‘Are they really what you’re wearing to do this?’
I look down at my circa ’02 gripless Lacoste pumps and back up into the narrowing eyes of mountain guide Ali. See, I had no idea I was going to do this when I left home. Once I’d committed, investing in a decent pair of trekking trainers for the sake of one tiny two-day venture seemed a bit excessive.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I say without much conviction.
Ali shrugs. ‘If anyone breaks a leg they can pay a guide to carry them back down. We charge per kilo…’
Damn those cheese rotis.
There are two routes to base camp, plonked three-quarters of the way up at 3000m. One is ‘medium difficult when it’s dry’ (it’s monsoon season), the other is what I believe professional mountaineers call ‘a real bitch’. But worth it for the views, we’re assured. Seeing as I’ve done no training for this, there seems a fair chance I’m going to go blind from exertion anyhow, so I opt for route A. I also hire a porter to carry my stuff for good measure.
Never has twenty pounds been spent so wisely.
Set within a dense, green, protected forest in Sabah, Borneo, Mount Kinabalu is basically the closest you will ever come to Jurassic Park. Ballooning treetops overlapping each other like giant broccolis, faint contours of hills and valleys all around and a vapoury mist hovering above, threatening to descend at any moment. At 4100m it’s an 8.7km hike to the summit. The first six to base camp are to be completed at our own leisure (though the earlier you get there, the more recovery time for your shell-shocked muscles). Day two is less free and easy – we’ll be woken at 1.45am and marshalled on to the trekking path to reach the top before sunrise. But I ignore that bit for now and focus on conquering kilometre one.
The path’s pretty dry considering, and our motley crew of trekkers are moseying along with only a glimmer of sweaty glow. We marvel at flowers. We admire what one of our party insists on calling ‘vistas’. We take photos. Lovely. More of an amble really.
The second kilometre is a little steeper but nothing awful. Shady canopy, cushiony woodchip floor – no problem. A few people drop behind but two of us power ahead. I’m actually enjoying this walking business. I fritter away some surplus energy hopscotching it up a set of stairs. I’m bloody brilliant at this climbing thing. Who knew?!
Stairs turn to rocks and climbing buddy Cal slows through kilometre three. We break out supplies (I never want to see a long-life peanut butter cracker again).
About half a kilometre more and we see a couple on their descent. They seem to have lost the ability to bend their knees. Understandably this is making climbing down rocks quite difficult. ‘How was it?’ I ask politely. The woman gives me a disbelieving look that says ‘you really think I’m going to waste precious energy on speech, ridiculous girl?’ The man, who is spitting phlegm, mutters ‘hardest thing I’ve ever done,’ and they pass us by.
Cal and I look at each other. Cal looks unnerved. ‘I am unnerved,’ Cal says, and slows right down. But not I. For these are surely just weakling trekkers and from my first four kilometres it is clear that I am some kind of undiscovered climbing talent, hampered only by my townie upbringing. I am a fighter, this is the Hunger Games, and I am a classic champion.
On the fifth, sky and mountain merge, shrouding me in fog and rain. I shiver sympathy for those on the ‘scenic route’ before realising that this means I am also climbing blind. And very wet. Remembering how the walking-on-all-fours tactic worked out well for Mowgli, I give it a go. It’s not so bad, then, out of nowhere, I’m exhausted. No prior warning, no gradual tiring of limbs, just sudden, immediate, body betrayal. I am an idiot. I mocked it with my hopscotch and now it’s biting back.
Brain tries its best to persuade body to move:
‘Please could you just walk an extra 1.5km in this torrent through what appears to be a waterfall in no way fit for amateur climbers?’
‘No. Sod off.’
‘Look, you promised yourself you’d do this and that it would be a memory of Asia to regale to future grandchildren and cherish for ever and ever. No one made you come, it was your idiot choice so stand up, man up and get yourself up this hill.’
‘Why are you being so mean to me? I shan’t get up. I shall sit here and start twitching uncontrollably thanks.’
Should have known. I was always more of a gentle coaxing and incentives kind of kid…
‘If you get us as far as base camp I promise there will be a ridiculous amount of food awaiting you, plus I will pay through the nose for an oversized mug of hot chocolate.’
The lamb stew was the best. Or the brimming bowls of chicken barley porridge. Or maybe the non-descript glutinous sugar-cane sweet pudding filling us with delicious energy for day two. And Sabah tea. Lots of Sabah tea.
Being the first of my climbing group to reach base camp (it’s amazing I’ve not managed to slip that in sooner – I’ve only told everyone I’ve met since Borneo…) I spend a bit too long studying the pictures of past excursions covering the cafeteria. Smiling faces, the perfect sunrise, cheery trekkers and, oh, what’s this? Ahh yes, I see, an entre wall dedicated to the fallen soldiers of Kinabalu; injured on stretchers, fatigued guides buckling under the weight of their charges, the bloody and broken… suddenly the ‘anything is possible’ banner across the entrance takes on a fun new meaning.
Morning rolls round too fast. If you can call 1.45am morning. Sleepy climbers sit eyes half-closed pulling on winter layers and waving forkfuls of noodles and hot sauce in the general direction of their face. To their credit the breakfast staff are playing a medley of peppy motivational tunes to get us going; Inner Smile, Eye of the Tiger, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (you see what they did there?) Outside, there’s already a trail of bobbing head lamps snaking up the path. Lemmings on the loose. The air is so thin. The wind chill sets in. This is not going to be like yesterday.
The landscape is barren by comparison. No pretty trees, no soft earthy ground to break your fall. Just rock and rope. Five of us stick together all the way up. Two have climbed Machu Picchu and Kilimanjaro, and have a whole ‘never leave a man behind’ mentality going strong. Thank God. Yesterday I was Katniss Everdeen. Today I am a wheezing Smeagol being dragged up that mountain by a band of benevolents. There are parts where you’re strung at a jaunty 45° angle, inching forward in total darkness. There are bits when your jelly legs completely misbehave, wonder off into a ditch and you have no choice but to follow them. It’s too cold to stay still and rest. You’re too wholly exhausted to keep moving. One hitherto laidback Irish bloke turns to us pale, sweating. We have spent two days climbing 3500m. We are so nearly there:
‘Um, not sure how to tell you this but… I’m scared of heights guys.’
We’re bent double laughing with delirium until someone points out it’s wasting energy, at which point I switch to whimpering mid cackle – altitude’s a funny thing. And then, one member of the clan has a brainwave:
‘Jess, Jess, you see that ridge ahead where everyone’s headlights are disappearing? That’s the 8km mark, it’s practically flat after that right up until the last 50m. You just need to get to that point.’
I lapped up this giant lie along with many more thereafter as Machu Picchu man and Kilimanjaro lady babied my ass all the way up that mountain. Those Lacoste pumps did me proud. For the most part. You know how women tend to say that the horror of childbirth is something you sort of forget once you’re holding your newborn baby in your arms? The memory of that wrenching pain is just something that fades over time? And that’s how they manage to do the whole thing once more with baby two, baby three? Well, climbing Kinabalu is the exact opposite of that. I can still feel the fear of dangling off a mountain ledge, my icy cold grip on a chunky piece of string being the only thing keeping me from meeting my maker. I can feel the sinking realisation that I have no juice left in the tank with still one kilometre to go. You don’t know nuffing about nuffing Aretha, that mountain was plenty high. But I also remember shaking with disbelief seeing the views from the top. The happy relief when you’re too tired to feel much at all but your eyes appear to be crying on your behalf. The ever-lasting affection for the people who help you get up there. And thinking as you haul yourself over the summit mark, emotions twisted, physically wrecked, that actually, yeh, in time, once my limbs stop tremoring and I regain feeling in my toes, one day, I’ll probably do this again.