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(First) Target achieved

I traversed the Mesilau trail in September this year. We were ill prepared. And did not have enough food for the trip. I am an experienced tramper and easily cover 11km in 4-5 hours. We were not advised about extra food. I took plenty of water 2 litre bladder as well as two 650mls bottles. We all suffered from lack of fuel because we were not advised of the severity of the landscape. I am 71 years old and have been outdoors most of my adult life in all sorts of weather including snow and ice. Having said that I have good memories of the trip. I took wet weather gear, boots, not sneakers and a hiking pole as well as my normal hiking clothing. Wearing shorts and snow putties as well also helped.
Kinabalu Blog

I have a list of training targets that I want to achieve before we attempt Mt Kinabalu. The first of these is to do seven laps of my training steps. Seven laps is the equivalent of 1,400m of climbing as well as descending. This, not coincidentally, is about the same as we’ll climb from the start at Timpohon Gate to the Laban Rata Rest House.

My seven laps is similar to hiking up to Laban Rata and back down to Timpohon Gate. There are three key differences, though. Firstly, this leg of Mt Kinabalu is a non-stop climb, as opposed to the up-and-down laps that I’m doing. Also, I don’t have to cope with the altitude here. Finally, it’s much warmer in Quy Nhon – I’m doing all my hiking in t-shirts and shorts.

After I aborted Monday’s attempt at doing seven ascents of Xuan Van Hill, I tried again on Wednesday morning (Today is Friday). I followed Monday’s checklist again, but with the addition of a packed lunch: a banana, trail mix, crackers, a smallish bar of dark chocolate and a sandwich (quality bakery bread with mystery meat and plastic cheese, made palatable by generous dollops of Tabasco Habanero sauce).

Everything finally came together. I managed the seven climbs without difficulty, took a lunch break during the fourth climb, munched on trail mix and chocolate during my breaks and finished about seven hours after starting. There were a few other positives to come out of today’s hike.

  1. I was far from exhausted. I felt that I had at least two more laps left in me, but I had run out of time and food.
  2. My trekking pole skills are likewise coming along well. I’m planting the poles pretty much unconsciously. I’m not even looking at the poles when I’m planting it, instead looking for the best spot for the next plant.
  3. I’m starting to vary my rest steps depending on how my legs feel. When they start to tire, I slow down by making my rest steps last longer.

Lessons learned from the session:

  • As you’ll see from the quote above, bringing food along is important. We’ll be supplied with a packed lunch when we leave Timpohon Gate, but I’m sure it won’t be enough.
  • When I first started thinking about the Kinabalu climb, I thought it might be a good idea to push a bit harder during the first leg so we would have longer to recuperate at Laban Rata. Bad move, that. Going slowly and taking frequent rest stops is vital for finishing each leg without feeling exhausted.

My next target is to check my limits. My next off-day is next week, so I’ll pack extra food and water and just keep going until my legs call it quits. Common sense has to prevail here – I’m not going to kill myself. I’ll know when it’s time to stop.

I mentioned my targets at the top of the post. Having reached Laban Rata (figuratively speaking), my next target is to do eleven laps. This is similar to doing Timpohon Gate to Low’s Peak and back down again: 2,200 m of climbing/descending and a total distance of 17.6 kms in twelve hours plus rest breaks. I want to be able to achieve this without being totally knackered. With luck, I’ll manage this next week.

Once I’m getting the distance and altitude easily, I’ll need to up the ante by doing the same routine carrying a full backpack, ten-twelve kilos. I think I’ll do a few all-day hikes in between the training sessions, just for a break in routine as well as maintaining my overall fitness.

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How not to train for Mt Kinabalu Part II

One thing I really loved about this trail were the signs every 1-1.5Km with a map and a dot exclaiming,”You are here”. It gave me a great sense that I wasn’t lost and it validated my feeling that I was moving much slower than usual. I’m a comfortable 1.5-2.0 mph hiker and I was averaging about 1 kmh! I figured the heat and humidity would slow me down, but Wow! The second thing I loved about this trail is that they didn’t waste resource and time cutting switchbacks into the trail. It seems they have a great love of this ecosystem and wanted to cut down as few trees and shrubs as possible. The trail goes straight up. Another item worthy of mentioning is the design of the steps cut into the hillside. Steps are 10 – 20 inches tall! I can only guess that the trail builders saw themselves as giants among men because the locals weren’t that tall, but the steps were huge. My old trick of taking small steps to save my poor thigh muscles just wasn’t working.
Climbing Kinabalu.. or The Sandarkan Death March Part II

If you hit me over the head enough times with a clue bat, eventually something begins to percolate through. I got up early yesterday, planning to achieve seven ascents of Xuan Van Hill, my main training course. Having learned from experience, I had my check list ready.

  1. early start… check
  2. big breakfast… check
  3. plenty of water… check
  4. equipment – poles, hat, head lamp,etc… check

So I left home dark and early (there’s nothing bright about four AM!), got to the hill and started climbing the steps. Winter (or the Quy Nhon equivalent) has set in. It was overcast, cool and there had been a few showers overnight. It was dark for the first lap but there was a half moon helping illuminate the path as well as the head lamp. By the time I got back to the bottom, dawn had broken so I swapped the head lamp for my trusty hiking hat.

The first laps went easily. I paced myself, rest-stepping but varying the time between steps to learn the optimum stepping time (answer: it depends on how steep the trail is and how you feel at the moment). I also practiced deep breathing to keep my system oxygenated.

Around lap three, it started to warm up until a moderately heavy shower started and cooled things down nicely. There was another shower during lap four, and another during lap five – the timing was perfect for keeping me cool and comfortable.

Lap six was when things started to go astray. Even though my legs didn’t feel particularly tired I started to run out of energy. It was a struggle to get to the top, so I gratefully collapsed under the tree, swigged water and another isotonic drink and thought about life.

This was when the little light bulb lit up above my head. I had run out of fuel. I’d been hiking solidly for five hours and climbed over a thousand metres with only my breakfast to keep me going. Stupid.

I now have a new rule: bring food. Specifically, take along a decent picnic lunch as well as high energy snacks. Stop every four laps for a half-hour break and a meal. Sit down, lie back, relax and give my ageing body a rest.

On the positive side, I felt fine after a shower and lunch. My legs were tired but I felt like I could do it again in the afternoon – if I had the time, which I didn’t. Anyway, I’m free tomorrow morning so I’ll try again. I’m going shopping later today for trail food.

Rest steps!

The first 4km was relatively easy. It was not a particularly cold day, and the hiking kept us mostly warm. I didn’t even need a jacket for this part of our journey. However, my friend … was feeling particularly weak and tired. So by the time we’d reached Layang Layang, she was pretty fatigued. We stayed there for the better part of an hour so that she could rest and recover her energy for the next 2 km up to Laban Rata.

It is very important that climbers take the rest of the trek easy as the next 2km is rockier than the first few kilometers. In addition, when you’re already more than 2,000m above sea level you’re far more likely to suffer from altitude sickness if you climb too fast. In my friend’s case especially, we were extra cautious as she had already begun to experience some effects of altitude sickness – headache and nausea. So for the next couple of hours, we slowed down considerably and took frequent rests. By the 5km mark, even I began experiencing some of the effects and so I took a couple of Panadol tablets (Paracetamol or any analgesic helps with the headache) to offset the headache brewing just around my right eye area.
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu – Fulfilling a Dream

As I wandered around reading different web sites on hiking and related subjects, I ran across a reference to rest steps. After checking out several web pages and videos, I realised that not only is rest-stepping a supremely useful technique for high-altitude hiking, it can also mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful attempt on Mt Kinabalu. Strangely, I couldn’t find any reference to rest stepping on any of the Kinabalu related web sites.

Rest steps are a technique for conserving energy and resting your leg muscles as you climb steep slopes. Simply put, when you straighten each leg as you climb, pause for a moment with your leg locked before taking the next step. When you do this, your bones take the weight of your body and give your leg muscles a momentary rest. This has the effect of both slowing you down (so you burn less energy) and giving your body a brief rest every step. All these short breaks add up. Hikers who rest step not only take fewer breaks but are also less tired at the end of the day.

It helps to synchronise your breathing as you rest step. Breathe out completely as you take a step, then on the rest step inhale deeply. If you feel winded or are feeling the effects of high altitude, slow down and take two breaths with each step. This helps keep your blood oxygenated and reduces the effects of mountain sickness.

Two of the pages that I found most useful on the topic are Next Level: The Rest Step and Rest Step for Uphill Hiking. In addition, Backpacking.net has a good technical description of how rest stepping works as well as numerous tips for reducing back strain.

There are a number of short videos on Youtube that demonstrate the technique. The ones here and here are good.

I wrote the above before even trying the rest step technique out. This afternoon I went back to my training trail and gave it a go. I rest-stepped in two different sections: the steepest part of the mountain, a 200 metre rocky stretch with a 30-35% slope and my regular training steps.

The results were amazing. First of all, it was remarkably easy to get into the rhythm – step, rest… step, rest… step,rest. It was particularly easy on the steeper rocky section. While I was in the rest phase, I was replanting my poles for the next step. The best part, however, was on my training steps. I was certainly climbing much more slowly than normal, but my heart rate and breathing were about the same as I would expect on a moderately brisk walk. I reached the top feeling like I’d been for a 2-3 km stroll.

I’ve arranged to have most of my mornings free at work this week. I’ve got some serious hiking and climbing to do and I’ll be able to report on that later in the week.