What was supposed to be a short, simple stroll up Mount Kinabalu in Borneo turned into a confrontation with the mother of all fears.

I’m going to tell you: I’m pretty brave these days. Brave to the point of cocky, even.

Everyone else on the tour was extremely nervous about climbing 4,095 metres to the summit of Mount Kinabalu, but I was not. I’d just finished walking several weeks in Italy, doing twenty to thirty kilometres a day while nursing a case of crippling tendonitis.

But this was only a two-day trek, walking six kilometres on the first day and ten on the second. And with a tour group, no less. I had this. I was going to conquer the crap out of that mountain. I was going to make that mountain my bitch.

Day One

The path up Kinabalu did not mess around: it instantly led straight up into the heavens. Porters carrying fifty-kilo loads jogged by us, dripping waterfalls of sweat down bodies sculpted from rock, to soak their highly inappropriate footwear. “Hello,” they all said as they passed, with inexplicably joyful facial expressions. “Good luck!”

And then there was us: a pack of zombies in khaki zip-off pants and moisture-wicking shirts yelling “UGH, MORE STAIRS!” at every opportunity we got.

After 3,230 metres of this, we stopped to acclimatise for the night in a cabin perched on the mountain. We all tucked into bed early so that we could be ready for the 2am summit attempt, and I went to sleep with a little smile on my face because there was no doubt about it: I was killing this mountain.

Mount Kinabalu

Day Two: 3 a.m

Terror froze me to the rocky wall and I gasped through a warm stream of tears. “I can’t do this. I CAN’T DO THIS!”

The small orb of my headlamp was all I had to navigate the utter blackness on the mountain. Two of my biggest fears—heights and the dark—had joined hands into one giant, overwhelming beast. I hated this mountain. Hated it.

“Don’t look down,” said the person behind me, and so, of course, I turned and shone my light downwards. The light contoured the steep face until it curled around to a drop off into spine-chilling darkness. Both of my hands clutched the safety rope to stop me rolling off and down the mountain. “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I CAN’T DO THIS!”

I tried to turn back down, but a hand took mine and led me forward. “Trust in yourself,” a voice said. “One step at a time.” When I found the courage to take my eyes off my feet and look up, I saw my hand in the hand of our Malaysian mountain guide. I began to follow his lead, putting one jelly leg in front of the other.

We still had hours to go until sunrise: a monumental stretch of time. An eternity. I chanted in my head Don’t look down, Torre, don’t look down… and kept my focus on my feet as they shuffled forward.

One foot in front of the other. I didn’t look down.

Mount Kinabalu


The summit looked like a cluster of moving stars in the sky. All the headlamps from all the other climbers were darting around in an excited frenzy, giving us a starry goal to fix our sights on. The velvet-black sky had paled to a muddy purple, which silhouetted the rocky bluffs and peaks.

Sunrise was coming.

“Just a little bit further,” the guide told us. “Three hundred metres.” But I knew by that point that real-life measurements don’t apply on mountaintops: a metre at altitude is ten or more at sea level. Each time I placed a foot, I considered coming to a standstill, declaring “This will do!” and watching the sunrise from where I stood: The Almost-Summit. The Good-Enough Outlook.

It was becoming difficult to breathe. Nobody was bothering to talk. The wind bit through layers of thermals whenever we stopped to rest. Though every step made it harder, it was easier to keep ascending than it was to stand still and shiver. I felt like I was on the moon, in a place I didn’t belong.

A hundred years later, we reached the summit. My head swum with exhaustion, oxygen deprivation, and disbelief. I sat down on a rock and watched the sun turn the mountain to gold.

Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu

I was laughing uncontrollably, giddy and proud.

“Um… Torre? There are rats crawling around below your feet,” a member from my group told me.

I don’t know if she was kidding or not—I didn’t look down—but I couldn’t care less, because hours before, I’d broken through a crippling fear of heights and I was sitting on top of Malaysia’s highest peak.

Rats, snakes, sharks, heights, dark…

Throw them at all me.

I will crush them.

I will make them my bitches.

Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu

My tour to Sabah Borneo was kindly sponsored by Intrepid Travel, but all opinions are my own. Climbing this mountain was a seriously challenging and rewarding experience, and I do not hesitate to recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of adventure. More information can be found here: Sabah Adventure tour in Borneo

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21 Response Comments

  • Kathy  November 18, 2014 at 6:08 am

    Love this !!! I climbed Kili and Denali, and have simar stories. Love your blog

    • Torre DeRoche  November 18, 2014 at 9:10 am

      You’ll have to add Kinabalu to your impressive collection Kathy!

  • Kavitha  November 18, 2014 at 7:11 am

    Beautifully written, as always. My sister completed her adventure up Mount Kinabalu around the same time as you did. I couldn’t be more proud of her (and you too!). This is definitely something I intend to experience for myself someday.

    • Torre DeRoche  November 18, 2014 at 9:10 am

      Funny! We must’ve crossed paths. 🙂

  • Pam@travellingbag  November 18, 2014 at 7:21 am

    Sounds like an excellent challenge – I might look into doing it.

    • Torre DeRoche  November 18, 2014 at 9:13 am

      I suggest you book an extra night or two in an accommodation at the bottom of the mountain. Your body will need time to recover after the gruelling decent. I couldn’t move for two days. Luckily Intrepid knew this would happen, so they factored in 24 hours of not moving, followed by another day of low impact touring. We all walked like penguins for two days. Pain. So much pain!

  • Denise  November 18, 2014 at 7:56 am

    As a travel agent, I’ve sold the trip a million times and I’d still never do the climb up to Kota Kinabalu. It’s not fear. It’s something else, but I don’t quite know how to describe it.

    I love how badass you’re becoming. The shots from the top are beautiful.

    • Torre DeRoche  November 18, 2014 at 9:16 am

      Hmm. Interesting! Funny thing is, I rated the climb a 6/10 in terms of difficulty when I was at the summit. It was hard and I had to face fears, but it wasn’t that hard—I’ve done more extreme adventures. However, after the decent, I had to bump up the rating to an 8 or 9. Coming down was BY FAR the hardest part. For 48 hours afterwards, I felt like I’d been brutally attacked by a team of thugs. But my god were my muscles firm!

  • Laura  November 18, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I love this! I was the one to tell you not to look down. It brings back what at the time I felt were nightmares, and now are such happy memories. Fab trip, and I love your blog Torre.

    • Torre DeRoche  November 18, 2014 at 12:32 pm

      Oh that was you Laura! Well, at least I got to repay the favour by offering you some sips of my water when Louise stole all of your hydration. 🙂 I hope you’re having fun wherever you are!

  • Amrita Das  November 19, 2014 at 6:50 am

    Great read! I love climbing myself and yet, I am always afraid while planning the next. I guess, anticipation can be played both ways 🙂

  • Kathy-2  November 21, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Congratulations, Torre! What an adventure and the pictures are beautiful.
    I hope your tendonitis eases over time (I had something similar happen while backpacking; I was cringing as you described your descent). Voltaren, lots of Voltaren…

  • Ronny  February 8, 2015 at 2:45 am

    Glad to hear that you put your fears in their place … Mount Kinabalu is a stunning place!

  • Naomi  June 13, 2015 at 6:58 am

    Such an inspiring story! Loved reading it

  • Selma  June 29, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    Great achievement … Kinabalu is such a special place in SE Asia!

  • Ray  August 16, 2017 at 12:02 am

    Congrats on conquering your fear of both height and darkness at the same time! Seems like the end goal (i.e. the Mount Kinabulu peak sunrise) was the greatest reward for achieving this. Although, I would like think the massive boost to your self-esteem and confidence should be reward enough. 🙂

  • Rene Young  August 31, 2017 at 1:56 am

    Wonderful writing and congrats on tackling your fear head on – rats and all.


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  • Trip Advisor  December 8, 2018 at 5:28 pm

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