Reaching for the top

Komal Syed

Cold. Wet. Drained of energy. My heart pumping fast. My legs giving way. My mind experiencing a brain fog. Feeling the most vulnerable I’ve felt in a very long time. But at the same time, elated, ecstatic, in utter disbelief, and overjoyed.

This was the state of my mind and body when I summitted Mount Kinabalu, my first major mountain, at 4,100m.

They had said that INSEAD will be the best year of my life, but they never told me that at INSEAD I will meet some of the best people in my life and thanks to whom I will be comfortable enough to challenge myself to new heights (quite literally!).

Most MBA students are hard-wired to overachieve. You will find this in nearly every top MBA program around the world.

However, the great thing about INSEAD is that the school’s non-disclosure policy on grades encourages us to explore different aspects of the student experience.

You can choose to excel in a field you are very passionate about or you can simply explore something new that has piqued your interest. These passions and curiosities don’t necessarily need to be within academics or careers, and in fact for me, looking back, my highlights of the first two periods at INSEAD revolve around the friends I made and the adventurous travels I completed with them. Training our minds and bodies to overachieve in a completely new activity has a thrill of its own and this is what I set out to do in P2; never having done any type of substantial mountaineering before, I signed up for this 2-day hike up Mount Kinabalu – the highest mountain in Malaysia.

I summited Mount Kinabalu at 4,100m with a group of close friends who I had never even met till 3 months ago. In fact, the reason I chose to sign-up for this challenge was because I knew that some of my friends who are experienced mountaineers were not only be going but also organising this trek. I decided to take up the challenge they had set out for me and was willing to give it my best. I started training regularly and tried to build my stamina but in all honestly, at the time, I didn’t quite fully understand the enormity of the mission that lay ahead of me. I had registered myself for this trek with blind faith in my friends. They had summitted higher peaks in their lives and they believed I would be able to summit this one – their confidence in my ability was enough to convince me to sign-up.

The glorious magnanimity of Mt. Kinabalu

Taking on the challenge to climb a mountain (be it literally or metaphorically) can have a tremendous impact in our lives.

After having conquered my first, I now understand why it is such a life-changing experience for mountaineers and amateurs alike. It pushes the limits of our mind, body, and soul. Training oneself for weeks on end both physically and mentally for a challenge so steep, waking up at 2am, freezing, sometimes drenched with rain, starting to walk in the dark, feeling your heart almost about to explode, struggling with your own fears, and doubting if you will make it to the summit, has a way of stripping us of our worldly desires like no other. These are emotions that cannot be replicated, and they bring us back to our basics. It is in this most vulnerable moment that it helps to be with friends you know you can count on. The emotional, moral, and mental support that I received at every step and hurdle was the only reason my body was physically able to keep going. 30 feet away from the peak, my mind started giving up and I couldn’t think straight anymore. I convinced myself that it was ok not to reach the top and I decided to stop climbing any further. That’s when I heard one of my friend’s voice. He could see me giving up, and he came to me and said “Komal, we can miss the flight back home, but I cannot let you miss the summit”. Gustavo, Miquel & Mireia - my 3 pillars of support during my first mountaineering experience - knew that my body could make it, but that it was just a matter of making my mind believe it.

The struggle was real, but the end was sweet: the joy of reaching the summit has no parallel.

It might sound as though one more day of training could make you feel this way, but it cannot (in Singlish: Cannot-lah!) Reaching the summit is something special – and the people you summit with are even more special. In true team spirit, all 13 of us stuck together like a pack of wolves - with the fit ones leading, the amateurs in the middle, and the experienced ones at the back to keep us motivated. Whether it is a 2k or a 5k meter peak is irrelevant. You could have suffered more than or less than your friend climbing next to you, but the feeling of reaching the summit is indescribable.

If I try to put it into words, I would say that it is more than a sense of achievement; for me, it was self-realisation.

This year has been a year of firsts for me, a year of setting new norms, and a year of completely letting go. Summiting Mount Kinabalu meant so much more to me than just a physical trek up a mountain. It made me realise the potential I can achieve when my mind and body work in unison. It also solidified my belief in the essence of mind over matter. In fact, it now makes me see people, friendships, struggles, and mountains in a whole new light.

I hope this experience sets the pace for me for more adventures to come and I pray to God that these friendships last a lifetime, and beyond.

Mount Kinabalu was only the beginning; here’s to more summits, more challenges, and more adventures as I move to Fonty in P4. Stay tuned!

The excitement to reach the summit is evident through the chaos in this picture!

Special credit to Gustavo, Miquel & Mireia without whom my first summit would have been practically impossible.