One thing I’ve learned about myself while traveling, is that I love feeding off other people’s excitement for things. I seek out and follow recommendations, consider TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews, and can be talked into going nearly anywhere as long as someone presents an enthusiastic case to go.
This is why the powerful experience of visiting Mt. Kinabalu snuck up on us. Many cultures aren’t into over-hyping things the way Americans are, and when Roy suggested we do the hike, it sounded almost like an afterthought. “Do you guys want to do Mt. Kinabalu while you’re here?” He asked, the same way he would ask what we felt like eating for lunch, or what time he should pick us up at the airport.
“…Sure?” we said, knowing it involved climbing a mountain, in the jungle… and not a whole lot else.
Arranging the trip for us in advance, we were surprised how diligent Roy was in booking reservation. Our trip to Sabah wasn’t until March, and we were on the phone with him coordinating deposits the week of Thanksgiving – 4 months in advance. Isn’t it only a 2 day hike? We thought. Why do you need a mountain guide and so much time to reserve a permit?
The moment we arrived at the park gate, we immediately understood. The rubble from the July earthquake was still piled up in the front parking lot, and Mt. Kinabalu stood jagged and proud above the clouds, showing her stoic might against the thick jungle surroundings. “In the Kadazan (indigenous tribe) legend, this is where the spirits go to rest” we were told by Roy’s tour guide friend who drove up with us.
No, this wouldn’t be just another 16k overnight hike… we realized. For many, it’s a pilgrimage – if you choose to see it that way. It’s scaling sacred ground that demands respect above human life. A natural marvel, standing high above civilization, looking over its ancient land.
The first day took us 4 hours to reach base camp, ascending from the jungle floor straight up the uneven, rocky stairs – or more often, balancing on small boulders. Going from 4,000 to 9,000 feet in altitude, we felt the slight tightness in our chests as we got nearer to the top, and as we climbed we noticed the faces of the people coming down: tired, sometimes even exhausted, but glowing. They had huge smiles on their faces as they saw us tracing their own paths from the day before.
“Good luck!” we were wished enthusiastically in English from a dozen or more different native tongues, some of which sounding like these two words were the only ones they knew in our language.
“It’s worth it!” even the most tired people on the trail encouraged us. “You’re nearly to basecamp!” we were reassured as we hit the halfway marker. It was like having our own international team of cheerleaders guiding us forward. Never before in all of the hikes I’ve done have I encountered so many genuinely friendly and encouraging people.
2:00am in our shared bunk room, the group of friends from China who had the other 4 beds were changing into warm clothes and talking in just enough volume to wake us before our 2:15am alarm. We followed suit, adding leggings, multiple jacket layers and headlamps to our standard hiking gear, knowing that the morning’s climb to the peak to see sunrise would be at or below freezing temperatures and pitch dark.
More excited than tired, we met our guide downstairs, and he pointed us in the direction of the stairway: straight up, as we could see from the twinkling headlamp stars bouncing their way up a vertical line in the distance.
Finding an even rhythm, we walked at the pace of the person ahead of us – passing people as they dropped off to rest. Evenly, stoically, we kept our eyes on the guide rope illuminated in front of us, and on the granite face below our feet.
“Want to rest?” our guide asked us as we reached halfway up, noting that we’d past the majority of the group we started with.
Not for too long, I thought to myself, the feeling of adrenaline still propelling me forward. I also couldn’t ignore the chilling sensation down my back anytime we paused for too long… the result of sweat, sure. But there was something in the peaceful and eerie darkness; knowing that this mountain was both in tribal myth and recent fact a sacred resting place, which made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I had to actively tell myself to stop envisioning that somewhere under the darkness of our feet, the earth shook violently and killed 19 people here only 8 months ago… and nature doesn’t have rules, so she could strike at anytime again.
“It’s okay, let’s just keep moving.” I said for both of us. Resolved to continue our pace, Shaun, our guide and I continued plodding forward.
The peak of Mt. Kinabalu is about the size of a press box; small, narrow, shared with dozens of concentrated people jostling to find a position in the dark; cameras at the ready to capture the much anticipated scene. As the sunrise appeared – a bright orange glow above the clouds at the horizon – everyone’s jockeying immediately stopped. We all stared awe-struck at the deep valley far below, the sheer granite faces that we had no context for in the dark; the layered valleys covered in deep green jungle in the distance.
I suddenly found myself giggling. Smiling uncontrollably. My face was glowing in the sunrise; glowing the same way I saw the faces of people on their way back down the mountain the day before. I looked over at our mountain guide – a man native to the area who was mostly silent with us, as he spoke very little English – and he was staring relaxed and meditative at the sun. He stared at it in a way, as if he knew something that we didn’t about this place.
Looking over, he caught my gaze and smiled. Nodding his head in my direction, I felt him say to me “you’re right – this place is scared. And now that you’ve felt it, you know too.”
The way down was even more grueling than we’d anticipated. On less than 5 hours of sleep, it took us 4 hours of downward stair stepping to reach back to the bottom. But as we walked down, I saw the people hiking up as we did the day before, and I felt compelled to wish them “Good Luck!” as people did to us. With each passing group, we exchanged encouragement, and I noticed their faces change, warmed and more resolute to continue.
Finishing the last few stairs up to the starting gate, strangers clapped for us and congratulated us on our good work. We thanked our guide, and returned to the car with Roy, who was waiting for us, just in time.
“You know your mountain guide was one of the first responders to the earthquake” Roy told us, as we drove away. He recognized the man’s name from a recent documentary which honored his role in the event. No, we didn’t know, because he barely spoke. But feeling his calm presence with us for two days, I’m not surprised.
You could say it’s folklore and coincidence that a natural disaster happened right after the mountain was shown disrespect by foreign tourists – that the two guides who let it happen were the only two that perished. It could’ve just been the timing, that I looked over and sensed something meaningful in our guide’s reaction to the sunrise. But what I saw showed deep respect for this place; not a mourning, but instead a peaceful understanding that Kinabalu’s legacy is to guard human souls; not protect human life. That’s the job of man.
Thank you Kinabalu for the safe passage, and for making us feel more alive.
Michelle and Shaun, best friends and married for 4 years, are taking a break from professional life in San Francisco to follow their dream of traveling the world for a year with backpacks. Drawn to understand other cultures and get off the beaten track, they are spending anywhere from a few weeks to several months in each major region of the world, sometimes working and/or volunteering in the community; other times simply being open to new adventures that each culture and natural setting has to offer. To follow them and their journey and even suggest where they head next, head on over to AllBonVoyage.
More from Michelle + Shaun: HIKING THE O CIRCUIT: TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK | PATAGONIA, CHILE