Climbing a Mountain is Like Your Time in School

By Ian Gross | Parents Avenue’s Columnist | Images courtesy of Freepik

Image Courtesy of Rittis

Just recently I was lucky enough to get out of the house and climb Mt Kinabalu. This is the first time I have tried anything like this and after a couple of months of movement control I was not particularly fit or trained. Some friends offered advice, some friends suggested alternative activities. I went ahead and climbed, got to the top and came back down. No dramas and no injuries, but I did have time to think and I realised that climbing a mountain comes in stages and there are similarities with the journey children take through their life in school. Let me elaborate.

Primary School

Driving up to Timpohon Gate the excitement and nerves are palpable, we have no idea what to expect and there are others around feeling the same. We have been introduced to our guides who we will trust for the next 24 hours or so to guide us back safely. At the gate we are given an introduction and briefing to what to expect until we reach the rest house at Laban Rata. We walked through the gate and down the long flight of steps, imagining all that was possible and what we will find along the way. Chatting, walking, the nerves had gone and we really were enjoying ourselves as we made our way further up the mountain.

Now, imagine three to eight year olds heading off to school. Remember their first day? Most are nervous and excited to be away from home and family for the first time. Walking through the school gates into a world of unknown. Children soon see others, playing, talking, having fun and quickly immerse themselves into their new surroundings. Youthful energy and a natural curiosity propel young children through their early school days. Something we all admire and unfortunately quickly loose as we get older.

Upper Primary

Back on the mountain I have covered the first three or four kilometres with relative ease and cheerfulness. However, as warned, the terrain for the final two kilometres for the first day would change. The incline got steeper, the rocks bigger and every time you thought you had reached the top of a section, you turn a corner to stare up at another steep rocky staircase. The good pace I had started with slowed down, breathing was heavier and deeper. My legs started to tell me they were unhappy. What kept me going was the thought of reaching Laban Rata and having a rest. Along the way we met climbers who had already been to the top and were making their way down. I was in awe of them, they looked confident and relaxed, knowledgeable of what lay ahead.


As for school, I was reminded of upper primary, this is when the fun was changing and the intensity of work was picking up. School changes in upper primary, more emphasis is placed on subjects and knowledge rather than before, when children didn’t realise they were learning so much. More responsibilities are placed on upper primary students and for some this is a point when they don’t enjoy school as much as they used to. Upper primary children become more socially aware, they start to look up to friends and older students and judge themselves against them. Not all, but this is usually where it starts. In the final year of primary, children start to think about secondary school and nerves creep in, it’s going to be harder, how will I make it? What about my friends? More homework? Stricter teachers? Going into the unknown.

Middle School

Reaching Laban Rata was both a relief and a realisation. I was happy I had made it this far, I could now rest overnight, well, some of it as we had to get up at 2am. I felt different, not just tired, but as though I had already made a major accomplishment. I was anxious about climbing the peak, I had seen pictures of many people climbing up the ropes and wearing head torches, scarfs, hats and thick trousers.  It looked very different to what I had just become used to on the climb up in my t-shirt and shorts. In comparison it seemed to me that it was going to be so much harder. The reality of course is that it wasn’t, it was just different. I met with new people (who had climbed faster than me the previous day), the peak did look and feel different but I quickly adapted and actually enjoyed this climb more than I thought I would. As you climb the peak, the light is changing and you see the world around you waking up in different shades and then colours. When you finally reach the peak, wow, you can see the whole world and anything is possible. You feel great, then you realise. This is not the end of your journey, you still have to make it back down. Legs are tired, but you have a renewed energy from making it this far.


Leaving primary and going to secondary school is very similar. It’s bigger and scary at first because you have heard stories and seen pictures. Students are bigger in secondary school, there is more work and the work is harder, students are aware of when they will finish (at eighteen) but that feels so far away. Getting to the end of Middle school however, is a major accomplishment and students also realise how easy school was up to this point. High school is a whole new challenge to take part in. It’s not the environment, because children know the school by this point, they know the teachers. It’s the pressure on them to do well in the subjects and to graduate at the end.


Starting High School

Making the journey down from the peak was enjoyable but I did have to concentrate far more. Climbing down, I found, was harder than climbing up. I had to watch where my steps were, and at the same time as going back the way I came, I realised it looked so different, especially in the daylight. From time to time I could see off in the distance and where I was headed, before quickly looking back at where my feet were headed in case I slipped. Having spent the past day getting used to climbing up, I was now learning new skills to ensure I could get down safely. Remembering all the while, many people had told me that getting down would be harder on the legs than going up. I had listened to their advice and brought walking poles with me, and these really did help on the way down. Reaching Laban Rata again was a relief, a chance to rest a while and get my thoughts together. I needed to prepare for the final descent.


The first two years of high school, or in the British system, the IGCSE, came to mind as I came off the peak. The British curriculum is cyclical and students study similar topics but in more detail from when they were in middle school. Being in high school with this new understanding of the world is very much like seeing the world in the light. It makes much more sense. Students remember what they had learned before, but now it is in much more detail and makes you feel knowledgeable. For many students it is not always as easy going as it was in middle school. There are more challenges and bumps along the way, but good advice is always available. High school students are learning more about themselves and their place in society as much as they are learning about the subjects. They can start to see the bigger picture and also start preparing for the end of high school and beyond (or A levels in the UK system). They know they still have some way to go, but they can see the end in sight, despite knowing that it is going to get harder. So, good students also listen to advice and make adjustments along the way that help them adapt and succeed.


Finishing High School

Leaving Laban Rata and heading down the final six kilometres started off so well, but about two kilometres into the journey down and my knees decided they were not happy with me anymore. There was nothing I could do, if I wanted to stop I knew I had to persevere and get back to Timpohon Gate where a minibus waited to take me to a much desired restaurant. So I pushed on. My breathing was fine so I didn’t need to stop as much as on the way up. It was just the nagging pain from my knees. As we made our way down, we passed people on the way up and said hello. My confidence and understanding of the mountain, so much stronger than when I had met people the day before on my way up. I looked at them with understanding and support, rather than being in awe as I had previously.  The last kilometre arrived and the skies opened to greet me with a downpour and as I reached the base of the steps at the gate, soaked, tired, hungry, I looked up and wondered if I could make it up this final hurdle? I pushed myself up the steps, through the gate and made it into the waiting minibus. Elated and exhausted. Wondering, that wasn’t so bad, what should I climb next?

High school seems to go on forever, but speak to graduating students and they will all tell you that they don’t understand how the time went by so quickly. The last two years of school are busy, the work is hard and apparently never ending. It’s important for students to develop their outside interests and not just focus on their subjects. All the time, thinking about what is coming next, what they will be doing, where they will be going. And just at the end, when they think it’s over, they face their final exams. This is where their school journey has brought them. Just like the mountain, the peak is not the prize, it’s those final steps, their exams that give them their high school qualifications that lead to the next part of their lifelong learning adventure. 


(Ian Gross is the Principal at Kinabalu International School, Sabah, Malaysia and is currently studying for a Doctorate in Education through Bath University, UK)

To find out more about Kinabalu International School, kindly visit their website at, contact them at 088-224-526 or visit them at Jalan Kinabalu International School, Off Jalan Khidmat, Bukit Padang, 88300 Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.