“You have to climb Kinabalu with a good heart. If you are arrogant or disrespectful, the spirits will prevent you from reaching the summit,” warned our guide as we set off on our climb up the 4,095 metre mountain in Southeast Asia.
Located in Northern Borneo, home of head-hunters, orang-utans and the giant red leech, Mount Kinabalu is now a World Heritage site. The indigenous people believed it was the gateway to heaven and the souls of the dead had to climb to the top before they could enter. This was a hard journey even for spirits and they would often hitch a ride or take a rest in a host animal or plant so it was forbidden to harm any creature, pick any flower or cut down any tree in case it was inhabited by a person’s soul. As a result, Mount Kinabalu has been protected from development and exploitation making it one of the last untouched places on earth.


There is just one steep, narrow path up the mountain and access is carefully regulated – there is a waiting list of around six months for a permit to climb. My opportunity came about through the Sailors Society’s Asian Challenge, an event organised by the shipping industry to raise money for seafarers.
The challenge started at 1500 metres above sea level. Borneo is just a degree or two north of the equator so at this point the climate is still hot and humid and the vegetation lush. We set off in small teams, each with a guide who would shepherd us up the mountain. On my team was my daughter Maddie, who at 16 was the youngest person in the challenge, and our friend Christa from Geneva.
Our first destination was Laban Rata, a lodging at 3,200 metres, where we were to eat and sleep before making the final ascent. This part of the climb was timed to provide a competitive element although reaching the summit was enough of a challenge for most of us. The 8km trek began in a forest of huge trees, rhododendrons, enormous ferns and carnivorous pitcher plants. We looked in vain for head-hunters and orang-utans but we did see a giant red leech, about the size and shape of a large dog’s tongue. Fortunately it was safely on the ground not sucking on someone’s leg because, apart from being quite disgusting, you wouldn’t be able to kill in case it was inhabited by a spirit.
Almost more fascinating than the wildlife were the porters who passed us on the narrow path. There is only one way up the mountain and that is on foot so everything that is needed at Laban Rata has to be carried. We saw men and women with extraordinary loads strapped to their backs with rope including gas bottles, crates of water and even a fridge. And there we were barely able to walk with our super lightweight hi-tech rucksacks that cost more than the porters make in a month. Humbling stuff.
As we went up the air became thinner and thinner. We stopped talking and thanks to Christa’s experience of hiking in the Alps, we slowed our pace right down to conserve as much oxygen as possible. We also had to be careful about dehydration, sunstroke and altitude sickness – “it feels like a really bad hangover,” Dr Matt, the event medic told us. “If you get a headache and start being sick then you must go straight back down the mountain.” Altitude sickness does not discriminate between age or fitness and several people in our challenge were affected.
It took us three and a half hours to reach Laban Rata – the tortoise tactic paid off as we were eighth out of 46 teams and the fastest women. Our success in the first leg meant that we were put in the fast group for the second leg up to the summit. After eating and (trying) to sleep, we left again at 3.30am to reach the top in time for the sunrise. It was cold and dark. The landscape was now devoid of vegetation and the granite moonscape was taking no prisoners. We climbed painstaking slowly, head-torches lighting our way. In some places it was so steep we had to pull ourselves up along a rope while trying not to think how we were going to get back down.
Eventually we made it to the summit and we must have done it with a good heart for the mountain rewarded us with a spectacular sunrise. We were above the clouds, on top of a black granite mountain, surrounded by pink, orange and red sky – the challenge was complete…………..now all we had to do was go back down. Funny how no one ever mentions how hard that is.
PS – The Sailor’s Society Asian Challenge 2013 has raised in the region of £500,000 which will be used to support merchant seamen and their families. Our team has raised £6,200 but we are still collecting donations at www.justgiving.com/theseagals Thank you.