How It All Started (1 of 21)
It all started with the personal scorecard I came up with when I pondered upon the New Year Resolutions for 2007. Inside this little tool I created, I need to do something “extraordinary” each quarter. I think the word “extraordinary” is a bit big but it does serve its purpose. Essentially, I do not wish to let routines grind me down like many of the years that passed me by. I do not wish to talk about doing something out of ordinary on Jan 1st, 2008, and then 2009, and then 2010. I wish to do something about it this year. Right now, right here. Over one meal, I asked my friend Tong Kiat for some “extraordinary ideas” that we can do together.
Almost immediately Tong Kiat suggested Mount Kinabalu as our next destination. I vaguely remember that Cynthia has mentioned this idea to me years ago and my immediate response was the word “insane”. Who in the right mind would want to climb a mountain? I do not mind taking a cable car to the peak of the hill or mountain – like the one in Hong Kong, like the one in Penang, Malaysia – but to climb it? Even if it is as simple as trekking a mountain without the need for equipment is indeed borderline insanity.
On that evening though, trekking a mountain did seem to be something out of ordinary to me and I needed just that. I was almost certain that Cynthia would come on board. So the next thing we did was to set a time to it and we have arbitrarily chosen the month of April. Coincidentally, March and April are the popular months to scale up and down the mountain as the weather is favorable to the climbers during these months.
On the same night, I put up a banner in my website to ask if any of our friends wished to join us for our adventure. I have friends who showed interest both local and overseas but the timing did not work for them. We went ahead with our project with just the three of us.
The History of Tong Kiat and I (2 of 21)
As a matter of fact, I have not done many outdoor activities with Tong Kiat. We have known each other for five years. We worked in the same company fought side by side through the strenuous effort of delivering technology projects that were over promised by our company’s sales force and under-budgeted for the delivery team. We fought the battles of clients who made Tong Kiat’s head went red (as he is not as vocal as me, all the emotions has gone straight up to his head) and made me screamed on the phone – for hours. We drank from the same mineral water dispenser that I proudly installed inside a client’s project site and our cars suffered the same “rain of bird poo” whenever the sky poured (which was like every other day). Our poor cars were parked 10 minutes walking distance away from us inside an University compound underneath a well-shaded area of big trees. In fact, we couldn’t find any unshaded area in the visitor’s car park.
After I left the company (and soon did he), we kept in touch. Cynthia had lots of overseas trips then and I cannot recall how on earth Tong Kiat and I have become movies buddies during my lonely days in Singapore. And soon, Cynthia joined us and till today, we still try to catch a show or two each week.
But that is battle in a digital world, entertainment from a digital screen. Climbing Mount Kinabalu is a whole new ball game. I had no idea what sort of fitness level Tong Kiat was at. I did not even have idea what sort of stamina did Cynthia has. All I know is that three of us have great vibes when we hang-out together.
My Vision of Success (3 of 21)
My vision of success was simple. I wanted all three of us arriving at the peak together and no one should be left behind. Starting with this vision in mind, we tried our best to squeeze out time (more for them than for me) to train. Tong Kiat settled the booking of the trip and Cynthia has done some elementary research on what to expect along the way. I just relaxed at home doing nothing.
A Rather Expensive Trip (4 of 21)
The trip turned out to be rather expensive, especially when you do the maths and calculate the days-per-dollar-spent or even fun-hours-per-dollar-spent. We spent close to S$750 per person and there was not much budget left for gears. Cynthia and I have spent another S$250 each on some basic gears. We spent another S$150+ each as travel expenses for food and drinks.
Under One Roof (5 of 21)
Spending a night together under the same roof was certainly interesting. You really get to know someone much better after that. It was fun … till Tong Kiat fell asleep. Cynthia and I had much difficulties in falling asleep on the first night. In our next trip, we may bring along a pair of ear plugs as both of us are light sleepers. But beside that, we had a great blast living under one roof.
A Group of 6 (6 of 21)
At first we were told that we would have the mountain guide all for the three of us. On the day itself, the tour operator told us that two more would be joining us. I did not know what to expect. I read somewhere that within a team we may need to do load sharing so that we all can reach the peak together. What if …
As the two Germans emerged from the hotel they stayed, my jaw dropped. Looking at their size and fitness level, I was sure that we would be a burden to them. The teaming did not work the way I thought. Most of the time the Germans went ahead of us and we have the mountain guide all by ourselves. That worked just as good. Those Germans, by the way, were fun to be with. They have great stories on their adventures and they are a friendly bunch.
A Challenge to Cynthia’s Stamina (7 of 21)
The trek started with some harmless slopes going down and then up and suddenly we were faced with big huge knee level steps. Taking one step is easy. Everyone can move up that one big step. The challenge is to take steps upon steps in a changing terrain. Even before we hit the first 400 meters rest point, Cynthia was panting hard and needed to sit down and rest. I was worried because it was still a long way to reach the first day destination. We were literally just steps into a trek that measured 8.72km long – one way.
Most of Cynthia’s bag contents were shifted to my bag before the climb. The first thing I did was to take the bag away from her and hope that she would be able to get use to the climb without any weight on her back. The situation seemed to have improved. Instead of having Cynthia to lead the trekking (as I observed that she tended to get pressurized by the people behind her and pushed herself too hard), I suggested to have Tong Kiat leading the way. I took the last spot with the guide behind the team.
Trekking Requires Lots of Thinking (8 of 21)
I had no idea that trekking uphill required lots of mental focus. There is a constant evaluation in our heads on which stone to step onto. (It gave new meaning to the word “stepping stones” to me by the way.) We want to avoid the big steps. We want to avoid the steps altogether if we can. Soon I was trained to look for smaller stepping stones before the big steps, walk the slope by the side of the steps instead of using the steps themselves. If possible, walk in a zigzag manner to lower the gradient of the climb. While evaluating the situation focusing just the one or two steps ahead of us, we needed to look ahead to see if the path is favorable to us at all. There was a lot of thinking required and it did become a second nature after hours of trekking.
A Challenge to Tong Kiat’s Knee (9 of 21)
As Cynthia was accustoming the taxing effort of climbing, old knee injury hit Tong Kiat and he slowed down a lot to rest and overcome the pain. Like the wild geese that migrate in formation, at times I took up the leading role in setting the pace for the team and finding the best route ahead. And when both Tong Kiat and I was tired, Cynthia led the way ahead.
Baby Steps! (10 of 21)
Climbing up was less strenuous to me than to Cynthia and Tong Kiat. Most of the time, I fell behind taking photographs of the surroundings and photographs of them climbing up the slope. And I did the catch up after the photo taking. Truth been told, on the first day itself, I had my doubt if three of us were able to make it up to the peak together the next day. Cynthia was complaining about her muscle pain and Tong Kiat on his knee. I kept yelling words of encouragement like “baby steps” and “steady and slow” from the back hoping that we could keep the momentum going without pushing ourselves too hard and resting too much. I asked the mountain guide to move ahead of me and helped Cynthia on those steep and tricky terrains (a guide is suppose to be the last one in a team) and I was comfortable in taking the last position. I told him that I would yell if I needed help.
Injuries Do Happen and Not Everyone Can Make It to the Top (11 of 21)
As we scaled up the mountain, we did encounter climbers on their way down. Some encouraged us by telling us that the next rest point was near and by telling us how beautiful the sunrise was. Some had difficulties when coming down and one told me that her knees were gone (figuratively), her toes were gone, and she could not reach the top (but she was proud of her achievement so far). In fact, some did say that they did not reach the top. And the most dramatic scene (on day one that is, there was an even more dramatic scene on day two) was when a Western lady was carried down by a native. We saw her resting on the native’s back secured by a cloth belt that strapped her around his waist. The mountain guide told us that it is RM 100 per 1 km for such an emergency service. I started to respect the natives a great deal – for their effort in carrying all those heavy stuffs to the rest-house for us climbers and for their services in the event of incidents. There are people who cannot make it to the top. There are people who get themselves injured. I personally get to respect the mountain more. We are tiny compares to the force of nature.
Japanese and Westerners Were the Majorities (12 of 21)
We were happy when we reached our day one destination. It was a small achievement on its own. In fact, a big one. We made it as a team and the mountain guide complimented our teamwork. My vision of success stayed the same: no one gets left behind.
There were a lot of Japanese climbers – men and women – and some of them did not look young to me. There were many Westerners from all over the world. Some even took their kids. I have chatted with someone from California on the way down. Many came to our region – Malaysia specifically – for the jungle trekking and mountain climbing. There were a good handful of Malaysians who flew in from Kuala Lumpur and we found no other fellow Singaporeans.
Tong Kiat’s Legendary Massage – His Well Kept Secret (13 of 21)
Before I went to bed on day one, Tong Kiat asked for our “lists of damages” (part of his daily ritual as a medic in the Army?). I told him that my shoulders were hurting bad and he said he could give me a massage. The massage was so good that in the next day, all my shoulder pain was gone. I should have asked him to massage my leg muscles as well. In return I gave him a shoulder massage. I am not sure about the result.
Night Climb Was My Favorite (14 of 21)
Day two of the night climb was exhilarating. How often do we experience climbing in the dark? It was adventurous as we could hardly see what lied ahead of us. We saw almost everyone with a torch attached to their heads and amongst the three of us, we only had my tiny LED reading light to share. Fortunately our mountain guide has one and he was with Cynthia most of the time. Tong Kiat had to rely on the light source from me. The 700 meters of danger zone using ropes was probably my favorite part of the climb. It was so full of a sense of danger, so full of unknown, and so full of … life.
Cynthia and Tong Kiat Feeling the Thinning of Air (15 of 21)
As we pushed onto our last 1.6 km, the terrain condition changed dramatically. There were no more shelters and we could vaguely see what was ahead of us – which can be intimidating. The wind was strong and the temperature was low. As we gained altitude, Cynthia and Tong Kiat had to stop often as they were panting for air. I waited patiently as my vision of success did not alter.
Mountain Trekking Versus Ocean Diving – Now I Know (16 of 21)
It was surreal watching the sunrise from the peak. Cynthia did not think she could make it and she did. I was happy for her. I was happy for us. We made it as a team. We were above the clouds! As I shared what I saw from the peak to friends around me after I returned home, I realized that many could not quite connect to the magical moments we have experienced. And then I realized that when my diving friends try to tell me how beautiful the bottom of the ocean is, my barrier has always been that oxygen tank. I do think that trekking a mountain is easier than diving an ocean. If you do not plan to see the bottom of the ocean (very beautiful no doubt), I wish that you get to see from the top of the mountain instead.
A Challenge to Me – My Knees (17 of 21)
The adventure did not end at the peak. As we made the descend, my nagging right knee problem had magnified. And soon, my left knee started to give way. Something as simple as taking the small steps down was a total challenge to me. Cold sweats falling on my back. I was genuinely concerned. When I looked ahead, Cynthia seemed to do fine scaling down the mountain. Tong Kiat had a similar problem as one of his legs could not be bended. So here is the picture. One girl happily gliding down the path while two men struggled to gain progress at a snail speed. Our mountain guide was concerned and he suggested that we should buy a walking stick at the rest-house. God I love our mountain guide.
The pain from both my knees was excruciating and I am not exaggerating. Cynthia carried her own bag on day two and both Cynthia and Tong Kiat offered to take some of the load off my shoulders. I was fortunate to have trained my upper body and I shifted much of my weight onto my upper body, away from my injured knees. Whenever I saw railings, I lowered my body using the stick on one hand and the railings on another. It was hard on my triceps and shoulder muscles. Imagine doing such an exercise hundreds of time. No training has prepared me for such a situation. It was all mental power.
Though I made much progress using a walking stick, the pain did not subside. My eyes were bloodshot and I was measurement our progress in the units of 100 meter. 1 km mark was just too far away for me to even think about.
Tong Kiat’s Knee Was Not Getting Any Better (18 of 21)
Tong Kiat suffered a lot as well. In fact, the mountain guide was more concerned about him than me initially. I tried to take a faster pace approach and rested often. My thinking was that since every step was going to be painful (ouch on right knee, ouch on left knee, and then ouch on my upper body muscles), bigger steps can cover a greater distance with lesser accumulated pain.
That worked for a kilometer or two before I encountered the muddy path. I slipped a few times and the poor mountain guide was so concern that by looking at his face, I felt his heart dropped every time he saw me fell. I felt bad just by seeing that look. The falls were mostly harmless to me. And I think towards the end, my legs were weak and there was bound to have some instances whereby I could not stand properly. So I fell. Again and again.
Joint-Inflammation-Subduing-Injection-Kit (19 of 21)
Tong Kiat volunteered to take over my leading role and to give us the early warning on which part of the path was slippery. It helped a lot to have my teammates standing by me and somehow, though I had the thought that I may not make it to the bottom on my own legs, knowing the level of their undying support, I knew I could make it. Tong Kiat is a medic in Army and he explained to me the cause of the pain in my joints. That put my mind to ease because I was worried if I was going to break something permanently. He did mention about bringing a joint-inflammation-subduing-injection-kit for our next trip and I was not sure if I was thrilled hearing that (because I will likely be the one who get the injection).
Since we did not have the joint-inflammation-subduing-injection-kit, Tong Kiat suggested that we shall rest every 1 km for at least 10 minutes. This would allow the inflammation at our joints to subside. It worked. At least mentally it did. It was good to have someone who knew what they are doing. Put my own mind at ease.
What Are My Takeaways from This Trip (20 of 21)
I think there are many things to take away from this trip. Three of us all faced our own set of challenges and I think it was genuine care for one another that took us up to the peak and back safely. Had I been impatient to my teammate on day one, I would feel profoundly guilty on the following day. I think if the trip was too easy, we would not feel as though we have earned it. On our way down, we saw a Western man being brought down in stretcher by four natives with planks of wood wrapped around his leg. After we reached the bottom, the tour operator told me that there were still two Japanese who were stuck in the rest-house unable to get down on their own. Some of course had it easy as we witnessed many athletic ones zoomed pass us on our way up and on our way down. I think it is never a competition on how fast we scale up and down the mountain but rather we have our own selves to challenge.
I think we had great fun just hanging out with one anther outside Singapore. On the day we returned from the mountain, all three of us were walking into the hotel lobby in slow motion, voicing pain as we got up from the chairs at the hotel’s restaurant simultaneously. We heard each other screamed inside the bathroom when something as simple as wearing our own pants or washing our own feet could be a challenge. We had difficulties in even pulling our legs off the ground and into the bed. It was really funny at that moment and we could not stop laughing about it – even now.
Looking Forward (21 of 21)
If anyone was to ask me if I wish to go back up to the top of Mount Kinabalu again when we were still at Kota Kinabalu, it would be a straight no. After all the pain has subsided (we humans have a short memory on pain and perhaps that is why we keep making the same mistake again and again?), looking at the beautiful pictures taken, there is a desire within me to just experience the sunrise at the top of the mountain again. I suddenly feel my ambition rising wanting to scale yet another mountain that is higher than Mount Kinabalu (think of another free-standing mountain that begins with the letter K).
My immediate plan now? To find ways to strengthen the muscles around my knees and possibly learn some techniques and explore better gears for trekking. Three of us are thinking of doing a jungle trekking as our next expedition. Stay tuned!
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