Travel: Brave but bootless in Borneo: Simon Calder wore the wrong footwear and was frozen with terror, but he still made it to the top of the world, on Mount Kinabalu

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The Independent Travel
Getting there: the best- value route is on Royal Brunei Airlines as part of a London-Australia ticket, sold through agents such as Trailfinders (071-938 3366) for pounds 765, valid for a year. You can get a stopover at Brunei, where you buy a separate air ticket (price pounds 20) to Kota Kinabalu. From there any minibus heading to Ranau will take you to the park gate, fare pounds 1.

Permits: to climb Mount Kinabalu and to book beds apply in advance to the Sabah Parks Office, Sinsuran Shipping Complex, PO Box 10626, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

They were black, size 12 and cost pounds 12.99 at Dolcis in Oxford Street. Suitability for high-altitude climbing was not one of the qualities listed by the vendor of this pair of sandals, but I was stuck with them. Specifically, I was stuck with them while clinging to a rockface two miles above sea level. Ahead was the highest peak in Southeast Asia; to the right, a 500ft drop leading to certain death; and behind a bunch of well-shod Singaporeans getting impatient.

The fear was paralysing. Fortunately for the tempers of my fellow climbers, the Englishman's horror of causing offence triumphed over terror. I cursed myself, the mountain and the moment, gulped half a lungful of whatever air remained at 11,000ft, and dragged my body up the precipice with a rope, while my flimsy soles scraped ineffectively against the cold, disdainful stone.

Mount Kinabalu is a huge lump of granite on the island of Borneo, the farthest-flung chunk of Malaysia. 'One of the easiest mountains in the world to climb,' said my guidebook. 'No special skills or equipment are required.'

Misplaced confidence is reinforced because the preparations for climbing Kinabalu are easy. Prospective peakers start by calling in at the Parks Office in Kota Kinabalu, the coastal city from which you can catch an occasional glimpse of the arrogant thrust of the mountain. Climbing by computer is a specialism here. Permits, hostels, guides and insurance are arranged with a few riffles of the keyboard, and paid for by credit card.

The first 5,000ft were covered in only two hours - with nothing more demanding than staring out of the window of a minibus, until I was deposited outside the gates of the Kinabalu National Park.

A bed was waiting. But unfortunately, in my case, I found myself sharing a dormitory with 50 excited Malaysian youngsters on what seemed to be their first trip away from home. They were badly behaved, but at least they were better prepared than me. My check-list of hat, sunglasses, waterproof jacket remained unticked. A change of clothes wasn't an option, either, since I was wearing my entire wardrobe.

Sleep on the first night was fragmented; invaded by fear, and the babble of high-spirited schoolchildren. The next morning, mists enshrouded the mountain, but a gap in the clouds gave me a glimpse of my quarry.

While waiting for a guide to be assigned, I perused the small print of my insurance policy. You might find it worrying to read about 'repatriation of remains', but my attention was drawn to the fact that you get pounds 125 for each toe you lose on the climb, and for someone wearing sandals, this could be significant.

My guide turned out to be Yukun, a fairly mild man of Borneo; short, slim, with few words but plenty of phlegm (which he expectorated noisily at every opportunity).

You start the climb by losing 100ft of altitude, and fretting about the fact that you will have to make it up. Then the ascent begins: a very long staircase to the heavens. You recklessly set off, two steps at a time, through what closely resembles a botany textbook.

Tropical rainforest, I had thought, meant strange, exotic trees and dense, probably dangerous undergrowth. But the track is flanked by broadleaved oaks, chestnuts and laurels - temperate trees taking advantage of high altitude to survive so close to the equator. And there are carnivores up there: not wolves or bears, but pitcher plants which devour insects (and even the occasional small rat). The greedy greens have the size and shape of the business end of a saxophone. But instead of spittle collecting in the bowl, there is a nectar which entices insects inside.

The pinnacle for which we were heading was called Low's Peak, after Sir Hugh Low, the British Colonial Secretary who made the first recorded ascent. The whole trek seems a journey through colonialism. Distances are measured in chains, which I recall has something to do with furlongs and cricket pitches. After three hours, you reach a resthouse with a sign telling you this is 9,652ft, an imperial measure I can just about comprehend. For a besandalled boy from Crawley, reaching such a height is a miracle; you are three times higher than England's tallest peak.

Then a couple of large Swiss caught up with me and destroyed any breathless sense of achievement. They had started an hour later, but were sufficiently blase to take a smoking break.

As I continued my ascent the cloud would occasionally break to show sublime, threatening faces of the mountain. Suddenly, a clearing off to the right revealed the ridiculous sight of a helipad. Any prospective climber who is well-heeled (financially rather than in terms of footwear) can hire a helicopter and get to 11,000ft just by stepping into the machine.

Just beyond the 11,000ft level was a spruce new lodge, a sort of timber box on one of the few flat pieces of land on the mountain. It has one heck of a catering service; you can get anything from an omelette to a Guinness. And prices are not elevated. A more- than-decent meal cost pounds 1.50.

This was where I spent my second night. My fellow climbers were an odd bunch. A group of Singaporeans swapped tales of gum-running (chewing gum is illegal in the city-state). The two Swiss appeared sickeningly over-confident and, as self- appointed footwear critics, laughed cruelly when I said no, I hadn't got any other shoes.

Day two began early. At 2.15am the Singaporean girls were monopolising the hostel bathroom, carefully applying make-up so they would look good in their photographs at the peak.

Night-climbing is not as tricky or scary as I had imagined. Your attention is concentrated on the pool of light cast by your torch, so the jagged terrain on either side does not enter your field of vision and hence you can only speculate about its potential for killing you.

At 2.55am, came the first (and only) confidence-booster: overtaking a couple of well-made-up stragglers. I convinced myself that this was going to be a breeze although my legs might be screaming otherwise. I crunched a couple of Lemon Puffs (culinary preparations had not been intense) and felt invigorated. My guide spat loudly. Then, just as I was thinking it was all going smoothly, the mountain struck back. Around a twist in the track, I was confronted by a rope dangling from the side of a steep slope, worn smooth by 30,000 pairs of sensible boots each year. Beyond was a black void. I panicked.

When you are on the edge of the world, with only a slender rope away from certain death, it seems entirely rational to freeze with fright. The crowd building up behind me did not concur, however. Yukun muttered the Malay equivalent of 'we've got a right one here'. Feeling ridiculous, I inched forward, clinging to the harsh granite so tightly that my hands were bloodied.

My memory hereafter gets a bit sketchy; it is hard to think straight when you are face to face with a mountain, with your eyes closed. Two unbearable hours later respite was reached at a plateau built like a mathematical three-dimensional model. It was improbably curved and distorted by five elegant peaks, the conclusions of hyperbolas.

Just as I wondered where and when the sun might appear, the moon suddenly rose, its pale rays splashing the surface of the topological monstrosity and giving it a lunar tranquillity. The repertoire of Kinabalu is as impressive as its capacity to intimidate.

Then you skirt an outcrop, and there it stands: Low's Peak, pin-sharp and rising 200 more feet above the plateau, the tallest point for a 2,000 miles. You attack the final stretch in a foul temper, angry with yourself and furious with the mountain for culminating in such a stern test. And suddenly you are there, on top of the world, or at least one bit of it.

Did I feel triumphal? Did I hell. At the top, all that separated me from oblivion was a flimsy fence, so any absence of fear was only momentary. But at least I got to see sunrise from the best vantage point in Borneo.

True, the thrill of seeing the world come to life, prodded into activity by the stealthy sunlight stabbing over the horizon, is one of life's great experiences. But I felt deeply uncomfortable, trying to keep hold of my ragged fragment of rock. And I was sharing the pinnacle with a bunch of people whose chief interest was energetic mutual photography rather than solitary contemplation.

Then the traumatic anxieties about the descent started. Earlier this year, a British Army team got lost on the way down Mount Kinabalu. They, however, were attempting Low's Gully, a mile- deep rift in the rock on the west side of the summit.

The reality of regular descent was far kinder than the imagination. The ropes with which I had hauled myself and my sandals painfully upwards became much friendlier on the way down. You think you need stress counselling, but a cup of tea at base camp turned out to do the trick. And as the sun dried my socks and soaked up my fears, I started the first of a million boring stories about how I climbed Kinabalu in sandals.

(Photograph omitted)

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