Standing on Top of Borneo

Think what you will of Borneo, but there are no orangutans at 13,000 ft.

While the tropics of Malaysian Borneo may conjure sweaty images of the Kinabatangan River, or perhaps an exotic proboscis monkey roaming the primate sanctuaries of Sandakan, the air on the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu is too brisk for such jungle fantasies. Riverbanks covered in rafflesia are replaced by frostbitten slabs of granite, and the only real signs of life are the hardy hikers determined to experience the sunrise atop the South Pacific’s highest peak.

For many travelers to Borneo, the chance to greet the day from atop the 13,435 ft. summit of Mt. Kinabalu is the highlight of their Borneo vacation. After climbing 8 hours of trail that resembles a real-life jungle stairmaster, the two-story yellow and brown wilderness lodge known as Laban Rata is an incredibly welcome sight. Situated at nearly 11,000 ft, Laban Rata is the highest lodging in all of Borneo. Offering a full service dinner buffet and a surprisingly well stocked bar, all supplies are hand carried up the mountain by Malaysian porters who embody the speed of a mountain goat crossed with the strength of an ox.Julius used to be a porter, but now he is one of the English-speaking mountain guides who climbers are mandated to hire in order to climb the peak. Stocky and strong, the decades of summiting Kinabalu are evident in his wise and weathered face. We’re supposed to meet Julius outside of Laban Rata at 2am to begin the frigid push for the summit, though between the waves of adrenaline and Laban Rata’s squeaky wooden floors, there really isn’t much sleep to begin with. Coffee is available in the dark dining hall, though the breathtaking blanket of stars is enough to energize even the sleepiest of climbers.

With the glow of a waning moon lighting the narrow path, the steady stream of travelers appear more as a river of ants marching towards a common goal. Needing to cling to ropes on the steeper sections and dodge the occasional icy puddle, Julius deftly navigates around the mountain’s hazards despite the fact we only possess two broken headlamps and what light the moon has left us. Equipment failures aside, with aching lungs and seriously numb toes, a small band of intrepid Borneo travelers eventually stand together atop this desolate, windswept peak.

As the first rays of sun filter over the distant peaks of Indonesia, the profound silence is broken only by a sporadic gust of wind or the well-deserved click of a camera. Content and seemingly warm, Julius cracks a sincere smile as the sun crests from beneath the misty horizon, knowing that for the time being, we are two of a handful of people lucky enough to be standing on top of Borneo.