When the British mountain climber, George Mallory, was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest he famously responded: "Because it's there." I felt similarly about Mount Kinabalu. I had no burning ambition to conquer the mountain, but as I was in Borneo and it was there, it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.
At 4,095m, Mount Kinabalu is the fourth highest mountain in South East Asia and the steepest climbable peak. To put it in a local context, it's four times higher than Carrantuohill, the highest mountain in Ireland. It forms the centrepiece of Kinabalu National Park which is known for its many carnivorous plants, orchid species and the giant Rafflesia which is the largest flower in the world. The park also plays host to a variety of birds, reptiles and mammals, including the orang-utan (although difficult to see).
The zealous can reach the top in one day. The more popular option is a two-day, overnight climb. There are two routes; the longer Mesilau Route (10.2km) and the more popular Summit Trail (8.5km). Both routes travel through warm lowland rain forest to the near-freezing alpine conditions at the peak.
I set off on the Summit Trail in a group of 10. The climb was part of the itinerary of an escorted tour around Borneo organised by Intrepid Travel. Having a guide on Mount Kinabalu is mandatory and ours were a father and son duo, Sappingi and Robbie. At 54, Sappingi has been climbing the mountain since he was 16, making him the longest-serving mountain guide. We were in safe hands.
As Sappingi and Robbie are from the Dusun tribe, they told us of how important the mountain is to them and their people. They believe that Mount Kinabalu is sacred and a resting place for souls. In days gone by a chicken was sacrificed at the peak every time it was climbed. Now this ceremony only happens once a year, when seven chickens are sacrificed to appease the spirits.
The first 6km of the trial, from Timpohon Gate (1,800m) up to Laban Rata Hut (3,273m), is a steady climb upwards. Every kilometre there is a shelter, toilets and a tap where you can fill your water bottle. Most people complete this stage in four to six hours. The terrain changes from jungle at the bottom to alpine-like bush towards the top. One constant throughout this stage is steps, steps and more steps. Most of them are formed from earth and others from slabs of rock. Some steps are so big that it takes a lot of power to hooch yourself up them, especially when your thighs are burning with fatigue.
Laban Rata Hut is home for the night. Calling it a hut does it a disservice; it's more like a cosy mountain hostel. The sleeping accommodation is in dormitories with clean white sheets and they provide slippers so you don't wear your hiking boots inside. The common area is a spacious room with large windows looking out over the mountain vista.
From 5.00pm the weary mountaineers form a queue for a buffet style dinner. We were told by our guides to eat plenty as we need the energy to reach the summit. It wasn't hard to gorge as the food was a delicious mix of Malay, Chinese and western styles.
Like kids we were packed off to bed after dinner at the unreasonable hour of 7.00pm. In bed I experienced some mild effects of altitude sickness; a headache, stomach upset and insomnia.
The wake up bell, for those that did sleep, came at 2.00am. After breakfast we geared up for the final ascent to Low's Peak. The clear sky exposed the stars and the steep outline of the peak was visible. Getting up there in the dark was a pretty daunting prospect.
This final 3km of the climb usually takes between three and four hours, the idea being to watch sunrise from the summit at 6.00am. Gazing upward, the trail was marked out with tiny dots of light made by other climbers' head torches. This section was much steeper and more technically difficult. The altitude made me breathless and I had to walk slowly. Morale dropped as I witnessed other climbers turn back.
There were long sections of steep wooden steps, followed by granite slabs with guide ropes. The rocky plateau marked the end of the tree line and the beginning of the open rock face which was windy and cold.
The final 1km is less steep and there are no guide ropes needed. We zigzagged across the granite slabs while the dark sky grew brighter and the sun formed shadows on the rocks as it started to rise.
Victoriously, I arrived to the near-freezing peak just in time to see the sun rise over a blanket of fluffy clouds. The view was spectacular; of the valley and jungle below and out as far as the city of Kota Kinabalu and the South China Sea.
Just like the hike up, the way back was divided into two sections; down to Laban Rata Hut for a hearty breakfast and then back to where it all began at Timpohon Gate. Exhausted, we finished walking at 4.00pm that day, tired but grateful that Mount Kinabalu was 'there' to climb.
Deirdre Mullins climbed Mount Kinabalu as part of an escorted tour around Borneo with Intrepid Travel. The 12-day Sabah Adventure tour costs from €1,285 and includes accommodation, transport, some meals and activities, and services of a local tour leader. Book at: www.intrepidtravel.com or: (01) 524 0071.
For more information on visiting the Sabah region of Borneo, see: www.sabahtourism.com.