This isn’t a technical guide on how to get to Mt Kinabalu. It’s about how you can have a climbing experience you’ll remember for a lifetime, from the perspective of someone who used to think that ascending Malaysia’s highest peak was impossible.
Growing up unathletic
I grew up athletically challenged. As a child, I counted walking between the television and the refrigerator to get my snack and coke refill as exercise. If you would have grabbed my 9 year old self and said, ‘Lu Wee, one day you’ll climb Mt Kinabalu!’ I would have wondered if there was someone else named Lu Wee you had mistaken me with.
By the time I was 9 I was obese and pre-diabetic, having a blood sugar level way above typical 9 year olds. My mom took me to see a doctor and I was told if I didn’t change my eating and exercise habits I would soon end up with irreversible health problems.
At 15, I had experienced more instances of breathing difficulties than what my mother had experienced her entire life. That same year, a benign tumor developed on my neck and my life took a standstill. I had difficulties concentrating in class and my grades started to slip.
My health, my grades and my entire life, it seemed, crumbled in front me.
I knew that if I didn’t change, I would die.
Against my own beliefs of my physical strength, I enrolled in Karate class that very year. In my first attempt to run, I collapsed after just 2.8 minutes. I was the laughing stock of my entire class.
‘How can I keep up with this?’ I thought.
But I did. I showed up for every single class in spite of preparations for my ‘O’ level exams. For once my health mattered more than A’s.
After 6 months, I could run more than 10 minutes and after a year, more than 20.
I was back in control.
David Meets Goliath
By the time I was 24, I had shed the crutches of my unhealthy childhood. After more than 2,000 hours of Karate and hundreds of hours running and conditioning, I was ready to conquer the quiet giant that I had feared in my childhood.
I didn’t know how tall 4,095 ft was. I only knew that it was very tall and it was the height that the highest peak in Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu, rose to.
‘The highest peak.’ The thought scared and intrigued me at the same time.
‘Child, Come Prepared.’
Although I was fitter at 24 than I had ever been my entire life, climbing a mountain that high demanded a different type of training.
‘Running won’t cut it,’ Uncle Lucas told me.
Uncle Lucas was someone I knew who had climbed the mountain four times before and he was on his way to his fifth climb that year. I was fortunate to have been included in his team for 2013.
‘You need to climb mountains to be good at climbing mountains.’
I took his advice and started climbing two times a week. It was difficult at first – the acrobatics of climbing were largely different from the disciplined actions of Karate – but soon enough, my legs grew strong and agile.
After two months, I was climbing three times a week.
‘Now you need to get good with the ropes.’
The first time I pulled my body weight up 250m using my bare hands, they hurt, blistered and bled. I would have given up if not for the thought of an even harder climb thousands of feet up with air thinner than I could imagine.
When ropes and stamina were conquered, Uncle Lucas trained us on our speed. But it was not careless speed he expected, but thoughtful, strategic steps taken together to allow a harmonically faster ascent or descent.
Facing the Giant
Exactly four months and four days later, a group of over twenty people found ourselves in a cold log cabin in the Kinabalu National Park, listening to final instructions from Uncle Lucas.
‘Don’t compete. This is not a competition. People who compete at first almost never reach the top.’
So I made a mental note not to compete. If people were faster than me, I would let them overtake me. Reaching the top meant more to me than beating everyone else in the first 3,000 feet.
‘But don’t forget to enjoy the journey. The top is beautiful but so is the climb itself.’
At exactly 9am the next morning, we gathered again to weigh our bags and get our truly final instructions from Uncle Lucas.
He handed us a map and repeated some of the instructions he gave the night before.
At 9.30am, we began our climb, together at first but inevitably dispersed after only 3 minutes. Some ran to outpace the others only to find themselves resting a few hundred meters later. They had underestimated the effect of air thin of oxygen on their bodies.
I had no such delusions. I walked up slowly, allowing anyone to walk past me. After an hour or so into the climb I found myself alone.
The quietness of the mountain seemed surreal. Having lived in less natural environments all my life I half expected something to happen. But nothing did. It was truly quiet and I learned to trust in its silence.
Along the way I was rewarded with the gentle sounds of a few waterfalls. The cool breeze around me made the climb more bearable than if it had been hot. However, the weather was unpredictable and it rained on me a few times.
I was a poor working adult at the time and had bought very cheap ponchos that quickly tore. Through the holes I became wetted inside and was made cold and uncomfortable. The rain, however, didn’t last so I became dry quickly and the discomforts were temporary.
After about 7 hours of slow climbing I reached the resting hut between the peak and the bottom. Laban Rata was the yellow cabin of victory for the first day’s climb.
After a filling buffet meal, most of the climbers had an early rest. Lights were off by 8pm. A few from our group developed fevers and would not join us for the next day’s climb. A few more decided themselves that they were incapable of climbing to the peak.
I felt pity for the first group and frustration for the second.
We woke up very early to prepare ourselves to make the peak.
‘If it rains they won’t allow us to go up,’ Uncle Lucas had told us the night before.
I hoped it didn’t rain.
After breakfast we gathered ourselves outside of the hut in our warmest wear. When I stood outside the subzero cold I instantly regretted not wearing another layer of clothes. But still, I persisted. Maybe with the sun up it will get warmer, I thought.
The climb on the second day proved more difficult than the first. We had all known this but to feel the tightening of our chest with each step drilled in deep the reality of the challenge in front of us.
‘One step at a time,’ I remembered Uncle Lucas saying. At this point I was again climbing alone. I wasn’t doing it because I was fast, but because I was slow and most people in my group were already ahead of me.
That was when I noticed a girl sitting on one of the steps along the way. I had seen her when my headlight flashed at her in the 3am darkness.
She explained that her friends had moved way past her and she was incapable of catching up. Unbeknownst to most of us, this girl had asthma and was finding it difficult to breathe. I asked her if she wanted to continue.
‘Yes. I must reach the top.’
So I held her hand and climbed up, one step at a time, with her, stopping periodically for her to clear her nose and to catch a few breaths. We were slower than most but we made progress.
By 6am we had made it to the final checkpoint. We were in our final leg of the race and it was the hardest. If we didn’t get to the bottom of Low’s peak by 7am we would not be allowed up.
The chances were low but we tried anyway.
While many teams of two who appeared much fitter than us on the outset gave up just 1 hour away from the top, we persisted.
By 7am, we were the last two people allowed up. We cheered. It was the happiest moment in the climb. By 7.32am we were at the top, the last ones from our group.
The view was spectacular but what made me feel even happier was that the girl who went up the mountain against her physical limitations made it.
We took our pictures at the peak and then went down.
Climbing Afterthoughts: What It Really Takes to Climb a Mountain
After the climb I wondered, what made the difference between the people who reached the top and those who did not? Was it physical strength? Was it mental toughness? Or both?
I looked at the people who usually outran me during training. They were definitely physically stronger than me. And yet, there were a few who decided in the yellow cabin not to try.
Then there was the girl with asthma who made her way up.
‘How much did you train before this?’ I remember asking her.
‘Not much, once or twice.’
What really mattered, I realized, was not physical or mental strength but how much you wanted it.
If you wanted it badly enough, you would get there, or die trying.
The Best Way to Climb a Mountain…
… as Uncle Lucas said, ‘is to prepare well.’
‘Only when you prepare well can you have the luxury of enjoying the view every step of the way instead of huffing and puffing, expending most of your energy catching your breath.’
After climbing this mountain I once thought impossible, I have to agree with Uncle Lucas. Hundreds of hours of physical and mental preparation for 16 hours of beauty was well worth it.
Some tips for first-time climbers
Go into it well prepared physically and mentally. It’s not a time to test your body’s limits. Prepare months ahead.
Check out this website. It’s one of the most comprehensive guides on climbing Mt Kinabalu.
Go with friends who love adventure and challenge. They’ll be fun.
Don’t try to outrun other runners. Remember, this isn’t a competition. You’re trying to have a great time so don’t let wanting to win get into your head.
Over to you: Are you preparing for your first climb this year?
If you are preparing for a climb this year, I wish you all the best! I hope you’ve found more reason to love your climb up and I look forward to hearing your climbing story.