MY passion for mountains was engendered by a visit to my local cinema with my father in 1953 to see the film, ‘The Ascent of Everest’, which encaptured the incredible feat of Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay climbing to the roof of our world at 8,850 metres in an expedition led by Sir John Hunt. Later in life, I had the good fortune to be seated alongside Sir John at an informal dinner with students at Wellington College. He was such a very modest gentleman with a down to earth side.
It was perhaps an earlier, ill-fated expedition, and never proven that George Mallory and Andrew Irvine managed that ascent in 1922. When asked the question, “Why do you want to conquer Everest?” Mallory frankly replied, “Because it’s there!” Twenty-five years ago, I flew over the top of Everest en route to South East Asia and that is the closest I have managed to that amazing mountain.
Climbing mountain peaks go beyond our wildest dreams and expectations. My dream has always been to climb Everest but not in the way that modern tourists with Sherpa mountain guides manage today. I am now too old to fulfil my dream and now resort to painting pictures of Everest based on photographs of friends who made it to Everest Base Camp.
Our mental mountains – mind over matter
The biggest climb that Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific experienced in the 20th century was in defeating the Axis powers in World War II and its aftermath. The biggest climbs that we are facing in the 21st century are combatting the Covid-19 pandemic and reducing carbon dioxide emissions both, like some Everest ascent expeditions, without the aid of oxygen. This pandemic has been mankind’s most difficult mountain to climb yet we may well reach the summit through the worldwide sharing of ideas in the scientific field to produce recently invented and tested vaccines.
I am about to be vaccinated and to date have self-isolated away from fellow carriers of this dreadful disease. Self-isolation is fine for me but I do wonder how I managed to climb mountains physically and mentally without the presence of companions. It was no doubt through mind over matter. I could not have travelled so far in the educational world to its mountain peaks without the encouragement, support, and loyalty of my family members. They were my ‘Sherpas’ for their care about my welfare far exceeded my expectations of them.
It was on a mountain leadership course in the Lake District, in the Northwest of England, where I trained on snow overlying ice with the use of an ice axe that I first realised how vulnerable I was to the elements. A group of us practised by falling on an icy slope with a 100-metre sheer drop below to oblivion. We had to twist our bodies after falling and dig in the ice axe to arrest our fall. My knees were ripped and badly grazed by the sharpness of the ice. The thrill of this experience, which included rock climbing with ropes and abseiling, installed in me a feeling of self-sufficiency and gave me much needed confidence to explore yet higher mountains.
Located on the northern part of the Crocker Range and after three previous visits to the Mount Kinabalu National Park, I finally organised a school expedition to scale this granitic batholith in April 2000. With 26 Year 12 students, three teachers, and a paramedic aboard, we took off from Timpohon Gate at 8.30am and steadily climbed upwards through the various vegetation zones to reach the lodge at Laban Rata at 3,700 metres at 11am, where we were to spend the night. At noon the heavens opened with torrential rain flowing in walls of water, Niagara Falls-like, over the bare granitoid rock surfaces until midnight.
Sleep evaded us, for at 2.30am we set off for the steeper climb to Low’s Peak (4,095 metres) with our Kadazan-Dusun guides. Six students were already suffering from altitudinal sickness and remained at Laban Rata. The slog up the final section of the mountain on fixed ropes and headlights ablaze meant frequent stops to gasp for air. We reached the summit at Low’s Peak at 5am, just as the sun was rising in the East. The view of the world below was actually stunning and one that is still fixed in my memory. It was a very spiritual moment.
It took my students only two hours to skip with joy down the mountain to the National Park Headquarters for breakfast but it took me 3.5 hours; so aching were my knees. I had been the oldest person on the mountain that day! I telephoned my wife recounting our achievements and she promptly asked, “How are your knees?” reminding me of past times when as a family we had climbed high mountains in Austria’s Eastern Tyrol.
Mountains are there to be climbed and I beseech many a young Sabahan and Sarawakian to take on the challenge of climbing Aki Nabalu whilst you have agility and energy on your side. You will never forget the experience of looking down from the top of the Bornean world and the memory of your achievement will stay with you throughout life.
Later in life
I have flown over Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 metres) in East Africa in a friend’s private plane taking me from the Maasai Mara National Reserve to Mombasa on the coast. I have viewed Mont Ventoux (1,909 metres) with its Meteorological Observatory in Provence, France, where my late wife reminded me of how the Italian poet Petrarch climbed that mountain in 1336 and was the first person to record his thoughts in his ‘Ascent of Mount Ventoux’. More recently, in 2018, I stayed on the Sicilian island of Vulcano. There, an active volcano spews out sulphurous gases. The climb to the crater’s summit was inviting me but whilst my spirit was willing, my flesh was too weak to take a two-hour uphill climb in the blazing sun.
There to be climbed
The spiritual uplift of ascending a high mountain and viewing the world below is one of life’s inner blessings. One is overtaken by the spirits of a mountain and nowhere more than on the ascent of Mount Kinabalu. There, Kadazan-Dusun spiritual beliefs are enshrouded. It is a mountain to be climbed without uttering a swear word. Such swear words are better left for our present everyday lives in our climbs over life’s hurdles, in overcoming a seemingly never ending route to combat the coronavirus pandemic and its mutations. Oxygen is needed in treating the patients as it is needed on high altitude climbs.
When movement controls are removed and all is safe, then do venture out to observe nature in its glory and breathe fresh air from the nearest hilltop or mountain near to you. You will never forget your achievement and it will live with you forever. Today, I am reduced to painting pictures of the beauty of mountains but still live with the hope that soon, and God willing, I will be able to ascend Mount Santubong, at only 810 metres above sea level! It will be my last arduous climb.