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.
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.
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.
Call me PD*.
2Stroke is an old friend of mine. Very old, in fact. His daughter, 4Stroke (because she’s quieter and less polluting), got in touch with me earlier this year and said that her dad wanted to commune with his hairy, wild cousins who live in the jungles of Borneo on his 60th birthday, and was I interested in joining the party?
I confess I wasn’t aware of 2Stroke’s close relationship to orang-utans (although it explains a few things I had wondered about over the years, such as his generally hirsute appearance and his extreme fondness for bananas). Anyway, it sounded good to me, especially as I’m already in the neighbourhood. In fact, if I head down to the beach and swim south-east for a thousand kilometres or so I’ll be there.
So, after a number of emails between 2Stroke, his less hairy relatives and friends and myself, the trip quickly gelled. We’re going to Sabah in January, to the tropical city of Kota Kinabalu. While the more sensible members of the group lie around in hammocks under palm trees sipping on piña coladas, four of us – 2Stroke, 4Stroke, Karaoke and me – will attempt to hike up Mount Kinabalu.
Hence this blog.
In the following entries I’ll cover planning and preparation for the trip plus other items of interest regarding Mt Kinabalu and surrounds. And, of course, the climb itself.
* It’s a Hash** name, and as such it’s rude and insulting. Please don’t ask what PD stands for. I’d have to tell you and post a picture and then we’d both be embarrassed. In fact, all the principal characters here are Hashers, which explains the use of strange nicknames.
** Hash House Harriers. 2Stroke and I coincidentally discovered Hashing independently of each other.