Incredible, can hardly be considered a worthy adjective to use when describing the two day adventure of climbing Borneo’s 4000m giant – Mount Kinabalu. From the triumph of reaching Laban Rata, the rest house at the 6km point, to being the third person at the summit at 4.45am and seeing dawn break through the cold night sky, there is truly something magical about the experience. In the next two posts I’ll try and describe to you the emotions and beauty of my adventure, with a ton of photos to compliment!
Arriving at Kinabalu Park HQ at 8.00 I signed in, paid my park fee and was forced to hire a guide for the trek. The hike doesn’t really require a guide as it’s pretty hard to venture off track, but never the less I was introduced to my guide Ricky who would accompany me on the 16km round trip up the mountain. The biggest benefit I found with having a guide was that it was always easy to have someone take a photo for me.
At 8.15am Ricky and myself hopped into a shuttle bus headed to the Tompohn Gate, the main starting point. Armed with a wooden walking stick and my small day pack, stuffed to the brim with the jumper and jacket that I had picked up at the Kota Kinabalu night markets (for $13.00!), water and snacks, I was ready.
On the short walk from the bus stop to the dramatic iron gates that mark the entrance we pass a hall of fame plaque that sufficiently demoralizes me. Each year there is a round trip race of the mountain, all 16km of it. The record, standing right in front of us is held at an unbelievable 2 hours 35 minutes. Most climbers reach the 6km rest stop of Laban Rata between 4 and 7 hours, with still 10km to go until their feet touch Kinabalu HQ the following day!
After a few minutes my expectations rationalize themselves and we pass through the gate and into the clasp of the first of many, many stair cases to come. One of the other benefits of having a guide to yourself is that you don’t have to worry about other climbers in your group. If I wanted to go slow, I could, or if I wanted to go full throttle the whole way, I could, without having to worry about leaving others behind.
One of my major concerns for the trek was rain. Borneo, along with a large proportion of South East Asia had been experiencing rain on a consistent and daily basis for almost two weeks. The fact that it hadn’t rained so far on my first day, and knowing how bad it rained the day prior, supplied me with huge motivation to get to Laban Rata before that inevitable rain did come. And so with that in the back of my mind I took off.
The first few kilometers was a thigh-busting mix of steep stair cases formed by rocks, tree roots and the occasional man made effort combined with short lived stretches of a steady-incline path. The recent rainfall had made the track slippery and dangerous, yet also helped to illuminate the green moss, ferns and other plant life that hugged the 2m wide path. Passing numerous groups of 50-something Chinese men, as well as a surprisingly small number of wheezing westerners we reached the 2km point. Ricky looks at his watch and lets out a surprised laugh – we had made it in 35 minutes, a pace which is only slightly slower than the locals’ he claimed. Feeling proud and energized we push forward, overtaking many more groups struggling up the steep stairs, something for which my long legs came in handy, and into the 3km rest point where we took a 10 minutes break.
While snacking away on some trail mix I witnessed just how all the food and supplies makes its way to the lodges at Laban Rata – porters. A group of four young Malay men and women sped past the rest stop with ‘backpacks’ that would make any chiropractor cringe. A simple wooden backing plate with hessian back and head straps is used to carry food, gas cylinders and up to 40kg’s of linen to Laban Rata in an incredible 3hrs. To top it off, they weren’t wearing top of the range hiking boots, or even running shoes. Instead, some wore ‘Crocs’ or flip flops, whilst the others wore a simple black shoe made entirely of rubber.
From the half way mark onwards the landscape of the mountain began to change. Lush green rainforest lining a muddy path paved the way for the greys of low alpine forest and a much harder, rockier surface. At around 4km we finally broke through the clouds and had visibility beyond 15m which, when the rainforest cleared provided the first stunning view looking down to green hills, blue skys and white clouds as far as the eye could see. Looking up provided the daunting picture of what was to come. High clouds still masked Kinabalu’s peak, but I could see the white rest house now, and the two most grueling kilometers to come impeding my path.
At 11.10am I arrived at Laban Rata after hauling my exhausted legs up the final, brutal 500m that seemed to never end. Ricky took a few pictures before adding insult to injury by leading me towards Pendant Hut, another 100 or so stairs away where I was congratulated and informed that I was 10 minutes off the foreigner record of 2hrs and 30minutes. Unfortunately, they weren’t expecting anyone for another few hours so the bed wasn’t ready yet and I spent the next hour massaging my knees, thighs and calves with boxing oil (deep heat in oil form) and chatting to some Australians that were about to make their descent.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent napping, receiving the briefing for the via ferrata activity that I would partake in, and finally having dinner at 5.00. By 8.30 the hut was quiet as everyone slept, or tried to – 3 heavy snorers in a dorm doesn’t help. At 1.00am I was woken to the thump of many footsteps on a wooden floor as everyone began to get ready for the ascent to the summit, which I’ll write about in my next post.