Climbing Mount Kinabalu

“Hey, we are going to climb Mount Kinabalu!  Wanna come?” 

“Sure, why not!”

Little did I know this would change my attitude and my life!  My athletic marathon-running buddy invited me to come along with 4 other friends of varying degrees of fitness to climb the tallest mountain in South East Asia. I was 60 pounds overweight and extremely unfit. When I voiced second thoughts everyone stated, “You can do it! You have a year to get in shape!”

The climbers in our group were inexperienced, but it was my physical condition that worried me. I began to train and change my attitude. Self doubt and terror often plagued me for a year. I told myself over and over that I could actually do this climb and determination began to develop! Working with a personal trainer three days a week and walking or hiking many weekends got me into shape. My work place had a “Biggest Loser” contest and I came in fourth place by losing almost 30 pounds.

Mount Kinabalu is on the island of Borneo in Eastern Malaysia. It is 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) tall. It is a “technically” easy climb because special climbing equipment or gear is not needed. However that does not mean it is an easy climb because of the severe change in altitude at the summit. There are unsteady rocky trails, naked granite rock surfaces, shoddy ropes to climb up and drastic weather conditions at times.

Mount Kinabalu Shrouded in Mist

We hired a reputable guide, Marius, who planned our three days at the mountain. We flew to Kota Kinabalu with a group of six positive excited people determined to reach the peak and have fun.

Day One-  Friday

A small tour bus picked up our climbing group and we sped past local villages, water buffalo and outdoor markets while we talked excitedly about our upcoming challenge. The mountain, shrouded in clouds, loomed in front of us as reality set in. The weather was atrocious with torrential tropical rain that had been coming down for ten days. We ate dinner at a small cafe and tried to keep warm in the damp misty night air. Our bodies began to adjust to the higher altitude. We got into our bunks at the small hostel with anticipation of the climb early the next morning. The sleep was restless since the sounds of the rain forest and the teeming rain penetrated the thin walls mixing with our excitement and expectation.

Day Two-  Saturday

Rolling out of bed early, we tried not to let the morning weather dampen our spirits. I had pictured a hot humid climb through the gorgeous rain forest, but the hammering downpour had not let up over night. We donned our rain ponchos and strapped on our gear after a hearty breakfast and then checked in at the trail head. The adventure had begun at 1800 meters (5905 ft). Hiking through the rain on muddy steep steps quickly took a toll on our feet. We would have to climb eight kilometers up to Laban Rata at 3273 meters (10,738) this morning.

After the first kilometer, I took off the poncho and trudged on in just shorts and a t-shirt. I was soaked from sweating under the plastic poncho and the shower on my skin and clothes was a relief! We soon began to see hikers coming down off of the mountain. Many of them were disappointed because they had not reached the peak. The rainfall had made the trails too dangerous to climb and their guides had not allowed them to climb any further than Laban Rata. This was a huge shock because I had not anticipated the weather stopping us.

As the terrain changed from dense rain forest to sparser trees, so did our group. Four of our group members had gained a significant lead and my climbing buddy, Judy, and I were quite a ways behind. This was not a surprise and Marius stayed with the two of us as the others went ahead at their speedy pace. Our mantra became “Slow And Steady!” (SAS) Judy and I dubbed each other the “SASSY Girls” for our slow and steady pace! We met numerous groups of climbers and had fun chatting and joking along the way whenever we merged on the trail or at the rest huts along the way.

We continued to talk to everyone we met, laugh and have a good time for the six hours we scaled the mountain that day despite the difficult terrain, exhaustion and weather. There were many groups that came up the trails past us or hurried down the paths with wishes of good luck. Some of the guides would look at Judy and I, shake their heads and rapidly gesture to Marius. He told us that the other guides did not believe that we would ever make it up to the summit!  Marius told the other guides that “His Girls” would make it because they had great attitudes and determination!

The Sassy Girls went at a steady pace and enjoyed the flora and fauna we discovered on the mountain; pitcher plants, civet cats, enormous centipedes and huge Borneo Blue Worms. The last kilometer and a half was especially steep with rough, uneven steps and slippery wet rocks. Our path had become more of a stream bed than a hiking trail. The exhausted SASSY girls reached Laban Rata in about 6 hours and when our muddy soaked bodies passed through the door of the guest house, our group as well as many of the other climbers and guides cheered for us. We collapsed with a hot mug of tea and an enormous sense of pride and accomplishment! Many other climbing parties came in hours later after dark and we realized that we had made the trek in a reasonable amount of time.

"Waterfalls" where paths should be!

Looking out the window caused immense heartache and severe disappointment. Waterfalls were splashing rapidly down the sheer cliffs past the guest house. These waterfalls were actually the trails we were meant to climb at 2:00 am. The view was extremely limited due to the tropical downpour which refused to end. Only 70 percent of the climbers had made the summit that morning and our chances were not looking any better for our ascent the next morning. In our hostel room for the six of us, bedtime came early to the sounds of pitter-patter on the roof and the creaking sounds of anxious people in old metal bunks!

Day Three-  Sunday

A quick night of freaking out, dozing, freezing and self-psyching up passed all too fast as the noise of climbers waking had me on alert. At around 1:00 a.m., I crept down the stairs to hear news of the weather and the fate of our summit ascent. Early risers were having breakfast and buzzing with the miraculous news that the rain had stopped an hour before and we would be able to finish our climb! We dressed in our cold weather gear, strapped on head lamps and waited to be called to begin the most difficult and longest part of the climb in the pitch dark.

Marius had Judy and I begin before the others in our group with the goal of making the summit by sunrise. Climbers must brave steep uneven steps formed from tree roots, uneven rickety ladders and trails surrounded by shrubs. I could not see two feet in front of my face so I was thrilled when the ground seemed to open up. This illusion soon gave way to sheer, slippery, wet, steep naked granite rock. After about two hours we reached the last check point of Sayat-Sayat at 3810 meters (12,500 feet).

Ann and Judy~ SO CLOSE! Almost there!

We were climbing in complete darkness and I was grateful for the headlamp as both hands had to hold onto ropes to pull ourselves up and steady our bodies. The trail was treacherous and as steep as 75 degree angles. I was grateful that I could not see down at this point. The last kilometer to the summit was the hardest challenge to face. The lack of oxygen due to the altitude was taking its toll on my exhausted body. One step – one breath was repeated with pure determination. We watched the sun rise over Donkey Ear Peak and finally made a rendezvous with our climbing party!

Ann, Jay, Judy, Kathleen, Jim and Lori at the summit peak of Mount Kinabalu!!!

Judy and I had made the summit to join our four other friends!  Hugs and congratulations flew over the mountain top as we realized the achievement we had made! We posed for photos and savored the accomplishment. The sense of pride was overwhelming and tears flowed freely down my face. I was overcome with emotion when I realized what I had done! This elation was short lived as Marius reminded us that now we had to get off the mountain and soon. The weather was turning again.

With a few glances over my shoulder, I began the descent back into the mist. Shock and fear took over as we reached the edges of the rock faces we had climbed up in the utter darkness. The blackness hid the shoddy ropes, unsound ladders, sheer drop offs and the unimaginable height of the mighty mountain. Judy and I slowly and steadily made our way back to the rest house at Laban Rata at the same time as the returning tropical rains. Our friends were already there and after a short rest, we began the treacherous descent.

The descent! How did we get OVER that ridge in the dark?

The rains were so heavy at times that we could barely see in front of us. The trails were not visible through the two feet of water rushing over them and into our ankle high boots. We were climbing down a vertical river! We met climbers coming up the mountain and maintained an amazing attitude despite our exhaustion and discomfort. Only once did we fall into despair and question how we would make it down, but the Sassy Girls quickly rallied. We met others along the climb down who were not as fortunate as us to have made it up to the peak so our triumph kept us moving. We met our friends at the foot of the mountain in the same café we began three nights before. Cheers, tears and a sense of elation greeted us as we were finally able to say, “WE DID IT!”

It has been a year since I left the mountain and the sense of pride has not passed yet. Whenever I am feeling a bit down or unsure, I transport myself back to Mount Kinabalu and remember how I had persevered ~ slow and steady. I conquered the mountain and the weather, but more importantly, I conquered my own self doubt!

How I still feel... "I am on top of the world!"

What can you do today that you didn’t know you were capable of doing last year?



  1. Kathleen said,

    April 11, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    You are an amazing person Ann. It was a blast joining you in your journey. What’s next?

  2. globalanni said,

    April 12, 2012 at 12:17 am

    You are my inspiration, Kathleen! 🙂
    A 5K run and getting certified to dive are my next challenges. Although that sounds a bit lame after the Kinabalu climb!! I better start working on something exciting like Nepal.

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