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Meet the Stone Woman

As far as sacred mountains go, Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu ranks up there with Kilimanjaro, Everest and Denali. How do I know? I asked the woman running the karaoke bar in my hotel.  “I climbed it two years ago with my mother and my sister. I could barely walk for two weeks afterwards,” she said. “It was something we had to do, but I’m not sure we do it again.”

The cab driver taking me to the bus station for my 56 mile trip to Mount Kinabalu National Park had photos of his climb plastered all over his tattered dash board. He too had made the summit and he did it in style wrapped in a plastic garbage bag poncho using a burlap sack for a pack.   “This is not easy. Would you like to buy some health supplements that will help you climb?” he asked. When I said no he tried to sell me countless other stuff including insurance, until I kept him focused on our one common goal. “I climb it because my grandfather and father did. Someday when my son is old enough he too will go there.”

Binding Generations

Climbing Kinabalu is the common denominator in Sabah, Borneo ’s northern state that binds generations of Dusun tribal peoples and the international trekkers who seek to bag the highest peak between Everest and Irian Jaya.   For the Kadazan-Dusun, Borneo ’s largest ethnic group, climbing Kinabalu is a right of passage intertwined with their history, religious beliefs and making it in today’s economy.

At nearly 13,500 feet Mount Low towers above all else on the island of Kalimantan that is half Malaysia, half Indonesia. But unlike iconic peaks elsewhere that are reserved for fit hikers and mountaineers, Kinabalu is climbed by nearly everyone on Sabah, or at least they try. It’s as much a spiritual and mental journey as it is physical.

On my three day summit, my co-climbers included an elderly mother and her daughter glacially moving arm in arm. The mother was in tears as her daughter exhorted her upwards and willed her to the top. I stopped to admire their tenacity and forgot about the minor cramp I was experiencing. Perhaps this was their first real hike, but they doggedly persisted in the rain and mud seeking a summit where religious ceremonies and sacrificial offerings have been made for centuries. Bagging the peak was less about one’s ego and more about being part of a culture.

A Mountain’s Legends

Among the mountain’s legends is the story of a faithful wife and her unshakable love. Her Chinese prince husband feeling homesick returned to China to see his parents and promised to return, but once home his parents matched him with a new wife. His Dusun wife grew frustrated in her inland village where she couldn’t see the ocean. To salve her heartache and to get a better view, she climbed to the top of Kinabalu daily scanning the sea looking for her husband. The summit’s icy mist eventually took its toll, but the mountain’s spirit turned her body into a stone façade facing the sea so she could wait forever. Today’s Dusun women want to see the stone and be touched by its pure love.

Low to High

The first European to climb Mt. Kinabalu was Sabah’s British colonial secretary, Hugh Low who assembled a team of 40 porters and guides and started hacking up the steep south slope in 1851. After nine days they reached the summit and Low discovered how spiritual the mountain was. His chief guide opened a seven pound satchel containing human teeth, wood pieces and assorted charms and offerings.  He then slaughtered a chicken to appease the mountain’s spirit.  The moss on the rocks could not be touched; it was food for the spirit’s ancestors.

Not much has changed. Every year the park guides climb the mountain with seven chickens and eggs for an updated ritual sacrifice. They carry cigars, betel nuts, sirh leaves, lime and rice and have a feast after making their offerings to the spirit gods.

For years Kinabalu lay wrapped in its mythic cocoon until British botanists arrived in 1910.  They started discovering the myriad and exotic plant life that has made Kinabalu a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are over 4,500 plant species in the park including the carnivorous Rafflesia a pitcher plant that attracts insects with its vibrant colors. When the insects fall into the Rafflesia’s huge mouth and drown, the plant feeds. The park contains hundreds of endemic orchids that are less aggressive but no less spectacular.

The tourism age dawned in 1981 when a paved road was built connecting the park to the capital Kota Kinabalu. Today 200,000 visit the park annually and about 10 percent trek to the summit. About half the hikers are locals.

Sky Above – Mud Below

His name was Luis Kabun and he had the misfortune of getting assigned to me. Luis is a veteran guide and lives in the KadazanDusun village outside the park with his six children. That village has grown from 1,000 to over 4,000 in two decades and has led to increased poaching and logging in the park.  No one is allowed to climb Kinabalu without a park appointed guide and Luis was not overjoyed when I showed up – solo with a camera and lots of questions. Instead of a two day one night climb I opted to take my time over three days so I could stop and study Rafflesia and the 326 bird species. More work for Luis who over the course of the next 72 hours said little, but did a lot to help me. When I fell down a small ravine at the top, Luis was there to rescue me and offered to carry my pack.

The ascent is anything but a wilderness experience. Part of the lower sections are paved with rails, ropes and stairs to tame a poorly architected trail that ascends 5,000 feet in just 6.5 kilometers on Day One.  Huts and bathrooms appear every two kilometers and a power line parallels the trail. The best part of the hike is watching the passing parade of western tourists in their Gore-Tex clothing and the Dusun pilgrims in their makeshift hiking gear. Some of the local men climb bare-chested and grunt sumo-style as they huff to the top.

After an overnight in the Labun Rata guesthouse, trekkers arise at 3 a.m. to hike to the summit and catch the sun rising out of the Sulawesi Sea. I chose to sleep in much to Luis’ chagrin and headed up at 6 a.m. to have the summit to myself. At the top I made my sacrifice to the spirit gods by dropping my Pentax into the ravine but when the mist lifted and the sun poured through I realized what all the myth and majesty was about.

In a Hundred Lifetimes

The ocean and rainforests lay beneath us in a tapestry of biodiversity we could never fully grasp in a 100 lifetimes. We had entered a spirit kingdom of pink mists and grey brecciate rock with twisted haunted shapes. I suddenly felt homesick but in a lovelorn way. It was an uneasy mix of unrequited love tinged with guilt for the women I had been unfaithful to and abandoned.

Before the spirits turned me into stone, I signaled to Luis to take me down and for the first time he smiled.