Why climb the highest mountains, or reach the heights of success, if you have no one to experience it with you?
“If you want the climb to be efficient, climb alone. If you want it to be meaningful, climb together.”
Nearly died a couple of times climbing Mt. Kinabalu, so here’s me trying to squeeze out some of that near-death clarity.
2.45a.m. The Final Leg.
We reach the most dangerous part of the climb: 32° incline massive rocks. Like just huge-ass smooth slabs of rock with zero grip that you are supposed to climb with just one rope(?!).
Watching this guy in front of me, at the top of the rocks, literally sliding face forward all the way until he was next to me. I was this close to shitting my pants. No joke.
Tumas, my mountain guide, was like ‘’follow me” and just walks into the distance with no rope, no walking stick, and I'm like ‘kill me now - there’s no way I'm doing that without falling.’
Imagine this, but 3.30 a.m. pitch dark, except for a couple of headlights randomly beaming around. Tumas, basically the monk in this video, and me, the guy holding the rope. Scared shitless.
As painful as it was, I loved that part of the climb. When I was on my last ounce of energy, my last brain cells, and the climb ahead never seemed to end. All I told myself was "just one more solid step, one more solid step..." And nothing else in the world mattered. The path before is past, the path ahead does not exist yet, there is only this moment. This one breath. This one step.
Entered the Zone. Monk Mode activated.
"Let go your earthly tether. Enter the void. Empty, and become wind." - Zaheer, Avatar: The Legend of Korra
5:30a.m. Standing at the summit. Clouds and fog all around, way below my feet, as though I was standing at the center of a cotton candy machine. The sub-zero cold wind battering my face, and the warm, mild-orange glow of the rising sun on the horizon.
We arrived at the perfect time - bearing witness to the world waking up, morning rays beaming through the fog, lighting up the mountains.
I stopped to take it all in. One breath at a time, one sight at a time.
Pura Vida. Pure Magic.
I felt so small, yet also so large.
This small, fragile, vulnerable human body, climbing up this massive 4000+ meter mountain. Just one step at a time, and now here I am. On top of the world.
I felt invincible, yet so vulnerable.
I mean, yes, I conquered.
Veni, Vedi, Vici.
I can do anything I set my mind to.
All that jazz.
I felt so alive. More alive than I’ve been in a long, long time.
There’s something magical about nature - seeing a sunset, watching the waves crash against the beach, looking at a sky full of stars - that has a way of unlocking this deeply human, spiritual kind of experience. A feeling like no other.
Suddenly all the problems in the world - emails, arguments, investments, gadgets - all cease to exist. They feel so small, so insignificant in the face of something so grand, so large, so powerful.
I even think to myself - I could die right here and it will be fine.
I felt alive.
But I also felt alone.
Don’t get me wrong, I did make friends along the way, and it was fun getting to know them and having this shared experience with them. Together, we fought off the most aggressive squirrels I’d ever seen (like literally punching and kicking squirrel after squirrel from stealing our food), played Rummi at the resthouse, shared stories and bonded.
But seeing other groups at the summit - friends, couples, families - I realized that there is a difference. A shared experience with a stranger, versus a shared experience with a loved one. There's a depth to the latter that the former simply can’t match.
I just thought ‘it would be nice to have done this with someone else, or as a group.’
Its like, you can be the best basketball player in the world, scoring loads. But the feeling of scoring on your own, versus the feeling of winning a championship with the team you have been training with for months and years. It hits different.
We know the saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I have a refinement to it: “If you want an efficient climb, climb alone. If you want a meaningful one, climb together.”
Because to me, being fast vs going far doesn’t seem like much of a tradeoff. Perhaps the quote was meant to suggest that companions are vital for long-term sustainability, which I understand, but when I think of that quote, I tend to still choose to go fast. It doesn’t seem like I'm losing out.
But putting the dichotomy as efficiency vs. meaning feels more of a tradeoff.
I intentionally decided to climb Mt. Kinabalu solo. I wanted to take some time off on my own, experience hostel/backpacker/digital nomad-esque living for abit, and I wanted to accomplish this challenge on my own.
And yes, while I enjoyed the freedom, the independence, the flexibility that this trip brought, it also showed me that with the independence comes a splash of solitude. Loneliness, if you aren’t careful.
For a long time, I have been so narrow-focused in ‘choosing the right mountain’ to climb, that I lost sight of ‘choosing the right people to climb with’.
And actually, even that is wrong.
One thing I realized from the trip is that people only become the ‘right people’ because you choose to see them as the 'right people'. Nobody comes ‘pre-packaged’ with all the right things - everyone has their flaws, their bad days, etc. Even me.
No, actually, especially me.
And the fact that people choose to spend their time and energy with me is something special in itself. They do so in spite of all the not-so-nice stuff.
So I’m learning to do the same for others too.
Been trying to ‘’force” a reflection - an audit, even - on my life, since coming back. actually since the climb itself. I wanted to use the climb to reflect on stuff, but it turned out to be something that required every ounce of my body, my focus, that the reflections had to take a backseat.
And in trying to force a reflection, I feel like I already knew the answer deep down, subconsciously. I knew it before the trip, and my answer has not changed.
If anything, the trip has simply shown me things about myself that I didn't know, or had forgotten about.
It revealed the primal, human, basic nature of my mortality - the fragility of life, the fleeting nature of it.
It showed me that I had the strength, physical, mental, spiritual, to overcome whatever is in front of me, no matter how big, so long as I send my weight into the ground, into that next step, and breathe.
It showed me the importance of guides, mentors - people who have walked the path I want to walk, and my task is simply to follow in their footsteps.
It showed me that the obstacle is indeed the way - that the path I fear the most is usually the one I need to take. It is where I will feel most alive.
And that’s the entire purpose of life, isn't it? A purpose-driven life is one where we feel most alive.
One where instead of running circles around a park, we scale the highest peaks.
One where instead of sitting comfortably in my office cubicle, I am out there hustling for my product, my brand, my business.
One where Instagram is but a small fraction of the actual experience - where the real deal far exceeds the “filtered” image we put out, rather than the other way around.
And most importantly, one where the climbs are meaningful, where we feel alive together.