Why Do We Climb?

There are seven of us, and we are going to climb a mountain.

At 2187m, Gunung Tahan is the highest point in peninsular Malaysia. Over the course of this six months, I’ve realised not many people have heard of this venerable mountain. There is a puzzled stare, or an amused chuckle (“hurhur Tahan, so you all have to tahan Tahan?” Yes, people always amaze me with their wicked wit).

Gunung Tahan squats quietly in the shadow of that other “tallest”, Mount Kinabalu. At 4095m and presiding so regally on the RM1 note, Kinabalu is Malaysia’s Everest, the dazzling star everyone wants to conquer and tell about.

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves” Sir Edmund Hilary

Less told, less spoken and boasted about is Tahan, the muddier, more distant and severe older sibling of glorious Kinabalu (“older”in political nation-state sense, since Tahan, being in the state of Pahang, has been part of an older Malaya longer than it has been Malaysian) is an apt name. If you ask around, or if you happen to bump into anyone who has even heard of the mountain, they will tell you of leech-infested forests, river crossings, cloud-wreathed hills; meals which have to be buried in advance, so you have something to eat on the return journey. Multiple day climbs. Elephant graveyards which have since been sealed away, even. Legends and half-rumours blending inextricably from the inevitable fact of a long, long walk in a very primeval forest.

In other words, we were are going on an expedition, in every sense of the word.

“A long journey of clear objectives which are DIFFICULT to achieve, ADVENTUROUS in nature, and rich in LEARNING.” – Isaac Lim

It’s been six years since CJC ODAC Batch 12 climbed a mountain together, let alone a mountain that will demand so much of us. But after so many years of talking about it, and listening in awe to stories about Tahan, we decided that it was time to make things happen. We will not get any younger, and every year that passes is another year that we are less fit and less able to commit to something of such intensity. The plot was hatched sometime in December 2015; in January we met at the CJC track for our first training, at the place Batch 12 had spent so many frustrated mornings trying to get a full batch attendance, trying to beat our previous timings and goals.

It’s July now, and my last proper night in Singapore. Since that January morning of tentative reunions we’ve had some ups and downs. Missed trainings. Difficult departures. Clogged schedules. Early Saturday mornings (SO MANY EARLY SATURDAY MORNINGS OMFG). Bukit Timah hill ascents (six sets, up//down). Forty-storey ascents (CLEMENTI, TOA PAYOH, TOA PAYOH…SO MANY 40-STOREY CLIMBS OMFG)- first happily, in exercise gear, and then later, fully loaded with water (or rice). Saturday mornings. Sunday evenings.

And on one recent, notable weekend: two “practice” mountains in Johor, on what Eliza, our Expedition Leader, casually termed as our “Training Expedition”. We spent nine hours climbing and then descending root-strung, mossy Gunung Belumut on our second day of that Training Expedition.

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It’s July now. It’s the eve of our expedition. I should really be packing my bag, but i thought I’d leave a small little marker here. There’s a lot of romance and quotes about climbing mountains. The act itself is very rich in metaphors to be mined. Everyone talks about “mountains”, but usually only mean them metaphorically. Singapore is too flat, too densely urban for your imagination to really take off when it comes to real mountains.

Kinabalu, Rinjani, Everest – these are the big names. The Spielbergs and Kubricks of mountains. Everybody wants to come back with a story of having knocked these big ones down. Of having conquered them.It’s the fame and glory that’s become so seductive over the years. I used to dream of these summits too.

I’ve been climbing mountains on and off since I was in Secondary Two, when an outdoor adventure camp made me go up Gunung Lambak. Even then, I was a romantic kid already, lost in my books and dreams and fantasy worlds and science fictions. So I took to mountain-trekking rather easily. After all, Gandalf, Bilbo, Lyra, Harry had all summited peaks of one form or another. Why not me?

CJC ODAC, however, was where my education in mountains really began in earnest. I have learnt that mud and mosquitoes, sweat and stink are an acquired taste. I have learnt that sometimes the greatest danger in adventure is ego. And that the greatest courage can come in the darkest nights, shivering and afraid, in the smallest of moments – it’s your friend trying to cheer you up with a shared gummi bear, even when she’s just as cold and muddy as you are. Those two years made me step back and look out Kinabalu, Rinjani and Everest differently. 

Tomorrow, my friends and I will take a twelve-hour train ride to northern Malaysia. Carrying our shelter and our food for the next six days on our backs, we will meet our guide. And then, we will begin the climb of our lives: mosquitoes, leeches, mud, river-crossings, rainstorms, mud, false peaks, frayed tempers, and probably, more mud. 

Why do we climb?

Ego and glory are quick answers. They are not wrong answers, not even unfounded. There is indeed a nice glow in seeing that look of awe when you tell someone about some summits.

But there is a part of me that hopes this is not all that lies behind all that sweat and trouble. There are, after all, many ways to seek glory. Certainly easier ones – like maybe being a head prefect. But I have always found a deep sense of peace in going back to nature, that has nothing to do with the likes on my Instagram post. I have always found an invigorating, incredible serenity and courage after going nine hours up and down a mountain – the knowledge that I could be capable of such feats. These legs. These hands. This mind. This weary spirit. What could snide opinions count for, when you have literally shivered and soldiered through pouring, freezing rain; when you have basked quiet and content, watching the sunrise break upon a lonely peak? What kind of essay grade could possibly supplant the hushed awe you felt as stood amidst the roots of a tree bigger than six of your friends?

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These are things you cannot see in the photos, or the lofty boasts. These are the things you must go back to nature, and to the mountains for.

For in the end, it is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” Jack Kerouac

“The mountains are calling, and I must go” John Muir

See you, hopefully, in a week or so.

 

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