Hippos do ballet and making friends on a mountain climb

Jerome Kugan had fun posing for the camera on the lower slopes of Gunung Datuk, but in reality, hands were only used to climb ladders at the peak.

Since I was young, I've never been a physically active person. You wouldn't be able to catch me dead on the football field kicking balls for points. Nothing bored me more than sweat and rowdiness. Proudly anti-fitness and anti-herd, my preferred habitat was the great indoors.

Over the years, however, this lack of enthusiasm for the sporting life has turned out to be a less-than-attractive proposition – hello muffintop and backbelly! My daily work routine didn't help either; staring at the computer screen for up to 10 hours a day is liable to turn anyone into a zombie.

So, when the Star2 Monthly Challenge call came from Andrew Sia three months ago asking staff members to climb Gunung Datuk, I thought that this was exactly the kind of intervention I needed. Conquer a mountain! How symbolic! How poetic!

The only problem was I had never climbed a mountain before.

Barely minutes after confirming my participation, I freaked. To say I was ill-prepared would only be telling half the truth: I hadn't worked out in years, possessed no hiking shoes, and didn’t even know where Gunung Datuk was.

Fortunately, my fitness level was not too bad for a 39-year-old. With a bit of training that lubed up the joints and much-needed insider advice – courtesy of Star2 colleague Eric Ian Chan, whose passion for hiking is inspiring – I discovered that climbing mountains is, as the cliché goes, all about the journey.

Also gratifying was the time spent with colleagues – Nadine Fernandez, Nasa Maria Entaban and Terence Toh – outside the office.

Not only did I get to know them a bit more, but the gentle-humoured camaraderie we forged for this mission made a world of difference on May 16, when we made it all the way to the top of Gunung Datuk, singing silly songs and encouraging each other despite aching feet and protesting nerves.

It didn’t matter that we plodded slower than turtles, ambling over slippery slopes, rocks and jutting tree roots with as much grace as hippos doing the ballet. Seeing how determined the team was – especially Raymond Ooi, our photographer, who completed the climb with one day’s notice and no training at all – really moved me.

That we pulled it off together, I think, was our real achievement.

Did the climb change me? Of course, it did. For one, I can’t say that I’ve never climbed a mountain anymore – because now I have.

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