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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.