South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Mount Kinabalu (Part III)
Date: Date: April 3, 1995 14:18Continued from Part II

12:10 Kota Kinabalu Airport; Kota Kinabalu, Sabah-Malaysia :: 1 APR 95

As I said, never under-estimate 21-year-old grit. Anne plodded along a step at a time resting, no, collapsing in a heap, frequently. Even the rest-stops are difficult since it is the consistent activity that keeps you warm. When that activity stops, so does the inner furnace. The chill cuts through quickly, motivating you to continue.

I should point out that of the five of us only Bart, with his heavy, hooded Gortex shell, was properly prepared for the task. Katrin and I were next best with multiple layers of shirts, fleece and our hats. The debutantes had a couple shirts and a jumper (sweater) each. None of us wore gloves.

By the Kilometer 7 marker the scraggly brush thinned to bare granite and the ladder became a rope placed both as trail-marker and climbing aid. Having lost the benefit of a ladder we scrambled, clawed and used the rope to pull ourselves upward. Bart found the pace too slow and the frequent stops were chilling him so pushed on ahead alone. Katrin's torch, purchased for RM3 at the base, gave out. Anne resisted my further negativity but she began to heed Katrin's admonitions to slow down.

This type of climb, like any marathon of physical exertion, requires a certain discipline that is as much physical as mental. Many people manage the mental aspect reasonably well. After a while you numb your self to the external conditions and concentrate only on making that next step. Achieving this Zen of single-mindedness allows one to push themself well beyond their own perceived abilities. But mind can overcome matter for only so long so it is important to manage the matter, that is your body, as well.

If you've ever seen film or video footage of an expedition climb, like Everest or K2, you may have noticed the slow, deliberate motion of the step. Lift the trailing foot and, rising up on the weight bearing leg, move it up and forward; place it deliberately; give it a little wiggle to secure the foothold; transfer weight forward onto it; repeat until the flag is raised at the top. I once thought this deliberateness intended to assure secure footing but having climbed a few trails bearing weight I learned differently. Climbers use this motion even on subtle grades and flats, and where footing is assured. What you can't see is the maintenance of breathing.

16:11 Malaysia Airlines FLT 631; Kota Kinabalu->Kuala Lumpur :: 1 APR 95

The basic cadence goes: exhale while exerting to lift and place; inhale while securing and transferring weight. One breath per step. When short of breath, slow the step rate. This naturally lengthens the breath and reduces exertion.

Besides managing your exertion and breathing, this highly rhythmic activity lends itself well to managing the mind, and pain. Try chanting a mantra under your breath, or better yet, in your mind. I have a personal favourite bastardisation of the famous meditation mantra that goes, "Ohh Money Makes Me Hum." All too frequently though, I become suddenly conscious of having been reciting the first stanza of "Ohh My Darlin' Clementine" over and over. Don't ask me why, I couldn't tell you, but when that happens I know I've gotten it right, at least until my lack of concentration was broken and I noticed myself singing "Clementine" in my head.

When I see people frivolously wasting energy during a climb particularly when, like Anne, they desperately need that energy, I try to show them this technique.

20:50 Traveler's Backpackers; Kuala Lumpur, (Aw, hell. What state is this?)-Malaysia :: 1 APR 95

I can't understand why but people resist even the standard practice of pacing let alone the concept of 'Zen climbing' as I call it. It's not that they don't understand the idea, but rather they're all too much in a hurry to get there to care about method. Going faster will get you there faster, right?

At an early rest stop on the first day Anne complained of tight calves. This is an indication that the climber is lifting their heel and pushing off the ball of the foot. I told her to keep the weighted foot flat which would force her to use the big muscles in the thigh, the quadriceps, rather than the much smaller, weaker muscle group in the calf. I'd earlier noticed her erratic pace and warned her to be steady and slow enough to keep the heart rate and breathing at a comfortable level. There was a long way to climb yet and no reason to race to the top.

Learning to use muscles efficiently often results in immediately noticeable effects, like your calf muscles stop hurting. This makes the lesson easy. Anne caught on to that one quickly so when I asked her at the next rest stop how her calves felt she said "Great!" and thanked me. "I'm really concentrating on keeping my heel down." As I'd been watching her progress, I knew this already, and also that her pace was still erratic which would lead eventually to bigger problems than sore calves. Again, I warned her of the importance of pacing.

Pace is a harder lesson to learn because there is no immediate result. The effects creep up slowly, deliberately before pouncing ruthlessly. Victims usually blame the gargantuan effort required to climb the mountain or their inadequate condition. That is, they don't know what hit them. The real culprit was the break-neck speed with which they tried to conquer the peak.

People in stressful or physically demanding jobs have the same problem with pace. They go and go and go, at break-neck pace in order to meet an externally imposed deadline until they collapse in exhaustion or they reach their goal and then collapse in exhaustion. Usually they blame influenza, or a cold, but what really happened is their body, after being ignored and abused for too long, simply went on strike. Its resources had been depleted beyond minimal levels and a bunch of microbes or a virus that had been sitting around waiting for just such an occasion pounce on a defense system that just plain gave up. In effect, you are being forced to rest. Unbelievably, some 'dedicated workers' ignore this plea for a reasonable pace and work right through the sickness.

Novice climbers follow pretty much the same pattern. They go and go and go until they're drained, or their heart rate soars beyond control, or they're completely out of breath. Just like the stressed-out worker and their flu, the climber's body forces them to stop and rest. When they feel able to push on, they get up and go and go again until the next collapse. With each cycle the 'go' periods become shorter and the rest stops longer until no amount of rest is sufficient to get up and go. For the climber this can mean an expensive helicopter ride back to the bottom. For the stressed-out worker it means a visit with a cardiologist, or a therapist.

The shrinking 'go' cycle is characteristic to all marathon physical endeavours. It happens even with good pacing but a break-neck pace amplifies the attrition of physical and mental resources. Failing to rest before the body goes on strike turns the knob on that amplifier up to 11. You can get another click on the knob by following Anne's example.

On the first day we rested early and often and, overall, the pace was moderate. My 33 year-old legs carried the most weight in the group, and I knew what kind of shape I wasn't in. On any pitch that was less than an easy walk I slowed myself to one or two steps for every comfortably deep breath. Katrin observes her pace better than I do and hers is often slower than mine. We set the overall pace, but that didn't keep Anne from racing on ahead in a burst of energy then allowing us to catch up when that energy waned. Worse than simply too fast, her pace was erratic.

Aerobics instructors try to teach their students to observe their heart and breath rates and moderate their exertion to maintain them at appropriate levels. The idea is that if you're below the range, you're not getting the maximum workout while if you're above the range then your heart and lungs are eating up all your resources without doing much of any good for the rest of your body. Aerobics instructors rely heavily on measuring heart rate as an exertion indicator. This works well because if your heart is beating to fast due to over-exertion then you are almost certainly out of breath, or on the verge of it. The opposite is also true. Being out of breath is usually coupled with a high heart rate. That's why the technique of defining a step cycle around one deep, comfortable breath works so well. You can't get out of breath because a comfortable breath rate dictates the pace and as a direct result you're not likely to drive your heart rate through the roof. Like Aerobics instructors, the Zen climber moderates their exertion to maintain their heart and breath rates at appropriate levels.

Working behind a desk rarely puts one out of breath. Occasionally, when the shit hits the fan, the heart might flutter, but this is not a sign of over-exertion. The over-exertion desk jockeys experience is emotional and intellectual stress and its signs and symptoms aren't cardiovascularly self-evident without a BP cuff. In several years of punching keys in the software business I never came up with a desk jockey equivalent for the Zen climber. The idea of one breath per step doesn't translate to any activity in the typical office worker's task list. Short of possessing that 'enlightened' inner peace that makes one impervious to stress, there just doesn't seem to be a physiological technique for maintaining an even keel from moment to moment through the day The way I see it, if you're that enlightened you're probably not stuck behind the desk anymore, anyway; you either refuse the position, or steadfastly work at your own pace until Bill Gates feels he can't get enough work out of you and 'lets you go'. I found the best approximation of the Zen climber in the office is to periodically stop whatever I was doing and take three deep, comfortable breaths. It's best to set an alarm of some sort and religiously adhere to the schedule. For example, every hour on the hour, my watch beeps twice. In hindsight, that's probably too infrequent, particularly in periods of increased duress.

The rate at which we were ascending the mountain was probably well within the limits of Anne's 21-year-old legs, heart and lungs. Moderating exertion to maintain breath rate is where she had the problem. If you've ever bounced around in an aerobics class you know that keeping that heart rate within the specified bounds takes practice. Muscle groups vary in the energy required to flex them against a given amount of resistance, a lesson Anne learned with her calf muscles. A change of 'steps' in aerobic workouts normally means a change in muscle groups requiring you to moderate exertion or risk going outside the range. Whenever Anne found herself lagging a few steps behind whomever she was following up the trail she'd race to catch up. On easy grades she made up time. And a series of short, easy steps she'd take in a flurry. She'd slow her pace only when the person ahead impeded her progress or she ran short of breath and energy. The latter of these happened too often meaning her heart and lungs were doing more work than necessary and slowly sapping her resources.

11:28 S. E. Ekspress Bus; Kuala Lumpur -> Penang-Malaysia :: 2 APR 95

I'm something of a natural advice-giver. I see it as one of my nastier habits and try to limit this tendency particularly in cases where the advice is unwanted or unheeded. I think of my dental hygienist, Attila, who admonishes me like a child at every visit to floss daily. She demonstrates the proper techniques for brushing and flossing while replaying all the horrors that befall the teeth and gums of those who fail to follow this simple regimen, as if I'd forgotten these prophecies repeated to me every 6 months over the last 10 years. If I am slowly bettering my dental hygiene habits it is not due to her remonstrations but to the scourge of the scraper. Every now and again I remind myself of the biannual stainless-steel torture and launch myself on a program of flossing for several days in a row. I have had better success with brushing and now give thorough attention to the gumline on a daily basis. As a result, my hygiene sessions with Attila now resemble a stern physical reprimand rather than the cruel and unusual punishment of the past.

I realize from my own example that some lessons are best learnt through personal experience and that people often resent a person's advice, particularly when that advice is well-founded and repeated nauseatingly ad-infinitum from a position of self-styled authority. So, after twice suggesting to Anne that she slow and steady her pace and briefly advising how she could do this, I dropped it, leaving her to either learn the lesson on her own or fail to reach the peak. It was no surprise to me at 2:30 AM that she felt sick. And since she began the morning climb with the same erratic pace I wasn't surprised at her rapidly flagging strength requiring increasingly frequent stoppages. What did surprise me was her determination to continue. I had to admire her grit even as I twice counseled her to reconsider.

So we are at marker 7.5 and my calculations say that if we continue at our current pace, we'll get to the summit shortly after 6AM. However, the sun rises on the other side of the ridge line above us shortly before 6, with the colours beginning sometime before that. The whole purpose of rousing myself at 2:00AM was to experience this event from the top of the tallest peak in SE Asia. So I take stock of the situation.

We have along a guide paid RM56 to do little more, so far, than point at a few pitcher plants. If Anne collapses in exhaustion, it's legally and ethically his responsibility to deal with the situation, even if I feel differently.

Marie, who's ability to pace herself is no better than Anne's, seems endowed with boundless energy. She'll make it despite her bad technique. As Anne's best friend, she's also ahead of me in line regarding responsibility for Anne's welfare, even if I feel differently.

Katrin can maintain the current pace, even with fewer stops, all the way to the top. She's a natural leader and I'd probably have to wrest from her the control of any situation vis-a-vis Anne, should any arise. As it is, Katrin is the one reminding Anne to slow down and attempting to force Anne's pace by staying in front of her. Unfortunately, Anne's erraticness causes her to often fall behind Katrin's consistent pace only to race in order to catch up. She also gets impatient on the easy bits and passes Katrin. You get there faster by going faster, right? Anyway, I won't fight Katrin for responsibility on this one; my ability to handle any situation that might arise is no better than hers.

Having relieved myself of responsibility for Anne's welfare I take Katrin aside and explain to her that at the current pace we won't make it to the peak before sunrise. I don't offer any suggestions but let her come to her own conclusions. "Then you go on ahead," she says. I suggest that she come along but she assures me the current pace is OK for her. It's also OK if she misses the sunrise.

So off I go. I pick up the pace to a half-breath per step. Inhale, left; exhale, right: singing 'Waltzing Matilda' to myself.

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he sat and watched his billy boiling
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Come to think of it, I never did break into 'Clementine' on this particular hike.

Waltzing Matilda, Matilda my darling,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me,

Just shy of the 8 kilometer marker I catch up to Bart who's taking a rest break. We take a moment to watch the lights of Kota Kinabalu below to the east, the stars above, and the occasional distant lightning flash on the horizon to the south. Bart points out a few constellations, like the Southern Cross and Capricorn, and explains that from the summit we'll be able to see the northern constellations as well as both pole stars. Later, I'll forget to look for the Big Dipper and the North Star while waiting at Low's Peak for the sun to rise above the cloudy horizon.

Rested, we make our way past the 8 km marker and Bart says "500 meters to go!" I correct him, "700 meters. The last marker showing on the map says 8.5 but the peak is actually at 8.7" "Oh" comes the reply. Bad news is a formidable conversation killer. We plod along.

Left, inhale; right, exhale:

Along came a jumbuck and he drank from the billabong,
Down jumped the swagman and he grabbed him with glee,
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag,
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

It's right about then I remember Katrin is carrying the 'tucker bag'. I'm not feeling hungry yet, but it's best on a climb to eat small amounts frequently and not wait until you feel hungry. I hope she makes it to the top, or that I can scrounge something off Bart and repay him on the way down. I call for another rest but don't bring up food yet.

A widely broken line of bobbing torches precedes and trails us. A few seem already to have made the peak. I was warned by a descending hiker about arriving too early. The wind where we rest cuts right through you. At first the chill is welcome to your over-heated body but that pleasure fades quickly. And here, we're on the leeward side of the ridge so the wind comes in gusts and should be muted whereas I am told that it is a constant chilling blast. I don't envy the torch bearers at the top. I scan the line below and wonder in which group of bobbing torches might I find Katrin, and how is Anne holding up? It's not my responsibility.

When we start off again I find a comfortable rhythm. Bart does too and steadily pulls away. A quick calculation of position and pace since I broke off from the others satisfies me that the slower pace will put me at the peak by 5:45, so I let Bart go on ahead, and hope I don't get hungry. Inhale, left; exhale, right:

Waltzing Matilda, Matilda my darling,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me,
Waltzing Matilda; Waltzing Matilda
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

It's got such a merry little melody and innocent sounding chorus. Who would guess that Waltzing Matilda's about a sheep rustling vagabond that commits suicide to escape hanging for his crime? This song was once a popular candidate for Australia's national anthem. Amazing. I still think "Down Under" by Men At Work a better candidate. It would be the world's first anthem to use such wonderful slang terms as 'chunder', a reference to post-intoxication gastrointestinal purging.

Down came the squatter mounted on his thoroughbred,
Down came the troopers, one, two, three,
Whose is the jumbuck you've got in your tucker bag?
You'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.

Amazing the things you think in the solitude of physical endeavour. It's no different nearing 4,000 meters with your heart thrumming and the sweat running from your forehead than cycling a long flat against the wind, or making an uphill traverse to that perfect pitch with untracked hip-deep waiting for your 50-turn signature. You just put your head down and go, seeking that comfortable rhythm. Left, inhale; right, exhale:

Well up jumped the swagman and he leapt into the billabong,
He drowned himself by the coolibah tree,

This is when the thoughts come. Your body's so busy it doesn't have the time or motivation to generate an emotional reaction. You're left to think of lost loves, bourgeois oppression and the yahoos at the hut last night without the personal attachment that mars objectivity. For me the concept of Zen does not mean emptying your mind of thoughts but rather of emptying your soul of attachments, of freeing thought. I find in this state an ebb and flow to thoughts. They run amok and together, without logical sequence or consistent intent or related meaning. And all the time the tune sets the underlying rhythm. These are among my favourite moments of existence, and though there's no plan or goal to the mental activity, I resolve many inner conflicts, discover exciting new points of view and just have fun mucking with reality to the beat of inhale, left; exhale right:

And his ghost may be heard as you pass by the billabong,
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

That's why I enjoy hiking with Katrin. We both hike at our own pace and, when I come back from that Zen detachment and find myself well ahead, I'll stop for a break and wait until Katrin catches up. Sometimes it's a longer wait than I anticipated, but she's never cross about being 'left behind'. She seems to have a natural walking rhythm, she doesn't deliberately maintain her pace. That leaves her more conscious of the physical world around her. I know this because she's always pointing out animals, birds and trees that I would otherwise have missed. I, on the other hand, am always on the verge of going too fast and so it's left, inhale; right, exhale:

Waltzing Matilda. Matilda my darling.
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

I come to a wide flat rock where the trail steepens again just about 200 meters from the peak. A time check shows 5:20 PM, earlier than I expected since I figure it'll take about 15 minutes to climb this last bit. I don't want to be sitting in that wind before 5:45. It's fairly sheltered here on my nice big rock, with only the occasional gust, so I elect to wait here until 5:30 before continuing on.

I take the Akubra off and am amazed to find my hair, all of it, wet as if I'd just showered. I leave it off for the moment. As I turn myself at different angles into the light breeze, letting the sweat evaporate from my hair and the damp shirts under my fleece, the Yahoos above are yahooing into the chasm, literally to hear their own voices in the crisp echoes that come back from the far wall. The sky is brightening to the west and an orange tinge silhouettes the ridgeline that still separates me from a clear view of the western horizon. High violet clouds promise a spectacular sunrise.

To the south lights from individual dwellings and small towns, and cars on the highway, peek through the low cloud collecting at the mini-peaks about 2,000 meters below. Sunlight won't reach these for another 45 minutes but already the tops of distant thunderheads are lined not in silver but gold. From them still issues the flickering blue lightning bolts, far too distant to be heard.

And the scattered line of torch lights approaches from below. I think I hear Katrin's voice, or at least a hint of English words in a feminine voice. Since all the other women below us are Malay, the ones who failed to carry breakfast further than the 7km marker, I'm left with the conclusion that Katrin and the others are within earshot. There are two groups of flashlights within that distance, both showing just two torch lights. There were three remaining when I left them, Marie's, Anne's and the Guide's. I wonder what this means.

The lights of Kuching fade in the brightening dawn as it becomes possible again to separate land from ocean at a readily discernible shoreline. The lightning that wakes up dogs and babies in distant towns fades too and soon will become invisible in the daylight as they are silent in the distance. The first group of torches approaches just below me and I can make out the voices, Anne's among them. I am impressed but pessimistically wonder who'll carry her down the mountain. I underestimate her again.

Marie, characteristically leading the way, notices me first. Katrin asks what I'm doing there. "Waiting for you." I didn't have to do that, she says. I point upward, "It's only another 10 or 15 minutes to the peak". I explain why I don't want to be there too early. then ask about the third torch. "It gave out." Another Chinese cheapie purchased at the base. Only one of three survived the climb. I ask Anne how she feels. The reply, "Much better", comes in a chirpy voice. I can see her in the early light and though she's obviously 'knackered' from the exertion, the look of frail, sickly exhaustion is gone. There's even a gleam in her eye. "I just started breathing in rhythm with my walk, inhaling on the left, exhaling on the right."

18:38 Swiss Hotel; Georgetown, Penang-Malaysia :: 2 APR 95

She says this in a manner that implies, "And I figured it out all by myself." How quickly they forget. I just smiled and nodded, happy to see another conversion to Zen Climbing.

We rested there a few moments before Marie essentially raced me to 4,101 meters with the other two in hot pursuit. Well, not that it was a mad dash or anything. Marie's poor technique had finally begun to tell on her energy and I really didn't have to push myself to stay even with the tired young legs. We arrived at the top together with Katrin and then Anne following moments later.

Bart hibernates inside his Gortex wind fortress, hidden just below the peak's lee side out of the wind's main thrust. The warnings are accurate. The leading edge of the ridge is absolutely frigid but the setting is fabulous. Several cables are strung between a line of posts at the very edge of the ridgeline. One the lee side large loose rocks fall steeply away while to windward a precipice drops a hundred meters to the steeply sloped chasm wall. The wind and rain eroded chasm forms a horse-shoe ridge with minor peaks ringing the edge. Some of these peaks rise as sharply defined pinnacles. We are at the end of the bend beginning one straight leg. The sun will rise across the straight edge of the other leg that now, in the pre-dawn, lies in deep shadow.

I set up the camera on a tripod at the cliff edge, give the Akubra to Marie as a precaution against the fierce wind and take a couple photographs between the cables.

20:25 Swiss Hotel; Georgetown, Penang-Malaysia :: 2 APR 95

I yank out the camcorder and shoot some video. The wind whistles in my ears so the audio on the video tape will be useless. Just as well since the Yahoos chatter away ceaselessly. As the colours change, I click a few more photos, and then shoot more video. In the bitter wind my hands grow completely numb, so I join Bart who's retreated back to the lee side from his photographic sojourn. We agree the scene is fantastic. Katrin has wrapped herself in my sarong, an additional barrier against the wind. Her lips are purple and she's shivering. Snuggled up next to her, sharing the sarong, is Anne who has wrapped Katrin's spare pair of light pants around her head like a Muslim woman's head scarf. Marie's sitting up on the lip wearing my Akubra, face into the wind, groovin' on the sunrise.

I described the preceding night's sunset earlier in this series of postings on Kinabalu. 801 meters higher, with the world falling away on all sides, the experience of sunrise is entirely different. All the same colours reside in the sky, and a few unheard of to boot, but only a thin, whisky layer of cloud hangs above, all else rests on shelves below. Wind howls in your ears and eats the warmth from exposed flesh. This wind you must defy to experience the sunset. It is an effort. A worthy one.

The eastern horizon is a band of backlit orange cloud. From behind this bulwark the timidly advancing sun radiates streamers of fuscia, magenta and rosy pink before the electric blue back-drop. The high cloud collects the streamers and distributes their colours evenly across the sky in hues progressing from orange to red to magenta and fuscia. Never before has this variety and arrangement of sky colour fallen on these eyes, either at one time or in succession. I click a couple more photos; I roll some more video. I step away from the edge and rub my stiffening fingers.

The sun has not yet made its appearance. The cloud layer below remains in earth shadow. In Kota Kinabalu the eyes that look up beneath the grey blanket cannot know the spectacle unfolding for those bracing against the wind 2,000 meters above it. The thought passes quickly when someone announces the coming of day. I step back to the lip, adjust the camera exposure and click a few more exposures. I roll a few more minutes of video. Quickly the sun calls back the colours it earlier advanced as announcement of an imminent arrival. The grey blanket glows orange, then yellow and finally white. And Kota Kinabalu half-lies in the shadow-cast of Mount Kinabalu.

With the grand show over, everyone is eager to retreat. Twenty minutes have elapsed between arrival and this moment. I realize that in some sense I have missed the event. One must always make a choice between being an observer and a participant. The observer stalks the event, objectifies and captures it, analyses its significance both intrinsically and in its effect on the participants. Recording an event is, by definition, a choice to observe it. You learn much about the event itself, but you cannot experience it. To participate is to let the moment wash over you, to lose oneself in the moments that transpire. Participation means forgetting that there is an event, it means experiencing the moments rather than noting they transpired and what they mean.

Bart and I scurried about collecting images of moments. For Katrin and Anne, I think the main event was conquering the mountain and the sunrise was a beautiful side-show. But I wonder about Marie, steadfastly challenging the chilling wind, grooving on the colours. I wonder what she experienced? I think back to an experience of leaning into the salt-soaked storm wind on the New South Wales coast. I recall feeling the elements on my face and being both an insignificant bundle of atoms and a magical entity, unique in the universe. And I wonder if Marie too experienced epiphany or whether she thought the colours beautiful. The crowd is dispersing and in the flight from the peak's bitter chill, I forget to ask her impressions.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

A boy will toil up hill with a toboggan for the sake of a few brief moments of bliss during the descent; no one has to urge him to be industrious, and however he may puff and pant he is still happy. But if instead the immediate reward you promised him an old-age pension at seventy, his energy would flag very quickly.
  graphical element Bertrand Russell
from "The Conflict of Technique and Human Nature"
in Authority and the Individual [1949]