Malaysia: Up in the clouds on Low's Peak, Mount Kinabalu
- 26 August 2011
- From the section World News TV
We moved slowly in single file, clinging to a wet rope and hauling ourselves up the side of a granite cliff face.
Even by the light of my head torch, I knew it was a sheer drop to the faint, twinkling lights of civilization almost 4,000 metres below.
It was half past three in the morning and we'd be walking for over an hour, making our way to the summit of Mount Kinabalu in the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo in Malaysia.
It's a tourist pilgrimage to see the sunrise from the ironically named Low's Peak, 4,095 metres above sea level.
Around 100 tourists a day make this 8.7-kilometre uphill journey.
But only the hardy will do the entire trek in one day.
Most visitors will begin the first six kilometres of the so-called "natural stairmaster" from Timpohon Gate a day earlier.
This is a trail literally made for tourists - steps have been built or carved into the mountain and there are rest huts with flushing toilets roughly every kilometre.
But despite the modest creature comforts, soon every kilometre seemed twice as long as the one before.
Our guide Sopain Sinteh, a wiry man, no more than 1m 60cm with a long wispy beard, issued wise words of advice, "just take small, slow steps".
One kilometre to go, and it felt like we could almost touch the clouds. Then it started to rain.
My supposed water resistant jacket clearly wasn't made to withstand a ferocious rainforest thunderstorm and I arrived at our lodgings, Pendant Hut, a soaking mess.
I learned the hard way, that the weather on Mount Kinabalu is unpredictable and can change in the blink of an eye.
But it was a relatively clear, crisp morning when we finally reached the summit.
Low's Peak is a confined space at the top of one of the highest mountains in south east Asia and there was literally a human traffic jam as tourists from all around the world jostled for photographic position in front of the humble, wooden sign to signify they'd made it.
The rain soaked clothes, aching leg muscles and chattering teeth all seemed worth it, when you saw the view as the sun peaked over the clouds like a golden aura.
Walking down, the scene was dramatic and moody, as we inched across barren black rock set against a misty, pale blue sky, like a fairytale villain's lair.
But we were only half way through our journey.
Over the edge
A few hundred meters downhill, a mountain-top obstacle course awaited us.
If the journey to Low's Peak hadn't been enough for my jangling nerves, walking off a cliff tethered to a wire, with the odd metal rung beneath me, was surely going to send me over the edge, metaphorically.
Via ferrata means "iron bridge" in Italian and it was first used in World War I for troops to cross the Alps. There are hundreds of via ferrate in Europe, but only one in Asia and at 3,776 metres, it's currently the world's highest.
Just before eight o'clock I stepped into the climbing harness, clipped on my carabiners and tightened my helmet. I peered over the ledge and spotted a small step, no bigger than the palm of my hand, a good 10 metres below.
"Just lean back and walk down the rock," our Mountain Torq trainer John encouraged.
For someone who is afraid of heights and hasn't done any mountaineering, this is a frightening prospect.
My legs were shaking involuntarily beneath me, part exhaustion and part fear, and yet I couldn't move. I secretly wanted to hug the side of the cliff face and cry like a baby, but ultimately, pride spurred me on.
I concentrated on looping the rope over the hook firmly rooted into the mountain, and clipping the carabiners one by one to the other side of the wire cable with my foot balancing on a metal rung, all the while trying not to look down.
In fact, the views below were stunning - rolling, lush green hills and valleys in perfect contrast to the black and grey rocky peaks.
I imagine this is as close as I'll ever get to rock climbing.
"Some people are under the impression that you have to do rock climbing before, but really there's no need, as long as you can climb up a ladder in your home to change a light bulb, you can do the via ferrata," assured Quek I-Gek from Mountain Torq.
The 1.2-kilometre "Low's Peak Circuit" took me just shy of five hours to complete, a little longer than average but I attribute that not only to my moments frozen in fear, but also to the mist and rain that had started to drizzle towards the end of the descent.
But even as the water streamed through my gloves and down inside the arms of my jacket, with each step on that foreboding rock face, I realised it's not about physical strength, but more about self-confidence and willpower.
Although every muscle in my legs screamed in agony for days after, looking back at the photos and video footage, I've a huge sense of accomplishment, mixed with a tinge of disbelief.
Malaysia Direct is a series of reports and articles, online and on TV on BBC World News, which runs until September 4, 2011.