"How many times have you reached the top, Rony," I asked.
We were standing at Timpohon Gate in Kinabalu National Park preparing to climb to Low's Peak, the summit of Mt Kinabalu, altitude 4095.2m. It was the job of guide Rony Gahun to get me there in one piece.
"About 100 times," he answered after some thought, "but before I was a guide, I was a porter and I had to carry about 30kg of food supplies on my back each time up to the restaurant at Laban Rata."
Just another number to add to those that had been swirling in my head for weeks. Like 20, where Mt Kinabalu ranks in the list of the world's most prominent peaks, and one - as in kingpin of South-East Asian mountains.
I had been obsessing over the climb, determined to be ready, hoping I wouldn't succumb to altitude sickness. I had spent too long turning a mountain into a, well, an even bigger mountain.
And there was strong-as-an-ox Rony pointing out the record of two hours and 33 minutes from Timpohon Gate to Low's Peak, set last year by an Italian. Thankfully, we were expected to complete the 6km climb, to Laban Rata lodge at 1800m, in six hours before catching some sleep in readiness for an early- morning attack on the summit.
It is thought there are about 6000 species of plants on the mountain, more than North America and Europe put together, and I was willing to suffer the aches and strains to see rare orchids, carnivorous pitcher plants and varieties that still haven't been recorded.
Most of all, I wanted to see the giant Kinabalu leech and the giant Kinabalu earthworm it feeds upon. But I was to find out that nature doesn't perform to demand.Related: PEAK EXPERIENCE
Far above, Kinabalu's sheer black face was streaked by falls from a torrential downpour and its jagged finger-like peaks wore rings of cloud.
Just a few hundred metres along the track, we felt the misty force of Carson Fall, where a white veil tumbled from the forest and under the path, kissing all who passed, before continuing its charge through the jungle.
A gaggle of neon-clad Japanese trekkers had stopped to photograph the tiny pink flowers of the endemic Kinabalu balsam. But there were others already panting from their exertions who had gone too hard, too early.
Forget about record times, Mt Kinabalu is a steep climb with an average gradient to Laban Rata of more than one in five. Much of the path is extremely rocky, some of it is under water.
The air is noticeably thinner at 2000m, and the exertion, coupled with a lack of oxygen to the brain, was already causing problems for some climbers.
But in my Dusun guide Rony, I had a secret weapon. The Dusun are mountain people, and although most of them are now Catholic, their traditional belief is that Kinabalu is the sacred home of their ancestors.
They conquer the mountain by respecting it, easing to the summit. Calves and thighs like tree trunks, Rony climbed like a dancer. And as he led, I would copy his half-steps watching how he would favour a foothold in between rather than a thigh-crunching upward stride.
I quizzed him on his penguin-like gait when we reached Pondok Kandis, the first of seven shelters, each spaced about a kilometre apart.
"It's best to walk diagonally, easier on the thighs," he smiled, slapping his tree trunks.
Hidden among the trees, Rony spotted Nepenthes tentaculata, one of Kinabalu's nine species of pitcher plant (five are unique to the area).
A thin tendril wrapped around a neighbouring branch, the pitcher hung like a deflated balloon, mouth open wide, emitting a sweet nectar scent to tempt and then trap the insects it digests.
The climber traffic thinned out as we trekked and we went long periods without seeing anyone else. I was enjoying the sound of my boots squelching along the track and the swirl of the wind.
The same repetitive, but pretty, three-note melody was issued by birds I couldn't see and, each time, a frog would croak excitedly as if part of an avian-amphibian neighbourhood watch scheme.
Through 2100m, the dipterocarp forest began to thin and we negotiated high earth banks with a coat of copper and green moss. The path, previously rusty, had become a slippery sluice of milky clay streaked with bands of colour.
The air seemed to thin too but I wasn't the only one feeling it. A tall, slim Australian girl, stick in hand, was chugging red-faced and gasping down the track towards us.
"You OK," Rony asked.
"Barely," she exhaled.
But as the path changed to smooth grey granite, I felt euphoric, enjoyed the pink balsam displays and relished the strain each step brought to my legs.
With a little alarm, it occurred to me that the oxygen deficiency was making me giddy. At 2455m, more than halfway to Laban Rata, we were rewarded with a glimpse of Rony's village, Bundu Tuhan, tucked into a fold in the green far below.
A procession of climbers looking the worse for wear came down the mountain towards us. Teetering from side to side, eyes half-closed, they were like zombies. Each summoned up the energy for a passing "hello".
It's a rule of the road on a mountain. Just as passing country drivers wave or raise a finger from the steering wheel, climbers greet those they pass, exchanging empathy for the steep slopes and blistered toes ahead.
At Pondok Mempening, the track had become a fast-moving stream, swollen by the rain at the top of the mountain. As we stooped below a branch of yellow Rhododendron lowii, two female porters scooted past us and out of sight. On their backs, each bore a heavy load of vegetables tied to a wooden board. From the top of the board, a rope padded with a length of sweatband was looped around their heads leaving their hands free.
It may have been their first climb of the day, it could have been their third. It was then that I realised that although Rony said he had completed the whole climb about 100 times, as a porter he'd probably made the 6km trek to Laban Rata on at least 400 occasions.
The mountain continued to ooze, the stream carrying a flotilla of gold and copper leaves and soft brown chestnuts swollen like sponges around our boots.
In the undergrowth, a clump of Nepenthes villosa swayed in the breeze, far more robust specimens than the fragile tubes we had spotted earlier. Bulbous and hairy with squiggly purple tendrils and orifices ringed with wormlike lips, these looked like something from outer space.
Cheese and spam sandwiches, boiled eggs and banana have never tasted better than at our lunch stop of Pondok Layang Layang, 2700m up the mountain. But no sooner had I peeled the shell from my first egg than I was scrambling to put on more clothes. Mist had rolled in, the sun had disappeared and it was freezing.
The vegetation changed, matching the temperature, a cloud forest punctuated by lichen and stunted, gnarled tea-trees bent east by the wind. In a mossy cushion, a giant worm rolled and twisted, articulations dipping away into the undergrowth. The rough steps seemed to get bigger and I was struggling for breath.
It became murderously difficult to concentrate on Rony's relentless steps. For the first time, I thought I might not make it.
We passed stricken climbers whose presence did little to lift my spirits. Legs burning, I scrambled over a bare rock face, footholds at a premium, and then rose off all fours to turn and see the valley below under a swaddling of wispy cloud.
I was almost spent at Pondok Paka, the final shelter, where struggling climbers lay on the benches. Just 500m to go but still more than 100m to rise, I took a minute to summon up the effort. My legs were willing but, at 3000m above sea level, I was gasping. I tried concentrating on the speckled egg pebbles in the track which was now bone dry.
"I can see the first hut," Rony shouted.
The infernal steps continued. And then finally, four hours after leaving Timpohon, I dragged my weary frame into Laban Rata, lungs burning, head throbbing. Sapped.
The cooks had started preparing dinner and my delight at the thought of a hot meal turned to horror when I heard problems with the electricity supply meant an ice-cold mountain-water shower in the shared bathroom.
I shrieked as I stepped under it, getting the ordeal over with, and then, after a delicious meal of chicken curry, fried noodles and mini-burgers, lay dozing as yelps and howls issued from the bathroom.
I awoke at 1.30am to torrential rain beating down on Laban Rata. Sheer sheets of water fell from the cloud-breaking face of Kinabalu.
By 2am, the ranger had closed the summit trail as 60 climbers, swathed in waterproof suits, head torches lit, looked anxiously up at the mountain.
Given a tentative go-ahead, we headed up the steep path, a fast-flowing stream, at 3.40am hoping to reach the summit at sunrise. But engulfed in a maelstrom, we were forced to retreat.
At Laban Rata, disappointment was uttered in a dozen languages. I went for a snooze. Rony watched the sky until 5am and then gave up and the ranger declared Kinabalu's charcoal face too slick and windswept to climb.
We drifted back down the soggy mountain, concentrating hard on slippery footholds, tearing off sweat-drenched clothing at the halfway mark. My legs felt rubbery from the monotony of the sharp, juddering downhill steps. The giant, obstinate, granite pluton that is Mt Kinabalu is squeezed 5mm higher every year. However many of those have passed, I plan to return and beat the mountain.
For there's an inextricable tenet of travel and one hard learnt at 3200m. Planning can be exhaustive, money well-spent, an itinerary followed to the letter, but nature is a formidable opponent when you battle on her turf.
• Kinabalu National Park is 88km or two hours drive from Kota Kinabalu. At park headquarters, the daytime temperature is about 20C but above 3500m it can dip to freezing. Beds at Laban Rata can fill months in advance and an overnight stay at the rest house is compulsory. Climbers pay for park entry and a packed lunch, at park headquarters. Guides and walking sticks cost extra. Pack summer clothes and wet-weather gear for the day climb and warm clothes for the summit ascent as well as headache tablets to ward off the effects of altitude sickness.
• Laban Rata and the chalets, lodges and suites at Kinabalu Park are operated by Sutera Sanctuary Lodge. Prices at Laban Rata are — two-person room RM695 ($217) per night, a six-person room RM2080 ($650) per night. Eight-bed huts are RM290 ($91) per bed. Rates are inclusive of a packed lunch, dinner, supper and breakfast at Laban Rata, and lunch at Kinabalu Park Balsam Restaurant.
• At Kinabalu Park, liwagu suites cost about RM627 ($195) per night and have balconies, two toilets and an upstairs bedroom. A room at the lodge, at 1585m, will help travellers acclimatise. It’s also a good base from which to explore the botanical gardens or other trails. Guided walks of the trails leave daily at 11am and cost RM3 ($1) and half that for children while RM5 ($1.70) is the cost of entry and a tour (thrice-daily) of the botanical gardens. See www.sabahparks.org and www.suteraharbour.com.• Borneo Eco Tours’ Mt Kinabalu package takes the stress out of preparing for the climb. It includes hotel transfers from Kota Kinabalu, packed lunch, Laban Rata meals and accommodation, the services of a guide and one night at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodge. See www.borneoecotours.com.
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