Monday, December 1, 2008


Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

It has been four days since we descended Mount Kinabalu. I’m up to four anti-inflammatory pills per day, trying to quiet my raging knee and make it behave itself as an instrument of locomotion once again.

My knee has been bothering me for the last couple of months; I fucked it up landscaping, and then helping Erin move her office. Every now and then something pops out of place and it hurts like hell until I can pop it back in. During our descent from Kinabalu, five hundred meters from the end of the trail, my knee finally popped out of place and I couldn’t get it back in. It hurts, but I did make it up and down that mountain.

Even more than my knee, my problem with walking has been from the muscles in my legs. I was a younger man the first time I climbed that mountain. I don’t remember my legs aching for this long last time. Erin, Nate and Linda all say that their legs are nearly back to normal. Mine aren’t.

There were twelve of us plus two guides who started out climbing Kinabalu on Thursday: my parents, five of Linda’s brothers, one of her sisters, Linda, Nate, Erin, the photographer for Erin’s story, and myself. We stuck together for the first half an hour or so, but the Jimi kids couldn’t restrain themselves to our pace for long. Most of them are younger than the rest of us and all of them are way more Dusun than the rest of us.

It is their mountain. Mount Kinabalu is where the souls of the Dusun go when they die. Kinabalu was giving their legs strength and pulling them up to the top. Us, it fought every step of the way. The Jimi family ran up the trail ahead of us. We didn’t see most of them again until we reached the mid-point, where we would spend the night.

Sharing the trail with us were dozens of Dusun porters taking supplies up to the lodge at the mid-point of the mountain, everything from food to canisters of gas to building materials. They generally walked slower than us, but unlike us, they seldom stopped to rest. I asked one tiny woman with a homemade backpack how many kilos of cement she was carrying. She told me, “only 28.” She was barely over 4 feet tall. An older man was carrying two 10-foot long planks on his back. Linda asked what they weighed and he said 52 kilograms. We asked what he was getting paid to carry them up the 6-kilometer trail which gains 1500 meters of altitude, and he said 175 Ringgit — about C$60.

About halfway to the mid-point, my mom got sick. I think she was pushing herself a little too hard and climbing a little too fast, and she started puking. She couldn’t keep water down, so there was no way she was going to make it. She and my dad turned back.

The rest of us slogged up to the mid-point, which is at an elevation of about 3300 meters, making it a total climb of 1500 meters on the first day. That’s really a lot. For Vancouverites, it’s the equivalent of doing a high-altitude version of the Grouse Grind twice in a row, and the trail is nearly as steep and not quite as well-maintained.

The Jimi boys were waiting for us in the lodge at the mid-point, and they were freezing their asses off. A thermometer on the outside of the lodge told us it was 11 degrees Celsius, which was the coldest temperature most of them had ever been exposed to. By the next morning, they would be nostalgic for 11 degrees, but they didn’t know that yet.

They got in bed and shivered. Jerry Paul refused to get out of bed for supper until I went into his room and gave him hell. I told him that half the reason he was cold was that he was starving, whether he felt hungry or not. He had climbed 1500 meters that day. No fuel, no fire.

We tried to get to sleep early, because to make it to the summit for sunrise, we’d have to start climbing at 2:30 AM. Erin and I decided to have a beer after supper, to help us sleep. A can of Carlsberg costs about 4 Ringgit in most places in Sabah. At the mid-point lodge we paid 20 Ringgit, which is about C$7.00. Considering someone had to carry that beer all the way up, I felt like we were getting a pretty good deal.

After the beer, I lay down in my bunk and listened to the Malaysian soldiers who were staying in our lodge talking on the other side of the paper-thin wall of our room. I’m not sure how much I slept. There was definitely a period of semi-conscious confusion between about 8:00 PM and 2:30 AM. I hated my alarm at 2:30, which means that I probably was asleep when it went off.

It was raining like hell and black as death at 2:30 AM. Our guides had a conference with some other guides for about ten minutes, discussing whether it was safe to climb. They decided that it was, so we set off. The rain quickly stopped.

The beginning of the climb was a lot of steep stairs. Both Linda and her sister Jolivia felt like they were going to die, and we walked slow.

The middle of the climb had a lot of ropes and involved climbing a lot of cliffs in the dark.


Then there was a long section that Nate calls the “inclined parking lot”. It is a steep plane of granite, over 3500 meters in altitude where the air gets a little thin. There is nothing to think about except for your next step, whether it’s time for a break, and whether the sugar you get from a piece of candy is worth the gummy, sugary phlegm in the back of your throat.

The last hundred meters is a scramble up the pile of granite boulders that is Low’s Peak, altitude 4100 meters, the highest point between the Himalayas and New Guinea.

I’m lousy at describing scenery. Fortunately, we had a camera, so I don’t have to.

The summit was freezing. Linda warned her brothers not to climb too quickly, because if they got to the summit early, they’d have to wait around for the sun to rise and they’d freeze their dicks off sitting around on the top of a mountain, not moving. They didn’t listen. Their (mostly) young legs and their Dusun souls propelled them to the top of the mountain. By the time we got there, Hillosky looked like his soul would have a short journey to the afterlife.

We were about to leave the summit when a sudden storm blew in. The wind picked up, pelted us with rain and threatened to pitch us off the back side of the summit and down the 1800-meter cliff we were perching atop of. The few dozen climbers who were crowded around us hurriedly vacated the summit. The storm stopped pretty much as soon as we scrambled down the peak and reached the inclined parking lot again.

Hillosky looked like he had given up on life. He had nothing on his head but a baseball cap, and the sleeves of the winter jacket he had borrowed for the climb were four inches too short for his arms. His hands were covered by knit gloves, which were now sopping wet, and he was wearing rubber shoes, which were great for traction but useless for insulation. Worst of all, for the first time since I’ve known him, he had stopped smiling. He was barely walking. He had given up on life. I put my arm around him and propelled him down the mountain. I promised him that the lower we went, the warmer it would get.

We retreated to the mid-point lodge for breakfast and life-giving coffee. Hillosky smiled again. Then all ten of us started down the mountain. We took about three and a half hours to get down. Linda’s brother Velentino got down in 45 minutes.

I made it almost all the way down the mountain, to a spot 500 meters from the bus to the parking lot, when my knee went out for no discernable reason. I guess it just got sick of walking. I couldn’t pop it back in, so for the last 500 meters of the hike, the jungle heard a monotonous stream of English obscenities.

My advice to you: never climb a mountain with a Dusun — they’ll make you look like a fat, out-of-shape, lazy westerner, either by climbing twice as fast as you, or by carrying 52 kilograms of lumber on their back while they do it.

I’d like to say that we white kids were better at something than the Dusun, like eating, for example, but it’s just not true. The Dusun ate more than us, too. We’re just plain useless, unless eating all the anti-inflammatories in Sabah counts as useful.

We’ve now returned to coastal elevations and we have been recuperating and preparing for the next stage of our trip. Linda, Nate, Erin and I are soon going to the Indonesian side of this island, which the locals are pleased to call Kalimantan.

Erin and I had a flight from Bangkok to Bombay (Mumbai) booked for two weeks from now. Any of you who have been following the news know that Bangkok’s airports have been occupied and shut down by the anti-government protesters who Erin and I visited last month, and Bombay was invaded by ten terrorist gunmen who somehow lasted for 60 hours and killed 195 people.

Luckily for us, we had already cancelled that flight, because it didn’t fit into our schedule. As it stands, we’re definitely not going back to Bangkok, and we may skip India altogether. Instead, we might spend some extra time in Indonesia. I’ll let you know if we ever decide what we’re doing.

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