The world was black and far away as we waited on the summit of Mount Kinabalu; a ghostly memory suspended four thousand metres below. High up in the night-time sky we huddled for warmth against the bitter cold and watched for the sunrise, the murmurs of success and relief as climbers reached the summit mingling with the whistle of the freezing wind. Sitting there, shivering in the dark, the achievement of my difficult climb was dwarfed by my mental and physical state; I ached, I felt sick and the thin air made it hard to breath. All I could think about was the sunrise that would end this cold, long night and hope that the view would be worth it.
We had set out naive and courageous 24 hours before, ready to conquer our first mountain. How cheerful we were for the first hour of the ascent; the endless encouragement passed between strangers crossing paths and sharing the climb. The track had started by weaving uphill between trees and waterfalls, picturesque and warm under the rainforest canopy, but as the morning crawled on it climbed steeper and harder and the air grew thinner. Upbeat conversations gave way to intense concentration and by lunchtime the rocky path had transformed to one of dusty yellow boulders and our legs ached from the relentlessly steep incline.
By the time we reached Laban Rata, the half-way house, we were exhausted and sore with the first signs of altitude sickness. There was a meal and a few hours rest, but it was watching the sun sink slowly through the mountains of cloud pillowed below that revived our spirits and readied our minds for the second part of the climb. When 2 am came, great swathes of climbers in varying mental and physical conditions set off in the dark hoping to reach the summit for sunrise.
Hanging on to the white guide rope, my muscles protested with every step of the second climb. The shadows were stretched and ominous so that a looming precipice lurked outside the safe glow of every headlamp, and we passed people who had fallen by the way; exhausted or sick from the altitude, but still we kept on climbing. Every time the path plateaued momentarily I was filled with a desperate hope, but the rope led on and so the scramble continued higher and higher; a pilgrimage of headlamps spiralling upwards into the night.
‘Just one more step, just one more step, nearly there now,’ we whispered to each other until finally, with enormous relief, there was no further we could go. The summit, reached under the cover of night, was invisible and unremarkable except for the reward of sitting down to rest. And there I sat for a long, bleak hour, numb with the cold, wondering what on earth I was doing and feeling immensely sorry for the stiffness in my legs. I was living my longest night.
It was with hushed anticipation that the first smudges of grey softened the horizon. The darkness faded to ash, somewhere to the east dawn was approaching and we gazed hungrily at the shadows watching the shapes take focus. Headlamps were turned off and Kinabalu, the summit we had worked so hard for, gained form and colour beneath our feet. As the sun burned red and lifted above the jagged mountains, daylight swept along the cliffs and then fell away to reveal the world 4000 metres below. Perched high in the sky, it was our world but different; primordial and freshly waking with mountain ranges and forests draped in morning mists as if we were watching the dawn of time. As the sun began to warm my shivering body memories of the uphill struggle faded with the last of the stars and every painful step paled to insignificance as a new day stirred far below. On top of the world everything was possible and the struggles of the night only made the dawn more magnificent.
A view like that, I realised as I limped my slow descent sometime later, is something that changes you’re mind-set to the land around you. It’s an inspiration, a new way of looking at the same world you’ve ignored for years, and a kind of beauty I want to find in the world every day.
About the author: Natalie Hamill worked in London for several years before she decided to set off for south-east Asia in search of adventure. One year out quickly rolled into two and she’s hoping that’s the way it will continue.
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