Borneo Part I – Hiking up South East Asias tallest mountain

After a couple of nights in HK we were excited to be escaping the hustle and bustle of the big city. In particular I was very excited about visiting a tropical country for the first time. We had made grand plans for our week in Borneo in addition to forking out a considerable amount of money. We were a little nervous and hoping everything went to plan!

First on the agenda was the relatively ‘trivial’ task of climbing Mount Kinabalu. At 4,095.2 metres (13,434 feet) it is the tallest mountain in South East Asia. There is a mountain in Papua New Guinea which is actually taller – but apparently that is classified as Oceania / Australasia. I just wanted to clarify that before some smart alick decides to point that little snippet out to me.

Aerial photo of Kinabalu several days after our 'ordeal' - it was so much nicer flying over it

Anyway, for some crazy reason I agreed that we would climb it after Amelia made the suggestion. This despite me hating heights passionately. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. I was however of the opinion that it would be one heck of an experience, and it would be pretty cool to say that we have scaled such a height. We also figured it would provide justification for us doing very little for the rest of the holiday except for lounging on a beach.

So after a 2 hour drive from Kota Kinabalu to the base of the mountain, we started our ascent. All climbers are required to have a mountain guide, our group consisted of the two of us, our guide, and a very friendly Australian couple (Russ and Beth) who were actually living in Northern Ireland!

We began our ascent a little after 8am. The first few hours passed with little incidence. We met countless numbers of people who were either ascending with us or descending. Everybody was in jovial spirits and I was a little taken aback at how friendly, outgoing and cheerful everybody was. It was good fun. We befriended Malaysians, Germans, a Swede, another Brit, a Yank and even an Irishman! Everybody was so friendly, we were a diverse group of people but the banter was flying around.

The Malaysians we met on the way down were brilliant. They all wanted to chat to us and offer us encouragement. It was in stark contrast to our Korean Seoraksan experience!

One older Malaysian fellow has stuck in my mind. He was quite a character.

Malaysian guy : “Hello Sir, where are you from?” (Super enthusiastically)

Me: “England

Malaysian guy “Oh that is fantastic. I am an Anglophile! I went to university in London. I go back twice a year. It’s such a marvellous place’

He then insisted on telling me all about his favourite spots in London, and how he loves British cars. He told me he only ever drives Bentleys (Apparently he was a barrister and Bentleys are his favourite – he spoke the most perfect Queens English). He then went off on a rant – 

“You make so many wonderful cars. You people have sold your wonderful companies to foreign nations. Rolls Royce is German now. Do you people have no national pride?”

I agreed with him but for the first time in my life, didn’t really know what to say. I was not expecting this on the climb up!

I have since thought about what would happen should Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo or even Samsung were ever to be sold to a Japanese or Chinese company. I’m pretty sure there’d be civil war in Korea if that happened!

I’m not an economist or business-minded, but the guy seemed to have a point.

The Yank (A young American girl) was walking behind me, he asked her where she was from, “America” she told him, he grunted, and re-averted his attention to me. It was as if she was totally irrelevant in this conversation between an ‘english gentleman’ and an ‘anglophile’. It made me laugh. She obviously clocked that he wasn’t interested in her and carried on walking. I was soon to realise how much Malaysians love England and Britain. I will post about that another time.

Dripping with sweat on the way up

The hike up was tough, we’d have to stop every half hour – 45 minutes for food and drink. We were drenched in sweat. It wasn’t too strenuous, it just felt like a good long workout. Note -I would suggest to anybody contemplating this trip to prepare sufficiently in advance. You will enjoy it a lot more if you have a reasonable level of fitness before attempting it.

The hike was really pleasant, we had great company, the vegetation was stunning and we were all looking forward to the challenge that lay ahead. We arrived to our mountain side accommodation around 2:30pm. By now we were at 3,272 metres.We were to stay here for the night. The accommodation was surprisingly nice and the food was terrific. We all sat around the table and regaled each other with stories of our travelling exploits and experiences. I felt particularly under-qualified as it seemed that between everyone the whole world had been conquered by us – except for Antarctica, which seemed to be the only place that hadn’t been visited. I was the youngest and feeling particularly inspired and awe-struck by some of these people. They were seriously cool.

We went to bed around 7pm nervously anticipating having to wake up at 2am to begin the final leg of our ascent. Several of us were feeling the mild effects of altitude sickness already – slight headaches, a dizzy feeling when you stand up for extended periods and a lot of us had dodgy stomachs. I myself must have visited the lavatory 7 or 8 times in a 2-3 hour period. It wasn’t pleasant. Amelia however – absolutely fine.

Upon waking at 2am, the initial moments before it dawned on me what lay ahead of me were bliss. Upon realising, I cursed at having to get out of bed at 2am to climb a mountain. “Why am I doing this?” I asked myself. Fortunately by now my stomach was feeling better. We had a small breakfast, and off we went.

We were among the first ones to start the early morning ascent, and it didn’t feel too bad to begin with. It was an intense workout but again, nothing too strenuous. Unfortunately, as we climbed higher it became more difficult. I was beginning to feel really sick, my head was hurting, and I was starting to feel like all the energy had been sapped from me. In addition to that we were 3,500 odd metres up a mountain in total darkness except for a little head torch at 3 in the morning, and as I’ve said before – I don’t like heights. I felt like there were some huge slopes and drops either side of me, which wasn’t helping my mental state at all. By now we had to navigate up by clinging to a rope. I’ve made it sound a lot more challenging than it actually was, but at the time I was appreciating the rope – at all.

The previous day’s hike was tougher in terms of how steep the mountain side was. Unfortunately though, I was now feeling even worse. The slope had become more gradual and more of a gentle hill. Despite this, everybody seemed to have overtaken us including the 53-year-old Irishman with a beer belly. How humiliating. I found myself having to stop every few metres. Every step felt like it was a huge exertion. I felt so pathetic and helpless. Amelia was absolutely fine, but I was seriously struggling. My legs weren’t tired, but I barely had the energy to lift them. Amelia suggested I should eat and drink for energy, but I felt like I would vomit it straight back up. My head was throbbing, I could barely walk and I was feeling very sick. This combined with my relative fear of heights and I think it would be fair to say, I was hating life. After 5 or so metres I’d have to stop for at least a minute (which is a long time after a few short steps) in order to be able to do the next 5 metres. It was infuriating, Amelia bless her had to endure me cursing.

Why the heck are we doing this?”

“What’s the point?”

“Why would we be stupid enough to spend our money on doing this? We’re supposed to be on holiday, having fun – and this ISN’T fun”.

Hating life at 4,008 metres high

Eventually I realised my ranting wasn’t conducive to us reaching the top so I stopped. By now I was feeling absolutely awful, and I was terrified of losing my grip on the rope as I felt like I would fall to imminent death if I did so.

Excuse me guide, how much further is it

Half-way now” was the response. It wasn’t the response we so desired. We’d already been going for two hours, it seemed never-ending.

I don’t think I have ever been so scared, and have ever felt so ill before in my life. Naturally, I returned to a child-like state. Being the young man that I now am, my thoughts were of course dominated by feelings of how much I wanted my mum, and how she would magically be able to resolve the situation and re-assure me that I was going to be ok. As unfortunate as it was for me, she was on the other side of the world enjoying her Sunday night T.V and most probably totally oblivious to my current circumstances. Now don’t get me wrong, Amelia was doing a sterling job encouraging me, but she’s not my mum (It would be a little wrong if she was). As ridiculous as it sounds, all I wanted at that point was my mum.  Amelia informed me later that she thought I was going to break down into tears at several ‘stops’. Fortunately I managed to hold myself together and courtesy of a few ‘inspirational’ pep talks from Chin, we were soldiering on.

Come on Plum, I’ll be so proud of you if you make it to the top” .

She was freezing by this point having to wait for me. Although hating my current predicament and the situation we were in, her words were encouraging. I also felt bad for her having to wait as it must have been tough and frustrating as the actual climb by now wasn’t that challenging. “We haven’t came this far to fail now” I thought. ‘We’re going to do this, I’ll forever be annoyed if I don’t make it and wonder ‘what if?’ when looking back on this climb and we don’t make it’. We made a pact that it didn’t matter how long it took us / me, we were going to make it and reach the top. By now we had gone past caring about seeing the sunrise, it was purely about the challenge of making it to the summit.

Guide – “700 Metres to go

“We’re going to do this, come on!”

Those 700 metres took us over an hour and a half, but eventually we made it.

We finally made it - at this point we were unable to force a smile!

Upon reaching the summit, we embraced and congratulated ourselves. It’s difficult to describe the feeling, but I think it was possibly one of the best feelings I have ever felt. I felt so proud and satisfied that we had made it, as did Amelia. This was undoubtedly the toughest and most challenging thing I had ever attempted, but we had done it. Conditions at the summit were most unpleasant, it was very cloudy and windy. Visibility was low and we were absolutely frozen. We rested for a couple of minutes, had the obligatory photograph taken to prove we made it and began our descent hoping the altitude sickness would subside and that it would get a little warmer.

As soon as we began descending it seemed the weather improved. The clouds cleared, the wind died, and after 25-30 minutes of descending, I was feeling much better. We could now actually see as it was daylight, suddenly the sides were not that steep and the views, oh wow, the views were incredible. We were on the roof of South East Asia, and the views combined with the pride we were feeling made for a very enjoyable few hours. We had a great time chilling out, taking photos and generally enjoying ourselves. Suddenly everything felt worthwhile and it all had come together for us. Everybody else it seemed was long gone, and it felt like except for a few token Malaysians within a few hundred metre radius, we had the mountain to ourselves. To describe it as ‘magical’ would be cliché, but it was bloody good in all fairness.

The small dark shape in the middle is Amelia

We arrived back to the huts where we stayed at around 9:30, had some breakfast and began our final descent with the Australian couple. We had a great 5 hour chat on the way down, Russ and I discussed sport and football, the girls – well I don’t know what they talked about, but girl things anyway. We eventually made it down to the bottom, said our goodbyes and off we went back to Kota Kinabalu.

In reflection, it was a great experience that I imagine will stay with us for a long time. Except for the 4 hour period early in the morning I loved it, as did Amelia. I remember we tried to avoid stairs and steps as much as possible for the next few days, they were particularly painful.

The altitude sickness was tough but if you don’t suffer from it then you shouldn’t have too many problems.

Am I going to hike up a mountain that tall ever again? I have no intentions whatsoever.

Am I glad we did it? It was one of best things experiences we’ve had (minus the altitude sickness) and a good test of character. I think it would be fair to say we learnt quite a bit about ourselves.


One thought on “Borneo Part I – Hiking up South East Asias tallest mountain”

  1. Thanks for the mention! Although I hate to say it…..”I don’t think you need your Mum now”!
    Like you said Amelia is doing a sterling job. Thanks for being there for him. love xx


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