top of page
  • Writer's pictureAtiqah Nadiah Zailani

Why you should go mountain-climbing (Part 1)

Reasons why climbing a mountain can be the best thing for you to do.

Tent basecamp Kilimanjaro

I know, I know, mountain-climbing isn’t on everyone’s agenda. It certainly wasn’t on any of my to-do list or bucket list either. Being a dedicated couch potato who can barely run 2 kilometres without dying, it was the furthest thing on my mind.

These are my lungs. Illustration from the hilarious

These are my lungs. Credit:

Yet in 2014, I found myself talked into my first mountain climb ever - Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia at 4095 m –

Kinabalu Mountain Entrance

At the start of the trail, completely oblivious of the pain that lay ahead.

...and I haven’t looked back since.

Less than a year later, I huffed and puffed up Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania at 5895m.

Mount Kilimanjaro group photo

Halfway up!

Less than a year after that, I was dragging myself up to 4650m while skirting the Salkantay Mountain in Peru.

Salkantay Trek group photo

Smiling while struggling to suck in all the oxygen we could find in that thin air.

Was it hard? Yes. Was it painful? Yes. I’m not the blubbering kind and my tearducts are abnormally dry (seriously, my optometrist said so), but even I burst into plenty of tears in all but one of the climbs I’ve done so far. It was not a pretty sight.

And yet I will happily (if delusionally) go climb another, and so should you. Here’s why:

1. You don’t know if you can or cannot do something until you actually do it.

This seems pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many of us sabotage ourselves before we even try. Underneath all the “Oh, that’s only for insanely fit people” or “I’m too lazy for that” lies the fear of failure, and the even more scary thought of that fear becoming true. It’s a bummer when you suspect you cannot do something, but having it confirmed is outright unbearable, so sometimes it’s better to just not test that.

For years, I had unconsciously convinced myself that I couldn’t cook, couldn’t play a musical instrument and couldn’t keep a cactus alive to save my soul, and so I simply didn’t.

When I finally broke through that barrier, and went ahead and did those things, I realised that it was all just in my head. It wasn’t difficult, I did suck at first but I got better and better, and if I hadn’t spent so much time telling myself I couldn’t and instead used that time to practice, who knows where I’d be now?

That applies to everything else in life too – flirting with strangers, negotiating a higher salary, mountain-climbing – you don't know if you can or cannot until you actually do it. So do it and find out.

2. It’s motivation to put your life together.

I was never into exercise or working out. In college, my best friend (who is a regular gym goer and runs marathons regularly, bless her) only managed to drag me to the gym twice in the entire four years we were there, and even then, I only sat around and watched cute guys lift weights. Clearly, my motivations were misguided. This continued on post-college (both the aversion to gyms and proclivity for ogling hot people).

After confirming my first mountain-climbing trip, however, it dawned on me that I should probably prepare a bit for it. It was unlikely that I’d be the fittest person in the group, but I sure as hell was not going to let myself be the weakest! And so I started going to the gym, like for real, for the first time in my 26 years of being alive.

Trying to get my life together


You may have heard of ‘keystone habits’ –habits that start a chain of other good habits and engender multiple good effects in your life. Starting with the gym, I soon found myself regularly taking the stairs to our apartment on the 10th floor, in order to simulate a ‘climb up a mountain’. I also started to eat healthier to build up strength. My stamina increased, I slept better, and felt stronger – a strange, new but pleasant feeling for someone who won’t stand if she can sit, and won’t sit if she can lie down.

Finally, it took mountain-climbing to do something that best friends and cute guys couldn’t do. And I bet that you too will find yourself embarking on a keystone habit of your own.

3. You learn to pace yourself (on the trail and in life as well).

Most people assume that there is a particular standard of fitness to attain in order to climb a mountain – you must be within a certain age range (read: young), be a regular gym rat, have muscles bulging out of your ears and if you have completed a few crazy-a-thons, all the better. That is not necessarily true.

Though being at your fittest and healthiest definitely helps, what matters more is your pacing. Not your friend’s pace, or your guide’s pace, or that smug-little-stranger-who-keeps-overtaking-you’s pace, but yours. You know you’ve hit the right pace when you’re not going so fast that your heart is hammering its way out of your chest, and not so slow that you’re starting to cool down.

It can be hard to stick to your pace, especially if you are climbing in a group where everyone’s paces vary. You may be the faster one and get annoyed at the other sloths, or you may be the slower one and feel pressured to catch up with the other superhumans (this is me!). You can try to avoid this by ensuring that you climb with a group of people who are of the same fitness level.

However, sometimes you don’t get to choose who you go with, in which case, you can break into pairs with similar pacing, and move separately in smaller groups. You can also be patient and match the slow pace in the spirit of teamwork and unity, or be open with your group about taking it slow and allow them to go ahead of you if they wish (but not before agreeing on certain meeting points along the trail in regular intervals for safety reasons).

Mount Kinabalu peak view

It's all about the pacing.

Mountain climbing is a personal challenge, not a race. So don’t worry about impressing other people or troubling other people. Your climbing companions are your support group, not your rivals. Go at your pace, and let them go at theirs. Naturally, this applies to life in general as well.

4. They’ve got your back.

On Kilimanjaro, we had an entire support team with us, without whom we would never have survived even halfway up. What struck me most was how earnestly they wanted us to summit. Our guides weren’t just people who pointed the way, they were our psychologists cum coaches who refused to give up on us, or let us give up on ourselves (and believe me, we wanted to plenty of times). Our porters didn’t just carry our things, but quite literally carried us as well when we got too weak. They wanted us to succeed and summit just as badly as (and sometimes even more than) we ourselves wanted to.

Mount Kilimanjaro group photo

The ultimate dream team

You could say that it was their job, and they were being paid for it anyway, but I disagree. They wouldn’t be paid that much more or less whether we made it or not. In fact, having us quit earlier would mean they’d be home and resting much earlier too. Instead, they were our biggest cheerleaders, completely invested in complete strangers from foreign lands whose successes and failures have zero to little lasting impact on them whatsoever.

When you are used to the rat-race with all the intense competition in a dog-eats-dog world, it can be baffling to find yourself surrounded by people who sincerely want you to succeed, and who go out of their way to help you because your triumph is theirs too. But it does happen, and mountain-climbing is one of those few instances.

5. You earn the right to see beauty reserved for very few.

My late mother observed me limping around the house after I returned from my first mountain-climb, and in genuine puzzlement, asked: “Why do you torture yourself like this?”

I suppose different people will have different answers (to prove something, to test one’s limits, to conquer a fear, to impress girls, to add to resume, or even the famous “because it’s there”…etc). For me, it’s because the mountain is beautiful, and it is the kind of beauty you do not see down here where you normally roam. It is the kind of beauty that not everyone has the privilege of seeing, the kind that requires struggle and sacrifice to witness, a type of beauty that is earned and therefore cannot be taken for granted.

Salkantay Trek lake view

The reward after a particularly gruelling hike.

That last point deserves more attention. You’re probably thinking: “Meh, I could just as easily see the beauty of a mountain without climbing it – there are, after all, ‘modern mountains’ with cable cars that carry people up and down”. For those with wads of cash, a little trip on a helicopter gives you a vantage point not even mountain climbers get. For the laziest of us who don’t mind living vicariously through other people, there’s always Instagram.

But there is something different, something special about having gone through some hardship first. Just like how a typical shower feels so much more refreshing after a workout, or how food tastes so much better after you’ve been fasting for a whole day.

There is a world of a difference between gaping at the view after you’ve ridden the cable car for 30 seconds and gaping at the view after you’ve spent 3 days or more intimately getting to know the mountain with every tree you brushed past, every stream you drank from and every rock you stepped on.

Next: Part 2

bottom of page