When we began planning our two-month Southeast Asia trip, I knew I wanted the journey to begin and end with something big. For the beginning, something to set the tone for the rest of our time, to celebrate all that lay ahead. It didn’t take much research to reveal the perfect starting point, the adventure of all adventures: Mount Kinabalu.
Mount Kinabalu stands at just above 4,000 meters (13,435 ft), making it the third highest peak in Southeast Asia. Situated on the island of Borneo, the mountain is hardly the Island’s only attraction and, therefore, the perfect pit stop to add to any itinerary! – I’m still baffled, by the way, that Malaysian Borneo wasn’t originally one of our stops. We walked away from the two-month adventure with it at the top of our list of recommendations.
As there are only 135 climbing permits given out daily, we wasted no time in booking our reservations through Sutera Sanctuary Lodges. Even having booked four months in advance we still were unable to snag the exact climbing date we wanted, as it was already full. They are definitely not kidding when they say book as early as you can! While there are several options as to which agency to book your permit, beware of scams and make sure you choose a certified and licensed operator. We were stoked with our 3D2N package (Poring Hot Springs & Laban Rata) with Sutera Sanctuary Lodges and would book through them again!
We arrived in the charming town of Kota Kinabalu a few days prior to our hike in order to give our bodies some time to rest. It’s not the most exciting of towns but it is the perfect place to both gear up for and recuperate from a hike with its waterfront restaurants, night markets, and, my favorite, the Sunday morning market on Gaya Street!
Rested and rejuvenated (thanks to the coziest of backpacker lodges: Lucy’s Homestay) we caught a bus out of town that dropped us directly in the National Park. There, we got checked-in and shuttled off to Poring Hot Springs, where we would spend the rest of the day and night. In retrospect, we might have spent the little extra cash and chose the other 3D2N option that allows you to sleep in the actual park the night before your hike (to aid with acclimatization), as the “hot springs” were not much more than over-crowded, lukewarm pools. Needless to say, we opted only for a foot soak and spent the rest of the evening exploring the park via canopy walkway.
Early the next morning, we ate and loaded back in the van to make our way towards the National Park. One late van, collapsed sink hole, and MIA trekking guide later we finally made it – another reason I would opt to sleep in Kinabalu Park. Save yourself the stress!
After a quick briefing and swapping of team introductions we were on our way! If I remember correctly, we took about 10 downhill steps right off the bat and then did not take another, single, downhill step until we were descending from the top… I can’t help but laugh while writing this, reminiscing on the the utter atrocity 🙂 but as exaggerated as it sounds, ’tis true, friends.
About two hours into the hike it began to rain, and proceeded to rain for the rest of the day’s hike. In other words, do not forget to pack your raincoat and rain fly for your bag! We spent most of our day hiking while completely socked in by clouds so, unfortunately, I can’t speak much to the surrounding views. I do know, however, that this seems to be a common occurrence, according to the guides and hikers we passed.
After a grueling four and a half hours of I-don’t-know-if-I-can-take-one-more-step moments, we finally laid eyes on the prize: Laban Rata Base Camp!
Such as the rest of our hike, our first impression of base camp wasn’t much to write home about, as the building was completely encased by thick, unforgiving clouds. We, okay I, half-near crawled inside to rest our weary toes and warm up our insides with (non-complimentary) hot chocolate – I regret nothing!
You’d be amazed how quickly shared struggle brings people together – we laughed and joked about the day (too soon? perhaps) over multiple hands of cards and just as our spirits began to lift, so did the clouds.
We all raced outside, surprised by our uncovered second winds, and marveled at the most miraculous sunset I’d ever set eyes on. Before that moment, we hadn’t even been aware that we were resting above the clouds. Suddenly, the entire day seemed worth it.
Rejuvenated by Mother Earth (and an extremely frigid shower) we scarfed down a late lunch and made our way up to bed, all the while mentally preparing ourselves for the two a.m. wake-up call.
After what felt more like a cruel, short nap, we were up and once again lacing our boots and packing our day packs. We fueled our bodies with a quick “dinner” and were back on the trail in no time – seriously, did we ever even leave it?! Right out the door the path began to climb, step after step in true stairway fashion. Climbing in the dark has its perks, though. With no end in sight your body just keeps trudging on, which is exactly what we did.
Before long we had pulled ahead of our guide (he was helping the other girls in our group) and caught up with our new friends from the night before. Together, we walked and rested, walked and rested, and, soon, the rest breaks began coming more frequently and our walking stints started to lose their gumption. We were gaining in elevation quickly and our lungs were the first to notice.
At times, the last stretch of the summit felt as though we were walking on the moon with the mountain’s smooth granite back and its lack of vegetation. I’d been cursing the sight of stairs the entire climb but as we inched along the smooth, relentless incline I was no longer sure which was worse. At one point, the length in our steps had become so ineffective – or so it seemed – I honestly began to wonder, “can I even do this?”
Physically trying experiences have their way of peeling back our layers, one by one, until we have no choice but to look at what were made of and decided, ultimately, if we believe in ourselves or not. Standing on that mountain, peering into complete blackness, I’m certain I thought I was insane; but, I decided to believe in myself and just about that time we realized there was no further up we could go. We had made it.
As we arrived at the front of the pack, there was not much else to do but sit (freeze) and wait for the sun to make its appearance. We huddled together and prayed Mother Earth would grant us a beautiful sunrise for our efforts as we watched more climbers continue to reach the peak. I feel as though I should mention that it was colder than I could have ever imagined. So, when packing, don’t forget to toss in your gloves, beanie, down coat, and even a scarf, why not?!
Just when I thought I was going to start loosing some fingers and toes if the sun didn’t come soon – she rose 🙂 And, man, did she put on a show.
Giddy with accomplishment and relief we walked around the peek forcing our oxygen-deprived minds to truly take in what it felt like to stand atop the World. The best part? Knowing we were standing where we were standing because of no other help than the will of our own two feet.
I remember turning to catch one final glimpse of the inspiring view before accepting that it was time to start our inevitable descent.
For me, coming back down the mountain was much, much easier than going up it. However, I know for many others, including Cole, going down was a whole other beast of its own. The steep grade puts a lot of strain on your knees and you’re forced to constantly remain aware of your footing – to help with this, pack trekking poles! We decided not to, and I know Cole was kicking himself the whole way down for it.
Getting back to Base Camp took, what felt, no time as we were blessed with a clear view in every direction. We grabbed some breakfast, packed our things, and continued on our way down the mountain.
We passed the hours by playing a game we made up – I highly encourage doing this, as the descent has it’s way of feeling never ending, at times – and regained some hope every time we passed new hikers on their way up (things could be worse, we could be in their shoes… am I right? 😉 ). Thousands of mindless stepping-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other motions later, and the incredibly sore quads to prove it, we made it back to flat ground with one more remarkable experience to check off our bucket list!
I had a friend ask me once why I did the things I do. “Why do you choose to climb mountains?” she asked. We were, ironically, summiting a different mountain when this question was posed (and we were highly struggling, might I add) and I took the question to ponder on while I continued walking.
Finally, I came to the conclusion that no one really climbs mountains because it’s fun. No, we continue to set goals of climbing mountains and relentlessly pushing ourselves to do so for no other reason than to prove to ourselves we can. If we let them, mountains will show us the best parts of ourselves.
There is no greater feeling than fully realizing all that it is you are capable of. Wouldn’t you like to know?
The Mountain is waiting for you.
Keep believing. Keep exploring. And, keep relentlessly telling the Universe all that it is you plan to do.