Monthly Archives: November 2015

Bits and pieces

It’s not the distance travelled, nor the time spent walking that hurts, it’s the height gained. It’s hard to convey just how steep the climb is. Try to imagine walking up a seemingly never-ending staircase for eight or nine hours. For the mathematically minded, consider 2.2km of ascent in 8.7km of walking. Then having to walk all the way down again, ever so carefully watching your step.
Mount Kinabalu – the first and probably last attempt

Probably the craziest thing was the porters. They carry all the supplies up to the Laban Rata rest house. There was a train of about 8 of them and they were loaded with so much stuff it was crazy. Here I am killing myself with barely my essentials on my back and these guys are climbing the thing with huge propane tanks and things strapped to there back. The one guy had an enourmous tub of juice. Another funny thing is that some of them were just heading up in sandals. They carry the stuff up to the rest house then bring garbage back down. Some of them run down at parts which makes it even more embarrassing. Not only that our guide informed us they do it every day!
The Climb Day 1

I’ve caught up on the backlog of stuff I’ve written, although there’s a couple more posts still in the pipeline. Here are a few bits and pieces that I’ve collected that don’t fit anywhere else.

  • I got a bit curious about where Mount Kinabalu is ranked among the world’s mountains and did some research. Disappointingly, it comes in at #399. However, I also learned that many mountaineers prefer to measure mountains by their prominence (i.e. the difference between the height of the summit and the lowest contour line that completely circles it). On this measurement, Mount Kinabalu comes in at number 20, much more respectable.
  • The climb to the peak gets canceled an average of 10-15 times a year. I imagine most of these would occur during the monsoon season in the last half of the year. It looks like we would be really unlucky to be rained out.
  • Almost every web site I’ve looked at stresses that you should take your time on the ascent. Don’t try to rush it, you’ll just exhaust yourself. Most also say that you shouldn’t take too long at the rest stops as well, as you’ll start to stiffen up. It’s better to maintain a slow, steady pace.
  • Checking the calendar for January, I see that we’ll be making the climb close to the new moon. So no moonlight but plenty of stars for the early morning climb on the 7th, clouds permitting. January is the 4th driest month of the year, so chances are the weather will be good. That said, Mt Kinabalu weather is notoriously unpredictable.
  • Rain ponchos, wind and trekking poles don’t mix. I got caught in a fairly heavy shower the other day. The wind kept wrapping the poncho flaps around the poles where they would stick.

The training continues

We finally got started at 11am, just as the heavens opened. And did they open! Imagine the heaviest rainstorm in England and times by ten! The rocky paths were running like rivers in no time at all. The climb starts at 1800 metres and we would finish day one at Laban Rata at 3,300 metres. The first days climb would have us cover 6 kilometres and 1500 metres vertical. I didn’t think that sounded too bad, but Stuart reminded me that it would be like a 1:3 hill all the way! The climb was relentless. The beginning took us up a mixture of natural rocky steps and some man made steps but at about half way the route started to get considerably harder. Now all natural rocks to climb, it was relentless and we were stopping regularly to recover our breath. Let’s say it was the longest 5 hours of my life – well perhaps with the exception of having a baby!

Climbing Mount Kinabalu


I haven’t posted for a couple of weeks, partly because I finally caught up on my backlog of writings but also because I ran out of things to talk about.

I didn’t do much training the week before last. I had major ambitions but when it came to actually standing at the base of the hill with gear and backpack, I just couldn’t find the energy. After three laps I pulled the pin and called it a day. I gradually came to the realisation that I’m trying to do too much in too little time. Let’s face it, I’m not exactly a spring chicken now.

Still, there were a few positives to the break. I continued my regular laps of my training hill, but only a couple of laps at a time. That still amounted to climbing it nine times during the week (um, 1,800 metres and about 9 hours of hiking).

Last week I felt more ambitious. I planned a big session for Wednesday and took off at four AM. Unfortunately it turned out to be a beautiful day and quickly got too warm. After four laps I decided to finish up and wait for a cooler day. I took Friday off work and decided a change was in order. Instead doing the training hill I thought I’d do the ridge road instead. This involves hiking up the big hill from Quy Hoa valley, hitting the ridge road and following that for about five kilometres until I get to the radar station overlooking the city and following the sealed road down from there.

I started at first light, five AM, and started hiking up the hill in the early morning gloom. The first 500 metres or so are quite steep, more than a 30% slope, and got my blood circulating in short order. It’s been about eight months since I last came up this way and with all the rain we’ve had recently large parts of the trail were overgrown. Still, I forced my way through the foliage and eventually emerged onto clear trails. From there, it didn’t take long to reach the ridge. At this point I’d hiked three kilometres and reached 500 metres altitude, after starting at sea level. The weather was perfect, regular light showers to cool me down and a steady breeze.


Looking down at Quy Hoa Valley. The smaller hill next to the beach is my regular training hill.

I stopped for a brunch break when I hit the ridge road, sitting on a rock that marks the high point of the ridge, about 560 metres above sea level. By this time the weather started clearing but but the breeze strengthened – perfect hiking weather.

The ridge road was a new experience for me. I’ve hiked along here before but this was the first time I’d done it with trekking poles. It’s an undulating dirt road following the ridge line for about five kilometres before joining the sealed road leading down into Quy Nhon City. This is the first time that


The ridge road

I’ve done an extended stretch of open hiking trail with the poles and it made a huge difference. Not only was walking up inclines faster and easier but there was a fairly long downhill stretch on a slippery red clay surface where my boots just weren’t gripping. The sticks made it so much easier to keep my footing. There have been a lot of changes since my last hike along here. The trees have been cleared  so it’s a lot more barren that before. I passed a dozen or so forestry workers busy planting seedlings so in another year or two it should be much improved.

Four more kilometres of reasonably brisk hiking brought me to the end of the ridge road and the peak of the hill overlooking Quy Nhon. A great spot for lunch, I thought to myself, so I stretched out on the grass under a tree, removed my boots, had my lunch and relaxed for a bit. Bliss. It was time to make a move when I caught myself dozing off. MIMG_20151120_094931y legs had started to stiffen up. The trekking poles made it much easier to get to my feet (Chalk up yet another use for these handy items). From here it was downhill for about three kilometres along a concrete road. This road, by the way, dates from the days of the Vietnam War when Quy Nhon was a strategic supply base for the American military. If you check out the images on Google Earth, you’ll see that somebody has posted images of the outpost that used to be situated at the top of the hill.


The West Face

By the time I got to the bottom I was feeling pretty good. I had covered about eleven kms but I wasn’t quite ready to head back to my motorbike at the start. Directly in front of me was the west face of my much smaller training hill, so I figured, why the hell not. I set off along the road until I reached a path heading upwards – a new one I’d never been on before. This trail, was narrow, winding and led up the steepest side of the hill. Once again, the trekking poles carried the day for me. Between the slippery, muddy trail and the steep slope it would have been a struggle without them. By the time I reached the top the climb had taken its toll on me. It was time to head back. I had another three kilometres to get back to the bike but at least it was downhill and on the level.


I got back to the bike about 45 minutes later, tired but satisfied. This would have to be one of the longest hikes I’ve ever done, certainly one with the greatest change in elevation. The Wikiloc figure tells the story. I think I’ll do a lot more of my training on the bigger mountain. It’s a lot more fun. First, however, I’ll need to spend a morning with my trusty jungle knife clearing a kilometre or so of trail.

Acute mountain sickness

I crashed into a chair feeling exhausted and started to get sleepy. After a while I also started to get a headache. I checked into my room (a dorm I shared with 5 others) and now was feeling more and more miserable, also getting nauseous. I tried eating some chocolate and drinking water, but it didn’t help, so I just rested. In the evening the nauseousness won, and I had to throw up. Ahhh, that was a relief… felt better but not stronger. I had lost my appetite and hadn’t eaten much and was still very tired. The climb was scheduled to start at 3am, but I was now sure that I wasn’t going to make that. All my symptoms were clear signs of altitude sickness, and going up another 700m is the last thing you should do. But I got out of bed at 2.30am anyway, still feeling nauseous, and wished my roommates good luck with the climb. I threw up once more and went back to sleep…
How to climb Mt. Kinabalu…. and NOT make it to the summit!

The climb for the summit (another 2.7km up from the base camp) was set to begin at 2:30am. However, because of our speedy hiking abilities, our guide set a special start time for Matt and I-4am (another 1.5hours of sleep!) Actually, we didn’t sleep at all the entire night, partly due to the excitment and partly due to the pounding altitude-induced headache we both had. When 2:30am rolled around, we watched as our fellow climbers set off into the dark to begin their climb. Matt and I began downing a few liters of water (which quickly eased the headache and we realized stupidly we should have been drinking such large quantities hours before then) and began preparing ourselves for the hike.
Stairway to Heaven…Mt. Kinabalu

Acute mountain sickness … or AMS.

I haven’t found any definitive figures, but it seems that the primary reason for climbers failing to reach the summit of Mt Kinabalu are exhaustion and/or AMS. The primary symptoms of mountain sickness are headaches and nausea. For many climbers these symptoms can become severe enough to prevent them from continuing.

Who is most susceptible to suffering altitude sickness? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way of predicting this. Regardless of age, fitness, weight, gender or race, some people get it severely at certain altitudes and some people don’t. We do know that at some stage altitude sickness affects everybody.

Still, there are ways to delay the onset or reduce how mountain sickness affects you.

  • Most important is your rate of ascent. You need to give your body time to acclimatise to higher elevations, and the best way is to climb slowly with frequent rests.
  • Exhaustion can also make the effects of altitude sickness worse. Overexertion is one of the main triggers for AMS. The more tired you are the more likely you are to be overcome by AMS. Again, climbing slowly (and rest-stepping) reduces your chances of feeling ill. Maintaining a steady pace without any large increases in physical effort helps.
  • Take regular rest intervals. Try to rest for at least ten minutes every hour. Continue deep breathing as you rest.
  • Try to keep your body oxygenated. Deep breathing as you take each step helps. Keep an eye on your heart rate and breathing. If you start panting or your heart starts pounding, take a break, and when you resume slow down.
  • Eat a high-carb diet. Snack at every rest break and eat something more substantial every two or three hours. Climbing uses a huge amount of energy and it’s easy to run out of fuel.
  • It’s important to keep your body well hydrated. Try to drink a litre of water every hour as you climb (see the quote above).
  • Taking Diamox (generic name: acetazolamide) or similar before climbing can help, as well as headache remedies like aspirin or paracetamol. Note that Diamox is not a cure for AMS: it just helps you acclimatise faster.
  • If mountain sickness hits you hard enough so that you can’t continue, if possible descend to a lower altitude.

Check with your physician before taking high altitude medications like Diamox. People with certain physical conditions shouldn’t take it. In addition, possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and diarrhoea. The last one particularly concerns me. That’s not how I want to keep my legs warm when I’m hanging off a rope on a cliff face at night above Sayat Sayat.

(First) Target achieved

I traversed the Mesilau trail in September this year. We were ill prepared. And did not have enough food for the trip. I am an experienced tramper and easily cover 11km in 4-5 hours. We were not advised about extra food. I took plenty of water 2 litre bladder as well as two 650mls bottles. We all suffered from lack of fuel because we were not advised of the severity of the landscape. I am 71 years old and have been outdoors most of my adult life in all sorts of weather including snow and ice. Having said that I have good memories of the trip. I took wet weather gear, boots, not sneakers and a hiking pole as well as my normal hiking clothing. Wearing shorts and snow putties as well also helped.
Kinabalu Blog

I have a list of training targets that I want to achieve before we attempt Mt Kinabalu. The first of these is to do seven laps of my training steps. Seven laps is the equivalent of 1,400m of climbing as well as descending. This, not coincidentally, is about the same as we’ll climb from the start at Timpohon Gate to the Laban Rata Rest House.

My seven laps is similar to hiking up to Laban Rata and back down to Timpohon Gate. There are three key differences, though. Firstly, this leg of Mt Kinabalu is a non-stop climb, as opposed to the up-and-down laps that I’m doing. Also, I don’t have to cope with the altitude here. Finally, it’s much warmer in Quy Nhon – I’m doing all my hiking in t-shirts and shorts.

After I aborted Monday’s attempt at doing seven ascents of Xuan Van Hill, I tried again on Wednesday morning (Today is Friday). I followed Monday’s checklist again, but with the addition of a packed lunch: a banana, trail mix, crackers, a smallish bar of dark chocolate and a sandwich (quality bakery bread with mystery meat and plastic cheese, made palatable by generous dollops of Tabasco Habanero sauce).

Everything finally came together. I managed the seven climbs without difficulty, took a lunch break during the fourth climb, munched on trail mix and chocolate during my breaks and finished about seven hours after starting. There were a few other positives to come out of today’s hike.

  1. I was far from exhausted. I felt that I had at least two more laps left in me, but I had run out of time and food.
  2. My trekking pole skills are likewise coming along well. I’m planting the poles pretty much unconsciously. I’m not even looking at the poles when I’m planting it, instead looking for the best spot for the next plant.
  3. I’m starting to vary my rest steps depending on how my legs feel. When they start to tire, I slow down by making my rest steps last longer.

Lessons learned from the session:

  • As you’ll see from the quote above, bringing food along is important. We’ll be supplied with a packed lunch when we leave Timpohon Gate, but I’m sure it won’t be enough.
  • When I first started thinking about the Kinabalu climb, I thought it might be a good idea to push a bit harder during the first leg so we would have longer to recuperate at Laban Rata. Bad move, that. Going slowly and taking frequent rest stops is vital for finishing each leg without feeling exhausted.

My next target is to check my limits. My next off-day is next week, so I’ll pack extra food and water and just keep going until my legs call it quits. Common sense has to prevail here – I’m not going to kill myself. I’ll know when it’s time to stop.

I mentioned my targets at the top of the post. Having reached Laban Rata (figuratively speaking), my next target is to do eleven laps. This is similar to doing Timpohon Gate to Low’s Peak and back down again: 2,200 m of climbing/descending and a total distance of 17.6 kms in twelve hours plus rest breaks. I want to be able to achieve this without being totally knackered. With luck, I’ll manage this next week.

Once I’m getting the distance and altitude easily, I’ll need to up the ante by doing the same routine carrying a full backpack, ten-twelve kilos. I think I’ll do a few all-day hikes in between the training sessions, just for a break in routine as well as maintaining my overall fitness.

How not to train for Mt Kinabalu Part II

One thing I really loved about this trail were the signs every 1-1.5Km with a map and a dot exclaiming,”You are here”. It gave me a great sense that I wasn’t lost and it validated my feeling that I was moving much slower than usual. I’m a comfortable 1.5-2.0 mph hiker and I was averaging about 1 kmh! I figured the heat and humidity would slow me down, but Wow! The second thing I loved about this trail is that they didn’t waste resource and time cutting switchbacks into the trail. It seems they have a great love of this ecosystem and wanted to cut down as few trees and shrubs as possible. The trail goes straight up. Another item worthy of mentioning is the design of the steps cut into the hillside. Steps are 10 – 20 inches tall! I can only guess that the trail builders saw themselves as giants among men because the locals weren’t that tall, but the steps were huge. My old trick of taking small steps to save my poor thigh muscles just wasn’t working.
Climbing Kinabalu.. or The Sandarkan Death March Part II

If you hit me over the head enough times with a clue bat, eventually something begins to percolate through. I got up early yesterday, planning to achieve seven ascents of Xuan Van Hill, my main training course. Having learned from experience, I had my check list ready.

  1. early start… check
  2. big breakfast… check
  3. plenty of water… check
  4. equipment – poles, hat, head lamp,etc… check

So I left home dark and early (there’s nothing bright about four AM!), got to the hill and started climbing the steps. Winter (or the Quy Nhon equivalent) has set in. It was overcast, cool and there had been a few showers overnight. It was dark for the first lap but there was a half moon helping illuminate the path as well as the head lamp. By the time I got back to the bottom, dawn had broken so I swapped the head lamp for my trusty hiking hat.

The first laps went easily. I paced myself, rest-stepping but varying the time between steps to learn the optimum stepping time (answer: it depends on how steep the trail is and how you feel at the moment). I also practiced deep breathing to keep my system oxygenated.

Around lap three, it started to warm up until a moderately heavy shower started and cooled things down nicely. There was another shower during lap four, and another during lap five – the timing was perfect for keeping me cool and comfortable.

Lap six was when things started to go astray. Even though my legs didn’t feel particularly tired I started to run out of energy. It was a struggle to get to the top, so I gratefully collapsed under the tree, swigged water and another isotonic drink and thought about life.

This was when the little light bulb lit up above my head. I had run out of fuel. I’d been hiking solidly for five hours and climbed over a thousand metres with only my breakfast to keep me going. Stupid.

I now have a new rule: bring food. Specifically, take along a decent picnic lunch as well as high energy snacks. Stop every four laps for a half-hour break and a meal. Sit down, lie back, relax and give my ageing body a rest.

On the positive side, I felt fine after a shower and lunch. My legs were tired but I felt like I could do it again in the afternoon – if I had the time, which I didn’t. Anyway, I’m free tomorrow morning so I’ll try again. I’m going shopping later today for trail food.

Rest steps!

The first 4km was relatively easy. It was not a particularly cold day, and the hiking kept us mostly warm. I didn’t even need a jacket for this part of our journey. However, my friend … was feeling particularly weak and tired. So by the time we’d reached Layang Layang, she was pretty fatigued. We stayed there for the better part of an hour so that she could rest and recover her energy for the next 2 km up to Laban Rata.

It is very important that climbers take the rest of the trek easy as the next 2km is rockier than the first few kilometers. In addition, when you’re already more than 2,000m above sea level you’re far more likely to suffer from altitude sickness if you climb too fast. In my friend’s case especially, we were extra cautious as she had already begun to experience some effects of altitude sickness – headache and nausea. So for the next couple of hours, we slowed down considerably and took frequent rests. By the 5km mark, even I began experiencing some of the effects and so I took a couple of Panadol tablets (Paracetamol or any analgesic helps with the headache) to offset the headache brewing just around my right eye area.
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu – Fulfilling a Dream

As I wandered around reading different web sites on hiking and related subjects, I ran across a reference to rest steps. After checking out several web pages and videos, I realised that not only is rest-stepping a supremely useful technique for high-altitude hiking, it can also mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful attempt on Mt Kinabalu. Strangely, I couldn’t find any reference to rest stepping on any of the Kinabalu related web sites.

Rest steps are a technique for conserving energy and resting your leg muscles as you climb steep slopes. Simply put, when you straighten each leg as you climb, pause for a moment with your leg locked before taking the next step. When you do this, your bones take the weight of your body and give your leg muscles a momentary rest. This has the effect of both slowing you down (so you burn less energy) and giving your body a brief rest every step. All these short breaks add up. Hikers who rest step not only take fewer breaks but are also less tired at the end of the day.

It helps to synchronise your breathing as you rest step. Breathe out completely as you take a step, then on the rest step inhale deeply. If you feel winded or are feeling the effects of high altitude, slow down and take two breaths with each step. This helps keep your blood oxygenated and reduces the effects of mountain sickness.

Two of the pages that I found most useful on the topic are Next Level: The Rest Step and Rest Step for Uphill Hiking. In addition, has a good technical description of how rest stepping works as well as numerous tips for reducing back strain.

There are a number of short videos on Youtube that demonstrate the technique. The ones here and here are good.

I wrote the above before even trying the rest step technique out. This afternoon I went back to my training trail and gave it a go. I rest-stepped in two different sections: the steepest part of the mountain, a 200 metre rocky stretch with a 30-35% slope and my regular training steps.

The results were amazing. First of all, it was remarkably easy to get into the rhythm – step, rest… step, rest… step,rest. It was particularly easy on the steeper rocky section. While I was in the rest phase, I was replanting my poles for the next step. The best part, however, was on my training steps. I was certainly climbing much more slowly than normal, but my heart rate and breathing were about the same as I would expect on a moderately brisk walk. I reached the top feeling like I’d been for a 2-3 km stroll.

I’ve arranged to have most of my mornings free at work this week. I’ve got some serious hiking and climbing to do and I’ll be able to report on that later in the week.