A few months earlier it had seemed like a good idea. Brave, foolhardy and bold yes, but somehow a good idea. Now, on a very early jungle morning in Borneo, it all seemed like a very bad idea indeed. What was that idea? To bike on the summit of this majestic mountain before me, naturally! I gazed up through the swirling mist towards the imposing grey and bare arsed peak of Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain not only in Borneo, but all of south east Asia. There it was, looking down and shaking its big grey pointed head at me. What the hell it was saying didn’t bare thinking about, but I can kinda guess!
It wasn’t my first encounter with this particular mountain. Earlier in the year I’d scaled it on foot, taking the traditional two days to summit and descend, which was pretty tough. At that time some kind of language thing had gotten in the way, which lead to me saying how cool it would be to bike on the summit – an unairly 4100 meters high. That set the wheels in motion, and much red tape later an official government letter arrived allowing me to attempt this feat; “Permission is hereby given to Mr Steve Thomas from England to carry his bicycle to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. However, Mr Steve Thomas is not allowed to use his bicycle on the mountain in such a way that he may endanger himself or other climbers.” Umm, now here I was, bike on my back and off on another ball breaking mission!
It turned out that ours was not to be the first ever bike trip to the summit – two Japanese had summited a couple of year’s back, taking a long two days to do so. And, as much as simply biking on the top was a task and reward in it’s self, the challenge now took on a new twist – we had to go one better, and the best way to do that was to do it faster.
At this point myself and my guide Maike, a local, really didn’t think that it was going to be possible to get to the top, let alone take any time out of the record. For the very fit and blessed with good weather, it is possible to summit and get back down in a very long day. But that’s travelling light – and without a bike. We on the other hand had a bike, a bag full of cameras, and all the gear required should we get stranded overnight, not exactly lightweight travel.
It was really quite daunting as we hit the base slopes of the climb. The pace was really high. We were basically running through the steeply stepped jungle clad lower slopes of the mountain. As we sweated onwards and upwards we passed a train of early morning porters, taking supplies up to the rest house. Next came the wave of descending climbers. Needless to say each and every one of them stopped and questioned in disbelief as to our antics and reasoning. You get sick of it after a while and come up with ridiculous answers – being lost is the easiest!
We’d got the trail all to ourselves now, and the going was seriously tough – I was already soaked through with sweat, and my limbs were pounding. We were approaching the scheduled overnight stop – and the clock hadn’t even reached mid day. It was crunch time. If we had it in us we could possibly summit and get back to the rest house before dark, but it was a long shot. Ten minutes later and we’d stripped to basics and were back on the summit trail. From here on in it gets really serious. The air gets thinner and thinner, and the trail gets steeper and tougher. A lowering mist made the going even harder – greasing the steep rocky trail.
Both of us were suffering, even Maike who climbs this peak twice a week! We were now down to using ropes, and passing the bike between us to avoid the risk of a long drop. We’d climbed so fast that my fuel tank was running on empty, and I was getting dizzy spells from the lack of air. The rain had set in, and we were frozen to the bone. My hands could hardly grip the ropes. The wrath of the mountain gods was lashing us hard for attempting such a feat. We sat for a few minutes “bodo, bodo (crazy)” I shook my head to Maike; he just nodded in agreement. But there was no way I was taking the safe option of heading back down and trying again at dawn – we were on to a possible new record here!
After a long and oxygen starved and roped crawl to a pre summit plateau so the clouds parted and we were rewarded with a dose of sunshine. We grinned like mad at each other - it had all been worth it after all! Hurriedly we assembled the bike, and took the highest slick rock ride on the planet. What an amazing experience, riding through some of the thinnest air ever biked, high above the clouds, and in complete solitude. It was a very humbling experience, and one we’ll both remember for a long time to come.
Now we still had to summit. That final kilometre was really draining, but eventually we sat on the peak – complete with bike! All that was left to do was get back down without killing ourselves, and that wasn’t as easy as it sounds. We’d peaked in less than five hours, so logic says we should get down a whole lot faster – not so.
Descending vertical wet rock by ropes is no easy task – especially with a bike behind you. We more or less ran and slid the two hours back to the rest house, by which point I was almost unable to walk – my knees were shot. Once again it was decision time – be sensible and rest up for the night, or try and beat the dark to get home. With honour and a possible record at stake we hit the trail once more. Those final four hours were some of the most painful in my life. My knees and legs had completely gone; I was literally in tears, and was reduced to walking sideways, and using my butt to get down the final two hours. I really did not think I would make it.
As dusk crawled in the park gate came in to sight, at the top of a long flight of steps. At the gate the park staff had assembled, staying on after work, to see the “heroes”’ return. I just gritted my teeth and swallowed those final minutes of pain, and signed out in 10 hours 15 minutes, well and truly recording a new record for biking on Kinabalu!