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As High as It Gets in South-East Asia

At the edge of where I stood, the plummetting canyon dropped straight down … a long way. The wind blew in gusts. Wonky legs sent a weak but distinct message to retreat from the brink. Dawn’s early light began to awaken, turning high clouds into swaths of burnt orange and flaming red. Ever so slowly, the sun clawed its way up and around a distant jagged, rocky apex, and shone white light against far away jutting curves. Gargantuan slabs of rock formed a massive patio, arcing gracefully away, its edge diving down to the far below cloud-cover that shrouded the jungle-covered foothills of the Mother mountain.

Persistently, the shadow’s line approached until, finally, the rays of warmth attacked my shivering. Gripping the camera tightly, my poorly functioning fingers pressed hard on the shutter release to record the spectacular scene.

The best-known expedition in Sabah, one of two states in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo, is to climb the highest peak in South-East Asia – Mount Kinabalu at 4101 metres. Mount Kinabalu is the spiritual home of Dusan, and its name derives from AKINABALU, revered place of the dead. Standing on that lip, personal extinction was only half a step away.

Thirty-six hours earlier, the air at the park entrance – at 1500 metres – was refreshingly cool compared to the lower altitude tropical heat of Malaysia, and the dense jungle was absolutely green, green, green. Spirits were high and wits competed among us travellers who had ad-libbed into groups of eight to share the guide costs. We were unsure what to expect. The only first-hand report had come from a veteran of the odyssey who was back down the same afternoon as our arrival. Lying in his bed of our six-bed dorm, he chuckled and giggled, saying only, “It’s hard … but worth it.” What does that mean? How hard is hard? Whaddaya mean “worth it?” To whom? How?

At 7:30 the next morning, a bus lugged up a paved road to km.0 at 1890m. The trail began easily, over a boardwalk and past a scintillating waterfall. From there on, with nature as the winning-bid architect, rarely was the track a flat path on an incline as had been the speculation. Each step climbed a stair, each stair made of rock, carved-out stones, tree roots, or a few man-made ladders. No two stairs climbed the same height, some many little steps melted together, others required ropes and a helping hand from the climber in front. If no help was forthcoming, grab anything, a branch, a small tree, the next step, another root; claw the dirt. At times, I used the strap from my bag as a pull rope, snagging something and pulling myself up. Add to the potion a combination of trail, dry creek beds, wet creek beds, sheer-faced stone, cliffs, gravel, planks, ropes, rocks, boulders, sand, mud holes, water holes, rest points, flowers, jungle, squirrels, rats, birds, water falls, clouds, wind, mist, rain, downpours, and sunshine all in one direction – UP. A vertical witch’s brew.

Finally, thankfully, at approximately 5 p.m., the first huts for the partial night’s stay appeared, km. 6 at 3353m. Our group collected in the canteen for a “What did we get ourselves into?” therapy session. We’d only just begun when the rain exploded with a mighty crash. A mini-Niagara formed on the next cliff over and thundered past the window, but because of its astonishing power, it seemed only a few steps away. Then, in a chillingly choreographed supernatural display, Mother Nature slammed shut her valves. The near vertical river vanished and the clouds deserted to provide a glimpse for the next day. In a blink, the clouds grey veil recloaked the rock and the water again pounded past.

A lousy, frosty sleep ended at plus or minus 2:30; the protocol was to reach the summit for sunrise. A nearly full moon dominated the starry sky. The climb’s final 1.5 to 2 kms., above the tree line, comprised flat, steep, colossal sheets of rock.

Finally, the final peak point, km. 8.72 at 4101m. The temperature was 3C, the wind about 40km/h. I had on a t-shirt, cotton pants, acrylic sweater, plastic poncho, socks, and sandals. Other travellers garbed similar attire. Who knew what it was all about? My hands were swollen and frozen; feet soaked and more frozen; lips stinging, chapped, and bleeding. The hardy souls who needed to reach the peak waved. I still needed another 400 or so metres. Were we having a good time? Nyet. I took another jittery picture instead.

With the photo shoot completed, one last point remained: who goes up must come down. The final leg began as a group, but Anders from Sweden – early twenties, fit as a fiddle, and in rut – and two of his contemporaries, a German doctor, and another European stud, ran down to cap their challenge. I suspected a certain national pride at stake for the first to the bottom. Our guide didn’t care, his job finished at the top; he was at home and immune from international competitions. Anikka, Kristina, (Ander’s travelling companions) and I ambled down slowly. Too spent, we had no choice. If it’s true misery enjoys company, then we were the Three Stooges. Jokes and self-ridicule united our misery. Howling with laughter (it was the opposite of crying) at our ineptness, each 1/2 km. trail mark took longer and longer to reach. Female porters ferried supplies up to the canteen. Fifty-pound bottles of propane, hung by a loop over their foreheads with a pad protecting their skin from the rope, rested on their backs.

We laughed and limped our way to the bottom, last off the hill. A young, attractive damsel in distress convinced a valiant stalwart to carry her down the final remaining way and they nipped us at the finish line. A brooding driver in a waiting bus (hallucinations read “hearse”) closed the door behind the mountain’s final three victims, and we slunk into the seats like Rocky I after round 15.

There ain’t gonna be no rematch.

At the park entrance, Anders roosted on a stone wall, looking fresh as a farm egg, and snickered: “My goodness, you Canadians are, how do you say, wimps?”

Wimp would cover it.

After 12 dead-to-the-world hours of sleep and a pleasant breakfast, we stood on the opposite sides of the highway, thumbing to our next destinations: east to Sandakan for my comrades and west to Kota Kinabalu for me.

“Hey, here comes a truck! Get your thumbs out. They love Swedes in this country. Sorry, no brake lights. Losers!”

“No one’s lining up to take you! And there’s only one of you. You’re three times the loser!”

After 10 minutes, a truck, loaded with pipe and then them, disappeared around the corner. My ride coincided with their departure where I was dropped off in front of my hostel in Kota Kinabalu. First thing, I took a nap. As I dropped off, I recalled the mandatory insurance policies. The apparent money grab now made sense. Health insurance valued at $5000 was enough to get the patient down. And for those too broken to recover, the $5000 life insurance policy was enough extra to send the occasional abruptly denationalized body home.

IF YOU GO… The island of Borneo consists of Kalimantan (Indonesia), The Kingdom of Brunei, and East Malaysia. Don’t be thrown by The Wild Man From Borneo myth. Malaysia, in spite of recent bad press, is one of the most stable, peaceful, enjoyable, prosperous countries in Asia. Besides, the lights go out early in this Muslim country. Malaysian Airlines flies through Kuala Lumpur, Singapore Airlines connects through Singapore. Cathay routes through Hong Kong but you still need to go through KL. The climate is hot ‘n humid. Insect repellent wards off silent night time mosquitoes. Malaysians speak Malay. English is widely spoken. Food is cheap and delicious.

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