Pinnacles of wonder - valleys of discomfort: a foot injury on a mountain peak far from civilisation
This is our last year of living in Malaysia. On a bad day, this is hopelessly sad to think about. On a good day, bittersweet to think about. I'm ever so grateful for this experience and find myself in the middle of a process that my darling friend Harriet calls "Filling my Malaysia cup" to the brim - with friendships, active lifestyle, nature, culture, food and adventures.
My husband Francesco and I took off on our second climb in Malaysia (the first one being Mount Kinabalu which we did with a group of friends in May) on Sunday 23 October. Destination: The spectacular Mulu Pinnacles in Sarawak, Borneo.
I had my reservations about this climb. More so than Mount Kinabalu. Why? Here is what the Mulu National Park website says:
The Pinnacle trail is regarded as an extreme climb (not a trek) on a natural route. Man-made assistance comes in the form of vertical steel ladders bolted into the rock faces and ropes. If you suffer from vertigo or fear of heights this is not for you. The visitors that were injured on this trail were people that underestimated the trail and their own fitness levels. These visitors were often not well equipped and did not adhere to the advice of their guides. Rescues are extreme (and costly) and even more so in the dark.
But ok - we considered ourselves good "candidates" for the hike. Experienced hikers with a good fitness level and no fear of heights.
We left for Mulu from Kuala Lumpur via Miri on Saturday 22 October and spent the first night at the beautiful Marriott hotel , nestled by the river in the middle of nature. The first afternoon, we went on a guided, short hike to two of the magnificent caves in the area. Mulu is, in fact known for some of the biggest and most impressive caves in the world.
The beauty of the caves is impossible to capture on camera
The next morning, we made our way to the national park entrance. Ready for our adventure. After a brief longboat ride down the river, we stopped at a local market and two more caves. Then, the four people who were booked for the Pinnacles continued on another boat for about 40 minutes together with our guide - until we got to the start of the 9 K trail that takes you to Camp 5 where we'd spend the night before the climb.
With us was a wonderful couple from Sabah, Borneo, Pey and Choo. We hit it off from the very beginning and talked about our expectations for the following day.
Camp 5 is primitive - yet, it has what you need for 2 nights. Running water, a kitchen (you need to bring your own food for 3 days) and simple mattresses (you have to bring your own sheets and rent a mosquito net on site).
The hike to Camp 5 and the first evening there
The day of the climb
Rain threatened to ruin our ascent to the Pinnacles. It rained heavily during the night and we knew that, should it continue into the morning hours, the hike would be cancelled. Luckily, we woke up to beautiful sunshine and after some delicious noodles prepared by Pey for breakfast, we donned our hiking gear and got ready to go!
6.30 am: Ready to leave Camp 5
The hike is 2.4 km long with an elevation of 1.2 km. We made it to the Mini Pinnacles (900 metres) and to the second check point (1200 metres) before the cut-off time. We were all hyped up, chatting and giggling (when the terrain allowed it) but it was a tough climb with no flat bits and only rocks, ropes and roots to hold on to.
After the 2 first kilometres, it was time to get serious - and to concentrate on every step.
Pey described the next bit like this:
The real challenge started at the final 400m. There's a sign stating that "You are in the danger zone" and it scared the shit out of me although I am mentally prepared to see it. My arms and legs were sore and tired from the previous hike, now what's awaiting is a 90 degree vertical ladder, 16 more to come. Besides ladders, there are huge vertical gaps that seemed impossible to reach, and deep holes in between these scary steps reminding you to be at your utmost alertness. There wasn't really much flat space where you can stop and start taking pictures, your mind is fully occupied just trying to survive. It felt like a never ending torture, it took us a little over an hour to cover the 400m, and when we reached the Pinnacles, well, everything's worth it, it's majestic and it's magical, sharp limestones spiking from the ground, with some even reaching the height of 45m. Totally left us in awe. We had lunch and snacks, enjoyed the view for half an hour and started our journey down.
It got more and more challenging - then finally: The Pinnacles ❤️
And yes, we had been warned. Going up is hard, but going down is 3 times harder - and scarier.
Still, we were in good spirits after the breathtaking views and high on the achievement so far.
It was in that excited, euphoric state that I injured my foot.
Only around 10 minutes from the summit and shortly before the first ladder down, I climbed down a rock and put my left foot first. It was a big step - but not huge. I heard a sound, felt excruciating pain and watched my foot swell before my eyes. Rather panicked, I started screaming "my foot, my foot". My husband was ahead of us but right behind me was our guide Nimrod. It was clear to me that he was a bit worried. We were 3 1/2 hours up a remote mountain where helicopter rescue would be the only possible rescue had it been really serious. He asked me to take my shoe and sock off and assessed the situation. I think I quickly concluded that nothing was broken because there was no way I could have even attempted to walk. So after some soothing gel from Pey and a lot of encouragement from the team, we all knew that I had to continue walking.
5 minutes after "the thing" :-)
Ahead of me were 17 vertical ladders, rocks, tiny metal bars, ropes and roots and I'm not going to deny that every step was painful - and I couldn't help but to whimper with each step, feeling pretty sorry for myself.
Within the first half hour, Francesco realised that something had happened so he went back up the ladders until he saw us again. And boy were all my team mates amazing! Nimrod was exceptional! He told me where to put my foot, how to turn around, whether going on my bum was wiser etc. Pey and Choo asked me continuously if I was ok - and Francesco was quite literally my shoulder to lean on.
Us the last 7 hours of the hike (would normally be 3-4 hours). Like an old lady :-)
The descent seemed interminable. Here is what Pey had to say:
Every 100m felt like 1 whole freaking km but at 6.15pm, just moments after we put on our headlamps, we finally reached the beginning of the 350m flat ground, exhausted and covered in mud after a 12-hours journey. It was one of the moments that I will always cherish and be thankful for the rest of my life. Halfway up we were informed clouds seemed to start gathering at the top, miraculously, there wasnt't a single raindrop the whole day.
I cried tears of joy when I saw those last 350 metres of FLAT ground leading to our camp. My foot was in desperate need of a break from climbing and sliding.
6.30 pm - exactly 12 hours after we started. Smiles of relief!!!
At the camp, a newly arrived group cheered us on and were very concerned about my foot. Everyone gathered around me and advised me to at least stick it in the cold river since there was no ice available at the camp. We all went to bed exhausted and my foot felt surprisingly ok during the night. However, the next morning, I had swollen further and become totally red on one side.
But, alas, we absolutely had to get back to the entrance of the national park via the river. So off we went after breakfast, back on the 9K trail. My foot was strapped in a compression band and with 2 strong painkillers and support from my trail running shoes, the 3 hr hike went quite well.
FINALLY around noon, we were back in Mulu at our glorious Marriott with crisp, white sheets. I was greeted at the national park and at the hotel by people who had heard about my ankle - I guess news travels fast in such remote places with no real medical care. Except a small, local clinic in the village which I decided to drop by in the afternoon. There was no X-ray equipment there but an incredibly kind doctor and nurse who urged me to have an X-ray back in KL.
The situation after the 9 K hike - roughly 24 hrs after it happened - finally back at the Marriott and able to see a doctor in Mulu village for a first assessment
The next day we were on a flight to Miri, then KL and even at Mulu airport, I had people coming up to me asking if I was the one who hurt her foot on the Pinnacles climb. Once again, I was touched by the concern of complete strangers.
An x-ray that night at Princecourt medical centre in KL confirmed that nothing was broken...phew! However, the next day I had to see an orthopaedic surgeon and have an MRI done. The MRI showed 2 torn ligaments and extensive bruising to the soft tissue.
I can expect 6-16 weeks of recovery - but honestly, I'm blown away by how fast things are progressing. In 10 days, I have gone from bad swelling and bruising to moving around a little with an ankle brace and crutches.
I have started physiotherapy and acupuncture - and am resting at home the rest of the time, bossing my family and my dear friend Sara around 😁 (she's visiting from Belgium). Friends have been over and I've been overwhelmed by the support and messages I've received. Feeling truly blessed.
I hope to be able to start Pilates again slowly slowly next week and to start some soft exercising in the pool (not really swimming) soon. As for cycling, I have to be more patient (although it's hard) and I expect to be only doing soft, relatively flat hikes after Christmas.
Thankfully, the triathlon I was signed up for next Sunday got postponed because of the Malaysian elections. But honestly, a triathlon is the last thing on my mind right now.
There were moments on the day of the injury where I thought "was this really necessary"? Did my Malaysia cup just overflow in my quest for adventure and physical challenges? But with the progress I have seen so far and the amazing medical care I'm receiving, I know that, with time, the majestic Pinnacles will be a core memory in my mind and my badly sprained ankle a mere anecdote to tell.
An injury is an inconvenience (you start thinking about how to get to places, whether there will be stairs, how you can put your foot up etc) but also an opportunity to wind down and take time to heal.
The injury happened in the wrong place (walking a lot and going for 48 hrs without medical attention didn't help) and at a time of my life where I'm focusing a lot on physical exercise and recognise the importance, in particular, of strength training. Still, we always have to put things into perspective.
Yesterday, I watched a reel on instagram about a girl who broke her back in a biking accident, spent months in hospital and became paralysed from the waist down. So, honestly, I had doubts as to whether to post this account or not because it is NOTHING compared to fractured bones and serious illnesses. But, I believe some of the processes are the same: initial shock, assessment of the situation, accepting the outcome and concentrating on recovery.
As for the hike itself, my travel companion Pey and I concluded that it is dangerous. My advice if you want to climb in Borneo: do Mount Kinabalu ❤️ And in Mulu, stick to the caves!