Mountain Climbing with Ralph Lauren in Borneo

Mount Kinabalu

How cool is this travel game?! I lived in Hong Kong and my boyfriend at the time lived in Singapore, so I’d fly down a couple of times a month to see him. Now Singapore is a small, repressed society, so we were always looking to leave and our favorite thing to do was to show up at the airport and take the next flight out – no matter where it was going – that was the rule. Which is how we ended up in Borneo, to climb Southeast Asia’s highest mountain: Mount Kinabalu, with no climbing gear. In fact, the closest thing I had to work out wear was a Ralph Lauren black one-piece jumpsuit and a pair of Reebok high tops (this was the early ‘90s, remember). I was ill-prepared, but definitely the best-dressed climber on the mountain.   

Serious Side Benes: My boyfriend worked for Ralph Lauren at the time. He was an all-around great guy, but one of the many benefits to dating him was that he would shop the employee sample sales for me and so I had a killer wardrobe for a dirt-poor graduate student.

Moon Shot of Mount KinabaluWe were only there for the weekend, so while most people climbed Mount Kinabalu in 2 days, I climbed it in one. Now, I was in graduate school at the time and supporting myself by teaching 3-4 aerobic classes a day and was very physically fit. So climbing up wasn’t really that hard…

Correction: the last 400 meters were incredibly difficult.

Especially since I had to do it on my own – just me and my Sherpa. See, my boyfriend had succumbed to altitude sickness at the base of the mountain. He was too dizzy to stand and throwing up. As he lay there, he urged me to go on by myself. And so I left him lying in the dirt. In my own defense, this was the first mountain I’d ever climbed and I didn’t really know how bad (Can anyone say “life-threatening”?) that altitude sickness could be. And he did tell me to go up on my own, so he was culpable too. So I literally stepped right over him and continued up the mountain with my Sherpa guide.

That’ll teach him to empower me. 


The initial climb up the mountain wasn’t too bad. I was slow and steady, meeting up with my Sherpa every half hour or so, as he stood smoking a cigarette, waiting for me. Then we’d set off together as a team, passing all the other climbers who were coming back down after having reached the summit on their second day of climbing. After about 6 hours of increasingly strenuous up-hill walking, the climbing began in earnest.

Abyss Mount Kinabalu
Mt. Kinabalu – looking into the abyss

The top of Mount Kinabalu is a shale-like material that sort of crumbles as you step on it. Luckily there were ropes already set to help us pull ourselves along the ridge.

This was becoming a full-body work out and, as usual, I didn’t fully comprehend what I was getting myself into. As we neared the 13,435 ft (4,095 meter) summit, it got harder to breathe.

At this stage, we were also beyond the tree line and there were no wind breaks, just a few large boulders. So for last 200-300 meters of the climb, I had to crawl on my hands and knees from rock to rock, resting behind it for a full 5 minutes to catch my breath and regain some strength.

Needless to say, Sherpa dude was starting to lose patience. 



I finally hauled myself to the top. Triumph! I made it! We were the only ones standing at the summit since we made the final push in one day. I can now appreciate what a rare moment that was, as I’ve since learned that you never get to enjoy a solo summit when mountain climbing.

Triumphant me on Kota Kinabalu

Triumphant me on Kota Kinabalu

Sherpa man and I stayed at the top for about 10 minutes, sharing a tuna sandwich, and then we headed down. Now, anyone’s who’s climbed a mountain knows that getting down is far harder than climbing up. And it started to get dark. And we had a deadline: We need to get back by 6:00 pm to catch the last bus to the city. At 5:00 pm, it was clear we were going to make it and we were starting to ponder the possibility of walking back an additional 90 km to town, an incredibly depressing thought. Sherpa man was not amused and kept telling me to walk faster. In fact, he was starting to get downright surly. But my knees, even then, were throbbing with pain. 14 hours of climbing was catching up with me.

We finally reached the bottom of the mountain after 8:00 pm and started walking down the middle of the dirt road back to town in total darkness (and complete silence). Then we saw a most beautiful sight: a taxi! Yay! It was my boyfriend, who apparently had made it safely off the mountain and back into town to recover from his altitude sickness. Realizing that I wasn’t on the last bus back, he came to find us.

And to think I left him lying in the dirt…

This entry was posted on Sunday, April 19th, 2009 and is filed under Asia Pacific.

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