After the initial shock of knowing we had to climb a mountain in three months’ time wore off, we got down to planning. We asked two friends to join us for the climb as the ‘tour’ package made more sense for a group of six. I was certain S would be game and wouldn’t find it too much of a stretch as she was exercising regularly. XY, I wasn’t sure about but she travels well with S. That was all I was counting on. To my and S’s amazement, XY was keen and our group was complete.
I arranged a meeting for the girls with Ed and David so they could understand what they were getting into. At 4,096m, Mt. Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in the Malay Archipelago. The mountain is all steps from the starting point till base camp, Laban Rata at 3,272m, then more steps and rocky terrain to the top. It sounded easy enough – who hasn’t climbed stairs? Besides, loads of people have climbed it. But the guys warned us not to underestimate the mountain. We heard stories of people who struggled and didn’t summit or didn’t enjoy the climb.
“This won’t happen to you. You’ll summit and have a great time. Training is the key,” the guys said confidently and casually.
To wit, one more module was added to our programme, which S and XY also had to do – trekking in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.
Our first trek was eventful. We arrived at the nature reserve more than an hour past the meeting time, thanks to a traffic jam and an overflowing carpark. The guys were calm and accepted our lame apologies. We were briefed about our route: it’d take us about 90 minutes to complete the circuit; the path is relatively flat and easy with some steps throughout; the most challenging part will be two long flights of stairs to climb, one of them affectionately named Thigh Buster. OK, sounds manageable. In less than five minutes, we came upon our first set of steps. It didn’t look difficult, yet halfway up I was breathing so hard I felt my lungs would burst out of my chest. Thankfully there was a rest hut at the top. We stopped to stretch and I was able to catch my breath. This was just the warm-up we were told. Riiiiiiiiiiiight.
And what goes up must come down. You’d think this would be easier but the steps were narrow and high so it took some effort. Thereafter, the route was a trail of uneven ground, nature’s own steps, many of them knee high, various short flights of stairs, and fallen trees to scramble over unglamourously and nervously. By the time we reached ‘Thigh Buster’, the heat was uncomfortable and my energy was flagging. I climbed slowly and was determined not to stop for a breather. To no avail. Huffing and puffing, I stood to the side while others went by. Many were uncles and aunties I noted embarrassingly; S and TH were doing great while XY looked to be in similar shape as I, my only comfort.
At the top of Thigh Buster, I looked at my watch and realized we had already taken more two hours! Ed and David showed us a map of the area and pointed out our route – we had one more section to go. With the sun almost above head and the beginnings of a headache, I was eager to complete.
We trekked for another twenty minutes and came upon a barrier. I looked in the only direction that made sense and saw a long flight of stairs. But of course.
Nothing is ever easy towards the end. It feels cruel how the last stretch is always the most difficult and one has to dig deep for reserve. I suppose that makes victory sweeter.
“Take your time. Drink some water if it helps. You all are doing well.”
Kind and reassuring words but pointless at this stage, I thought. I cursed the flight of stairs in my head and pushed on. Ahead of me, S and TH climbed steadily. They weren’t as fast as before but they were coping well. Behind me, XY was taking a step at a time, stopping for a breather every now and then. Me? I felt like weights had been added to my leg. I dragged the bottom leg up and heaved it to the next step, repeating this motion with great effort. Breathless again, I stopped. A rest hut stood on the right and ahead of me the steps were wider and flatter. I was sure the most difficult bits had passed and told myself this spot would be my ‘feel good’ point. Every time I passed this, I would truly be at the home stretch.
By the time we got back to our starting point, it was closer to 12:30pm. It took us twice the estimated time, I was hungry, my legs were sore and my head was pounding. To top it off, we received a parking ticket.
No other trek in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve topped our first (although TH suffered a bad sprain when he tripped on a tiny stump on the ground once). Each time I trekked, it got easier. Even when we started training with a 5kg pack, it was never as difficult. Unfortunately for XY, she could never shake off the terrible headaches she developed after no matter what. This was worrying.
(Note: Timelines are off for this series of posts as they were meant to be published in the last quarter of 2013)