Big smiles from the group before the climb up Mount Kinabalu (in the background).

A trip up Mount Kinabalu is a lesson in personal tenacity and the strength of collective support, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup

WHY do people climb mountains? Because it’s there, some would say. Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is no exception. Thousands climb it every year.

In his novel Maskerade, Terry Pratchett writes: “A huge mountain might be scaled by strong men only after many centuries of failed attempts, but a few decades later, grandmothers will be strolling up it for tea and then wandering back afterward to see where they left their glasses.”

It’s an overstatement for sure, but with the number of people that have scaled its heights of 4,095m, it can’t be that hard, no? Having been there over the Merdeka holiday, I’d say that it wasn’t difficult — at least in terms of hiking or mountaineering skills — but it certainly wasn’t easy either.

I made the trip with 20 others in a fundraising campaign called Klimb Kinabalu 2017, organised by the National Cancer Council (Makna). Our group comprised Makna staff, volunteers and individuals connected to the organisation, along with four employees of sponsor AirAsia.

The plan is to reach the summit a.k.a. Low’s Peak on Merdeka Day, Aug 31. Meanwhile, fundraising began on May 19 and will continue until Sept 16.

Unfortunately, I didn’t reach the peak. Despite my best effort I was still too much of a couch potato and I missed the 5am cut-off time at Sayat Sayat (the last checkpoint before the top) by five minutes. But I feel blessed to have made it that far, and I’m already planning to try again.

The National Cancer Council (Makna) organised Klimb Kinabalu 2017 as a fundraising campaign, with the aim of reaching the peak of Mount Kinabalu on National Day, Aug 31.

The Kadazan Dusun people of Sabah consider Mount Kinabalu sacred. And after the 2015 earthquake that took the lives of 18 mountain guides and climbers, I felt there was an extra sense of poignancy to the ascend, as well as wariness.

Death and disaster can strike anytime, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from living their best, healthiest lives.

Chan Chee Kun, 47, from Ipoh, Perak was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in August 2015. On the night prior to our climb, he told us: “I was feeling very low for about six months after that. But then I went through some things and I started to read.

“In one book, the author said, ‘I have this disease and it means I’m going to die. But everybody is going to die sooner or later. Just that my chances of dying may be faster than yours. But perhaps, also, your death may be faster than mine’.”

Chan was a smoker, but no longer. He is on targeted oral therapy, and aside from his cancer, seems to be in good health. He regularly joins running events and is looking forward to running in the Penang Marathon in November.

It was his running that indirectly led to his diagnosis. When he complained of a persistent cough, his doctor suspected that it might have something to do with him being outdoors a lot during the haze spell that year. Only it turned out to be something else.

What comes up, must come down — the descend to Laban Rata.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu has always been on Chan’s bucket list. He was one of the fastest in the group to reach the overnight rest house in Laban Rata. But he found it tougher the next morning on the summit climb.

Chan writes on Facebook: “There I sat, about 1km from the peak, maybe about 3,800m above sea level. The weather was cold. The gusting wind has numbed my fingers which were wrapped within a pair of water-soaked hand gloves.

“At that point I started to doubt whether I could make it to the peak. If the Dusun legend were true, it made me feel as if we were all on a pilgrimage. If their ancestors’ souls were around, I wondered if they would extend their hands to pull me along to the peak.

“And then she came, the angel named Y-dah (Makna group member Waidah Sawatan, a Sabahan who’s on her third ascent to Kinabalu this year). She said the final journey wasn’t that long. She asked me to endure the journey and she will stay beside me. At last, I made it to the peak with her and with our climbing team’s immeasurable support.”

Meanwhile, 51-year-old Chong Kam Seng was diagnosed with stage three lymphoma cancer three years ago. A Ipoh native who currently lives in the Netherlands, Chong joined a previous Klimb Kinabalu expedition in 2014 and made it to Laban Rata. But that was before he found out about the cancer. Surviving the disease made him determined to reach Low’s Peak.

Chong says, “Finally, I climbed to the top of Mount Kinabalu. At times it felt like it was beyond my capability. Halfway to the peak, I was already suffering and didn’t feel like I could continue. It was quite similar to my cancer experience but I am very happy that I was successful, thanks to my friends.”

“At one point I started to doubt myself. If the souls of the Dusun’s ancestors were around, I wondered if they would extend their hands to pull me to the peak.” - Chan Chee Kun.

I wasn’t the only one who had to stop at Sayat Sayat. Five of us missed the cut-off time, including Makna staff Mardhiyah Abdul Razak, 25. She was suffering from altitude sickness, and on her count, threw up seven times from when we left Laban Rata at 2.30am to the checkpoint.

She writes: “I felt lightheaded, nauseated. I threw up and climbed and threw up and kept climbing. As I walked, the air became thinner and I was struck by altitude sickness but I still wanted to get to the checkpoint.

“It was just 1km but with my weakened body, I swear that it was the longest 1km I’ve ever endured! I was so worried that I might faint that I did simple math calculations in my head just to make sure I stayed awake.”

Like me, Mardhiyah got caught in the rain the previous day when we made our way from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata. The downpour started slowly at about 2.30pm, and gradually got heavier, forcing everyone into their plastic ponchos and raincoats. The mountain guides however, prefer umbrellas.

When the rain started, we had about 1.5km left in the 6km trek. The mountain path became “rivers” and “waterfalls”. It was cold, wet and windy, and my hiking boots were soaked through by the time I reached the resthouse at 4pm. One of the first people I talked to when I reached Laban Rata was Chan, who told me he’d arrived two hours earlier and missed the downpour completely!

No summit for us, but reaching 3,668m is not too shabby. (From 2nd from left) the writer, Grace Ng, Joanne Leong, Mardhiyah and Loo Sze Ying. Extreme left is a climber from another group identified as Emily.

Rounding off our group were four employees from sponsor AirAsia dubbed the Allstars.

Yovita Puspasari is a cabin crew based in Bali, Indonesia; Natdanai Songsiri or Klod is from Phuket, Thailand; Zhou “Ellen” Qianyu is from Chengdu, China while Muaz Pison is a Malaysian AirAsia engineer.

They were chosen out of thousands of AirAsia employees based on two things; the first, a summary of how cancer has affected their lives. For example, Klod wrote about the partner of a close friend who had died of a brain tumour just months after her diagnosis.

The second criterion was their fitness regime. Ellen is a marathon runner, while Yovita is a regular hiker who’s reached most of the high peaks in Indonesia. Yovita was the first from our group to reach the peak, at 5.15am, and I met her at breakfast at Laban Rata at 8am.

“It was so cold at the summit that my fingers were practically frozen and I couldn’t unlock my phone to take a photo!” she says. She managed a selfie eventually, but the cold — it was below 5 degrees Celsius at the peak at dawn — compelled her to descend while the rest were still making their way up.

So why do people climb mountains?

For the climbers of Klimb Kinabalu 2017, it serves as a metaphor for a patient’s fight against cancer. A climb is both a mental and physical challenge. It has elements beyond the individual’s control. And while it’s a personal battle, it helps tremendously when you have wonderful company to support you.

Successful Kinabalu climbers, (from left) Chan, Muaz, Chong Siao Lee, Timothy Dharvind Denis, Zhou, Vemanna Appannah, Natdanai, Hanita Hanim, Chong Kam Kok and Dr Timothy Cheng.

*To contribute to Klimb Kinabalu 2017, visit Campaign ends Sept 16. Flight sponsorship to Kota Kinabalu is by official partner AirAsia.

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