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Peak Performer

Scaling Mount Kinabalu remains one of the region’s most popular active adventures. Duncan Forgan pits his calf muscles to the test on the slopes of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain

It’s 3.30am on a Saturday morning and I’m clinging onto a rope for dear life around 10,000 feet above sea-level. Below me the lights of the bunkhouse I left half an hour ago twinkle invitingly.  Ahead and above a procession of fellow foolhardy souls are using the rope to zigzag their way up a 70-degree incline in the pitch dark. It’s cold, I’m tired and my calves are sounding a siren song of pain. I’m beginning to understand why Mount Kinabalu is so revered by the people of Sabah.

Standing proudly at 4,095metres, the mountain is the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. Like the rest of Borneo, it is shrouded as much in mystery as it is mist. Legend has it that Low’s Gully, the one-mile-deep chasm that drops away from the summit, is the resting place for the souls of the dead tribespeople of the area.  It’s no mere ghost story either.  White chickens are still regularly sacrificed by the local guides on the plateaux just beneath the summit to keep the spirits sweet and protect the mountaineers.

In 1994 a group of British soldiers were part of a team who wanted to be first to explore the abyss. They were found close to death after more than three weeks stranded in the gully. Locals say the mission failed because the soldiers neglected to appease the mountain spirits. This, clearly, is a peak that demands respect.

Nonetheless it’s difficult not to feel a bit blasé before you start climbing.  On a weekend the atmosphere at the park headquarters where climbers are required to register is more akin to the start of a school treasure hunt than the final staging post before a serious expedition. Hordes of enthusiastic kids mill around comparing designer backpacks while beaming staff hand out simplistic trail maps that could easily have been rendered by a toddler. The massive billboard which recounts the ‘there and back’ times of participants in the annual climbathon doesn’t inspire fear either, with competitors reliably clocking in around the two-and-a-half-hour mark.

There would be no such pushing it where I was concerned. Although it is possible to attempt a day climb, you’ll reach the summit in the afternoon when it’s almost certain to be shrouded in rain and mist. Most climbers spend the night at Laban Rata, the mountain refuge at 3,273metres and complete the remaining three hours to the summit before dawn hoping to boost their chances of seeing a clear sky at sunrise.

So with plenty of time to spare, the sound of innocent bonhomie ringing in my ears, and one of the playschool maps in my hand, I set off filled with confidence. This would surely be a breeze.

And for a while it is. Although the orang-utans might beg to differ, the peak is the star attraction of Malaysian Borneo, its massive bulk visible from hundreds of miles around. Up close it’s equally inspiring and the next four hours are as idyllic as a punt down an English canal on a summer’s day. The only thing missing are the Pimms and the straw boaters.

The mountain is a UNESCO-listed heritage site and offers a fascinating crash course in horticulture as it changes with altitude. The climb starts amid dense rainforest draped in creepers and interspersed with orchids and gushing waterfalls.

The trail meanders through this fairytale forest with handrails and steps to aid progress while pitstops can be made at frequent huts along the way.

A little higher the route takes on a slightly more European feel as conifers and oaks take the place of jungle foliage. Rhododendrons are also common at this altitude, blooming in spectacular shades of yellow and red.

Further up, the trees become sparser and more stunted, the bark gnarled by high winds and rain and the branches slung with long beards of lichen. This gives way to lower scrub and bush, where I catch prolonged glimpses of previously hidden canyons and don an extra layer to counteract the chilly nip of the encroaching evening.

I reach Laban Rata by late afternoon and mark a successful day with cans of Tiger beer and some noodle soup.  Later we toast a remarkable multi-hued sunset with some fellow travellers before hitting the sack at 9pm ahead of the next day’s dawn offensive.

Things aren’t quite so convivial the next morning. Southeast Asia is filled with alluring sounds – the lap of green-blue waves upon a paradise beach, the splash of a cold drink as it is lovingly poured into a glass on the table next to your sun lounger – but the cacophony produced by nine men snoring is not one of them.

Thus it is with a certain degree of sleepy reluctance that I am heaving myself up the rope.  “Only another three hours man, you can do it,” my guide Mike urges far too cheerily as we reach the edge of the tree line, and refill our bottles with water at the final shelter before the summit. I stew internally at this unwarranted show of friendly encouragement. We press on in silence.

Ascending the final agonising stretches of Kinabalu in the dark is one of those experiences that can only be enjoyed with the benefit of hindsight. My uncovered extremities are numbed by the cold, but the scramble over massive uneven granite slabs ensures I’m still painfully aware of where my leg muscles are. Mike points out the pools where the white chickens are offered up to the dead. I’m not sure that I’m meant to feel envious of the birds.

Finally, we make it to the summit. The emerging sun has been enveloped by a massive bank of cloud and there’s standing room only at the top as climbers queue to get their souvenir snaps. Nothing, however, can sully the feeling of being on the rooftop of this amazing island. 

The descent can be as treacherous as the ascent is arduous due to aching and exhausted limbs, but, with the horrors of the early morn behind me, I feel re-energised.  A rainstorm turns the trail into a coppery stream, but we still manage to make it back down to park headquarters for lunch.

As I collect my belongings from base, the clouds wheel away from the mountain exposing it against a brilliant blue sky. Around me, a new batch of grinning hikers are busy stowing away their packed lunches and readying their bamboo walking sticks. I take one last look at the benign scene from the back seat of my taxi back to Kota Kinabalu and silently wish them luck. Then I shut my eyes.