slowly, slowly up mt kinabalu

climbing mt kinabalu borneoMt Kinabalu, as the ubiquitous t-shirts point out, is the highest peak in South East Asia. And although it was working for Intrepid and road-testing a trip that initiated her climb, it was Angela Zuniga’s own will that helped her take each slow step to the top…

“My local guide made sure I had enough water, that I got my permit and that I was relayed onto an experienced mountain guide. Then with my daypack weighed down with warm clothing and slightly unaware of what I was getting myself into, I took my first steps. As had been the advice, I was intent on establishing a slow and steady pace. I told myself my priority was to tackle the climb at a pace that would allow me to appreciate the beautiful Borneo vistas.

My lungs filled with clear, mountain air and I lost myself in my surroundings. The palette of different shades of green was so extensive that it couldn’t be duplicated by any photo or splash of paint. Green was now confirmed as my favourite colour, as I could feel its soothing and relaxing properties taking affect. There were so many different leaves, of all shapes and sizes. The glorious sunshine produced even more green hues as it filtered through the canopy. My guide took me on a short detour to show me a pitcher plant, a bearded tumbler that lures insects in with a sticky, sweet liquid. Once the insects dive in they find themselves trapped and are slowly digested by the plant. It is such a marvellous product of nature – so powerful and yet it survives for a mere three months.

I was cheered on by an orchestra of sound: frogs croaking, birds warbling and whistling, fellow climbers’ encouragements and the patter of my feet and walking stick pounding the ground beneath me. Most of the time I was able to rely on those noises to drown out the internal voice of doubt that wanted some kind of justification for the torture I was putting my body through.

From early on I set myself little goals to avoid being intimated by the magnitude of the mountain. At each kilometre marker I had a photo taken and allowed myself a portion of the packet of cookies and the water supply that I was lugging in my day pack. I consciously focused on the rewards – the views of the mountain that occasionally peaked through the foliage and clouds, the amazing carnivorous plants, and finally the rest house where I was to spend the night.

My weary legs transported me to another micro-climate two thirds of the way up. Sunshine and a clear view of the mountain welcomed me, as if a reward for my perseverance. On arrival at my overnight stop I changed out of my sweat-soaked clothes and enjoyed dinner. It was nearly time to call it a night when yet another reward to top off a magical day – a spectacular light show at sunset.

Tinges of orange and red licked themselves into the horizon, pushing aside the fluffy, cottonball-like clouds. Next the full moon made its entrance, introducing another shade of white light to the sky. The lights of local lives sparkled through the valley, giving the scene further depth and texture. The finale was a distant, tropical, electrical storm. The storm’s host cloud was beamed into my show with rays of light and bolts of lightning. This was the picture I held in my mind as I drifted off to sleep.

After what only seemed like a few hours sleep, at the sprightly hour of 2am, I layered myself up with thermal underwear, then the outer-layer, followed by a fleece vest or two. I also packed my jacket, gloves and a beanie. After a light breakfast of toast and a cup of tea, I put on my head torch and joined the group heading outside to the new challenge of a dark, cold and steep climb. Slowly, slowly.

Unfortunately, in the last few months my only exercise has been the one flight of stairs at work and gardening. Although I had acquired as much advice as possible and had packed all of the required material items, I was not physically well-prepared at all. On day-one we had walked for 6 hours, 99% of which was uphill. Five minutes into my climb on day two and my lungs were struggling for air and I still had over three hours before I was to reach the top. During the first 500 metre stretch my feet landed on rickety steps, worn smooth by the thousands of climbers that had come before me. I had never appreciated the true distance of half a kilometre before. Perhaps it was the regular stops to satisfy the demands of my lungs and heart, maybe it was the darkness or it may have been the relentless uphill struggle, but that first section felt like an eternity. When I came across a white rope leading up a granite rock face I sat down, had a few cookies, some water and waited for my climbing companion and guide. Slowly, slowly.

Once they caught up I took a deep breath and followed the rope. For the first time it was my arms, as well as my legs and lungs, working at getting me up the mountain. It became harder and harder to suck in enough air to satisfy my lungs and my breaks became more regular. I called on everything my body had to give me and used the self-discipline I had acquired as a schoolgirl rower. Left foot, breathe in, right foot, breathe out. Another 500 metres, or what really felt like 5 kilometres, and I reached the 7 kilometre marker. This was closely followed by a check-point. Slowly, slowly.

For me, the last 1.72 kilometres were the hardest. More and more I was forced to rely on the rope, and my heart and lungs screamed for me to stop this nonsense and get them some air. But my eyes and stubbornness pushed my forward. I saw others turn back with the weight of altitude sickness upon them, dizziness, nausea and headaches.

I was surrounded by the ghostly grey profile of the mountain against a sky lit by the full moon. I had read about the unpredictability of the weather, how quickly rain, wind or fog can move in. I knew how lucky I was to be greeted by a clear sky, a full moon and light winds. Those were picture-perfect conditions. As under-prepared as I was, I felt unworthy but very grateful for the motivation it gave me. Slowly, slowly.

I reached the 8 kilometre marker as the sun introduced those red and orange hues into the sky again. I could now see my goal, the mountain’s peak and was able to make out the silhouettes of the lucky ones who had already made it. I too made it. I made it with the encouragement of my guide and his friends ringing in my ears, with the “Good Luck” and “Just a little bit more” of my fellow climbers. The sun had risen and so had I. Slowly, slowly.

I elbowed myself into prime position behind the sign, marking the summit for the compulsory, cheesy photo and headed down again. As wary as I am of touristy and cheesy souvenirs, I was caught in a moment of elation and ordered myself the certificate stating that I had made it to the top. I would just have to give them a few dollars at the headquarters at the base of the mountain and I would have a piece of paper certifying that I was, indeed, crazy. Slowly, slowly.

The clear sky meant that I was able to look over the countryside, dotted with villages, smaller peaks and agriculture. I stopped for a brief break to take in my surroundings before heading back down for breakfast at the rest-house. My lungs were grateful that I was now descending and they didn’t have to struggle any longer. The roped ascents that had presented a challenge were now a fun break from the jarring downward steps. I put on my gloves and went backwards as if I was abseiling. The hardest thing now was remembering to concentrate on every footstep, making sure that I would not fall over. As my mind drifted off briefly and my stomach took over, anticipating my breakfast, I stepped on the rope and fell down on my side. No damage, just a bit of a sore ego. Slowly, slowly.

At the rest-house, I had breakfast, took off my layers of clothing and stretched my legs. Half an hour later we set off together back down to the bottom. Buoyed by my satisfaction at having made it to the top and the lack of pain in my heart and lungs I was of a positive mind-frame. As I encountered the first boulder-sized steps I took them in my stride, using my walking stick to reduce the jarring affect on my body. We glided by the first rest-house and chatted about our achievement. By the second rest-house I could feel the lethargy set in. After all, I had been awake since 2am! We stopped briefly for a quick drink of water and were off again. As we went past each 500 metre marker and took a break at each rest-house my body began to protest more and more. I regarded each section of steps with horror and again I drew on my self-discipline. Breathe-in, right step, breathe-out, left step.

A shuttle bus ride back to headquarters and a two hour return trip to Kota Kinabulu were all that stood between me and a hot bath. I have never done anything as difficult as climbing Mt Kinabulu. Now, as I move on to the next chapter of my Intrepid adventures it is my guide’s encouraging words that ring in my ears, “Slowly, slowly!”

Tour Borneo with Intrepid on trips like these great small group adventures:
Sabah Discovery – 10 days
Borneo Adventure – 22 days

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* photo by Astrid Ross – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Congratulations Angela; your blog brings it all back to me, almost word for word, from 2008 when I did this. I also remember, “Don’t think about the mountain, concentrate on the journey”. I felt like an arctic or Everest explorer, just focusing on the next step. And going down was almost worse, especially for my knees. The guides are great – I wouldn’t have made it without them. Thank you for renewing my memories and pride in achievement.

Hi John,
Thanks for your feedback and apologies for any confusion. Mt Kinabalu is in the Borneo state of Sabah and the height is 4095 m (13435 ft). Will certainly try to be clearer about destinations, although in Angela’s first paragraph she mentions that she’s in Borneo.
Thanks and best wishes,
Sue, Intrepid Express editor.'

It would be nice to know in what country this mountain is located and it’s alitude w/o having to figure it out. Maybe your writers need to be a little more explicit and stop trying to be Hemmingway.'

Wow… that was incredible. How amazing. I hope you are very very proude of what you have done.


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