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.
We awoke at 2.30am and got ourselves ready. A group had gathered in the dining room but it was considerably smaller than the one that had been there earlier, obviously there had been some drop outs. We were told that the weather would very likely make the final ascent impossible and, although it was a little better than earlier, that we should only attempt the remaining 2kms if we were really confident in our mountain climbing abilities! Not confident at all, I decided that I hadn’t come this far to quit and that I would head out and crawl up if I had to. As it turned out, the park ranger appeared at 3am to say that the summit was closed and sent us back to our beds. Apparently a small river had burst it’s banks near the summit and the flood had frozen into a thick layer of ice that would make the climb too dangerous without specialist equipment.
When I talked about equipment earlier, I had overlooked my hiking boots. About three years or so ago, I was on a trip down to Saigon and went shopping for some new hashing shoes – in other words, trail running shoes. I stopped in at one of the department stores and found a neat pair of Merrell cross-country running shoes that fit perfectly. I also spotted a pair of hiking boots in my size, and thought to myself, “Why not?”. I left the store 3.5 million dong (roughly US$170) lighter in pocket but satisfied with my purchases.
Fast forward three years. My Merrells are still in use although their days are numbered. The soles have been reattached twice now, but the cushioning is gone and the tread is reaching the end of its life. I no longer run in them but they’re fine for walking. I bought a new pair on my last trip to Australia a year ago that I use for running.
Alas, I was disappointed in the hiking boots. The brand name is Caravan, which I believe is made in Japan. They felt OK when I tried them on in the store, so I decided to wear them back to my hotel, a two kilometre walk away. By the time I got to my room, my feet were sore. Nevertheless, I persevered with them and took them for a couple of short one hour hikes after I got home. I liked the grip that they provided – the soles had a nice chunky soft rubber tread – but they seemed a bit too heavy. More importantly, they put a lot of pressure on the top of my feet and I was limping slightly by the end of the walk. The other big problem was that they collected water. The last time I took them out was after a heavy shower and rain drops from the foliage soaked in through the fabric. I finished the hike with water sloshing around inside the boots. Reluctantly, I put them away and chalked it up to experience.
Fast forward to the present: I’ve been doing a lot of research on the subjects of Mt Kinabalu and hiking in general since 4Stroke first floated the Mt Kinabalu plan. Among the little nuggets of knowledge gleaned from various hiking web sites was the concept of breaking in your hiking boots.
Ah. My ill-fitting hiking boots are not actually ill-fitting. I just haven’t broken them in yet. Well, I have mentioned before that I’m new to serious hiking. I pulled them out of storage, dusted them off, pulled them on and went for a short hike. Amazingly, they were more comfortable than before. Two or three hikes later and they felt damned good. The final test was a fifteen kilometre hike lasting eight hours and climbing two steepish hills. The only soreness I felt was on the soles of my feet due to spending so much time walking, not anything wrong with the boots. I’ve been using the boots for two months now and they’ll be fine for Kinabalu. The glue on one of the soles failed, so I had them reglued and stitched up as well.
There’s still the minor matter of waterproofing. Luckily, another tip I found was the notion of wearing plastic bags between two pairs of socks. I tried ordinary plastic supermarket bags but they weren’t strong enough – both bags had large holes in the heels after a few hours. For the second experiment I tried the plastic bags that you find in the supermarket produce section. These worked better but they slid down and scrunched up around my toes. Then, I tried taping the bags to the inner socks with ordinary cellophane tape and then pulling on the outer socks. Worked a treat – I went for a five hour hike on a rainy day and my feet stayed toasty warm and, well, nearly dry. The only problem with the plastic bag idea is that your feet perspire and the moisture has no place to go.
My other hiking equipment acquisition was a heavy duty belt bag with twin holsters for water bottles. The main pouch is large enough to hold a bag of trail mix, disposable raincoat and a few other items, plus there are other pouches to hold my camera and GPS. I bought that over the Internet from China. I was a bit reluctant given the dodgy reputation of many Chinese businesses. However, the same company sells through Amazon and payment was made via PayPal so I thought it was worth taking a chance. It took four weeks to arrive but I’m happy with the choice.
2Stroke has purchased a pair of Leki trekking poles for me to replace my Colemans. I don’t regret buying the Coleman poles but they aren’t really designed for the kind of treatment I’m giving them. One pole is slightly bent so it won’t fully retract and they’re starting to look somewhat decrepit. I still need to get a decent backpack, but I’ll wait till I get to Kota Kinabalu for that.
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.
Everyone I’d spoken to who climbed Mount Kinabalu told me what an amazing experience it was…what they failed to tell me is that the experience is amazing at the summit…and at the bottom…everything in between is a mixture of exhaustion, denial, regret, a lot of sweat and occasional bouts of swearing.
I’ll fly to Saigon on New Year’s Day, and on to Kota Kinabalu via Kula Lumpur the next day. I know from experience that AirAsia seats don’t fit six-footers too well (during my last flight to KL, my knees were hard up against the seat in front of me) so I ponied up the extra to get a seat next to the emergency exit.
I haven’t booked a hotel in KK yet. After looking at all the booking options I thought it would be easier just to roll up on the day and check out the budget hotels in the central market area. I arrive at KK airport around five in the afternoon, so that gives me plenty of time to find digs before catching up with 2Stroke and the gang. They’ll arrive later the same evening.
So, where do I stand with my training now? Pretty damned well, I reckon. I’ve been logging my climbs and worked out that in the month of November I climbed just over 10,000 metres (6.2 miles) and hiked somewhere around 120 kilometres. I think I’m fitter now than I’ve ever been before.
My aim is not just to be able to reach Lowe’s Peak. I want to get there and down again without being absolutely shagged at the end. With that in mind, I still want to do ten laps of my training hill in one day: 2,000 metres of steps up and down and 16 kms of hiking. I reckon I can do it, since I’ve already managed seven laps in a day without too much difficulty.
I’ve learned a lot along the way. Rabbits might be able to beat tortoises, but the tortoise usually wins in the end. If I really push it I can do a lap of my training hill in about 30 minutes, but it’s exhausting. When I crawl up slowly and steadily, taking baby steps and a five-to-ten minute break each lap it takes a hour, but I can go all day.
I went to Nha Trang last weekend for their Christmas Run and 150th Run celebration. They generally do flat runs but this time threw in a 110 metre hill for something different. I haven’t done any running for the last ten weeks, but surprised myself with my endurance. I was about the tenth person in, but that was because I took the wrong trail when I was in the lead and ran an extra kilometre or two.
I also used the Nha Trang run to compare a few GPS apps on my phone. I’ll have a report on these up soon.
It’s not the distance travelled, nor the time spent walking that hurts, it’s the height gained. It’s hard to convey just how steep the climb is. Try to imagine walking up a seemingly never-ending staircase for eight or nine hours. For the mathematically minded, consider 2.2km of ascent in 8.7km of walking. Then having to walk all the way down again, ever so carefully watching your step.
Mount Kinabalu – the first and probably last attempt
Probably the craziest thing was the porters. They carry all the supplies up to the Laban Rata rest house. There was a train of about 8 of them and they were loaded with so much stuff it was crazy. Here I am killing myself with barely my essentials on my back and these guys are climbing the thing with huge propane tanks and things strapped to there back. The one guy had an enourmous tub of juice. Another funny thing is that some of them were just heading up in sandals. They carry the stuff up to the rest house then bring garbage back down. Some of them run down at parts which makes it even more embarrassing. Not only that our guide informed us they do it every day!
The Climb Day 1
I’ve caught up on the backlog of stuff I’ve written, although there’s a couple more posts still in the pipeline. Here are a few bits and pieces that I’ve collected that don’t fit anywhere else.
- I got a bit curious about where Mount Kinabalu is ranked among the world’s mountains and did some research. Disappointingly, it comes in at #399. However, I also learned that many mountaineers prefer to measure mountains by their prominence (i.e. the difference between the height of the summit and the lowest contour line that completely circles it). On this measurement, Mount Kinabalu comes in at number 20, much more respectable.
- The climb to the peak gets canceled an average of 10-15 times a year. I imagine most of these would occur during the monsoon season in the last half of the year. It looks like we would be really unlucky to be rained out.
- Almost every web site I’ve looked at stresses that you should take your time on the ascent. Don’t try to rush it, you’ll just exhaust yourself. Most also say that you shouldn’t take too long at the rest stops as well, as you’ll start to stiffen up. It’s better to maintain a slow, steady pace.
- Checking the calendar for January, I see that we’ll be making the climb close to the new moon. So no moonlight but plenty of stars for the early morning climb on the 7th, clouds permitting. January is the 4th driest month of the year, so chances are the weather will be good. That said, Mt Kinabalu weather is notoriously unpredictable.
- Rain ponchos, wind and trekking poles don’t mix. I got caught in a fairly heavy shower the other day. The wind kept wrapping the poncho flaps around the poles where they would stick.
I crashed into a chair feeling exhausted and started to get sleepy. After a while I also started to get a headache. I checked into my room (a dorm I shared with 5 others) and now was feeling more and more miserable, also getting nauseous. I tried eating some chocolate and drinking water, but it didn’t help, so I just rested. In the evening the nauseousness won, and I had to throw up. Ahhh, that was a relief… felt better but not stronger. I had lost my appetite and hadn’t eaten much and was still very tired. The climb was scheduled to start at 3am, but I was now sure that I wasn’t going to make that. All my symptoms were clear signs of altitude sickness, and going up another 700m is the last thing you should do. But I got out of bed at 2.30am anyway, still feeling nauseous, and wished my roommates good luck with the climb. I threw up once more and went back to sleep…
How to climb Mt. Kinabalu…. and NOT make it to the summit!
The climb for the summit (another 2.7km up from the base camp) was set to begin at 2:30am. However, because of our speedy hiking abilities, our guide set a special start time for Matt and I-4am (another 1.5hours of sleep!) Actually, we didn’t sleep at all the entire night, partly due to the excitment and partly due to the pounding altitude-induced headache we both had. When 2:30am rolled around, we watched as our fellow climbers set off into the dark to begin their climb. Matt and I began downing a few liters of water (which quickly eased the headache and we realized stupidly we should have been drinking such large quantities hours before then) and began preparing ourselves for the hike.
Stairway to Heaven…Mt. Kinabalu
Acute mountain sickness … or AMS.
I haven’t found any definitive figures, but it seems that the primary reason for climbers failing to reach the summit of Mt Kinabalu are exhaustion and/or AMS. The primary symptoms of mountain sickness are headaches and nausea. For many climbers these symptoms can become severe enough to prevent them from continuing.
Who is most susceptible to suffering altitude sickness? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any way of predicting this. Regardless of age, fitness, weight, gender or race, some people get it severely at certain altitudes and some people don’t. We do know that at some stage altitude sickness affects everybody.
Still, there are ways to delay the onset or reduce how mountain sickness affects you.
- Most important is your rate of ascent. You need to give your body time to acclimatise to higher elevations, and the best way is to climb slowly with frequent rests.
- Exhaustion can also make the effects of altitude sickness worse. Overexertion is one of the main triggers for AMS. The more tired you are the more likely you are to be overcome by AMS. Again, climbing slowly (and rest-stepping) reduces your chances of feeling ill. Maintaining a steady pace without any large increases in physical effort helps.
- Take regular rest intervals. Try to rest for at least ten minutes every hour. Continue deep breathing as you rest.
- Try to keep your body oxygenated. Deep breathing as you take each step helps. Keep an eye on your heart rate and breathing. If you start panting or your heart starts pounding, take a break, and when you resume slow down.
- Eat a high-carb diet. Snack at every rest break and eat something more substantial every two or three hours. Climbing uses a huge amount of energy and it’s easy to run out of fuel.
- It’s important to keep your body well hydrated. Try to drink a litre of water every hour as you climb (see the quote above).
- Taking Diamox (generic name: acetazolamide) or similar before climbing can help, as well as headache remedies like aspirin or paracetamol. Note that Diamox is not a cure for AMS: it just helps you acclimatise faster.
- If mountain sickness hits you hard enough so that you can’t continue, if possible descend to a lower altitude.
Check with your physician before taking high altitude medications like Diamox. People with certain physical conditions shouldn’t take it. In addition, possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and diarrhoea. The last one particularly concerns me. That’s not how I want to keep my legs warm when I’m hanging off a rope on a cliff face at night above Sayat Sayat.