Dali would have loved the summit of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea.
Granite towers, horns and cowslicks protrude improbably from a landscape of fractured moraines and curvaceous drops, polished clean by Pleistocene glaciers and decked with gleaming waterfalls.
And watching the rising sun refract around these surrealist sculptures and illuminate Low’s Gully, which falls dark and sheer for over a kilometre, is a memory that will last forever.
Unlike the thigh and calf pain, which I am told should be gone within the week…
Now, Z is young enough to have only seen one sunrise before this. His first was a little underwhelming. But this one really, really delivered.
The wonderful Jamie Lee Curtis once said that she intended to write a book on parenting, entitled Bribes and Threats. Now, when persuading a nine-year-old child to ascend more than 1200m in one day, and another 800m between 2.30am and 6am the next day, bribes are, I think, only fair.
Sir’s reward for reaching this summit? Eight hours online gaming time. A trip to the hot springs. A non-smoking mother (four days and counting!). And a viewing of Alvin and the Chipmunks. (We normally compromise fairly well on matters cinematic but there are certain films, such as the Chipmunks and Haneke’s Funny Games, on which we will not see alike for many years, if ever.)
I mean, sure, the view and the achievement could have been their own reward. As, in fact, they were.
Can a child climb Mount Kinabalu?
Well, as he himself said, “I’d never have done it without the bribe to look forward to.”
Day 1 began in lush, cool, mossy forest.
Our ascent led through multi-coloured evergreens into a misty, sinister landscape of gnarled and stunted conifers. We covered only six kilometres horizontally but more than 1200 metres vertically. An average gradient steeper than 1 in 5 means a lot of steep steps, or equivalents thereof. Now, steps are a real pisser.
Particularly irregular, rough-hewn, steep ones. They simultaneously remove the sense of adventure (by “taming” the path) while putting even adult-size legs through ten degrees of torture, making a climb really bloody hard work.
We spent the night at Laban Rata, around 3200 metres up, neutralising our altitude headaches, and admiring that crazy, slippery granite mound capped with surrealist towers. (Mount Kinabalu itself is a ball of young Pluton granite, forced up from the earth’s crust between the sandstone Crocker Range like an especially plangent zit.)
Now, by night, I mean, well, part of the night. Sir was out cold by 6pm, having negotiated four hours more gaming time for tomorrow’s early start. We were up again at 1.50am and eating a meal they call “supper” at 2am. At 2.30 we were heading off for the summit, complete with head torches and winter coats.
The climb began with…
Yep. More bloody steps.
Ten minutes in, Z begins to chant. “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.”
I am, to be fair, hating it too. We pause. Start again.
“My chest aches,” he says. “I think it’s altitude sickness. I’m having to take deep breaths and it’s making my chest ache.”
“I don’t think it’s altitude sickness,” I say. His heart is beating fast, but he has no headache, no nausea, and I figure we went through our mild bout of headache the day before, at around 3000m. “It’s probably just the cold air.”
“I don’t want to do this any more,” he says. “I honestly don’t think I can.”
“But think about it,” I say. “You’re going to have TWELVE whole hours of computer time if you make it to the top. AND Alvin and the Chipmunks. And think how proud you’re going to feel when you make it to the summit.”
“I don’t care about any of that,” he says, a fat tear rolling down his face (I think I mentioned he’s never been a morning person). “I just want to go to sleep.”
My heart bleeds. But I don’t want to abandon the summit attempt at this point. We’ll both, I reckon, feel disappointed at having slogged all this way to give up at this stage. Also, I know myself well enough to know that if we don’t give it our best shot, I’ll be in a vile mood for days. And I know him well enough to know that he can go through this sort of slump and come out the other side.
I offer him some sugar (Mentos). He refuses.
“Well, you can’t go to sleep here,” I say. “Let’s get to the bit with the ropes and decide whether we turn back then.” (The start of the ropes is where most people abandon the summit attempt.)
Soon we are off the steps, and Z’s mood magically lifts. We are scrambling over granite slabs and trickling rainfall rivulets, a million stars above us in a clear, almost unpolluted sky. It’s magical. A quality of light and air you can only get high up a mountain somewhere very remote. “Have you seen how many stars there are, Mum?” he says. “They’re beautiful. This is one of the most amazing things.”
As we start to ascend the ropes, in a long, coiling snake of climbers, the very first glimmers of light start to appear in the night sky, though we’re still, essentially, ascending in darkness.
Z loves the harder ropes. The ones which take him up a 60 degree slope, weight thrown back, or enable him to navigate a tiny ledge leading across the slippery, convex granite that slumps away into the darkness.
I spend most of my time behind him, hissing helpful remarks like “Hold on with BOTH hands.” It’s nervewracking in the dark, when I believe that the drop I can see on our right is exaggerated by vertigo. Even more nervewracking, returning in the light, when I see that, if anything, the ascent was worse than I imagined.
On the summit massif, the rays of the rising sun tint the granite gold, and cast great shadows far, far out into the South China Sea. Z is rocking now and I am really, really proud of him. Plenty of adult men have fallen by the wayside. He hasn’t.
With the dawn, Z’s size and age become apparent. As we scramble up the rocks of Low’s Peak, the highest point, with a gully dropping terrifyingly below us, and a view through the clouds right out to the Tip of Borneo and beyond, folk congratulate him and pose for pictures with him. One of the guides takes his picture “to show my son that small small boy can do this”.
He is, justifiably, very proud of himself. But also, quite genuinely, in awe. “I never realised mountains could look like this,” he says.
We descend, gently, to Laban Rata, and eat breakfast at 9am, in preparation for the 1200m descent to headquarters, which Z manages with a general pizazz that horrifies the hobbling adults around him.
By the last kilometre, my knees are alternating randomly between buckling and locking and I’m genuinely concerned they’re going to give way altogether. On the flat I hobble flat-footed like some sort of show pony, and my ankles are beginning to go the way of my knees. Z?
“Well,” he says. “My legs are a little sore, but…”
Looking for more information? Read my practical guide How to Climb Mount Kinabalu with Kids.