suspended above the fast river, hellos from the villagers, and puddles that got our Fox gears dirty. That’s how our first day of adventure tasted like!

Junior from the Trek Finder team welcomed us at the finish line with a box full of surprises.

That’s right, nothing beats a cold beer after a killer climb!  Loading the bicycles back in the open cargo area of the pickup truck, ourselves (while downing our first beers) included, we drove to the riverside where we chugged down our next. That’s for the hard-won first day. Next challenge, please!

The first day high dragged on from the homestay’s balcony to surrender. We filled the air with conversations and laughters, as we delighted in hearty home cooked dishes.

We retired from the night, only to wake up to the friendly smiles of the villagers of Kampung Tombung.

 

Down The Rapids

What went down the rapids? The ‘Fox’ team and a bit of our sanity. From pedaling to paddling, we charged ahead full-force. Count on getting wet! And behold, not only the river would splash you as you barrel down the wild sections, but also your sneaky teammates! Sure, we had our healthy dose of human-induced splash, but literally, behind every man (Auther and Wilson sitting in front of the raft) is just as evil a woman. Down times? Splash fight!

For first time rafters, every moment was spurred with excitement, thanks to James for letting us in on the adventure.

We took our seats and locked our feet under the tubes. Our ears were on alert to get the first command from Lester who was sitting at the back.

“FORWARD!”

We paddled forward and picked up the momentum, but so did the current. Our adrenaline peaked and our raft started chasing the cool white river waters. Sitting at the edge of the raft and dipping into waters made us feel so alive.

“Okay guys, you can rest now.”

We parked our rafts and walked back to do something even more exciting. Lo and behold, body rafting! We were pretty nervous at first; after all, we just got off from some thrilling rapids! The rule of thumb when you’re in the speedy rivers is to stay calm.

“Legs up all the time, keep to the right, and just be careful about the rapids ahead. Whatever happens, just remember the rule of thumb; be calm and you will come back up.”

 

Small Steps

Down went more beers. Again. A few hours before the real backbreaker. With a bit of withdrawal from the lager and the cosy bed, we chowed down on our breakfast—no eggs (we didn’t want to fart them out on the climb *wink wink*)—and with our Camelbak packs full of everything we needed, we broke apart from the comfort of Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.

We started our journey from the Timpohon Gate. There it was—our chosen path to the peak.

It was as if we got here too soon; nervous crept in again, but knowing that we’re facing the unknown made everything more beautiful and exciting. We were strategizing our game plan, “Maybe stop laughing at everything?”

Barely hiking 1km, we were already losing our breath. We desperately tried to bring our breathing rate to normal and stop our weak lungs from bursting. What could possibly be the distraction?! Following Wilson’s lead, we took small steps to save energy. Soon enough, it seemed a bit more bearable.

But even ditching the jokes and the several What happened to you? from our dear chaps did not quite let our lungs off the hook of an almost rupture. We could barely mutter a swear word under breath! The legs were working fine, but our lungs were struggling so hard to act their part.

One, two, three, four, five, oh, my, God, nine, ten. Inhale deeply, exhale. One, two, you, can, do, it, seven, one, more, step. Breathe in, breathe out. We could have sworn this mantra helped us find our rhythm to survive the climb that almost busted a lung.

And Wilson! With no wasted movement in his footwork, his lead we followed religiously. Auther’s got our backs! This was how we spelled out teamwork.

We couldn’t be more thankful with their constant reminder for us to just be content with small steps and not get our legs too pumped out. So we kept to their cue all the way up and not staying at the stops for too long to rest.

At the 4th km, as we celebrated making it halfway through, the mountain gods threw in a little more fun. They poured rains—lots of it! Make no mistake, it gave us the most beautiful sight on the trail. Waters flowed down the rocks as we climbed, filling up our boots. Aside from a scene of colourful ponchos, climbers’ guise changed from excessive sweating to dripping wet.

We climbed with rain streaming down our faces. We climbed until we heard the magic words, “100 meters to go! Look ahead, you can see Laban Rata!” At that moment nothing seemed impossible. The last steps up had broken our game faces to smiles.

Through a series of small steps, our little victories, we covered 6km and reached the Laban Rata Rest House—praise to the skies! Almost tears of joy were shed had we not sweat so much. But really, as soon as we set foot on the wooden floor of this pit stop, we hugged like we haven’t seen each other for years—our way of affirming our own existence, that we made it. We made it! And of course, a group hug like no other, as we all broke into probably the best laughter we’ve ever had. Silence? Saving energy?? What do you mean???

 

RM at the Top

It was so easy to get lost in the sunset views from Laban Rata and simply stray away from the 2.7km climb that would happen just a few hours later, but we were still homed in on our goal: bring RM to the summit.

We never thought that even the given chance to rest would be a challenge. It was not so much about the snoring battle in our intimately cramped dormitory room, but our body clock that is used to our sleeping at 1am. Nevertheless, it still gave us enough time to just relax with our eyes closed and body laid in the warmth of the bed and blanket, until our alarm rang in unison with the other few.

At 2.30am, we were all geared up, waiting outside for the green light from Jisam, our mountain guide, to climb. We looked at everyone. Is this it? Is it finally sinking in, that we’re 2.7km away from the peak?

The crowd started to move. Ten steps forward, and both of us were panting, barely catching our breath. The difficult part was always the first 100 meters.

It was cold—very, very cold—and our heart felt like it was struggling to function in the freezing, thin air. When we came to a bottleneck of mountain climbers, just before the rope segments, we felt a bit relieved. This ‘slow lane’ allowed us to slacken a bit.

 In the pitch dark, with our headlights on, all in a row like zombies, we climbed up. We used the rope to pull ourselves up, placing our TNF-equipped feet on the jaded mountain rocks and occasionally slipping.

After the 300m rope segment, and a little bit more climbing, we reached the checkpoint. Guides were ticking our names off their list.

And we made it, yet again, at the last checkpoint before the summit. We even arrived quicker than they have expected, way earlier than the cut-off time for climbers.

Now this is where it got really tough. Two kilometers seemed much tougher and longer than the 6km we did to Laban Rata. We felt we were losing our mind—and our lungs! The darkness made it even more difficult to continue.

Every inhale of cold, dry air assaulted our lungs directly. It was sharp and localized, we couldn’t even think of anything else, but focus on making our ragged breathing even.

“Take 10 steps forward and stop; keep at it.” We were almost there, and there was no way we would give up. When we looked around, almost all the guides’ hands were clasped in with the climbers’, thanks to Auther and Wilson for pulling us forward to the finish line uncomplainingly.

As we were battling against our own selves and concentrating on our steps and breathing, we heard, “Can you guess what that is?”

We stopped and looked to our right. It was the Donkey’s Ear Peak painted in a black silhouette against cerulean blue skies. A moment of awe struck us. We finally took a 360-degree turn and admired the entire sight. Clouds were suspended below us, while the monstrous jaded rocks were finally shaping up under the light slowly piercing through the sky. We hugged and took a moment to see the beauty at the top with all five senses.

We’re here. All the constant dreaming finally came true. We made it!

High above the clouds, with Mountain Kinabalu as witness, Running Malaysia made it to the top.

 

The Descent

But it doesn’t end here. It wasn’t the end of the movie where it’s always filled with confetti and laughter, nor was there any easy exit. We made it up 8km; we should make it back down the same eight.

Armed with our walking stick, we made our way down. It was 7am, and the sun was warming up the scene. It was difficult to fathom that the same rope we used to climb up looked even scarier downwards. Legs were shaking in weakness. The last thing we wanted to think about was the long way down, but that’s all there was to think about.

There was something about reaching the peak that made the descent seem not as demanding as the ascent. You could say that it was the feel-good psychology at the summit. We played along with it till our knees began to hurt.

As we took off from Laban Rata, down went the rain. And it stayed with us the entire journey down.

Every step was agony, but we would laugh it off here and there, because there was no other way for such a knee-slapper descent! All that kept us going was the image of Oreos, like a carrot tied to our walking stick.

 With enough water breaks and zero pit stops, we made our way down, but the kilometers didn’t seem to shrink. We took 5 hours to go down, and the same record was being played during the last two kilometers, “500 meters more until you reach…1.5km.”

We hiked the last leg to Timpohon Gate, and as if the mountain were joking with us—the ending had to be a staircase! Feeling our entire body complaining with each step, we savor the grinding process as it slowed to a halt. “We’re back!”

We are never the same after the adventure that inhabited us for a week—or, for the rest of our lives, it will. When we heard about the quake tragedy, we were greatly diminished.

 Mount Kinabalu will never be the same. The tragedy revealed the extraordinariness of the ordinary we once knew. They were mountain climbers. They were mountain guides. They were everyday heroes. And we will always remember.

 Once upon a time, they were there. Now, we are here.

 


TREK FINDER TOURS SDN. BHD.
KPL 6401 / CO NO.923657-P
Lot 4, 1st Floor, Kepayan Ridge, Phase 18 & 19
Lorong Bunga Semarak , 1A, Mile 2
88300, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.
T: +60 88 319 480 | F: +60 88 319 580

Auther James Dtk. Kimon
General Manager
H: (+6) 013 886 0080 / E: auther.trekfinder@gmail.com

Wilson Chin Ken Peir @ Mohd. Raihan
Director of Sales & Operation
H: (+6) 013 850 0080 / E:  wilson.sabahkk@gmail.com

 

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