We arrive at 4.45pm on a Tuesday afternoon at the roof of Malaysia.
We are exhausted and weary, but as we put our backpacks down at the summit of Tahan there is a quiet, immense sense of satisfaction. After nearly 9 hours of very difficult climbing, we had finally reached the physical apogee of our expedition.
As is the tradition with every mountain we have climbed before, we pull out our “Yam Seng food”, a little treat to celebrate the feat we had just achieved. Yam Seng food for Puncak Tahan are simple jelly sticks – little token things you would hardly bat your eyes at out in the real world, a little treat you only looked forward to in the halcyon days of primary school. But time works differently on the mountains. And after a long day’s climb (how much of an ordeal, you can read about here), subsisting only on a quick tuna-and-cucumber lunch, anything novel and sweet in a parched mouth was gladly welcome.
“YAAAAAAAAAAAAAMMMMMMMMMMMMM SENNNNGGGGGGGGGG” – everyone
Then we realise with a pleasant start that there is enough leftover for everyone to have another celebratory snack. We invite Atan, the quiet, smiling mountain-guide who had brought us all this way up, to join in our celebrations. Awkwardly, unsure of what we are actually doing, he joins us in our second round of toasts. And then, after we are done, and are contentedly sucking at our jelly sticks like little babes, Atan casually points out
“This isn’t actually the summit, you know,” Atan remarks. “The actual summit is a short walk away, in that direction”
There’s an awkward, embarrassed pause. We look down at our jelly sticks…and finish it anyway. And then we burst out laughing. Typical us. What a story to tell.
But the day isn’t young, so we set up our tents and our basha shelter first. It takes us awhile, but we are in no hurry. The campsite is our priority, because a chill rain and chill winds on the summit are no laughing matter. Being soaked to the bone on an empty stomach is also no laughing matter. We’d experienced that kind of agony years ago, enough times, to know that was the priority, more than anything else. The summit wasn’t going to run away, in any case.
The Tahan summit campsite is enclosed in a grove of trees, pleasantly sheltered from the worst of the winds at 2187m. In fact, as we later agree, this is one of the best campsites of all the campsites we land upon in our four nights in the jungle. There is space enough for our two tents, our basha shelter, and Atan’s own basha (palatial in comparison to ours). The ground itself is littered with pinecones, making for very soft, pleasant walking. Pocahantas will keep coming up everytime ODAC climbs mountains, but at that moment her Disney incarnation clambered unbidden into mind, singing:
“Come run the hidden pinetrails of the forest
Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the earth,
Come roll in all the riches all around you,
And for once, never wonder what they’re worth” |Colours of the Wind, Disney’s Pocahantas
With the tents set up by the boys, and the girls returned from collecting water (which entailed a very long, fascinating walk to a big, dubious puddle), we were finally done with the bear necessities. Time for the summit! Relaxed and happy and rested, we trooped off with our cameras and uplifted moods to witness the fruit(s) of our efforts: the fabled, REAL summit of Gunung Tahan – the one we’d been googling and seeing for so many months.
It’s a well-deserved celebration, even though clouds came quickly to obscure our views after a bit (so you see that the second picture is actually wallpapered by white). We spend quite some time at the summit, conducting that other of our ODAC summit rituals, on top of the ‘huan yin’ song and the “yam seng” toasting: one minute of silence on the mountaintop.
It’s in my opinion one of the most underrated things we do, and I always wish we could extend it beyond a minute – to five, to ten, or maybe even fifteen.
Sometimes one is asked – “so why do you climb?” The answer is as difficult, and as multifaceted as the different faces and aspects of a mountain. But one of them would be the silence. The silence of the mountaintop: which is not actually a physical silence at all, but the orchestral sussurus of a million pine-needles and leaves and tree branches, singing a soft quiet chorus inspired by a cold mountain wind, gently blowing great downy schools of clouds across the jagged backbone of the ridgelines.
The silence of the mountaintop is a silence inside the soul, a peace inside the heart.
It is momentary. It is only a minute long, and then slightly longer, as all 7 of us quietly try to draw it out as long as we can, secretly wishing to breathe the serenity in just a little longer.
The clouds roll by. A nearby tree nods contentedly in the embrace of a passing breeze.
And then, inevitably, someone makes a comment, and the moment passes. We laugh, or respond to the comment, find another angle to put the camera, or to point out something in the distance. After a final group picture in front of the GUNUNG TAHAN sign, our grumbling stomachs tear us away from the majesty of the moment, and we troop back to camp, to cook our dinner. On the menu this evening is your standard ODAC expedition meal, arising as much out of convenience as hallowed tradition: french beans fried with garlic; rice; onion omelette and luncheon meat.
Mei Xuan, as our Food IC, pulls out secret ingredients which make us all very happy: pork floss and salted peanuts. The combination sounds bizarre when you are well-fed, and have sated your cravings of salt and crunchy stuff. On the summit after a long day, pork floss and salted peanuts thrown into hot, fluffy rice still wafting steam is a combination that takes us by storm, even as the onion omelette and luncheon meat are still being prepared.
As the designated Luncheon Meat Chopper, i abuse my position and feed everyone strips of cold spam, sliced from a huge cake that is poured out from a can. While waiting for the other dishes to cook, it is an amazing stop-gap. Ooops,look, i sliced this in such an ugly manner. Waste not, want not. Anybody wants to eat this slice? I go through this a few times and nobody seems to mind…
And then at last – dinner is served, a feast for kings.
We go to our tents that night content: well-fed and satisfied, as a full moon rises slowly between the trees, so bright through the tents i wake up blearily later thinking we had overslept.
We don’t actually do so. In fact, we wake up on time the next morning at 5.00am. By 6.50am we are actually almost ready to go.
But then a few of us peer through a gap in the trees at the campsite, and we see something that catches our breath and freezes us all in our tracks.