It starts to really bite around 2700 metres. Each step knocks the wind from my chest and the fog closes in before giving way to a chill drizzle, as if the air has thinned to such an extent that it can no longer bear the weight of the moisture.
Close to 3000 metres and the landscape changes, with dense jungle opening up to a steep clay riverbed hemmed in by windswept brush.
A burst of wind sweeps aside a bank of fog and through the stinging rain I chance a glimpse upwards. For the briefest of moments the clouds thin and the dimmest silhouette of Mount Kinabalu’s craggy summit looms high above. Our guide Jinus grins impishly over his shoulder and says, “this is where it begins to get difficult.”
Mountains, as symbol and metaphor, have always fired the imagination. From a distance they evoke a reverence. Three kilometres above sea level with oxygen becoming ever more scarce, however, awe gives way to a numbness, a kind of insular plodding – the cliché trundled out during every year’s HSC exams about the journey being more important than the destination has clearly never climbed a mountain.
At 4095 metres Kinabalu represents a daunting prospect for me – I didn’t quite make it to the top of Kosciusko on the Year 8 school excursion. Despite being almost double the height of Australia’s highest point (a fact which some haughty northern Europeans sharing our accommodation found particularly amusing), Kinabalu’s role as a regional drawcard is thanks in large part to its reputation as having an ‘easy’ ascent – unlike most mountains of comparative size, the climb only takes two days with a low degree of technical difficulty – which is to say, no oxygen or expensive rappelling or climbing gear is needed.
Mount Kinabalu itself is accessed by a narrow, road through the undulating foothills of Sabah, the Western of the two Malaysian states on the island (which also contains the miniscule Islamic state of Brunei and is bisected by Indonesian territory, the largely wild Kalimantan).
On an island with more than its fair share of natural wonders, Kinabalu stands out as a rare instance of a prospect that straddles the boundary between hugely challenging and actually attainable.
It is an incongruity that is strangely thematic of Borneo – despite its interior primary rainforest being one of the most unique and valuable ecosystems in the world, the more accessible areas of the island are studded with rather more venal human endeavours. And just as virgin rainforest gives way to palm-oil plantations and gluttonous mining and logging operations, so Kinabalu feels embarrassingly commercialised upon arrival. Sleek mini-vans of European and Chinese-based tour operators crowd the National Parks office at the base of the mountain.
Still, the apparent creature comforts of the various amenities at the base of Kinabalu gradually give way to the harsher realities of the nine kilometre ascent – there is only so much taming that can be done.
Mount Kinabalu is a giant of the region; the tallest object between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea. This hugeness (and its near-perpetual cloudbank) masks its variances from afar – on approach, it’s easy to envisage it as a homogenous ecosystem, all jutting granite mass and clinging root. The climb reveals otherwise. The Timpohon Gate, the official beginning of the ascent at an altitude of 1,866 metres, opens with a gently sloping bush-track, and the initial climb is steady. The mountain unfurls gradually, coaxingly, through spectacular rainforest accentuated with pitcher plants and squirrels.
Most of the foot-traffic is generated by the ‘Sherpas’ – formidably muscled local Malay porters carrying supplies to and from Laban Rata – though occasionally a spent-looking Western hiker will be strapped to their backs, a warning of what was to come The last two kilometres before Laban Rata, undersold by Jinus as “difficult”, sees the path steepen sharply and the weather worsen, with moisture collapsing through the thinnest of air.
The plan – to wake at 2am and make the final 3km scramble to the summit for sunrise – begins to look unlikely shortly after arrival at Laban Rata at mid-afternoon. Aside from screaming calf muscles and a pounding headache (an almost unavoidable circumstance of the altitude), the rain that had been a frequent companion on the way up becomes an unerring drum on the tin roof, increasing constantly in magnitude. Glumly, Jinus informs us that the ascent won’t be possible if the rain gets any heavier – and heavier it becomes. A restless sleep and a torturously early rise is soundtracked by the roar of a steep granite path turned veritable waterfall, and a now unassailable summit.
The rain plagues us on the way down, too. Paths hewn from foot traffic begin to second as floodways and rocks that were helpful footholds on the way up become perilous ankle-traps. It takes around four hours to make the whole descent, a dogged, anaesthetised trudge through cloying mud. As I return through the Timpohon Gate, soaked to the bone and achingly sore, I feel cheated out of a commune with nature, left with a maddening lack of anecdotes and vistas, with the monotonousness of the descent and the bitter defeat, ultimately, of the climb.
Having not expected a sublime experience, I had at least budgeted for a sense of achievement upon reaching the summit. Instead, the reality of the mountain as a kind of purgatorial metaphor – a climb without a payoff, a descent without the comfort of reward – hits home.
As we drive away from the Timpohon Gate however, I am struck again by its sheer size – this time, accompanied by the sobering realisation that while a summit, as a metaphor and signifier, is a temptation hard to resist, I am pretty happy with my 3,373 metres – and a more than grudging respect of the permanence of Mount Kinabalu.