...But I didn't get to the top.
There. I said it. It was emotionally painful for me to admit to myself and to the rest of the world that I failed in my quest to sit on the granite face of Mt. Kinabalu as I patiently wait for the colorful burst of sunrise at the highest peak in Southeast Asia.
I joined Coalition Duchenne's Mt. Kinabalu Expedition Climb, an event that helps raise awareness on a debilitating and degenerative muscle illness that afflicts boys worldwide. We were a big group composed of 62 climbers from different parts of the world, with two goals in mind -- reach the peak, and speak for the boys with Duchenne. I was the only one from the Philippines, and I met great people there. And yet, as I was holding on to the rope for my dear life on the last part of our climb at 3:30 AM, I felt alone. And scared.
My close friends and family know my aversion to heights. I suffer from acrophobia -- fear of heights -- and it's an extreme one. I can never cross a hanging bridge. I've never ziplined. I dream of bungee jumping, but I will probably faint if I do it. I only reached 1/3 of the steps going to Batu Caves in Malaysia, because my legs froze in fear. I have forgone so many chances of experiencing something new due to this. Because even if my mind wants to, my body reacts aversely -- cold hands, shaky legs, distorted view of surroundings. I lose my balance, make mistakes, and my legs just wouldn't move anymore.
I have hiked a few mountains in the Philippines (Pulag, Pinatubo, Pico de Loro), and I have managed to do so because I was never put in a situation where I had to be on a cliff, where a little mistake can make me plunge to doom.
Needless to say, I didn't expect a vertical climb when I signed up for Mt. Kinabalu. Of course I read blogs, and everyone was saying how tiring it is to get to Laban Rata. Perhaps no one with acrophobia attempted to climb, because nowhere did I read how scary it is to scale the granite rock with only a rope to guide you and support your weight, and a strong faith in your shoes not to slip on the damp rocks.
I was really excited that morning when I woke up at 2:00 AM. Getting ready for the ascent to the summit, I was surprisingly full of energy despite the tiring 6-hour hike to Laban Rata (our shelter for the night) the previous day. We set off at 2:30 AM, armed with a headlamp and a trekking pole. We climbed steps, steps and more steps, until we reached the granite face. Everyone slowed down as we stowed our trekking pole away, and prepared to grab the rope for the last part of the climb.
The guide instructed us to hold the rope with both hands, and to never let go because it was dangerous. As I kept on climbing up, the only thought that was in my mind was how the hell am I going down. Knowing my fear of heights and the steep view at daybreak, I started getting scared. It didn't help that there was a woman with two male companions who kept on screaming, "Oh, my God, it's a sheer drop!" She was almost crying. Somewhere along the trail, when I reached a big rock, I stopped. I wanted to go back down, but I don't know how. Besides, there was a steady stream of people going up and there was no way that you could use the rope at the same time to go down. In fact, people were on single file. I was waiting for a guide to come rescue me, until a guy named Simon rested on the same rock. He encouraged me to go on, and I did.
When I finally reached the final checkpoint, I really had no motivation left in my body. I was shivering from the cold air and my wet gloves, and I wasn't sure if I can still continue. As I started holding on to the rope once again after the short stop at Sayat-Sayat, I just froze midway and broke down. I was too freaking scared. Two guides caught up with me and brought me back to Sayat-Sayat to comfort me. They asked me why I was crying, and if I was having a headache (sign of altitude sickness). The truth of the matter is, I was okay physically. I wasn't tired. I didn't have altitude sickness. But I was mentally drained, and too f*ckin' scared. They advised me not to push myself anymore. And amidst the darkness in that humble hut, I cried my frustration out. I've been preparing for this trip for five months, and I didn't expect it to end this way. I've been dreaming about the view at the summit, and the photos I will be taking to immortalize the moment. I wanted this so badly. But at that moment, I felt so alone, so lost, so scared. I was such a failure. A loser. I was in the middle of nowhere with no friends, and I didn't know how I could get down.
|The view from Sayat-Sayat hut, 3,668 MASL. The roof below is the final checkpoint (you have to present the climb ID that they gave you the day before).|
Robbie, the head guide of our group, entered the hut and he saw me silently crying in the dark, shivering and cold. He talked to me and told me he'll bring me down. He lent me his dry gloves (mine were wet from holding the ropes) and advised me to try to go to sleep until daybreak. We started going down as soon as daylight enveloped the mountains. Watching the sunrise from Sayat-Sayat, I brushed my frustration aside to take in the beauty around me. Not bad, not bad at all. The scenery was still breathtaking, even if I was 1.4 kilometers away from the summit. If it were a flat road, I'll get there in less than 10 minutes.
Now that I can see how high the drop is on the cliff, I was getting nervous. But Robbie was there, every step of the way. He instructed me when to go down sideways and backwards while holding the rope, and he guided me where to put my feet. Everytime I look down, I lose my balance. So he entertained me with his funny musings and "Pangako Sa 'Yo" rendition (apparently, Jericho Rosales and his soap opera is popular in Malaysia!). He even offered to carry my DSLR for me so he can take photos of me! To say that I owe him my life is an understatement.
|Laban Rata as seen from above|
|Laban Rata as seen from above|
|My guide made me pose LOL|
Looking back, I know that even if I pushed myself to the summit, I would have crumbled on the way down. Without a guide to help me out, I wouldn't be able to get down on my own. So I haven't ticked Mt. Kinabalu yet off my bucket list. I am keen on joining Coalition Duchenne's expedition climb again next year, but I will make sure that I will have my own guide to push me.
To know more about Duchenne muscular distrophy, please watch the video below. It makes you appreciate life more -- because muscles of boys with Duchenne deteriorate instead of develop, they get deprived of the most basic activities that we seem to take for granted -- walking, eating by ourselves, and hugging our loved ones.