“You climbed that mountain. You can do this.” My mom gripped my hands and coached me. I was supposed to push but I couldn’t feel anything below my waist. I summoned that place, that courage and strength that I had needed to climb ‘that mountain’, and suddenly I was there all over again. Just for a brief moment. Enough to dip into that memory and bring back the strength I needed to get me through childbirth. Because I could do it. After all, I had climbed Mt. Kinabalu.
I am peering out the van’s side window. Was that it? That black rocky mountain top jutting through the clouds into the sky? I can’t quite get a clear look at it. I find myself climbing out of the white van, onto the paved parking lot adjacent to the check-in point at the base of the mountain. I almost fall over. I walk up to the wooden fence, almost in a trance, and grab onto it with both hands to steady myself. I try to take a deep breath but find it difficult to breath. Is the air already thinner up here? Why can’t I breathe? I start hyperventilating. I look up. I am going to climb that rocky surface, into the clouds and above. Tomorrow.
‘I can do this,’ I repeat to myself over and over. Unable to take my eyes of the mountaintop, I see nothing but slabs of black rock jutting through the clouds. Where is the green? Where are the great big flowers and twisty trees? Where are the stairs and the path that leads to the top? My friend Darryl walks over and puts his arm on my shoulder. ‘I think I’m having an anxiety attack,’ I tell him. ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ He chuckles. He reassures me, ‘Yes, you can, Mary Lou.’ Mary Lou is my nickname among this small group of friends. Mary Lou. Rebecca. I can’t even remember where it came from, likely some drunken adventure. But regardless, it has stuck. At least between us. The Mt. Kinabalu six.
Our guide greets us and ushers us into the direction of the check-in point. ‘Base camp.’ We all head in together and get our name tags, which we proudly hang around our necks, new yellow necklaces with our plastic medallions. These glorified name tags will keep us grouped together, helping our guide remember our names. As he reads through our name tags, Darryl gets his new nickname. Somehow our guide drops the ‘l’ in ‘Darryl’ and a new name is born in jest, ‘Dairy’. I keep stealing glances at that black rocky mountain top, the voice of the guide whistling around my head. After introductions and the itinerary for the next couple of days, we hop back into the van and head up to the lodge house where we will sleep before an early morning start.
I once dated a boy who climbed mountains as a hobby. This was not something I had ever aspired to do. When my new friends put together a group to go to Borneo, Malaysia for our October break, I quickly signed up. Rainforest? Orangutans? Exotic flowers and Probiscus Monkeys? Small plane rides and boat rides? Why not? Oh, yes, and Mt. Kinabalu. No problem. I could do it. I knew people that climbed mountains. Right? How hard could it be? Somehow researching the mountain before the journey never occurred to me. It never entered my mind that this was the tallest peak in SEAsia. There were supposed to be stairs halfway up. I had no idea that the top would need to be scaled with rope. No idea. But here I was. I had committed to the climb. I would do it. But how?
Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Off to Climb a Mountain
We set out in the morning, carrying small backpacks just large enough to carry an extra layer, snacks and water. The sun is shining and as we continue on in the climb, jackets tied around our waists, we make frequent stops for water and ‘birdseed’, as my trail mix is referred to. We snap photos to store away for the years when we will sit around, telling our grandchildren of the trip that solidified our friendships and realized dreams.
Sweat pours from my brow, one round of steps turned into another and another. I thought that the steps would be the easiest part. Not so. I stopped counting the steps once in the hundreds. Little wooden boards, stretching up from the base of the mountain until the terrain changed, became less even, more sparse. An inviting start for those unsure they can climb a mountain. For those like me. After the stairs comes a rocky slope, with dark, twisted trees, branches reaching in the direction of the wind. I follow Mike off the path in search of flowers that look like small buckets, waiting for flies to fall in and never resurface. We keep quiet and wonder if we will spot any wildlife, other than the birds chirping in the afternoon sun. Monkeys perhaps?
I stop frequently, out of breath. My face is red and hot. I gulp down more water. I’m not worried about running low, our guide has a porter who carries extra supplies, although he’s fast on his feet and likely to the lodge already, where we will stay for the night. The lodge is at the point just above the clouds where we will rest before making the final ascent in the early morning. The thought of reaching that point just above the clouds wills me forward when my legs start to wobble and shake, first from so many stairs, and now maneuvering the uneven terrain of the jungle.
Lodge in the Clouds
As we get closer to our target, closer to the clouds, there are less trees, less green, and less life altogether. There is one lone bird perched atop a tree with no leaves, its dark branch a finger pointing up. Up to the clouds, which are closer now than before. I think about the Care Bears having tea parties up there. And I long to sit atop my own fluffy cloud and rest with them. No longer a child, imagination pushed aside by realism and I know that the clouds will dissipate as we near, appearing as fog does. I know we will walk through and above and I will be sitting on the clouds, in a chair. The air starts to thin, we move slower, taking in shorter breaths. Mike starts to feel the effects of the thinning air, getting a headache. I’ve never been this high up before, but surprisingly I feel ok. I take a puff on my inhaler and walk on.
We see the read and white stripes of the Malaysian flag blowing in the wind above. We’ve made it through the fog, the clouds. We each pose for pictures with the colorful flags. I feel like I am on top of the world. The clouds move quickly and through a break I see the green before us that we’ve already hiked through. I can see small lights starting to brighten the city below, roads which look like ant trails, twisting between dotted homes in the world below. We’ve made it this far. Suddenly everything seems possible. We walk into the lodge where we will sleep before rising at 2am. It’s dinnertime now and I can’t wait to get something into my belly. Hot tea, spicy Laksa soup with tofu. Mmmmm. Delicious. We stumble in, half dazed. There are two rooms with bunk beds left, one with heat and one without. Our fingers and toes, numb from the cold, convince us girls the heated room is best. We pay the extra ringgit, drop our things, and head for the mess hall. Darryl brings his travel Scrabble board and we settle in for a long game with our hot soup and tea.
Sleeping in Cockroach Infested Rooms
After a brilliant game of Scrabble (I’m pretty sure Darryl won) we head to bed early for a good night rest before waking to do the last part of our climb. With the alarm set to wake us at 2am, going to bed after dinner seems like a good idea. My hand fumbles for the light switch and as it goes on I see dozens of large cockroaches scatter to hide. Ewww. The room is nice and cozy, a safe haven from the outside chill for ourselves and also the cockroaches. Short of panicking we turn the lights off again and then back on, to better assess the situation. Or just to torture ourselves and bring forward nightmares of limbs being chewed off in the night. I met a guy while living on Saipan Island who had a quarter sized scar on his lower calf. Rumor was he’d been sleeping on the floor and had become a late night snack for our antennaed friends. I started having nightmarish images of cockroaches crawling into my nose and other crevices in the night. We stuff our noses and ears with tissue and crawl into bed, wrapped as tightly as our sleeping bags allow. Needless to say, it isn’t exactly a peaceful sleep. As soon as the lights go out, we can hear them crawling out from the hiding places, having a party on the walls next to us. Shudder. Sleeping with the fluorescent lights on was not an option (too bright), so instead it was with one eye open. Morning came far too soon. But not quick enough.
Our guide came in to wake us with the news that most groups had called off their climb due to bad weather. We could hear the wind screaming outside and rain pelting the windows of the lodge. He said we could wait until the next day to see if the weather was better. We didn’t have time. The problem being that it is only possible to do the climb before sunrise, afterward the mountain top is lost in the clouds, impossible for climbing and lacking in view. We ask our guide how dangerous it is. He says he would do it, it is up to us. We couldn’t stay another day, so we decide to do it. Mike isn’t feeling any better from his altitude sickness, so he gives me his rain jacket to wear, since mine is inadequate. Think, small, fashionable Gap item, on the sale rack a few years back. Not going to make it up the rocky mountain side during a rain storm. I am going for warmth and dryness this time around with a total disregard to fashion. We are bummed Mike won’t be able to go with us, but I am so thankful to have his jacket.
Then There Were Five
Monica, ‘Darry’, ‘Rebecca’, her brother Billy and I leave the lodge, huddling, following close behind our guide. Rain pelting down on us. Then mist. We cling to each other, one pair, one trio, never losing site of the other. One foot in front of the other. Stepping over small rivers made overnight from the rain. The air becomes thinner, colder. We climb higher and higher. There is little light. Everything is dark and gray. The white rope appears. The infamous white rope. Our guide had warned us about it. Never let go. You will be lost from the group. You will fall off the mountain side. You must hold on. We had joked about depending on a single thread which would lead us up a mountain side, to the top. We are scaling the mountain, a horizontal move that slowly takes us up. We must hold onto the rope. The rain has soaked my white canvas gloves to the core. My fingers curl around the rope, numb from the cold rain. The clouds move in patches. I can see the lights from the city below. I am on the side of the mountain and if I let go I will fall through the clouds and down down down. I imagine myself falling into the city below. It is both frightening and exhilarating. Thoughts of dying enter my mind. But thoughts of reaching the top push me forward. I am determined to make it. ‘Rebecca’ isn’t faring so well. She’s ready to stop. We have about 200 more feet before we make it to a hut to take a rest from the rain, have a snack, regroup. Once inside, it’s dark, someone lights a match and then a gas light. Another group, not far behind us, follows us in while we regroup. ‘Rebecca’ has decided to stay behind in the hut. We are now a group of four.
The Four Musketeers
Everyone hugs and we set out for the last part of the climb. This will be the hardest part. Straight up. Our buddy the rope, our faithful guide. There is nothing visible but the immediate slick, black rock of the mountain top and the white rope leading the path before us. Everyone holds on, single file. A heavy mist surrounds us. We zigzag up the mountain. I am on that piece of rock I had looked up at just two days before. I am doing it. My thoughts alternate between prayers for my life, an understanding of how ridiculous this is, and favorite moments I have already lived. Although fear resonates, I am also faithful. I know that I will make it. I know the four of us will make it. Monica, ‘Darry’ and Billy are all fairly experiences hikers, and me, I’m becoming one.
To the Top
I can no longer feel my fingers. I don’t know how I am holding on. We are wrapped up with everything we have in our backpacks, which doesn’t seem to be enough. A thin scarf shields my face from the biting wind. As we climb the final steps, we see the wooden placard which tells us we’ve made it. Our legs are weak and stiff from trying to steady ourselves on slippery rock. Our fingers are stiff and cold from gloves soaked through. We embrace and smile, ice particles on our eyelashes. Nose hairs frozen. We embrace again for the victory photo. We have made it. We made it to the top. Climbed the tallest mountain in SEAsia. Taman Kinabalu. Low’s Peak. 4095.2M. Getting there was one of the most difficult feats I have every physically accomplished. Looking down the slick black rock, jutting out into the sky. The clouds rolling away. The sun getting ready to make her appearance. Bliss. Heart racing bliss. Satisfaction. Self worth. Confidence. Accomplishment. Feeling invincible after so many vulnerable moments during the climb.
While defrosting our bodies over another hot bowl of soup and tea, we recounted our hike for Mike and ‘Rebecca’ back at the lodge. A daze. An early morning memory. A dream realized.
For more photos from the climb, courtesy of Darryl Anderson, visit my flickr set Mt. Kinabalu
April 13 2011 theme: Accomplishment
Rough draft finished April 28
Final April 29