Mount Kinabalu is the highest peak between the Himalayas and Papa New Guinea, standing at 4,095m above sea level. There are limited climbing permits per day and it takes usually 2-3 days to do (with altitude acclimatisation). When I eventually researched all of this, the night before the climb, I nervously came to the conclusion it was going to be more of a challenge than I had originally anticipated…
We arrived at the starting lodge at Kinabalu Park the afternoon before the climb, in a torrential downpour. Already it was not looking good. We used the time to get used to the thinner mountain air and pack our overnight bags. With the prospect of walking for 15+ hours, up hundreds of steps and over boulders, through jungle and on ropes, a lot of usual essentials stayed behind. Towel? No need when you can pack some wet-wipes. Pyjamas? Not necessary when you can sleep in your day clothes. Toiletries?! Travel sized deodorant and toothpaste only required, for one night, a finger can be a brush.
The reason for being so minimal in our packing was the need for warm, (and therefore bulky) clothes. Temperatures at the base are around 30 degrees, but at the top, it’s below freezing. So hats, scarfs, leggings and thermals are all required if you are to reach the summit with any feeling left in your extremities.
Day 1 – What have I done?
The trek started at 8.45am the next day at the Timpohon Gate entrance, after some panic buying of head-torches and hiring of walking poles. With three brilliant local guides, we picked our way through the jungle path and started the climb. About 35-40 minutes later we had done our first kilometre. Just another 7.5km to go and the ‘flattest’ one a struggle.
Our group started to split up as people found their stride. We had a rough target of getting to Laban Rata between 4-5pm. Every now and then, shouts of ‘PORTER!’ would move down the line indicating that us tourists better move for the locals taking bags and supplies up to camp. We saw more luggage than man sprint up past us as we watched, mouth open in awe at the physical strength of these guys, some carrying more than 35kg of stuff including crates of beer, bed linen, even mattresses up and down, on their backs.
At every 0.5km there was a sign. At every 1km there was a rest point. These proved good places to eye up climbers from yesterday and that morning on their descent. “Is it worth it?” “Did you make it?” “Are we close?” started all our conversations. “Yes, yes and you keep going” was the usual reply. I was already looking forward to being in their position the next day.
A packed lunch of sandwiches, fried chicken, a boiled egg and an apple at the 5km mark gave us some much-needed fuel. Out of the jungle, we were now passing through the clouds and the terrain had turned into open (and sunny) boulder steps. Split from the group, it was just me and Aussie nurse Esther climbing together chit-chatting (in between laboured breaths) and giving various exclamations of being in the sweatiest condition of our lives.
Any area of flat was savoured, any sip of water too. At 5.5km we knew we were nearly done for day one. We had smashed our time target, on course for a 2.00pm arrival at the rest-house. But I was slowing down. Going three steps and stopping for breath took up precious time. Esther ploughed on. Out of water and exhausted I was ecstatic to see the outbuildings for generators and water tanks signalling Laban Rata. Shouts and cheers from my walking mates greeted me as I finally heaved my heavy body up the final elevation, stumbled up the building steps and collapsed into a chair on the balcony. The first 3,270m (10,730ft) were done. I stayed horizontal on my bunk bed for the next two hours, only rising to hear that unfortunately, the altitude had got to a Dutch girl, who was currently throwing up in the bathroom…
The Night Without Sleep
Despite physical tiredness – sleeping does not come easy on the mountain. The low oxygen in the air means that you sleep for 10 minutes and are awake for 45 thereafter. The night before we had been given our departure times for the summit based on how we had done that day – with the slowest leaving first. There is no overtaking on this stretch of the route as much of it is on ropes. I was in the second team of three, with a leaving time of 2.30am.
Sharing the female eight-bed dorm, we finally woke around 1.30am to the sound of heavy rain. Our hearts sank. It was a disaster. We had been warned before that under the circumstances of any rain we would not ascend and would have to turn around and climb back down to the base. It was too dangerous. The mountain was hit by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake on 5 June 2015 at 7.15am local time. Despite lasting just 30 seconds, it was the strongest earthquake to affect Malaysia since 1976. The tremors caused a landslide and the collapse of a huge piece of granite from the exposed rock face which crashed down on the ropes and stairs section just before the 7km checkpoint. 18 people died. Including Robbi Sapinggi, the son of our lead guide. 11 were injured and over 130 others were stranded up on the exposed mountain for days with no way of getting down. While a new route close to the old one has been created, there are still weak points in the rock and any sustained water run off, it was feared, could act as a lubricant and cause another slide. The area is also still experiencing weak aftershocks. Joh Min our guide, told us to stand down and go back to sleep.
Well, that was impossible. We lay there, thinking of our physical efforts of the previous day wasted, of the probable highlight of our trip to Borneo denied, of course, grateful for the safety-conscious nature of our guides, and that our aching bodies wouldn’t be wrenched out of bed at such an ungodly hour, but utterly disappointed none the less. Rolling over to think about it all, we were silent. Until 20 minutes later, an infectiously happy American called Monica burst into the room.
“CHICA! Wake up! Rain has stopped!” she exclaimed hurriedly.
Followed by a more sedate Joh Min; “Get up, we have a window – we are on in 15”.
The Final Ascent – ‘I Want My Mum’
Wolfing down toast, with head torches on bright, groups 2 and 3 left together at just after 3.00am, only 30 minutes behind the original departure time and in total darkness. Following the guides, we began the final 2 km trek. A four-hour vertical climb lay ahead of us. Again, we started splintering into smaller and smaller groups, and soon I was walking not with my group but with others who had been at the rest-house.
Head-down, it wasn’t until I reached the first exposed staircase that I really felt the cold. But the cold was there, the wind nipping at my skin. Throwing on my gloves, scarf and windproof jacket I set myself the target of five steps then a breather. Five steps. Stop. Breathe. Already it was getting too cold to stop for too long. On those steps I managed to lose the people around me – too slow for the ones ahead, too fast for the ones behind. After the steps, I fumbled around with my head-torch trying to make out the footprints of the earlier climbers to indicate the way to go. Some of the rain had collected in puddles and softened the earth so it didn’t take long to pick out the walking boot imprints in soft muddy areas.
Looking up, I saw twinkling lights above me, hoping they were stars, I knew deep down they were head torches. And that’s where I was headed.
Making it to the ropes I steadied myself. The route was straight up – I was going to have to pull myself up with my arms, rope in between my legs. I searched above me for a flatter point where I could rest and found one – maybe 10 strides up. Using this tactic I took the ropes bit by bit, always picking a place to stop in advance. My arms began to ache with the effort. My gloves were wet from the ropes and my fingers were tingling from the cold.
Finally, I saw the lights of the final checkpoint. Handing over my permit – my time was marked, it was 5.00 am. It had taken two hours to go 1 km. I had only an hour to do the next 1 km or I would miss sunrise and my time to get to the peak (everyone must be off the peak of the mountain and at camp by 9.00 am as the weather is too unpredictable). At the checkpoint, I saw a girl, hysterical, as her boyfriend and their guide tried to comfort her, but too scared to keep going and too scared to go back. This was hard work – for everyone. I had a swig of water. Time to go.
More ropes, but this time flatter. A kilometre of steep granite but no boulders and no real need for ropes, though they were there – mostly to guide you up in the darkness. I ploughed on, giving in to thinking time. Questions like: Why on earth am I doing this?! Why have I decided to make it to the top of this thing – I’m not enjoying this so much. I don’t even like mountains, especially not cold ones, particularly not when alone on them, especially at 5.00 am. I’m not competitive and I’m not fanatical about landscape views. WHY?!!” But something inside made me keep putting one heavy foot in front of the other.
Finally, I looked behind me to try to make out in the darkness how far I had come. I saw a little flash of yellow raincoat. The Italian girl – Ilaria, from my group, was next to me – how long she had been just moments behind me I couldn’t say, but finally having someone to walk with, gave me renewed hope. We made the 8km mark and continued, taking a short break to practically inhale a snickers bar and down more water. 5.45am – the sun was starting to come up, so we tried our best to speed up. We turned the corner. Towering above us was the final end point and the summit. Ahead of us, giant rocks and another vertical rope climb. Our hearts sank. We sat for a while.
“I miss my mum” she murmured.
“Me too” I whispered back.
Several seconds went by. I stood up.
“Come on, we can do this.”
She was already ahead of me. With a final ounce of effort, we grabbed the ropes in front of us, just a couple more steps, just a couple more.
“You’se made it!” A wonderfully familiar and fatherly voice boomed across the peak to me. Tony – another Aussie and his wife Diane were beaming down and coming in for celebratory hugs. I collapsed.
“Well, you’se still need to get to the sign actually… Err just a few more steps, don’t stop now.”
But I did stop. The last push had taken everything. My legs were spasming and my head was pounding. I did my best to watch a cloudy sunrise flood the mountain with light.
A few minutes later and Esther appeared. We climbed the final bit together and celebrated with our survivor photo at Low’s Peak – 13,436 ft above sea level. Physically and mentally drained we collapsed back down just below the sign and breathed. My head was throbbing, vision shaky, I was weak and unsteady on my feet and I was shivering from the cold. My hands were completely numb.
More members of the group appeared and came around us – taking photos and chatting. But I couldn’t use my fingers for the camera and I didn’t have the energy to get it out of my bag. I needed more food. Eating chocolate for fuel is a strange thing. I’m so used to taking it piece by piece and savouring each mouthful – it felt like a waste. Shoving it into my mouth, two chews and swallow – repeat for three bars. My sugar levels started to pick up. But the cold was biting. Time to get off this thing.
As the sun came up I began to warm up and started to enjoy the walk down. The views were spectacular, the terrain of weathered granite quite alien. The camera came out at last. Had it been light during the climb up – I’m not sure I would have managed those ropes. The drops were quite something. The damage from the landslide was devastatingly obvious in the daylight. At just after 9am we collapsed back at Laban Rata camp and refuelled for the next part of the climb down.
The time pressure was off but eight hours of mountain trekking downhill took its toll on our knees. We all finally arrived back to the base between 2.00-3.00pm – walking like penguins and in various states of muscular pain and tiredness.
It Is Done
Four of our group of 14 didn’t make it to the summit for various health and other reasons. Thanks to the rain, nearly all of us didn’t. But I guess we were lucky. We have done something that is still fairly unique in the growing global tourism business. More than that – I know myself and the others, pushed ourselves to our mental and physical limit on that mountain, and we conquered our fears and what we believed were our physical limits. It made me grateful to have a healthy body that works and is able to do this sort of stuff. It also taught me that I do have a bit of that bloody-minded determination in me (I really thought I didn’t have it!).
So, if you’re considering a climb up Mount Kinabalu, be under no illusion – for the uninitiated mountain climber, it’s not easy. If it doesn’t get you on the way up, it sure will on the way back down. But if you’re not sure, do it anyway – you might surprise yourself and you’ll meet some fantastic people and experience the best examples of camaraderie on the mountainside.
Travel Company: Intrepid – Sabah Adventure
Whilst I’m not sure how well briefed I was by Intrepid’s tour notes for exactly how hard the mountain was – it was excellently planned and organised. You have to have a guide up the mountain regardless, and I loved doing it in a group and not solo as it gave me the strength to keep going and get up it!