The air is crisp and cold wind whips my face. The cool rock face beneath my feet is slippery and covered with moss, leaving behind squelchy mud and lush green trees with intertwining roots; natural and fierce. We’ve left our mark on the earth during the climb; this battle between earth and man. The only way is up.
If I glanced around, I would see thick white haze and the distorted shapes of those ahead of me. The fog engulfs us. Apart from the scream of the wind, there is silence. The earth’s surface has become too steep so I creep to my hands and knees and crawl further. Ahead is a segment of flat terrain with muddy crumbling stone. It begins to rain and I have to squint to see the building looming ahead of us. Lonely and secluded on the side of a 4095 meter mountain, it looks lost. I trudge through the slush. It is determined to prevent my success.
Our wooden hut’s balcony is rotting and old; delving deep into the rock below. I stare out at the serenity, the edge of the rock disappearing in descent only meters away. I look straight ahead at the sunset; peaceful and calm in contrast to the ferocious mountain.
It’s almost a sleepless night. I toss and turn in the itchy linen sheets, trying to focus on rhythmic breathing and not the climb ahead. Sooner than I’d like, alarms fill the room and eight bodies begin to stir. My hands shake as I put on my gloves; my heart leaps into my throat. This is it. The light of the hut is surreal; blinding us in the darkness outside. It is time.
Blackness. Head torches. A flicker. A step. Each one requires the strength of my entire body; fighting against the ascent. Surrounded by both strangers and peers, we climb up the rickety wooden steps intruding over the rock, desperately attempting to cover it. The rock still holds power, trees spilling out of the cracks; a bush scraping into my skin. It feels like it will never end.
My heart is racing, pumping blood around my body with less oxygen as I climb further. I want to turn around, but determination licks my heels. We came here to get to the top. The only way is up.
Finally, the steps end; thick muddy ground and a small stream running innocently through the scrub. Ahead stands a wall of rock; reminding me of the towering walls surrounding the Fremantle Prison. Barricading you in. I watch those before me, balancing in their clumsy boots. A rope is bolted in for support, but the hard work will be battling against horizontal rock. The only way is up.
Through the darkness, I climb. No harness, no protection. If I fall, that’s it. I’m dead. Cautiously, I step along the dark stone. My boot slips on a loose hold and my heart lurches, but my foot soon reconnects with solid rock and the panic quickly rushes away. One deep breath and I’m moving again, succumbed to the rock face; I pray that everyone will make it.
We do make it. Not too far ahead, the last rest hut is a hermit; quiet and alone. Thousands of loose rocks wobble beneath our feet, segments of the mountain that have broken free. It begins to pour just as we reach the hut, so we pile into the tiny space and squish up onto bunk beds; shivering into each other. I get out the video camera and commentate;
“Here we are, 100 meters from the summit of Mt Kinabalu, how do we feel?”
“Tired,” “Cold,” “Excited,” comes a chorus of replies. Then I hear Roy, our expedition leader, “Get comfortable girls, it looks like we’ll be here for a while.” We exchange worried glances, shrug and slowly drift to sleep, in the middle of a storm, on the side of a mountain, thousands of miles from home.
Disorientated and sleepy, I wake and peer out the hut window. All I see is white; gushing down the rock face. I begin to come to my senses, rubbing my eyes and sitting up. Everyone is stirring, beginning to wake and stretch. We stumble onto the tiny porch and my eyes grow wider. Water. Everywhere. It races down the rock at speeds I cannot even comprehend, like a raging sea. It pelts down with tremendous force and huge sheets rush down the side of the mountain, disappearing into the fog. The ropes can no longer be seen. Waterfalls race down the higher faces of rock. It’s dangerously beautiful.
Reality runs in; we’re not going to the top.
“You win some you lose some,” Roy’s voice can only just be heard above the roar of the water; “This is the tail end of a hurricane in the Philippines. You all would have got there if not for the weather.” I’m crushed, shocked that we cannot make it any further. Even the mountain has lost control; covered by water; dislodging the rocks and ripping shrubs from their roots. The worst was still to come.
One by one we begin to descend. We can no longer see where our feet grab the ground. One mistake and we could be washed away. My hands are like ice; a burning sensation streams through them as I fumble with the rope. I can’t feel my fingers. Survival is the only thing I can think about. Water cascades off my boots, cold rain attacks my eyes, wind whips my cheeks, but I keep on going. Spluttering and exhausted.
The ‘prison wall’ rock has become a vicious waterfall. Thick bellows of water rush down, ricocheting off the rock and collapsing at the bottom. I shiver. My feet slip and water rushes over me as I abseil down. The pressure attempts to push me off, but I hold on tight. I close my eyes until I feel my feet connect with the ground; safety. We still aren’t done.
I look down at the endless case of slippery wooden stairs. Water trickles down them, as if innocent; but I know how deadly it really is. It slithers across each plank of wood and then drops delicately onto the next. I reach out my foot and take the first step. It’s us against the mountain; and we don’t know who will win.