The cold breeze swept past our faces,

The gravel glistening, squeaking into our walking shoes,

The peak,

Just a short way ahead,

Lay barren,

Beckoning!

A landscape without the collage of swaying branches and tall trees; the scent of a myriad flowers and raw mud slapping a sienna terrain: a silhouette haunting our minds – left behind,

Hung over our heads like a shadow,

As we trudged along.

 

The highest mountain in South East Asia we had scaled,

The ropes tied to our waists held us together,

One tribe we had become that day,

Doggedly determined to reach the peak,

And then celebrate.

 

The night turning to dawn,

The parody of being caught in between,

Neither Hades nor heaven it seemed,

Suddenly anxiety gripping,

Suffocating in the thin mountain air,

The flag we wanted to plant into the stubborn granite,

Kept us palpitating.

 

My knees felt knobbly and weak,

Yet, relentlessly we plodded on,

While tramping up the weather-beaten path,

Zigzagging, six hours in all.

The spirits of the mountain roaming in glee,

Watched us novices sweating and heaving,

Dragging our sore feet,

Up Mount Kinabalu’s sleeve.

 

The jungle; eerie, impenetrable and deep, towering above all, mocked us as we trekked uphill.

Blue skies sang, as white clouds saluted, impregnating the universe with their superciliousness, looking down upon us – poor mortals.

Then the shrubbery: silvery, shimmering, ugly and stout; greeted us, the higher we ascended.

Bewildered we were; crushed by nature’s mimicry.

The squirrels had mysteriously disappeared and the birds had stopped singing,

Nearer the peak, pygmy-like plants and tiny yellow flowers peeked their heads through the rocky ground – reminding us of the tundra and the Artic,

Feeling as if we were part of National Geographic.

 

“Ma! Ma! Hold on tight, don’t let go!”

I heard my daughter scream,

Her frantic words pierced the air, almost chilled.

“Don’t look down, the ravine might swallow you,’ she cried, as we lumbered on; crossed precipices and cracks that gaped at us like gargoyles

Ready to gulp us down.

It was two-thirty in the morning.

 

The ravines, ominous and dark,

Invited us,

Blood they seek,

The guides smirked,

While warning us of the curse,

That the spirits were waiting

To quench their thirst,

Just once a year – just one climber- they stressed,

Perhaps in zest,

Who could tell,

But it scared us like bloody hell!

 

Seated on our buttocks we inched our way past jagged edges,

Our bottoms wet from the morning dew,

Pinched occasionally by sharp, cold rocks,

Here and there,

In temperatures below zero.

Ghostly outcrops, dim and distant; landmarks of some sort,

Served as GPS those days.

The torches of the guides flickered intermittently,

Like shadow play,

Making sure we didn’t go astray,

While in a dream-like state we floated.

As we staggered on,

Wondering if we were we in purgatory?

Oblivious of what lay ahead.

 

The spirits, we had forgotten temporarily,

Intoxicated by nature’s subliminal beauty,

Yet, they must still have been on our heels,

Looking for fresh meals,

Perpetually hungry.

 

Dawn surreptitiously fading away,

From the cusp of darkness on its nape,

The sunshine gently rising,

The peak cushioned in its bosom,

A halo, crowning its neck.

Oh peak show us your head, we prayed,

Quickly!

Before it’s too late.

 

…And then it appeared,

Regal and majestic,

Standing erect,

Almost a phallus, its cosmic energy intact.

Overwhelmed!

We sat like a pack of wolves,

Agape,

Surrendering to nature and a world distilled in its embrace,

We welcomed a new day,

On the bosom of Spirits Mountain.

 

“We’ve made it!” we shouted, as if there were fireworks.

The Malaysian flag we stuck into the rocky soil, as we danced a merry jig,

The spirits I am sure, bid us farewell,

And returned to their quiet abode,

Somewhere in the troposphere, or the dark ravines below.

 

That day engraved Mount Kinabalu in our hearts,

The Malaysian flag fluttering on the mountain peak,

Slippery slopes,

Chirpy birds,

Sneaky squirrels,

Heavenly skies,

Ominous ravines,

Ghostly outcrops,

Overgrown perennials,

Stunted shrubs,

Sleekly guides,

Sleazy spirits,

Haunting stories, and,

Laughter and cries, as we hiked.

 

Our indomitable spirits, our ecstasy locked in.

 

We ordinary souls had indeed achieved a feat.

A mountain scaled,

Is like a life conquered.

Our sweat, dripping…dotting the track winding up to the peak,

Our legacy, left behind,

In a mountain tenanted by spirits,

Our names etched in our own books of success, known to no other.

I once climbed a mountain, I penned, secretly.

 


 

“I used the first day of my ‘home confinement’ to put in the finishing touches to a piece I worked on some time ago. It’s a sort of poetic narrative and is more of a story, more than anything else,” writer Jayati Roy says, adding that this was a poem written some time in 1985 based on her experience trekking Mount Kinabalu.

*** Header image by Ling Tang on Unsplash.

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