CONQUERING Mt Kinabalu together was not part of Karen Ping Paren and hubby Desmond Ong’s dream list when they tied the knot on Sept 9, 2006.
Both from Miri had climbed Malaysia’s highest mountain in Sabah before but not as a couple – until National Day this year.
Karen, 36, an information technology officer with Curtin Malaysia first climbed Mount Kinabalu in 2000 during her university expedition; while Desmond, 40, a contracting and procurement manager with Sarawak Shell, has done it with friends twice before – in 2003 and 2010.
Their dream of conquering the iconic peak together came true on Aug 31, 2017. In the wee hours of the morning on that day, the couple made their ascent along with Desmond’s elder brother, Christopher, 41, and mountain guide Mohammad Aidil.
Karen told thesundaypost the climb was a real test of grit, especially after the trails were badly affected by the 6.0 magnitude tremor that took 18 lives – including four mountain guides – on June 5, 2015.
Proposal and preparations
Karen said a few months back, she asked Desmond whether he wanted to climb Mount Kinabalu for the third time – but the first with her – to celebrate their 11th wedding anniversary, and he said yes.
Desmond then invited Christopher who loves adventures, two weeks before the climb and he too said yes despite not being mentally and physically prepared and having no experience scaling the country’s highest mountain.
Regardless, their idea was also to prove that with a strong mindset and a good Malaysian-style breakfast, they could make it to the top.
Both Desmond and Christopher were, in fact, physically fit for the climb – except Karen.
“I trained for two months, going for the Canada Hill or Lereng Bukit Staircase Challenge, weekly hiking at Canada Hill, workouts at Core Reactor PT Studio Miri and joining 5km to 10km marathons in Miri.
“Despite my preparations, strict dieting and previous climbing experience, it was a very tough trek up and I almost gave up half way. But in the end, I’m proud we were able to create a special moment by planting the Malaysian flag at the Low’s Peak, the summit of Mount Kinabalu (4,095 metres),” she beamed.
The trio arrived in the capital Kota Kinabalu from Miri on Aug 29, some 48 hours before the climb, hoping to go straight to Kundasang but were caught in a very bad traffic jam at Sepangar, possibly due to flooded roads.
Karen said they turned back to KK for an early dinner at one of the restaurants there. When the traffic improved, they set off to Kundasang, reaching Kinabalu Park, Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site, at 9.40pm and stayed the night at the Hill Lodge.
On the second day, they started early at 6.30am and got to see and enjoy the “absolutely beautiful sunrise” and “heavenly scenery” around Kinabalu Park.
After the mandatory registration – and a quick breakfast – at 9.09am, they continued their journey to Timpohon Gate, the primary entry point for the climb, 5.5km from the park headquarters.
The 6km-trail to the Laban Rata plateau with its well-equipped resthouse at 3,500 metres was spectacular, yet challenging as it was raining heavily along the last 500 metres.
Karen said at that point, they were constantly nagged by the thought of wanting to give up but quitting with only 500 metres left to the Laban Rata tableland would have been a bad move as it meant walking back another 5.5km – in the rain at that!
“We were soaked when we reached Laban Rata at 3pm – and gosh! – hot drinks and Maggi Curry cups never tasted so good,” she recalled.
After an early dinner at 5pm at Laban Rata, they tried to catch some sleep for the early climb the next day.
They had to skip showering because the heavy downpour earlier had rendered the solar-powered water heater unserviceable.
“So rather than risking an Alaskan-like shower experience, we ‘dry-cleaned’ instead,” Karen said.
“We went to bed at 8pm but didn’t sleep much, tossing and turning most of the night. The excitement and extreme cold prevented us from getting our beauty sleep.”
On the third day (Aug 31), before they knew it, the clock had struck 1am and they had to get up. With sighs of both resignation and relief, they got ready for the task ahead.
An early breakfast at 2am was followed by a short briefing at 2.45am.
The real challenge
At 3am and with the mercury hovering at eight degrees Celsius, Karen, Desmond and Christopher, under the guidance of Mohammad, began their climb to Pendant Hunt, about 46 metres away.
The real challenge began after they left Laban Rata. Karen said she almost gave up due to the altitude change and cold temperature. She started feeling dizzy and tired, and having pain in her palms and feet.
“I had mixed feelings – wanting to give up, at the same time, forcing myself not to quit, thinking back on all the preparations made, and the sweet memories I will have forever of climbing and conquering Mount Kinabalu together with my husband,” she related.
Karen said she battled like never before to keep going. Despite the odds – “the crazy temperature and excessive sweating in her palms and feet” – she made it through.
“Thanks to my husband for lending me his shawl and Christopher, his gloves, and, of course, Mohammad, our guide, who literally towed me to the summit,” she recalled.
At the summit
The climb this time was even more challenging because of the new route of an extra 1km to the top after the earthquake two years ago.
It was only after the gruelling four-hour climb from Laban Rata that they finally reached the summit – Low’s Peak – at 7am.
“But the end result – dear Lord, it was the most wonderful feeling ever. We loved the indescribable view, the lung-expanding fresh air, the perfect solitude and, of course, the satisfaction of conquering not only Malaysia’s highest peak but also the third highest in South East Asia,” Karen enthused.
She said the gruelling 10-hour journey from Timpohon Gate constantly reminded them that with grit and a dash of “adventurous insanity,” they could conquer everything they dreamed of, adding, “No matter what life throws at you, we must never ever lose faith in God and our abilities to achieve success in life.”
Karen stressed the successful climb was extra sweet as it was achieved together with the love of her life and her beloved brother-in-law on what she described as an epic date – Aug 31, 2017.
“We are super happy to share our ‘historic’ climb on the 60th National Day and celebrate Malaysia’s achievements in the recent SEA Games, besides our 11th wedding anniversary.”
Desmond said he was proud of his wife and his brother for their perseverance.
“Thank God, all of us made it to the top. It was more challenging because of the new Ranau route after the earthquake.
“There was also the sad feeling of remembering the 18 people who perished. Our prayers are with them,” he added.
Christopher chipped in, “Looking back at our achievement, we can’t believe it ourselves – a memorable feat that has given us reasons to achieve more in life.”
Kinabalu National Park
The iconic mountain is part of the Kinabalu National Park covering some 753.7 sq km and with a biological diversity that has captivated scientists and climbers the world over.
Mount Kinabalu was closed to climbers after June 5, 2015, earthquake and partially opened on Sept 1, 2015.
Since the launch of the new Kota Belud trail, there has been an increase in the number of climbers.
In 2015, a total of 33,414 climbers (19,426 Malaysians and 13,988 non-Malaysians) were recorded, according to statistics from Sabah Parks.
Last year the total climbers rose to 37,805.
The national park was listed by Unesco as Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site in December 2000 for its “outstanding universal values” and its role as one of the most important biological sites in the world.