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.
[I’m sorry about the delay in continuing the story. Since returning from Malaysia I’ve been swamped with work, travel and visiting relatives. I got back on Monday, seven days ago, and managed a couple of instalments. My young niece and nephew arrived from Australia on Wednesday and they’re pretty demanding on my time. My employer sent me to Tuy Hoa for three days on Friday and I just got back yesterday. I have to take the kids hill climbing this morning when they get up. So, here I sit with my coffee at dawn in front of the PC.]
The first stage of the climb was from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata Resthouse. Laban Rata is six kilometres of hiking away with 1,400 metres of climbing to be done. Typical times for this leg are in the five-to-six hour range, with one-day-hikers often doing it in two and a half hours and some people taking eight (or more) hours.
The first couple of hundred metres from Timpohon Gate are downhill. As any seasoned hiker will tell you, when you’re ascending a mountain every step taken downhill adds another step you have to climb uphill. At the lowest point we reached Carson Falls, normally a lovely waterfall but rather disappointing on the day as there was only a trickle of water coming down.
From Carson Falls it was uphill every inch of the way. Carlance led the way, rather slowly the rest of the party thought. He explained that it was important to climb slowly to help you acclimatise to the altitude. As for me, I was satisfied to bring up the rear. I knew my optimum hiking speed on hills from experience. I thought I could have gone a bit quicker but I was mindful of the altitude. There was a lot of variation in slope – steep stretches climbing up stairs with tall steps followed by a section of track with a relatively gentle slope. The steps were the most challenging part. I was definitely giving my upper body a good workout with the aid of the trekking poles. And, not for the first time, thanking my decision to buy them.
There were shelters every kilometre or so, a hut where you could sit, rest your legs and restock on water. These, as well as the regular distance markers, helped us keep track of our progress. The water in the tanks is mountain water and advertised as potable. Quite a few people who wrote about their experience were dubious about drinking it without water purification tablets. However, in all the reports that I’ve read about climbing the mountain nobody reported any after effects from it. On the basis of over two decades spent in South East Asia, I decided to take a punt on trusting it. It was clear, cold and tasted great.
We lucked in on the weather. While generally overcast the temperature was on the cool side of balmy, shirt sleeve weather. The rainforest on either side of the trail was fascinating and made up for the lack of a view. I didn’t see a whole lot of animal life aside from the local squirrels and a lot of insect life. Fortunately there was no sign of the promised mosquitoes so my insect repellent stayed packed away.
It took us just over three hours to reach Layang Layang Shelter at around the four kilometre sign. By mutual agreement, this is where we stopped for lunch. Quite a few people had arrived before us, and some were already making preparations to leave. The packed lunch that was supplied to us was much better than I expected: a thick sandwich, an apple, a piece of fried chicken and a packaged cookie. I really can’t remember what was in the sandwich, but it went down damned well. I was feeling pretty peckish at this point.
After lunch, we resumed climbing. We had left the rain forest area by this time and were well into the alpine scrub – short, stunted, scrawny-looking trees. We were finally above the clouds and hiking under clear blue skies. For the first time we could look back and get a view. Mostly clouds, but still a view of sorts. The temperature and humidity had dropped too, making for perfect hiking weather.
The last stop before Laban Rata was Paka Shelter. There was an abrupt change of scenery and trail here – taller, shadier trees with much of the hiking involving stepping from boulder to boulder. We had been on the trail for nearly five hours by this time. Surprisingly I still felt quite chipper and was hanging out for a well-earned beer, so I decided to forge on ahead. The last half kilometre or so was fairly steep and very rocky so the going was tricky.
Suddenly, I came around the bend and there it was – Laban Rata! Looking just as I had seen it in scores of pictures, it was almost a deja vu feeling. From there, it was a quick stroll across the helipad, around the side to the main entrance and into the dining room. Finding an empty table, I dumped my gear, grabbed a 27 ringitt (roughly eight dollars) beer and settled down to wait for the rest of the gang.
2Stroke, Nutty and Karaoke weren’t too far behind. We had made it in reasonably good time, in under five and a half hours. We had a few hours to kill until dinner was ready but none of us were feeling particularly energetic. Funny that. We checked in, sharing a tiny room with three bunk beds with two other fellows. Being the latecomers, we scored the three top bunks and one bottom. I had hoped to manage a hot shower but no luck – I got little better than a trickle of chilly water. Still, it was enough to rinse the trail grime off. Much refreshed and in clean clothes we sat down to await dinner.
Laban Rata offers only buffet style dining. The fare wasn’t particularly exciting but I was hungry enough not to be very choosy. Curry, fried rice and noodles and several meat and veggie dishes were available. I had a bit of everything and managed to put away two plates.
6:30 PM, and bed time. The beds were clean and comfortable with plenty of bedding. Expecting a cold night (and remember, I’ve spent much of my adult life in the tropics), I decided to sleep in tomorrow’s hiking gear. This was a mistake. I crashed out as soon as my head hit the pillow only to wake up a short time later sweating. I ended up sleeping with only a sheet over me.
I was surprised with how few people were on the climb on the day. My guesstimate of around thirty people at Timpohon Gate at the start was very close to the mark. I was expecting over a hundred. Whether it was the off season, or mid-week (we climbed on Wednesday/Thursday), or the recent reopening after the quake last June, or a combination or all three, we saw relatively few people on the trail. We must have been among the very last to arrive at Laban Rata. It worked out well, though. There was no trouble finding a table in the dining room and little queueing for food or showers.
I wasn’t particularly surprised at being outnumbered by younger people. Aside from our group (me at sixty with 2Stroke due to reach that magic number at midnight and Karaoke and Nutty being in their fifties), there were only two other climbers of our generation: an older Chinese man due to hit sixty in February who was on his fifth climb (accompanied by his son-in-law on his first) and an Englishman in his mid-fifties. I can claim seniority by six months over 2Stroke. Of particular satisfaction was that we held our own against the youngsters (you know, people in their thirties and forties). We weren’t that far behind the main cluster of climbers that arrived. However, we were all quite fit for people our age, being runners (well, Hashers, in fact) as well as regular hikers.
The trail was a bit tough right from the beginning – before long we’d nicknamed it the “Never Ending Stairway” and Debbie started feeling pretty dizzy. The rain (which had cleared up earlier) also came back with a vengeance and didn’t go away completely for the rest of the day. The rain made things a lot trickier – we all had to wear big ponchos that got in the way, all our clothes soaked through, and you really had to watch your step. Some of the trail was more like walking up a rocky mountain stream than a hiking trail.
In fact it was so wet that the guide warned us not to go further than Laban Rata if it was raining with the same gusto the next day … and once we got a good look at the top of the mountain we could see why. There were streams/rivers of white water flowing all over the rock faces!
The trek got harder and harder, as the well formed stairs gave way to rocks, the track got steeper, and the altitude affected us more (dizziness, struggling for breath, increased heart rate).
At about five 5km in (the trail was 6km to Laban Rata, and another 2.7km to the summit), we were rewarded with an amazing view of the surrounding countryside, as the clouds surrounding us parted. But from there it got really difficult and the last 1km seemed to take forever. Debbie had a really bad cramp in her leg and had to take one step at a time very slowly. Plus we were all getting damn cold … our clothes were soaked through (turns out there’s not really any such thing as waterproof), and we hadn’t dressed that warmly (we’d been told that it wouldn’t be cold until after Laban Rata – how did we know it would only be 8.8 degrees C!).
Amazing Borneo, the people we booked our climb with, sent a bus around to collect us at our respective accommodations at the ungodly hour of 6:00 AM. We had a hour and a half journey to get to the mountain, a road distance of about 80 kilometres. Our first glimpse of Mt Kinabalu came when we were still 15 kilometres away. A few minutes later, I was able to get a reasonably clear shot from my phone camera.
I can’t tell you how many pictures of Mt Kinabalu I’ve looked at since we started planning the climb. Pictures don’t begin to give you a sense of how massive it is. It was at this point I started to think to myself, “Uh oh. What have I gotten myself into here?”
The bus took us to the Kinabalu Park Headquarters, where we were greeted by the Amazing Borneo reps. We were introduced to Carlance, our mountain guide. We had some waiting to do as they got us all organised and delivered our ID cards. [All climbers are issued with an ID card on a lanyard to wear around the neck. This must be worn at all times and presented at each check point as well as when checking into Laban Rata. No card, no mountain.] After the formalities were out of the way, the bus took us up to Timpohon Gate, the first check point. Here, Carlance gave us the pre-climb briefing. There was nothing new for us really, although he stressed the importance of taking your time on the ascent to help you to acclimatise to the higher altitudes.
Carlance, by the way, has been a Mt Kinabalu mountain guide for about fifteen years. At two or three ascents a week, well… I’ll let you do the math. Anyway, with that we took our first steps climbing Mt Kinabalu.
We saw some pretty funny things on the way up, a sixty five year old man over take us, Malaysian people with 80kg bags pass us twice to drop things off at the guest house, some pretty bright man-leggings, a man dressed in pointy shoes, tight jeans and a polo shirt with no bag hiking up, looking like he was on his way out to a club. It was beautiful scenery though, the valleys, clouds, waterfalls, the people and the jungle. But this was all very hard to appreciate when you are buggered and can’t speak or smile as even a smile would probably take more energy away from you which you need to save to make it up. The whole way we could not see how far we had climbed or views as we were above the clouds and it was to misty. But as we came up a flight of stairs (rocks) the clouds parted and we saw how high we were in the sky and the tip of Mt Kinabalu, it was incredible. The view gave me more willpower to keep climbing as it showed us how far we had already climbed.
The trip to Kota Kinabalu was both busy and enjoyable. My young niece and nephew (eleven years old and eight years old respectively) happened to be in Saigon with their mother visiting family, so I took them out for a pizza for lunch on Friday, New Year’s Day. I worked in Saigon for over a decade and still know a lot of people there, so Friday night was spent catching up with old friends.
I caught a taxi early on Saturday morning to Tân Sơn Nhất Airport in an effort to beat the rush hour traffic. The flight to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur was uneventful, although I arrived at KL International Airport just as my climbing mate Karaoke and his partner Nutty were boarding their flight to KK. I had to wait a couple of hours for my own flight, so I went and picked up a Malaysian SIM card for my phone. The biggest drama for the week happened on my arrival at Kota Kinabalu International Airport. I waited in vain for half an hour at the luggage carousel for my suitcase. Eventually, there was just one lonely-looking bucket wrapped in plastic left, forlornly making its way around the carousel.
To cut a long story short, I…
- reported my missing suitcase at the “help-I’ve-lost-my bags” office
- caught a bus into the city
- checked into my hotel
- got in touch with Karaoke and arranged to meet for dinner
- took a nice long hot shower and dressed in my less-than-fragrant travel clothes
- managed to locate Karaoke and his better half, Nutty (yes, another Hash name), at the outdoor Chinese restaurant that they had selected
- got my suitcase delivered to my hotel after it turned up on the next flight from KL
- found a waterfront place that sold cold beer at reasonable prices
- hooked up with 2Stroke, 4Stroke and Jules when they arrived quite late
The rest of the evening, not surprisingly was a bit of a blur.
So went Saturday night. We weren’t due to start the climb until Wednesday, which left us three days to do any necessary shopping and play tourist. In keeping with my general trend of keeping the long story short:
- 2Stroke’s baby sister Sprog arrived (not a Hash name)
- Johnsie, another of 2Stroke’s old mates, also made an appearance
- I went shopping in the local hiking shops in search of jacket, hiking pants and other necessities
- 2Stroke delivered my order of trekking poles
- The four Hashers among us—2Stroke, Nutty, Karaoke and me—joined the Jesselton Hash House Harriers for a very hilly jungle run
- We went snorkelling off the beach at Manukan Island, followed by lunch and rather too many beers
After all this, I reckon we needed to climb the mountain just to rest up.
This will likely be my last post for a while. I’m flying down to Saigon today (New Year’s Day), spending the night there and then flying to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur tomorrow. I may be able to post some smaller updates, but I’ll have to use my tablet and that’s a royal pain in the arse for writing on. Anyway, I’m pretty much prepared for the climb. Training this month was interrupted by bad weather last week, a heavy pre-Christmas workload and a scare with my knee.
That last item was the big worry. I injured my right knee in a motorbike accident about fifteen years ago and it’s never been dependable since. I’ve been able to take up running again but every two or three years it goes sproing!!! and that’s the end of running for another year or so. So, there I was a couple of weeks ago on lap six of a planned nine-or-ten-lap session, coming down the hill. I stepped down rather heavily off a tallish step and felt that familiar lancing pain in my dodgy knee. I froze, saying to myself, “Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck…”
After a couple of seconds I gingerly took another step, putting the bulk of my weight on my trekking poles. It wasn’t as bad as I feared. I continued down, stepping carefully and keeping as much weight as possible off my right leg.
By the time I got to the bottom, my knee felt normal again. I was strongly tempted to continue, but I’ve learned through bitter experience that when my knee says, “Stop!”, it’s best to pay attention. So, I took a week off from training. I did a short two hour hike around the back trails of my training hill on Sunday. I felt no twinges and everything shaped up well.
I did another short hike yesterday and then cleaned my hiking boots and assorted gear in preparation for packing. My To Do list is assembled (albeit incomplete still – I keep adding to it) and everything is ticked off. Several things have to wait till I get to Saigon, chief among them is changing Vietnamese dong to Malaysian ringitt. I’ll take about 15 million with me (the dong is a peculiar currency with lots of zeroes and a most unfortunate name). This is about USD700 plus another $200 in mixed currencies. Most of my tour is paid for, so I just have to cover beer, hotel, beer, food, beer, shopping, beer and sundry expenses. Hmm, that’s a lot of beer. Better bring extra money. I’ve got my credit card for backup but I’d rather avoid using that.
Today’s plans include:
- nipping into work early and printing more air tickets – my wife will join me in Saigon when I return from Malaysia
- travelling to Saigon and checking into a hotel
- picking up my nephew and niece en route from the airport to my hotel. They’re visiting from Australia so I’ll take them out for lunch and some shopping/sightseeing in Saigon’s central business district
- meeting some old friends and hoisting a few beers with them this evening
Tomorrow morning I have to brave the Saigon morning rush hour, departing early to make sure I’ll get to the airport in time for my mid-morning flight. It’s a two-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur, with a three-hour layover followed by another two hours to Kota Kinabalu. If all goes well, I’ll be in KK by 5:00 PM tomorrow. Most of the rest of the party will arrive tomorrow evening from Australia, with a few stragglers coming in on Sunday and Monday. We’ve got eight of us meeting there, but only three of us (2Stroke, Karaoke and myself) actually doing the mountain. 4Stroke is very disappointed, having to pull out of the climb because of a stress fracture in her ankle.
My plans for Kota Kinabalu mainly involve final shopping, sampling the local cuisine, copious quantities of beer and if possible a Hash run with one of the local Hash chapters.
The next morning we awoke at the unfriendly hour of 2am for breakfast after being told that we should be leaving for the summit at 2:30am. However, this was not the case as 2:30am is the time that the slower individuals should leave. The both of us, along with a German guy called Matthius were the last to depart the facility at 3:45am, and along with our guide we began the windy stretch to the peak. Head torches were needed as it was pitch black and the terrain was difficult to navigate, but this was one of the highlights of our walk as it felt rather adventurous clambering over rocks in the darkness with the wind howling past! At parts a rope was needed to haul ourselves up the steeper sections which was actually a welcomed break from all the stairs! We reached the summit (4095) in 2 hours, overtaking many people on their hands and knees crawling up the rocks! The view from the peak was incredible but we couldn’t stay long as it was freezing up there, we were so glad we’d brought gloves with us! It was pretty amazing slowly seeing where we were as the sun started to rise – up until then we had no clue as to what our surroundings looked like!
Mt Kinabalu was closed for nearly six months after the tragic Earthquake last June. It re-opened on December 1st with the first group of climbers, mountain guides and journalists reaching the summit the following morning.
The main change is the new route along the summit trail. Major parts of the summit trail above Laban Rata were damaged during the earthquake with much of the trail covered with rocks and rubble. After surveying the section it was decided that it wasn’t feasible to repair that section because the rocks were unstable and still shifting. The park authorities decided to to construct two new trails skirting around the old trail, one to the west and another to the east. The two trails will leave from Laban Rata and meet at the Sayat-Sayat checkpoint.
The first of the new trails, Ranau Trail, is now open. It’s more scenic (yay!), more challenging (um…) and several hundred metres longer (boo!) than the previous trail. Amazing Borneo has posted the video below onto YouTube:
As you can see, the major changes are the construction of steps up the rock face and the boulder-strewn trail. The last part is the main concern. That’s not going to be easy at night. I reckon that head lamps have been promoted from “highly recommended” to “absolutely essential”. You can also see some of the aftermath of the earthquake: loose rocks on the plateau, broken signs and so on.
The other trail, Kota Belud Trail, is still under construction but the completion date hasn’t been announced yet.
By the way, Timpohon Gate is really a gate. You have to have a plastic ID badge to get passed. All climbers passing the gate must wear a badge. It’s got a nice photo of the mountain on the front with the text,”Welcome to Mt. Kinabalu, Take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints”. You get to keep it too. It’s a nice keepsake from your trip. It looks great next to my certificate! After the hike I looked back at the “Welcome to Mt. Kinabalu” part and had the ironic thought that it was a lot like the “Welcome to Canada” sign painted on the cement wall at the exit of the fastest chicane at the Canadian F1 Grand Prix where everyone crashes spectacularly.
Climbing Kinabalu.. or The Sandarkan Death March Part II
Let’s talk about training for the Mt Kinabalu climb. I’m quite lucky in Quy Nhon because it’s quite hilly along the coast here. In particular, there’s Gheng Rang Hill. This is a 230m high hill at the south end of the city with a path going to the top. The path consists of about 650m of steps and 150m of uphill path and the total altitude change is about 200m. This works out to a slope of 25%, slightly less than Mount Kinabalu’s 26% (8.7 km hike, 2,300m climb). I think it will provide pretty good training for Mt Kinabalu.
There are, of course, some differences. On Mount Kinabalu it’s a continuous climb without any downhill stretches whereas on Gheng Rang Hill I get get regular rests by going back to the bottom. This makes a huge difference – I’m breathing deeply on the way up but breathing normally on the way down. I’m also coping with heat here, which isn’t a real problem on Kinabalu. And it doesn’t prep me for the altitude. Not much I can do about that, unless I tape my mouth shut and plug one nostril… The truth is that the only thing that preps you for climbing Mount Kinabalu is climbing Mount Kinabalu.
Over the past month, I’ve been steadily increasing the intensity of my training. Two weeks ago, I scaled the hill four times and did it fairly easily – 800m of climbing and 6.4 kms distance in a bit over three hours. Although my legs felt a bit tired, there was no soreness or stiffness afterwards.
Last week, I upped it to 5 laps and really struggled on the fifth climb. I mean, really struggled – I was starting to feel nauseous and overheated by the end of the fourth lap. I considered stopping for the day. However, I felt that if I couldn’t do one more puny little climb then I’d better not attempt Kinabalu. So, onwards and upwards.
By the time I got home I was exhausted. It wasn’t at all like the previous week. I drank a litre of water, showered and crashed out for a nap. However, I woke thirty minutes later with excruciating cramping in my calves. Lack of salt, of course. I drank one of those performance drinks that was left in the fridge and I was fine shortly after. I sat down and thought about what I had done wrong. How did I screw up? Let me count the ways.
- The previous night I went out for a couple (well, three) beers after knocking off work in the evening. I got home at about ten and knowing that I had an early start for the hike the next morning went straight to bed. Without eating. I overslept slightly the next morning and got up at 5:00 instead of my planned 4 AM start, so I quickly packed my backpack with water and all my equipment and headed out the door. Without eating. That’s right, a 1,000 metre climb and 8 kilometre hike when I hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. Stupid.
- Although we’re well into autumn here, it was a warmer than usual day. Quite warm, in fact, so the heat started getting to me. My late start didn’t help at all either. Even though I was feeling the heat – and the onset of mild heat stroke – by the end of the fourth lap, pride wouldn’t let me stop when I should have. Stupid.
- I brought along plenty of water (4 litres), but it wasn’t enough. This was mainly because most of the water bottles were frozen and I was drinking faster that it was melting. Stupid.
- I used plenty of sunscreen on my upper body and face, none on my legs. Stupid.
- And, of course, not replacing the salt I lost through perspiration. To be honest, though, this is the first time in my life I’ve had problems with cramping for this reason. Still, I think it qualifies as stupid.
On the plus side, I was fine later in the day. No soreness, not particularly tired and in general I shaped up pretty well. For the record, I climbed (and descended) 1,000m and hiked 8 kms in four hours. That’s two-thirds of the way from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata. And down again.
So, earlier this week I acquired a brand new head-lamp. I got up at three AM yesterday morning, had a coffee and breakfast (a fruit shake with bananas, a mango, soy milk and yoghurt – yum!), started at 4:00 am, carried 5 litres of water (three litres unfrozen)and a couple of bottles of Revive, and lubricated myself all over with sunscreen. And promised myself I would bail out if I started having problems.
It worked a treat, too. Six ascents, 1,200m of climbing/descending, over ten kms distance covered in five and a half hours. Things I learned:
- The head lamp worked well, a good clear light and comfortable to wear. However, I was climbing and descending much more slowly and carefully in the dark. The torch is no substitute for daylight.
- The trekking poles are a necessity. They make the ascent noticeably easier, and are worth their weight in gold going down the steps.
- I’ve discovered the limits of my fitness. My legs were stiff and sore last night and I’m not feeling too spry this morning either.
Next week: seven ascents. This amounts to 1,400m of climbing, the same as Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata. At this rate, if anything stops me from completing the Kinabalu climb, it won’t be lack of fitness.
[Update: I’ve added the Google Earth screen shot above to show my training trail (in red). Quy Nhon City is on the right. Note the taller hill in the background. The highest point is 560m, and there’s a network of criss-crossing forestry trails zigzagging all over the hill. Fun :)]
There’s a ton of articles floating around the Internet that detail what you need to bring for the Mt Kinabalu climb. Remarkably, they pretty much agree on almost everything. Except for the bloke who suggests bringing a hair drier. Here is my list, compiled from the collective wisdom of those who went before me.
General Notes on Clothing
All too many people are unprepared for the conditions. It’s not just the 0-10 degree temperatures you experience at the top, but also 20-40 km/h (or higher) winds. Many people under-dress. They might be fine as long as they keep moving but as soon as they stop they start to freeze. People have reached the summit before sunrise but have been unable to stick around for another 20 minutes because they get too cold. Some have over-dressed, and ended up overheating as they climbed despite low temperatures. Plus, of course, the weight penalty that wearing heavy clothes involves.
Layering is another subject worth checking into. The concept – adding or removing layers of clothing as needed – is simple but there’s more to it than that. REI.com has an excellent primer on the subject at Layering Basics
For the conditions on MK, we’ll need three layers: a base layer of some kind of wicking fabric that will manage moisture/perspiration, an insulating layer (fleece or similar) and an outer layer to protect against wind and rain. OutdoorGearLab.com has a more in-depth discussion at Introduction to Layered Clothing Systems
Aside from the range of climates and temperatures that we’ll encounter as we climb, we’re very likely to get rained on at some point. Keeping dry is as important as keeping warm. You need to keep your torso dry at the very least but keeping your hands and feet dry is important too. Cold, wet hands make it hard to use the ropes even with gloves.
General Notes on Equipment
I do a lot of hiking here in Quy Nhon, but it’s generally lovely, balmy weather here and I rarely do hikes longer than 4 hours or so. I use my hashing gear for hiking. Kinabalu is a different game, though. I’ve got some serious shopping to do before the climb. I’ll need new shoes, decent trousers, a backpack and trekking poles for starters.
The advantage of the 2D1N package that we’ve signed up for is that we only need clothes for two days, not three. We’re looking at three legs to plan for when we climb Mount Kinabalu (note the cunning way I’m recycling my text).
- Leg 1 – Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata starts off quite humid, but the temperature drops a lot as we climb.
Start out with shorts or hiking pants (perhaps the ones with detachable legs) and t-shirt or long sleeve shirt (lightweight jumper). As the temperature drops, add layers as needed.
- Leg 2 – Laban Rata to Low’s Peak and back will be cold (especially for us tropical types).
We can shower and change at Laban Rata. We’ll change into the gear that we’ll wear to the top. When we start the climb in the morning, layers again: shirt, jumper (or two), jacket plus gloves, beanie or scarf. It can get bitterly cold as you approach the summit so you need to protect nose and ears.
- Leg 3 – Laban Rata to Timpohon Gate will be cool, becoming warmer and more humid.
Pretty much the reverse of coming up. If we’re lucky enough to stay dry on Leg 2 then we can settle for changing shirts at Laban Rata.
- Shoes: for Mt Kinabalu, heavy duty hiking boots aren’t needed. Hiking boots or shoes are fine as long as they’re comfortable, lightweight, rugged and have good tread and grip. Boots provide better ankle support. Personally, I swear by Merrell shoes, been using them for years.
- Socks: I wear long footie socks for hashing, these are probably a good choice. They’ll provide extra insulation for lower legs. I’d like to work out a good way of keeping my feet dry, however. (plastic bags over your socks, maybe?). Leggings will help a lot, I think.
- Pants: They should be lightweight and water resistant. It’s a balance, though – the more waterproof they are the heavier. Avoid jeans – they weigh a ton when they’re wet and don’t dry out.
- Shirts: I’m going to go for this – wicking t-shirt, long-sleeve lightweight cotton shirt, light jumper, heavy jumper, lightweight waterproof jacket (perhaps with hood)
- Gloves: I’ve got a lovely pair of toasty warm woolen gloves that I’m taking (These were a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, Lady Godiva. Hash names…). I’m not sure how they’ll handle wet weather however. Waterproof over-gloves maybe?
- Hat: I don’t need to talk to Aussies about hats.
- Underwear/socks: enough for the trip plus extra for emergencies.
- Lightweight backpack: capable of carrying up to 10 kilos.
- Small day pack: for Leg 2. You don’t want to carry any more than you have to to the summit: water, snacks, layers, etc. Maybe a maximum of 2-3 kilos.
- Trekking poles: I’ve never used them but Jim swears by them. They’re highly recommended for MK.
- Wet weather gear: Rain jacket or poncho. Ponchos cover your backpack. A lot of sites recommend disposable raincoats, they’re lightweight. A water-resistant windbreaker is great for all conditions short of a heavy rain. Plastic bags for keeping stuff in your backpack dry.
- Head lamp: Critical. You need enough battery power to last 3-4 hours.
- Belt bag: One with one or two pouches and water bottle holder. I’d prefer one that holds two water bottles.
- Knee/ankle braces: Optional. I’m going to use them.
- GPS: absolutely noncritical… but I like to keep tabs on my progress as well as time/distance to destination.
- Power bank: If you’ve got a digital camera, a GPS and/or a phone, critical. If you travel naked (electronically speaking) don’t bother.
- Whistle: a loud one in case you get lost or separated from your group.
- First Aid Kit
- Medication: paracetamol, ibuprofen, Diamox (for altitude sickness), imodium (just in case)
- Bandages: bandages (elastic), bandaids, antiseptic, safety pins, etc
- Sunscreen: the sun can get pretty fierce up there.
That’s everything I can think of so far, but no doubt I’ll add to it over the coming months.
4Stroke signed us up for the 2D1N (two days, one night) package. According to the sample itinerary that Amazing Borneo supplies, we’ll be collected from our hotels early in the morning (6:30 AM) on day 1 and taken to Kinabalu Park Headquarters. That’s where we’ll register, get our permits and meet our guide.
We’ll start off from Timpohon Gate mid-morning (9:30) and if all goes well will arrive at the Laban Rata Resthouse mid-afternoon (3:30). Relax and recover, have an early dinner and hit the sack early evening (6:30). Rise and shine at 2:00 AM the next morning, gear up, have a very early breakfast (they call it ‘supper’) and head off for the summit at 2:30 AM.
If we can maintain a steady pace, we should be able to hit the peak in time to catch the sunrise – on 2Stroke’s sixtieth birthday. A quick toast will be in order, no doubt. 4Stroke suggested bringing a few cans of beer, but I reckon those little spirit bottles would work better. Lighter, for starters, and the truth is that alcohol, altitude and climbing don’t mix.
Nobody wants to hang around the summit too long. It’s cold (around 0 degrees) and windy, and once you stop moving you start to get chilled. Back down to Laban Rata, breakfast and checkout (10:30) and then all the way back down to Timpohon Gate, arriving hopefullly by mid-afternoon. Transport will be available to take us back to Kota Kinabalu, so we should be back at our hotels by early evening.
Here’s what we plan to accomplish:
Leg 1 – Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata
- 5-6 hours
- 6 kms
- about 1,400m climb
- starts off quite humid, temperature drops a lot as we climb.
- good chance of rain
Leg 2 – Laban Rata to Low’s Peak and back
- 6 hours
- 2.7 kms – each way
- 800m climb/descent
- good chance of rain
Leg 3 – Laban Rata to Timpohon Gate
- 4 hours
- 6 kms
- cool, becoming warmer and more humid
- believe it or not, there’s a good chance of rain
Doesn’t look so difficult when we put it this way…
Within days of 4Stroke making the bookings with Amazing Borneo, we had all paid our deposits as well as purchasing our air tickets – me from Vietnam and the others from the wilds of the Northern Territory. We’ll be meeting up in Kota Kinabalu in January.
There are a few things worth thinking about. This is a major physical undertaking and new to all four of us. I’m (just) into my sixties. 2Stroke will be in his fifties when we climb but will age very rapidly and will make the descent in his sixties. Karaoke is slightly younger, in his fifties, and 4Stroke… well, she’s still a pup.
Not everybody who starts the climb makes it to the top. Weather is a major factor – if it turns nasty the climb gets cancelled for safety reasons. No refund either. Altitude sickness affects almost everybody, but if it gets too severe you have to stop and go back down. Some people just give up because of exhaustion. You don’t need to be superfit to get to the top but it sure doesn’t hurt.
It’s important to be mentally and physically prepared before you start. The right gear, fitness and attitude all play a part. This is what I’ll be working on for the next three months.