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Climbing Mt Kinabalu: Part 1 – Kota 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.

Mt Kinabalu.. more like Mt F**kin Hard!

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.


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.

Trekking Poles 102

Once climbers check in, it’s advisable to have a shower as soon as you can in the communal bathrooms. With more than 100 people staying at Laban Rata and its surrounding huts, you can imagine the showers get quite wet and soiled from weary, dirty trekkers.
Climbing Mt Kinabalu – Day 1

I took a regular hike this morning and went up one of the other local hills for a change. For the past two months I’ve been exclusively climbing around Xuan Van Hill (what I’ve been calling Gheng Rang until just discovering the real name). Today’s hike was just 6.4 kms of hiking over 3 hours, but there were lots of up-and-down stretches. The great thing about the hike is that it gave me a chance to try the poles out over new terrain.

The thing is with trekking poles is that there is no single technique that you use. Rather, there are a variety of ways to use them depending on terrain and slope. Here, then, is a brief summary of the ways we can use them.

  1. Over relatively flat, well-defined trails have the poles set for medium length and use them to assist your hiking. Alternate the poles and your legs when walking: it feels more natural and it’s the easiest way to get into a rhythm.
  2. Shorten the poles when going uphill, lengthen… blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.
  3. I’ve found that for moderate uphill stretches planting the pole next to the foot takes a lot of pressure of legs and hips.
  4. For higher steps, rocks, logs and so on, double planting the poles and using them to haul you up works well.
  5. On uneven, rocky terrain, I don’t even worry about technique. I just plant the poles in suitable places as I go along, not worrying about rhythm.
  6. Keep your elbows close to your sides. This gives you better leverage as well as improving your pole placement accuracy.
  7. If your hands start to feel fatigued, it’s a sure sign that you are gripping the handles incorrectly. Hold the grips loosely, with just enough pressure to maintain control. Put your weight on the wrist straps, not the poles.
  8. One web site recommended resting your palms atop the grips when going downhill. I tried it several days ago on the steps and didn’t like it – I felt it was too hard to be precise when planting the poles. I tried again today and learned how to do it properly. The first time was a fairly steep downhill section, hard clay covered with tiny pea gravel. My traction was, to say the least, almost non-existent. I carefully planted the poles some distance in front of me, transferred my weight to the poles, then moved and planted my feet. It was slow but very effective – and safer.
  9. I used the same technique when I started following a rocky stream bed uphill. I ended up having to backtrack because it went the wrong way, but I learned that not only are poles useful when clambering up big rocks, they’re even better when making your way down. Again, the trick is move slowly and carefully.
  10. Without poles I normally lean back when going downhill; with poles, I lean forward with a significant amount of weight on my arms – and off my feet!
  11. Sometimes trekking poles just get in your way. Dense, overgrown tracks are one of these times. Carry or stow your poles until the trail opens up again.
  12. Rubber tips: there are times to use them and times to take them off. I use them on solid rock and concrete (for example, on my training steps) because they’re quieter, absorb shock and offer better grip when planting the pole. I take them off when I go off road and hit the dirt.

I’m still on the learning curve, but they’re starting to become second nature. Like any skill, it takes practice. Becoming competent with poles before attempting Mt Kinabalu is a good move.


From the start at Timpohon Gate, the guide led and walked in a slow even pace. It was too slow for me, so I overtook him – which was a hint to him that I was capable of walking much faster. It didn’t last long though. The path was like a staircase, every single step was going upwards. Soon, I was tired, soaking wet in sweat, and decided it was better for him to lead and walk in a slow pace. You can see I was new to climbing mountains and committed the cardinal sin … never overtake a mountain guide.
Mountains: Kinabalu, Malaysia

There are two main things that I have to think about prior to heading off to Kota Kinabalu: equipment and fitness. Although I’ve been doing a lot of hiking in the Quy Nhon area over the last couple of years, they’ve generally been over relatively short distances. The longest hikes were around 9-10 kilometres, although to be fair there was a 560m peak in the middle. Still, the only things I had to carry were water and a packed lunch and the only hiking equipment I had – or needed – was my trusty pair of Merrell off-road running shoes. I’ll need more than this for Mount Kinabalu.

Unlike Malaysians, Vietnamese people aren’t very keen on hiking. The only hiking/outdoor shops that I can find in Vietnam are in Hanoi and Sapa. According to the reports I read they mainly sell cheap knock-offs of brand-name products, stuff that falls apart almost immediately. I’m not keen on travelling the 700 kms to Saigon or the 1,100 kms to Hanoi on what will likely be a fruitless search for hiking equipment.

My options locally are virtually nil. My new (lightweight) backpack that I picked up a couple of weeks ago has failed. The zipper keeps separating and one of the plastic clips holding the shoulder straps broke. This is after perhaps half-a-dozen hikes with only 5-6 kilos aboard. It’s a pity because the material and stitching seem to be good quality, and it was quite comfortable. What would have been a solid budget backpack is spoiled by substandard fittings. I hope I can replace the existing plastic adjustors with metal D-rings. The brand name, by the way, is ‘Camel Mountain’ – Chinese made but widely available.

Online shopping has its own pitfalls. I won’t buy footwear or clothing if I can’t try it on. Amazon won’t ship to Quy Nhon, and in any case the shipping costs from anywhere outside of Asia are horrendous. There’s a Chinese online shopping company called AliExpress that looks dodgy as hell. I’m suspicious about companies that offer an 80% discount on “genuine” Leki trekking poles. Further research into AliExpress showed that customer comments are overwhelmingly negative. No thanks.

Several weeks ago I looked into a Vietnamese online shopping web site, They seem relatively reliable and I know people who have ordered through them with no real issues, so I took a punt. I ordered a pair of Coleman trekking poles from them. This, by the way, is the ONLY hiking equipment they carry. The poles arrived three days later and were exactly as represented, so no complaints there. Since then I’ve also purchased a head lamp from them, which I’m also happy with.

2Stroke and 4Stroke have kindly offered to buy what I need from Darwin and bring it up to Borneo for me, but my comments about clothes and shoes still apply. And I still like to fondle the merchandise before I buy.

Which brings me to my last option: waiting until I get to Kota Kinabalu and going shopping there. A little more research led me to this page: Hiking/outdoor shops in KK. It looks like I’ll be able to get just about everything I need there.

Road test – Coleman trekking poles

The well-signposted trail is very easy to follow right the way up to Laban Rata. The first landmark is Carson’s Falls, a small waterfall. After this, there are rest points at shelters every kilometre or so where you can check your position on the trail map, talk to other hikers, fill up your water bottle (untreated water) and visit the toilet if needed. The trail is well looked after and there is very little litter indeed. The views are quite limited to begin with, but as you get closer to Laban Rata, the vegetation become less dense and you can admire the huge granite cliffs of Kinabalu towering in the distance and the valleys of Sabah behind you.
Bagging It!

Disclaimer: I’m new to trekking poles and have been using these for less than three weeks. There are several reviews of these poles floating around the Internet from people vastly more experienced than me. This review is from a newbie’s perspective. Let me put it this way: would you rely on the opinion of somebody who’s had a learner’s permit for three weeks about whether or not to buy a particular car?

I mentioned a post or two ago that I’ve acquired a pair of Coleman trekking poles. These weren’t my first choice, but they seem to be the only ones available in Vietnam. I was after something not too expensive that would let me learn not only how to use them but also what I really need.

The Coleman poles are positioned in the budget segment of the trekking pole market. I looked at a large number of user comments (Amazon has a heap of them) and they were mostly very positive. The advertised features are impressive for a product in this price range:

  • collapsible (sliding, twist-lock shafts)
  • shock absorbers
  • cork grips
  • tungsten-carbide tips
  • aluminium shafts
  • removable rubber bootees (or whatever they’re called)

As I said, the reviews were good. Negative features that were mentioned included:

  • an overall ‘cheap’ feel, i.e. lack of quality
  • the bottom shaft pulls out of the middle shaft too easily and is fiddly to get back in.
  • several people said the tips come off easily [I think they may have been talking about the removable rubber feet]
  • one person said a pole bent on first use (no details)

Based on this (and the fact that these are the only trekking poles available locally!) I decided to go ahead and get them. The best of the local online suppliers is I ordered them and they arrived a couple of days later. The cost, by the way, was just over USD50 including shipping, about what I would have paid to Amazon (USD30 per pair plus shipping) if they delivered to this neck of the woods, which they don’t.

They arrived a couple of weeks ago. I quickly unpackaged them and set about setting them up. No manual was supplied, but there was no rocket science involved. Sure enough, a bottom shaft pulled right out the first time I extended it. A few seconds of fiddling with the rubber expanding grommet thingy (please excuse the technical talk) and I had it back together. No biggy, but it is a poor design feature. The wrist straps were fiddly and awkward to adjust. Unfortunately I had to head off to work instead of taking off to the countryside to play with them.

I’ve already written about my first experience with the poles (Trekking Poles 101). The one thing I found really annoying was that there was no shock absorber as advertised. Nothing. Nada. I found the jarring when using the poles on rock unpleasant. I figured, OK, I’ve ended up with a cheap Chinese knockoff of a made-in-China product.

Over the next week I familiarised myself the the poles. Adjusting the length was fiddly but easy enough. After a few days, the shock absorbers magically appeared. It turns out that after adjusting the middle shaft for length, you twist it back an eighth of a turn until it clicks. Voila! Shock absorbers! Well, I did say there was no manual.

After two weeks of solid use, I’ve found a number of good points and some not so good points.

  • Firstly, for somebody just getting started they’re a good first choice. They’re light, easy to use and adequate for the task. For the price you pay, they’re excellent value.
  • The cork handles were great. Comfortable, fit my hands well, nonslip even with sweaty hands and no abrasion or sore spots.
  • They’re reasonably easy to adjust but take longer than I’d like, especially with wet hands.
  • When you collapse them, they are still way too long to stow in a backpack.
  • There are lines painted on the shafts to assist you when adjusting the length, but they are already starting to wear off.
  • It’s just a feeling, but I’m not confident that they will last a long time. They have a slightly flimsy feel to them.

I’m not sure I’ll use them for Mt Kinabalu – I’m just not that confident that they’re up to the task. However, ask me again when I’ve got another hundred or kilometres racked up on them. I’ll bring them to Kota Kinabalu with me just in case, but I plan to do some serious shopping around for new poles when I get there. I plan to get into hiking/trekking seriously in the coming year and I think it’s worth getting a set of poles that will outlast me.

That said, I’m happy I got these. I’ve learned a lot from them, and still have more to learn. The features you get for this price are unbeatable. If you’re in the same position as me and want a pair of sticks to learn on, they are ideal. I think they’re also good for the occasional hiker.