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Saturday September 3, 2011

Daunting task of climbing Gunung Tahan

Gunung Tahan may not be the highest mountain, but it sure poses one of the most challenging trails in Malaysia.

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves – Edmund Hillary

WHY climb mountains? Why subject yourself to leech bites, cramps, the biting cold, hours of torturous climbing, and risking life and limb?

I recently went on an expedition to Gunung Tahan with Anakhutan, a group of hikers from Penang. The members are seasoned climbers, mostly in their 40s. Our expedition would take nine days, beginning in Kuala Tahan, Pahang, covering some 96km of rough terrain and climbing to 2,187m to the summit. We would then trek down to Kuala Juram in Merapoh, Kelantan.

Anakhutan expedition leader Chuah Eng Wei, 48, said he had climbed Tahan eight times, but had not attempted this particular route, which many believe to be the most difficult.

Tragedy: The wreckage of an aircraft that crashed in 1972, killing the pilot, lies on a slope near the peak of Gunung Tahan.

Our group consisted of 22 hikers – 18 men and four women – plus two mountain guides. The oldest was 63-year-old Uncle Ah Tut, and the youngest was his 16-year-old son. As we had to carry tents, gas burners and food for the duration of the hike, the men had to shoulder 20-25kg each, and the women 12-15kg, no small feat.

Chuah explained that Anakhutan was different from other climbing groups.

“We make sure participants train a few months before the climb, and we want everyone to eat well. No maggie mee,” he said.

Come rain or shine, Kelvin Chan, our appointed chef, was tasked with dishing up simple and delicious meals like vegetarian curry, meat pasta and black pepper mushroom soup – for all 22 people!

The first day saw a relatively easy 12km hike over undulating hills and rivers. Six hours later, we set up camp at the Melantai campsite and had an early night. I woke up at 2am to what I thought was the sound of dogs and cats fighting.

In the morning, guide Mohammad Mazwan told me that they were wild jungle dogs. We had to cross five rivers and cover 17km today. Somewhere along the way, I gave up trying to keep my socks and shoes from getting wet; it was a losing battle.

One of the hikers admiring the rafflesia the group had stumbled upon on the Kuala Tahan trail.

After 10 hours, we reached our spot for the night, a temporary campsite on the bank of Sungai Tahan. Tired out, I slept soundly. Every night we had to change sleeping partners, and I was grateful that Kelvin the chef did not snore.

From Camp “No Name”, we pushed on for Camp Teku (elevation 168m) and beyond – Pasir Mengkuang. It took three-and-a-half-hours for us to get to Camp Teku, whereupon we took a short break. Strength regained, we marched towards Pasir Mengkuang to begin our journey to the four-step waterfall.

The route to the waterfall diverges from the main trail, taking an extra two days. We crossed pristine rivers enroute and arrived at Pasir Mengkuang at 9pm. The reward for our effort was the half-metre rafflesia we stumbled upon by the side of the trail. It’s a rarity in Tahan to have such an encounter. What a treat!

Day four was the toughest for me. We started out at 7.30am and hiked to Pasir Panjang where we pitched a tent to shelter our heavy backpacks. The mist was just lifting, revealing a long stretch of colourful rocks shaped by the river water.

After lunch and carrying a light pack, we proceeded to the waterfall. The trail was difficult and dangerous. It was muddy and slippery from being trampled by elephants. Leeches abound too. As we neared the waterfall, we had to clamber onto rocks with the help of climbing ropes. I decided to bail out as I was slipping all over the place.

Later, I was told the group arrived at the waterfall at 6pm. Returning, my fellow hikers didn’t look too impressed with me.

River crossing: The hikers helping each other across one of the many rivers they encounter during the journey to the peak of Gunung Tahan.

We continued the arduous trek back to Camp Pasir Panjang. Imagine having to cross icy cold rivers with the water up to your waist in the dark of night. We arrived at camp at midnight thoroughly exhausted and slightly traumatised by the realisation that we hadn’t even started the proper climb up Tahan.

As if to soothe our torment, the clear nightsky was filled with twinkling stars.

Next morning, we made our journey back to Camp Teku, 13km away. The sun came out and we were grateful to be able to dry our wet clothes, socks and shoes. Camping in the rainforest is a constant battle to stay dry. Our group split up half-way in, with the earliest arriving at 6pm and the stragglers at 8pm. It rained heavily, and we had to huddle under our tent as we ate our dinner.

Today, we would begin our difficult climb up Gunung Tahan, ascending almost 2,000m in one day to Camp Gedung (2085m). This journey usually takes two days, but we were hard pressed for time as we had spent two days on the waterfall. The waterfall jaunt had tired us out, and our feet were blistered from all that walking in damp shoes.

As we ascended, the soil became thinner and the temperature colder. The vegetation changed from tropical to temperate. We passed a fairytale-like forest of white mossy plants and bonsai-like trees.

During the final phase to Camp Gedung, we clambered on aluminium ladders placed against steep and sharp cliffs. Even seasoned climbers like Chuah almost gave up. But we soldiered on, arrived at camp amidst lashing winds at 8pm.

In the morning as the mist parted, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the majestic mountain ranges that form the backbone of the peninsula.

It’s day seven now, and we would be making our final push to the peak. Traversing across mud, a hill and a dry, rocky trail, we arrived at the summit at 4pm. We felt jubilant, our pain and anguish temporarily forgotten. After a short photo session, we descended to Botak Hill and made camp. We had trekked eight hours today.

Many of us could not sleep as it was too cold. I didn’t sleep much the night before either when the temperature fell below 15°C. My legs, sore from the arduous climb, were chilled to the bone.

Descending Tahan was faster than climbing it, but not that much easier. Rain made the trail slippery. One in our party sprained her ankle and had to be helped to camp.Today was another eight gruelling hours of hiking. My whole body was crying in pain and I kept dreaming of eating greasy, finger-licking good fried chicken, something I don’t normally find palatable. We were grateful to camp at a lower and warmer site. I knocked off instantly.

The last day! There was a spring in my step as I practically ran down the slopes, forgetting my sore legs.

After crossing a number of rivers and welcoming back the leeches that were absent closer to the summit, we arrived at Kuala Juram. I think I was more happy to see the hanging bridge that marked the end of our expedition then to conquer the summit. It meant the end of my ordeal!

Why climb?

While I enjoy the challenge, I climb because I love the intimacy with nature – the pleasure of walking in the forest away from the city; the simple satisfaction of arriving at camp after a hard day’s hike. It makes you appreciate the little comforts. Like the sun drying your wet clothes, the sweet taste of crystal clear streams and the camaraderie of old and new friends.

Chuah, who has now climbed Tahan nine times, says this was the hardest climb of his life. “And I will climb it again,” he added.

Why?

“To witness beauty. To experience simplicity. When you arrive at the summit, just look over at the mountains. All your pain and doubts disappear. After that, I’m the happiest man on earth, just sipping my kopi-o. Everything tastes wonderful. Life is good.”

Indeed, the opinion of a true climber.

Hardship and pain makes one appreciative. There was a stretch heading towards the peak where I thought I would not make it. My backpack was weighing on my shoulders and my legs were swaying. Every step was a torment. My head felt dizzy. But there was no way to go back, only forward.

I prayed fervently. Suddenly, a small voice in my head said, “Trust your feet for they have brought you this far.”

I stopped swaying and marched on like a soldier. I overtook the climbers in front and intuitively knew that this pace was not mine.I had somehow been gifted a second wind to complete the day’s trek.

As I climbed, I realised I was not hungry for the summit. It meant little. It was the challenge of being able to put one foot in front of the other, to complete what I had begun, that mattered. And it was the friendships made in times of hardship. It’s not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves.

Would I climb another mountain?

There’s not a single doubt in my mind that I would.

Anakhutan is a non-profit hiking group that organises adventure treks to mountains and waterfalls.

Interested, please visit their facebook by the same name.

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