Friday, 14 April 2017

The Personal Challenge - Mount Kinabalu

Some experiences you never forget. Some are the kind you want to forget but can’t. They are rarely planned. They can add immeasurably to your experience of life and to your belief systems but they are rarely pleasant. I have a lot of them. The memories you want to remember are, certainly in my case, planned. Whitewater rafting down the Zambezi with my young son, holidays with family in strange, unfamiliar places, the serenity of the Zambezi River at sunset after a successful day’s fishing.

And then there is climbing Mount Kinabalu.

Two days after the event my body still aches.  My legs mainly, my calves, my thighs, my back, my neck and even my arms. I have a massive black bruise on my inner right thigh just above the knee. I don’t remember how I sustained it. The last time I was anything close to this was when I was an 18 year old raw recruit in the British South Africa Police. My Squad Instructor, Sergeant Mike Lindley, after I had committed some minor infringement, ordered me to cross my stirrups across the saddle on my horse and then complete the hour long morning ride, at the trot, without them.

It was Mike Lindley who gave me my first insight into the value of never giving up. I learned more during my police service, and after. 

Planning to climb Mount Kinabalu all started three months ahead. Like all plans, nothing ever turns out exactly the way you expect.

Graham, my son in Brunei, messaged asking me if I wanted to climb Mount Kinabalu with him.

“Four thousand metres,” he said. It didn’t mean much. I responded with a ‘yes’.

A few days later another message:

“Before I go ahead and make the bookings, are you sure you want to climb Kinabalu? Last chance to back out.”

An earlier comment of Graham's in one of our many remote conversations popped into my head:

"We spend too much money today on trying to stay alive and not enough on living it"

So I replied,“Yes. It’s on my bucket list.”

I Googled Mount Kilimanjaro. Five thousand, eight hundred and ninety-five metres. Mount Kinabalu at four thousand metres should be a walk in the park. I Googled Mount Kinabalu. Pictures may sometimes tell a thousand words but these ones didn’t. How little I knew of what I had let myself in for.

I told my golfing friends that I was going to do it. Some raised their eyebrows, others scoffed at me.

“It’s not walking on the flat, Dave,” said Rob, “It’s uphill. Climbing. Ever done it before? No? You don’t stand a hope.”

I started to have a slight concern. I walked my dog every morning – two and a half kilometres minimum, five kilometres maximum over an hour and a half. Kinabalu from start to finish is nine kilometres and you have two full days to do it. I got a letter from my doctor in which he pronounced me ‘a fit 72 year-old’. Why should I be worried?

On Thursday 9th of March 2017 Cherie and I flew out to Brunei from Harare via Johannesburg and Singapore. Graham and grandson Finn were there at Bandar Seri Begawan airport to meet us. I had never heard of Bandar Seri Begawan. I was about to go to other new unheard of places. First was Rimba where Graham lives with Caroline. Then Jerudong International School where Caroline is a teacher. 

Next was Shahbandar, a series of hills outside Jerudong.

“This is where we’re going to do some training, Dad,” said Graham.

On Sunday we got up early, drove the few kilometres to Shahbandar and walked the hills. Three different routes. Six hills, nine hills and seventeen hills. We started on the ‘easy’ stuff – nine hills. 

After the first half-kilometre I was exhausted and had to stop for breath.

"You normally run this, Graham? Really?”

“Yes, Dad. You’re out of condition. It’ll get better. Eventually.”

By the end of the nine hills I was a physical wreck. Graham took a photograph of me with his digital phone. You don’t want to see it.

Two weeks later and five walks on the Shahbandar hills and we were off to Miri in Malaysia. I managed the seventeen hills a couple of days before we left. On one occasion I wore Graham’s heart monitor and averaged 135 beats per minute with a following report that said I needed 32 hours recovery time before attempting anything again. I was way above Graham’s average heart-beat (97) and way beyond his recovery time (3 hours).

We all drove to Miri – Graham, Caroline, young Finn, Cherie, me. A two hour journey and border controls to pass through. In the city of Miri in Malaysia, another hitherto unknown name and place, we stayed at the sumptuous Marriot hotel and swam and played in the massive pool with friends Jason, Helen and their four sons. 

Jason had climbed Kinabalu and he told me of his experience:

“It was freezing cold. Minus 2 or 3 degrees. I remember crouching under rocks to shield ourselves from the biting, howling wind. But we made it. It was a great experience. You’ll enjoy it.”

Enjoy it? I was more than a little shaken. Apprehensive. Possibly even scared? I couldn’t sleep at night.

On Sunday the 26th we all flew from Miri to the island of Labuan and then on to ‘KK’, the colloquial name for another Malaysian city – Kota Kinabalu. KK is a big place with a big traffic problem. It took us longer to drive from the airport to our beach hotel than it did to take us to fly to KK from Miri.

Another sleepless night on Monday/Tuesday. Then a short good-bye to Cherie, more apprehensive perhaps than me, before Graham and I were collected from our hotel at 5.15 in the morning by a jovial mini-bus driver who worked for our hosts for this experience, 'Amazing Borneo'. 

Now there was no going back.

I had yet to see Kinabalu from the ground as it had been shrouded in cloud since our arrival. But Graham had seen it on an early morning beach walk.

“It towered way above everything else,” he told me.

Mount Kinabalu

Early for collection of some others we stopped for a coffee. Then on to collect the rest of our party. We were joined by complete strangers who were to be our friends for two short days. Tom, Kate, John, Rob and Katie.

Up the mountains we drove, the excellent road winding through the jungled hills. Bubbling personality Kate chatted away the entire journey to Graham, me into the conversation now and then but without my hearing aids which I had deliberately left behind in our hotel, I missed most of it. I gazed out the window to get a view if I could of this now dreaded mountain. Nothing.

We arrived at a holding centre, dozens of people of all nationalities milling around. Our bus driver had been joined on the hills by a guide. She told us what we had to do.

“We want see your passports and you sign indemnity. Follow me”

I showed my passport to an official who handed me a form to complete.

‘What you are about to do is dangerous. You are risking injury and even death. You are doing this voluntarily. We are not responsible. Name, Passport Number, Signature, Date.’

“Shit!” was all I could manage in my mind. I filled in the details and signed.

We were introduced to our guide. Wilson Latius. A young Malaysian, he looked pleasant enough. We were soon to find out what an incredibly fine young man he is. Wilson became from that moment on entirely responsible for me and Graham. Initial smiling photographs taken of the three of us together, we were issued with a tag with our name and a number and told to wear it all times. Without the tag on display, no further climbing. I wanted to buy a mountain trekking pole. There were none in stock but I was able to hire one. I learned later that this was, for me, an essential piece of equipment.

Dave and Wilson before the Start
We were driven to the starting centre. And then we were off. It was a little after 9:00 am. I don’t remember too much about the six kilometre climb to Laban Rest House other than it was a physical and mental challenge far beyond anything I had experienced before.

What I didn’t know was this was the easy part.

There were rest huts every kilometre heralded by the chatter of climbers who had made it there before us and the smell of the latrines. I had to ask Wilson and Graham to stop many times in between. The climb varied, some not too steep, other parts very steep. In many places there were metal bars placed into the rock face to stabilise the ground to help us. In some places there were wooden steps with wooden hand rails. In other places there were only the rocks. Step after gruelling step we worked our way up the mountain. Time after time I thanked my hired trekking pole for steadying me and for helping me to use an arm to aid my tired legs. I stopped myself from looking up because every time I did so, all I saw was other climbers way above me. When oh when were we going to get to our rest hut? I kept my head down and muttered to myself with every step, ‘ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one’. And then started the countdown again and again and again.

Along the way many porters passed us carrying goods of all kinds. Ten, fifteen kilo packs? They had massive calves and leg muscles. We were to learn later that everything at Laban Rest House was portaged up by these strapping young men and women who were paid 6 ringgits (US$1) per kilo.

We reached Laban Rest House at 2:15. Our morning bus group were all there already. I was exhausted. It was cold and windy outside but nowhere near as cold as it was going to get. Graham bought us both a cup of hot tea in a massive cup. The best cup of tea I ever had. We joined our little group at a table and related our experiences.

Tom, we learned, is a pilot for Cathay Pacific. Kate, his partner is a carer of cats, especially feral cats. John, Tom and Katie are teachers at an International School.

There were dozens of others present, all cheerful, all perhaps a little mad, I thought. I was, I realised, definitely out of my mind.

We were by no means the last to get to Laban. As others arrived in from the cold, a cheer and applause would go up in congratulations for ‘making it’.

Graham wanted to shower and off he went. I saw another aged looking climber and went over to talk with him. I still don’t know his name but I can tell you he was an engineer by profession and he too was climbing with his son. Australian of Chinese or perhaps Japanese descent from Melbourne, his son from Sydney. He was sixty-eight years old. I was to meet him and his son later at a very special place.

Then I too went for the advertised ‘hot shower’. Powered by solar without any sunshine that day the water was ice cold. Literally. Allocated ‘Dormitory No 3’ I found myself a bottom bunk bed and claimed it with my backpack. Graham had already done the same.

Back in the dining area it was time for dinner. Hot steaming rice, hot and cold vegetables, fish, beef, chicken, noodles, gravy. It was all there for a hundred plus or minus ‘mountaineers’ and I – incredibly – was one of them. What on earth was I doing here?

On the walls of Laban Rest Hut were many motivational statements and pictures of previous climbers. Around the dining centre were flags of all nations. Graham saw the Zimbabwe flag and took my photograph under it.

Then it was time for bed. We knew the drill. Up at 2:00 am so that we can ‘breakfast’ then summit and see the sun rise.

Graham and I got ready for the morning. I put on all my clothes other than my borrowed outer weatherproof jacket and thick, heavy gloves. Socks, underpants, shorts, two tee-shirts, jersey, track-suit. Nike trainers, jacket, beanie and gloves ready beside the bed. Graham, having humped quite of lot my kit in his rucksack up as far as Laban was to take my small rucksack with water to the summit in the morning.

John was already in his top bunk. We were joined by Katie and Rob. All of us dressed for the early morning.

“All set?”

“Yes thanks.”

Lights out at 7:00 pm. But sleep was hard to come by. During the night I heard the wind pick up a little. I had heard from another friend of Graham’s, Tim, that weather conditions prevented his group from making the final climb. What was the morning going to bring? What would the weather be like? Would I have the physical and mental stamina to make it to the summit or not? One half of me hoped the wind would rise and we wouldn’t be allowed to make the final climb. The other half wanted very much to be able to make the attempt. I thought of one particular motivational statement on the wall of the hut:

“Never, ever, ever, give up.”

A long time ago I read a copy of a commencement address given by Admiral William H. McRaven, at The University of Texas. I remembered what he said in that address about never ringing the bell, never giving up. If you have never read this speech or watched it, I urge you to do so.

During the night the statement became my mantra.

Long before 2:00 am I am awake. Perhaps I did not even sleep? I hear the kitchen staff preparing our breakfast and other climbers walking in the passage. Graham calls: “Are we all awake?” and of course, everyone is. On go the lights and we get ready.

Down for breakfast.

And then we are out in the darkness and the cold. Wilson with us, ready and smiling. Head torches an essential piece of equipment, are switched on.

Laban Rest House is 3,273 metres high. The summit 4,095 metres. That’s 822 metres of altitude and 2.5 kilometres of distance to go. A gradient of roughly 1:3 average. One rest hut between us and the summit. Graham points out some stars above us. But all I can see are the lights of torches up above and more of them down below me. Up we go, one step at a time. After perhaps an hour it starts to rain and an icy wind picks up. It gets colder by the moment. We are still in the upper mountain forest, yet to break out into the open.

And then we are there. In the open. I can’t see it, only feel it. The rain comes down, harder now and the wind intensifies. The cold creeps in to my body. Hands and feet. Then head and legs. The route changes from rocks and mud to hard granite. There is a white rope which we had been told to follow or remain beside if unable to carry on. On and on we climb, slowly, relentlessly, step by step. Me asking far too frequently to stop and rest awhile. Wilson and Graham are ever patient with me. Climbers in front of us, climbers behind us. We learned later that some climbers dropped out at this stage. Even later we learned that some others never left the hut!

I didn’t come this far not to go on.

“Never, ever, ever give up.” I mutter to myself again and again. I look down. I look up. Only the lights from head torches. The wind and the rain ever stronger. The cold ever colder. What are we doing on this mountain in the darkness? Why are we doing it? Are we all out of our tiny minds? Or is it only me?

“Will we make it by sunrise?” I ask Wilson at one of my frequent requests for a rest in the darkness.

“Yes, David. We’re going to make it,” and in the light of my head-torch I see him give me the thumbs up.

In the experience of the moment this gives me a warm glow of real hope and a renewed determination.

But we aren’t going to see the sunrise this day.

We meet two climbers on the way down. It is Tom and Kate. They have been to the summit but aren’t going to wait for any sunrise.

“The hypothermic conditions are just too much for us to hang around,” says Kate.

“Is it far to go?” I ask. I don’t get a reply to that. I guess it is further than I am hoping.

The darkness softens a little. Now I can make out the outlines of human bodies, not just torchlight. The wind gusts fiercely. The near freezing rain comes down in gushing bursts.

“There it is, there’s the summit.”

It is way, way up and ahead of us. I groan. Does this really have to go on?

We pass some others huddling from the now howling, gusting wind behind some large granite rocks and I remember Jason’s story. I wonder if these are the same rocks that Jason had used as temporary shelter?

On and on we go. Now the summit is thirty, maybe forty metres ahead. The climb gets steeper and steeper, the rock face is wet and slippery. The end seems impossible. And then, right there in front of me is the plaque. The detail of what is written I cannot read but we have, miraculously, reached the summit of Low’s Peak – the highest peak – on Mount Kinabalu. 4,092 metres. There is little room at the top – maybe four or five people can stand on the summit at any one time. Down below us on the far side of the summit is a sheer drop of thousands of metres.

My 68 year-old Australian friend is there with his son. He wants a photograph of the two of us. Graham says he has his phone camera. I have mine zipped into my jacket in a plastic waterproof envelope. I had thought a picture was going to be easy!  I take off my one rain-soaked glove and then the other. Unzipping the pocket in my borrowed supposedly weather-proof jacket I fish out my phone which I had stupidly switched off to save the battery. Now I have to switch it on and enable it. I manage one photograph of Graham and Wilson behind him.

Wilson raises both his arms in salute to me and Graham and then takes a photograph of the two of us with Graham’s camera.

In that moment I know why I climbed Mount Kinabalu. I know that I am not crazy. And neither are the others who climbed. I now know what 'feeling on top of the world' really means.

My Australian friend’s son takes a photograph of his father and me together. He tries to tell me his name but the wind and the altitude make it impossible. I try to speak. My words are slurred, high pitched, unintelligible. My left cheek is numb from the cold. My tongue won’t work like it should.

Graham at the Summit, Wilson behind

Dave and Graham 'on top of the world'

For two or three minutes I bask in the glow of success. Adrenaline and serotonin pump through my blood and brain and for a short while I don't feel the cold or the rain, only a warm glow within me.

And then it is time to go down. It is now light. What I see in front of me scares the hell out me. Nothing but a broad barren sloping granite landscape below us. How had we climbed this in the dark?

The wind is howling now, gusting fiercely. Wilson has put on his lightweight poncho and it is flapping and cracking in the wind. I can see the gusts sweeping the rain ahead of us. I have never been in high winds like this, not ever. I can’t get my wet gloves back on again. It is freezing cold.

I am blown over by the wind a couple of times. I look down and can see climbers disappearing over the edge of what looks like a precipice. The rain causes gushing torrents of water on the rocks. My feet in their Nike trainers (why don’t I have some proper equipment?) are soaking wet, the water sloshes inside them. Graham’s gloves are useless and his hands and feet are freezing.

Wilson keeps us going. Well me anyway.

The more I see of where we have been, the more I wonder how I did it. It crosses my mind that the organisers had us climb in the dark because if we saw the closeness and the steepness of some sheer drops on either side of the pathway we wouldn’t be able to move from terror.

We near what I had perceived to be a precipice. It isn’t but it is a much steeper decline. There is a heavy, wet, white rope for us to use as a handhold and we back our way down the slope in the manner of abseiling. My bare, freezing hands are taking flak on the rope. I try once more to replace my gloves but no chance of that.

We move back into the upper mountain forest and the rain and wind seems to ease.

Eventually back in the hut at 9:00 am.

Graham sends a WhatsApp message accompanied by a photograph of the two of us at the summit to the family. It reads: “Massive effort from Dad this morning. In unbelievably bad conditions he made it to the summit.”

My emotions finally break. I feel the tears well up in my eyes. I know then that I have done something special this day. I heave my weary body up from my chair and hug Graham in thankfulness for helping me to do something I did not know I could do.

To say that the final journey down was difficult is an understatement. I was energied out. After a kilometre I started to stumble and fall. The track was slippery with mud. A drizzle continued to fall. My leg muscles felt like mush. It was one painful step down after another. And Graham and Wilson had to put up with me. I fell and sustained a gash on my left shin and another on my right hand. Wilson took hold of my hand and helped me stumble down one step after the other. We reached the 4 kilometre rest hut. Graham said we couldn’t go on like this. At one stage when I fell, Wilson had nearly slipped over the edge of the track into a steep and endless ravine in helping me to recover.

“It’s not so steep from here on,” I said to Graham. “I can manage. I’ll ask for help when I need it.”

At one of the rest huts I sat back, my aching back against a wall. Completely drained I found myself talking to a climber on the way up.

“Did you make it to the summit?” he asked

“Yes, I did.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m 72”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Zimbabwe.”

I learned in further conversation that he was a pilot for Saudi Airlines and he had climbed Kilimanjaro. He was with a young lady, I guessed his partner.

“Did you suffer from altitude sickness?” he asked

“No,” I replied.

He was concerned about his partner who feared altitude sickness might get the better of her. They kitted up and before they moved off he congratulated me on my success.

“If I can do it at your age, I’ll be a very happy man. Have a safe journey down.”

Then another, younger man came up to me. He was smiling. A Philippine, I think. He asked me the same questions as had the Saudi pilot. I answered all three with a pride I have never experienced before and he gave me a wide grin and a small salute with his hand.

“Good luck on the rest of the way down,” and he was gone.

At a little before 4:00 pm we made it to the end. It had taken us 5 hours to climb to Laban Rest Hut. It took me 6 hours to get down. Wilson disappeared for a few minutes and then returned with certificates of achievement. I was too tired and mentally worn out to read it. But not too tired to give Wilson a warm hug and a sincere thanks for caring so much for me. Our small party of friends had long gone back to KK in a previous mini-bus.

There is just a little more to tell.

We made it back to our beach hotel and in the morning we flew back to Miri. At the entrance to KK airport building we coincidentally met up with Tom and Kate on their way home to Hong Kong. There is something special about people who climb mountains that automatically builds friendship amongst their kind.

“Did you make it?” they asked us both in unison.

We chatted some more about our individual experiences and then parted ways. Probably for ever, yet the friendship will always be there.

What did I learn on this mountain? I learned to trust an individual I had no experience with. Why? Because he exhibited professionalism from the moment we met, he believed in me and he never once let me down. I learned that Graham, apart from being a supremely fit 43 year-old, has outstanding patience and understanding of other people. 

I learned that life throws you opportunities every now and then and no matter how young or old you are, when this happens, take them with both hands and all of your heart.

I learned that perseverance can take you anywhere you want to go but to achieve your most challenging goals you need the help of others. The real miracle is that there is always someone there who will help. Sometimes it is a Wilson Latius, sometimes it is a close family relative, sometimes it is a Sgt Mike Lindley. But there is always someone.

I am not in the least sorry that I did not see the sunrise at the summit. On the contrary, I reflect on the high gusting winds, the rain and the freezing cold and I realise that it is because of these that the adventure carried real meaning for us all.

People, they say, are always searching for the meaning of life. At the summit of Mount Kinabalu I found it.


  1. Well done Dave - (and Graham and Wilson)- fantastic effort and so eloquently told. We almost feel we've done it with you so won'try it ourselves!!

  2. Good for you Dave,Graham and Wilson. An excellent account of your determination to make it to the summit.
    Olive and I just got back from a 10 day Tour of China.One of the best experiences of my life.I unfortunately was recently diagnosed with "drop Foot",so was unable to do as much as I would have liked at "The Great Wall of China":While there I learned that China has used more concrete in the last 10 years,than the USA has used in its entire history.!!!!!

  3. Wow Dave, this is so awesome, truly. We spend so much time working, we forget that there is whole world of experiences out there, thank you for reminding me!