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Kinabalu Beckoned

This piece was first published as a Facebook note in August 2011, intended to be the first of a few in a series of jottings on the author’s experience in hiking to the highest accessible peak in Southeast Asia. It was during cross-training for Kinabalu that the seeds for a running hobby were sown. The mountain itself is the site of the Mt Kinabalu International Climbathon, a tough footrace which used to trace the route to Low’s Peak, the highest point, and back down – a 21km trail run with a 2,500+ metre rise and fall in elevation. The route has since changed to a 23 km course that stays within forest trails. Also in the vicinity of Mt Kinabalu is a yearly ultra trail run, the TMBT (‘The Most Beautiful Thing’) Ultramarathon. The 2013 TMBT (100K) is a qualifying race for the North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix for 2014. Note: The author, a mere mortal, has not attempted neither the Climbathon nor the TMBT!

Morning view of Mt Kinabalu's imposing granite outcrop

Morning view of Mt Kinabalu’s imposing granite outcrop

I have always had a fascination for mountains. I suspect it has partly to do with my late mom having been a Geography teacher, which meant that I grew up amongst shelves of musty old texts, atlases and back copies of National Geographic that spewed superlatives – hottest places, coldest nooks, wettest towns, lowest trenches, and highest mountains. There was something about ‘highest mountains’ that interested me most (it must have been the illustrations of white snow-capped peaks not unlike photos of fun holiday destinations) and I would spend hours on end looking at descriptions of Everest’s imposing 8,488 metres; K2, second highest but a more deadly climb than Everest; Kilimanjaro in the African continent, Mount McKinley in the United States, and Kinabalu, dubbed highest in Southeast Asia, then at 4,101 metres. A recent re-survey now establishes Kinabalu at 4,095 metres. While Kinabalu has always appeared in our geography books as the ‘highest in Southeast Asia’, according to some sources now, that may have been a statement that ‘stuck’ after years of generalisation and simplification by tourist brochures. Perhaps more accurately, it is the ‘highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea’  according to UNESCO (Kinabalu National Park, established in 1964, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000) or the ‘highest accessible peak’ in Southeast Asia, as mentioned by Mountain Torq, which manages the Via Ferrata route on Kinabalu, an alternative adventure on a scenic route of rungs, rails and cables.

Lofty ambitions

Of the soaring peaks that were featured in my childhood books, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah felt almost accessible, being located on home ground. It was an adventure in my very own backyard waiting to be uncovered, and I told myself I would climb it one day.

This tattered volume is at least 30 years old

This tattered volume is at least 30 years old

My first mountain ‘adventure’ came around sooner than I expected. I was eleven when a family holiday in Japan was planned, and Mount Fuji was on the tour itinerary. Excited at the thought that I may be atop a ‘highest mountain’ in a different country (snow-capped to boot!) even before I got to the one in my own backyard, I set about wondering if we would be provided with spikes, ropes, hooks and protective gear, like how it was depicted in the books  – and found out, of course, that the bus would take us directly to the Fifth Station where we would stop, have a whiff of the chilly air, buy souvenirs, have lunch, maybe ride a pony, take some photos, and get back onto the bus that would take us back to the foot of the great volcano. Weren’t we heading on to the summit? Wasn’t that the point of going up a mountain?

Mt Fuji, and ridiculous 80s fashion.

Our guide explained that a push for the summit would take about eight hours on foot, and one would have needed to train for it and make special arrangements for the climb. To my dismay, this went down perfectly fine with the rest of the people in our tour group, who seemed content with just sipping their hot drinks and comparing souvenirs. I turned to Mom incredulously for support. She gave me the “What did you expect?” look and directed me to the vantage point for my photo to be taken with the peak in the background – so near, yet so far.

Reality bites

That was my first lesson on exploring mountains – apparently, it’s not something that suits everyone. I would have more lessons on exploring mountains as years passed. As I grew out of reading adventure stories and writing illustrated tales in exercise-books featuring my sister and myself as intrepid explorers, more slices of reality seemed to set in – not only was climbing a mountain something that wouldn’t suit everyone, it was probably also an activity better left to people who were tough, elite outdoorsmen or sportsmen during their schooldays, or the NatGeo travel channel host and his crew, rather than the average Joe (or Jane).

Not only was I nowhere near the elite sportswoman in school, I have bad knees – a combination of joint hypermobility and reckless dance activity had led to two dislocations of a kneecap in the past. Both knee incidents delayed plans to climb Kinabalu. The weeks and months of relative immobility, tedious physiotherapy, ice-packs and wire-reinforced kneeguards seemed to unanimously seal my fate. I signed up for pilates classes, and after two years of Saturday-morning workouts with trainers at the studio, the legs felt started to feel more balanced and confident… and the Kinabalu itch started nagging again.

The parting words of my orthopaedic specialist (I did hope not to see him ever again) had been “Do your knee exercises 3 times a day for the rest of your life and don’t stop until your legs look like Serena Williams’!” I can’t say I was diligent in the knee exercise department, but I realised that I would have to train more than the average person hoping to make it up and down Kinabalu in one piece. It would mean more than mere brisk walks in the park. I would have to upgrade the walks to hikes on steeper paths with a weighted backpack. (I eventually decided to cross-train by running – something that would fly in the face of acceptable norms for people with bad knees – but it was in fact Kinabalu training that started my running pastime). It all certainly sounded more daunting than the Williams sisters combined, and I was sure that anyone who heard my intentions of climbing Kinabalu would have thought I needed to be prescribed a higher dose of morning coffee.

One morning in December 2010, I finally sipped a higher dose of morning coffee, and decided once and for all that I would commence concrete plans for Kinabalu.

> View the next post in the Kinabalu series, on my training trails.

About speedshuffle (75 Articles)
Wen Li is a runner, blogger, mother, educator and artist. She is the Co-Founder and Cartoonist of Malaysia's first comic strip on running, Running Toons ( and is a Compressport Ambassador. Her running story was featured in Marie Claire Malaysia's April 2016 issue alongside several other notable women running bloggers. She runs wherever the road takes her, come scorching sunshine, stifling humidity or relentless rain (and preferably to a Nasi Lemak breakfast!). Apart from pounding the asphalt, she also enjoys hiking and pilates, and is now attempting CrossFit!

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