Climbing Mt Kinabalu: Part 4 – The Summit
It was pitch black when I awoke. I checked the time. Damn, only midnight, too early to get up. I tried in vain to get back to sleep but only managed to doze fitfully. Suddenly, the lights came on. Damn, two o’clock already. Would I have time for two cups of coffee before leaving? I struggled out of my top bunk. My five room mates were already using up most of the available four square metres getting themselves ready, so I scooped up all of my gear, boots, poles and all and shouldered my way out into the corridor to get ready for the early morning climb.
I only had to carry enough for the six hours or so that it would take us to get to the summit and back, which saved a lot of packing time. I was a bit stiff from the previous day’s exertions but a bit of stretching sorted that out. After throwing my backpack and other nonessentials back onto my bunk I headed downstairs with 2Stroke, Karaoke and Nutty to the dining room for breakfast. Or, as they called it in the brochure, ‘supper’.
First things first. My morning fix, a black coffee. Blecchhh! Instant. Oh well, it’s the caffeine that counts. Buffet breakfast, pretty much the same as the night before with the addition of toast, jam, french toast and fruit. Knowing what was ahead of us I shovelled more food away. Nutty and Karaoke matched me bite for bite, but 2Stroke was feeling a bit queasy. He said that the altitude hit him as soon as he went to bed and he had trouble sleeping. Also, he said pointedly looking at me, somebody in the room was snoring loud enough to rattle the windows. I don’t know what he was talking about – I slept like a log.
2:30 AM – show time. Carlance arrived to lead us to the summit. I was ready. Boots, hiking pants, t-shirt, light jumper, heavy jumper, jacket, gloves, poles, belt bag, hat – check. Camera, water, trail mix? Check. Head torch? Dead as a door nail. It somehow got switched on in my travels and flattened the battery. Quickly to the supplies counter for the most expensive AAA batteries I’ve ever bought, 20 ringitt (five bucks) for a pack of four. I fumbled around loading the batteries aware that my partners had already walked out the door. And there was light!
Quickly out the door, one of the last to leave, where is everybody?, a string of lights heading upwards in the darkness, clear starlit, moonless night, where’s the bloody trail? God’s teeth, barely out the door and I’m already lost. “PD, over here!” comes a call from the blackness. I follow the trail leading to the voice and fairly quickly catch up with the rest of the gang.
It was a beautiful night, the barest hint of a breeze, chilly with a crystal clear night sky. It’s the highest altitude I’ve reached in my life (while still attached to terra firma, of course) and the stars were amazing! Thousands of them, more than I’ve ever seen before. And they didn’t twinkle! Each one was an unwavering pinpoint of light in the sky.
We followed the trail upwards until we got to the first of many steps. These were almost more like ladders, inclined at 45° and built with 2×4 timbers. I was using my trekking poles instead of the railing (two of ’em, y’see) and had to concentrate carefully on foot and stick placement. By the time we got to the top of the first flight of steps, my hands were feeling the chill – I had a peculiar pins-and-needles feeling in my fingers. I paused to pull on my warm, woolly gloves (a souvenir of the last winter I spent out of the tropics, a full sixteen years before. Thankfully, my wife never throws anything out. And she remembers where she keeps everything).
The path led to another flight of steps, followed by another, and another. This was by far the steepest section of the climb we had experienced and we were all feeling the altitude. It was getting hard to keep my blood oxygenated. For the first time I was panting heavily and pausing frequently. Eventually we left the steps behind and reached a fairly tricky rocky stretch, including two sections where I had to stow my poles and haul myself up by rope. Suddenly, a light ahead. We had reached Sayat Sayat Checkpoint, the last stop before the summit.
We were finally on the last leg to Lowe’s Peak. This is where things started to feel surreal. We had left the trails and stairs and on the granite dome that makes up the top of Mt Kinabalu. The sky was lit up by more stars than I’ve ever seen before but little detail could be seen at ground level. I could vaguely make out the surrounding peaks but they were just dark patches against the night sky. We were following the white rope leading to the summit, but all we could see were the circles of light in front of us from the torches. It was deathly quiet except for the muted sound of footsteps. Stretching out hundreds of metres in front of us I see a line of lights from the other hikers. And we just kept hiking along for I don’t know how long. I didn’t have any sense of time. Looking back, it must have taken us an hour and a half to reach the base of Lowe’s Peak.
What I do remember is that the first part of the dome was relatively steep. I soon found myself panting until I changed tactics and started traversing the slope, zig-zagging back and forth. I was able to walk considerably faster with less effort and still keep up with everyone else. It was a bit odd because nobody else was doing it. I had to keep an eye out to make sure I didn’t run into somebody else while crossing their track. There was a constantly changing horizon several hundred metres ahead as the dome levelled out. The climb gradually got easier.
We arrived at the base of Lowe’s Peak almost without warning. I looked up and there it was, looming in the dark above us. Carlance called for a halt at this stage, saying that we still had half an hour before dawn, so this would be a good place for a stop. We rested behind a huge boulder out of the wind, such as it was.
Soon, we were back on our feet again, making the final push to the top. I think it was about a hundred metres to go, but we had to clamber over boulders to reach the peak.
And suddenly, we were there.
Carlance had timed it to perfection. It was just getting light in the east and for the first time that night we could see where we were. I don’t have the words to describe how awesome it was or how good we felt. The pictures only hint at the magnificence of the surrounding mountain top.
We hung around the peak for another fifteen minutes or so. I was reluctant to leave. After all, we had only just got here. However, we had a long descent and breakfast beckoned. And I really needed another coffee. We started back down, pausing only for a few more photos.
It’s hard to describe my feelings at this point. Certainly, I felt immensely satisfied in not only climbing Mt Kinabalu but doing it so well. Although I was a bit tired I felt I could go a lot further. As we walked back across the dome there was still the ‘on top of the world’ feeling, a natural high in both senses of the word. I was also feeling a bit let down. All the months of planning and training, of thinking, of research had finally come together. Now what? And finally, there was a feeling of disappointment, of incompleteness. We had come all this way, reached the summit… and now we had just turned around to retrace our steps and go back down. I looked around and thought about the size of the plateau we were on. We saw only a fraction of it. And here I was on one of the best hiking surfaces I’ve ever experienced. No, not one of the best – THE best. And, of course, there was the view. Standing on the granite dome, the was a sea of white clouds a kilometre below us stretching as far as the eye could see.
But I digress. The descent back to Laban Rata was particularly enjoyable because it was new. We hadn’t seen anything as we climbed up in the darkness, and the view before us was absolutely stunning. We reached Sayat Sayat quite quickly.
After Sayat Sayat, we could see the magnitude of the earthquake last June. There were huge patches of white on the face of the mountain where slabs of granite had peeled away and come crashing down. As we followed the path down we picked are way through large boulders and piles of rock. There was a massive boulder the size of a mansion below us perched on top of a hill overlooking Laban Rata. If that had continued rolling down the hill it would have totally demolished the hotel. It must have been a terrifying experience for the nearly 200 people climbing that day, watching the boulders come tumbling down the mountain towards them with nowhere to go. And for the eighteen school children, teachers and mountain guides who lost their lives.
With those sobering thoughts, I continued down towards Laban Rata. We finally got there just before nine. By this time, the morning’s efforts were starting to tell on us. We were among the last to get back. The bulk of the other climbers had either already gone or were preparing to leave. We helped ourselves to some of the remaining breakfast buffet but I don’t think any of us were particularly hungry. Without further ado, we went back to the room, packed up and checked out.
It took us almost as long to get back down to Timpohon Gate as it did to reach Laban Rata the previous day. We were all feeling pretty tired already and the six kilometre trek back to the bottom pretty much finished us. To be honest, that last leg was pretty much a blur for me. I zoned out and went into autopilot mode. I know that I was mindful of my ageing knees, carefully avoiding putting too much weight on them as we headed down. My arms and shoulders took most of my weight with the use of the trekking poles.
We past the current crop of hikers coming up the other way of course, with the same comments of encouragement that we had received the day before. The most interesting group we met at one of the last shelters was a Chinese father with his teenage son and daughter and one of their friends. The daughter’s shoe was falling apart with the right sole hanging off at the front. I was sure I had a roll of electrical tape with me but a frantic search failed to locate it. They were travelling lightly with no backpacks: they explained that they had hired a porter to carry their gear. Sure enough, we soon met the porter after we left the shelter. He was weighed down with five backpacks and it was the first time I saw one of the porters actually struggling. God knows what they had packed.
The last two kilometres were the worse. I forged ahead again, using the excuse that I was really hanging out for a beer. To be honest, though, I just wanted to get the hiking over with. At long last, I reached Carson’s Falls, a welcome sight indeed. Just one hitch. Remember the initial downhill stretch from the previous day? Now it was uphill. Oddly, I didn’t find it a problem, mostly because I was using different muscles I guess. Minutes later, I was at Timpohon Gate. I did my last check-in, assured the staffer at the desk that the rest of my group was right behind me, bought a can of beer from the shop and sat down to wait.
Here’s the funny thing. I really didn’t enjoy the beer. In fact, it was an effort to finish it off. I have never felt so physically exhausted in my life. My muscles and joints weren’t feeling particularly sore, it was just that I was on my last reserves. Just as I drained the can 2Stroke, Nutty and Karaoke hove into view. Like me, they had slipped the last rest stop choosing instead to get to the end as soon as possible.
We thanked Carlance and bid him farewell, climbed into our minivan and the driver took us to Kinabalu Park HQ another kilometre downhill. We had a buffet lunch waiting for us, but again none of us were particularly hungry. We served ourselves up a plateful each. There wasn’t much left, as we were nearly the very last people down off the mountain. With that, we got back into the minivan for the long trip back to Kota Kinabalu.