We started nice and early and I think the bus ride to the park got us all excited about the climb as we meandered through the beautiful forested mountain scenery of Sabah . It was similar in parts to the Nepali countryside we'd fallen in love with as the landscape was littered with villages set deep in the valleys, houses, farms and shacks overhanging on the hillside and fluffy white clouds suspended in mid-air. It was a great way to relax before the climb, although the ticket man on the bus obviously found it too relaxing as he nodded off and forgot to tell the driver where we were getting off. A 1km walk back up the road was an unwelcome warm-up.
At the park, we signed our lives away on the insurance forms and in return received glossy, laminated mountain passes with our names on them... deal! So, armed with a packed lunch and a few 'energy snacks' (i.e. sweeties) the climb began as we passed through Timpohon Gate, the start point at an altitude of just over 1,800m.
Mountain ground squirrels darted around us between the bright colourful flowers and thick vegetation as we made our way up the trail. After a kilometre or two it was obvious our pace was quite a bit slower than that of seasoned mountaineers Jen and Dave, so they decided to plough on ahead whilst we ambled behind - no problem, more sweeties for us!
As we entered the cloud layer there was an eerie lack of scenery behind the tree layer, and the visibility was really poor as a thick grey mist washed over us. As the thunder and lightning flashed and rumbled all around we began to meet some climbers on their way down, and the contrast in their clothing and equipment kept us amused as they ranged from the ultra-prepared in brand new Millet's trousers, trekking boots, walking sticks and body-warmers, to some old fellas in Hush Puppies! Made us feel better about our beach shorts and sandals anyway...
Throughout the climb, porters came jogging/running past us with huge great rucksacks, bags and even gas canisters strapped to their front, back and head.
After 6km of land covered, 1,400m of altitude climbed, 7 long hours, a few downpours and (amazingly) no arguments we managed to reach our accommodation for the night. Charlie's '50 steps then stop for a breather' snail's pace and growing dislike for everything and everyone as we got higher wasn't the greatest motivation, but with the help of a lot of through-clenched-teeth 'you're doing well honey, just keep going' we reached the Laban Rata huts at a height of 3,200m.
The temperature had dropped to about 5 degrees above freezing as we rolled in to the cheers of Jen and Dave and sat down for a well-earned curry and some steaming hot tea.
Despite hitting the sack nice and early and piling up the blankets on the bed we managed to get next to no sleep - the idiots in the hostel shouting, singing and walking around on the wooden floors in hiking boots didn't help! - before our 2am start the following morning to tackle the last part of the ascent: to reach the top at Low's Peak and watch the sun rise over Borneo.
It all started well as our happy little group made its way up the slippery wooden steps and ropewalks, following the trail of torch lights which was winding its way up the mountainside above and below us. Some of the walks/climbs were pretty frightening as you clung on to a worn-out old piece of rope and shimmied your way along a strip of granite overlooking a sheer drop of hundreds of metres.
Half a kilometre in to the climb and Charlie's sandal straps snapped as she slipped down a rock. I did my best to tie it up to her foot with my bandana but it kept slipping off and slowed us down even more. The other climbers passed us as we stopped every few hundred metres to tighten it up and it wasn't long before we were way behind everyone else.
We carried on regardless and emerged from the cloud layer and above the last bits of vegetation and were able to spot the shooting stars amongst the constellations in the crystal clear, twinkling sky above us. The moon was beginning to rise above Tunku Abdul Rahman Peak (AKA 'The Face') to our right as we reached the huge open face at the foot of the highest peaks. The Donkey Ears were also perfectly clear and as the moon continued to rise the sky began to turn a brilliant blue as sunrise approached.
Behind us, and beyond the 3 main peaks a burnt orange sun emerging from behind grey clouds revealed a thick soft purple/blue blanket of cloud below us. It was a spectacular sight and a very special moment, made even better by the fact that everybody else had gone on ahead. We might not have been able to reach Low's Peak in time but we did sit ourselves down and watch this amazing spectacle together with nobody else around. The thought of serenading Charlie with 'Just the Two of us' ran through my mind but I was worried my killer dance moves would be too much on the slippery rockface and I'd go tumbling back down for an early breakfast.
As the sun broke St John's Peak and Low's Peak were bathed in light and the South Peak looked awesome behind us with a backdrop of soft white clouds breaking over Sabah . Unfortunately the broken sandal, sore and slightly ingrown toenails and thinning air finally took its toll on Charlie as she reached her limit at the foot of Low's Peak. She was disappointed in herself for not reaching the top but I think she did fantastic to cover 8 and a half km and reach a height of almost 4,000m in such a short time and I was very proud of her (despite her whinging!!), and also very happy that we'd done it all together.
She sat down for a well-earned rest and some peanut brittle whilst I clambered my way up the final few hundred metres to the top. The views were stunning and it was a fantastic feeling watching the clouds clearing as I hung on for dear life, teetering over the edge with only a flimsy little fence holding me back. Once I'd done my bit as 'token Westerner left at the top' and posed for enough peace sign
photos with the Asian climbers around me it was time to head back down and face up to the prospect of getting back to the bottom. I think it's known as 'Chesney Hawkes Syndrome': you're still reeling from the heady heights and have hardly had the chance to take it all in when before you know it you're sinking back to where you came from (although in our case it was flat ground and thicker air, not stacking shelves at Tesco!)
On our way down the clouds continued to break, unveiling some breathtaking scenery although tiredness really did begin to kick in during the last 2 kilometres or so. We worked out that, of the 28 hours from us passing in through Timpohon Gate at the start of the climb, to when we passed back through at the finish, 19 and a half were spent walking. We were also given THE worst mountain guide: everybody undertaking the climb is assigned a guide for safety reasons. Ours turned out to be an arrogant, immature little prat who spent the time he bothered to walk with us demeaning Charlie and doing his best to deter us from carrying on, even telling us that the last part of the climb up Low's Peak wasn't possible as we were too late and Charlie wouldn't be able to do it anyway. Add to that Charlie's broken sandal and sore toenails and the fact that I'd only been walking properly for about a week after the scorpion sting ordeal and I don't think we did too bad!
Unfortunately Percy wasn't able to join us on the final part of the climb - he had a bit of altitude sickness from the first day and so stayed in bed with a nice bit of pussy he found...
So after the ' Brunei Blitz' we set off the very next day to tackle Mount Kinabalu , the highest peak in South-East Asia - no time to rest or chicken out! The photos from on and around the summit as well as the climb up there and back speak for themselves so I'll try not to blab on too much, especially as Charlie keeps telling me off for that and Jo accused me of being poetic and drunk in the Brunei blog!!