Not wanting to get to the summit too early and have to wait (and freeze), while the sun made an appearance I planned to sleep until about 2 – 2.30am. The rest of the hut however, did not share the same plans and were up and getting ready at 1.00am. Leaving so early seemed silly and I decided to grumble and roll around in my sleeping bag til 2.00 when I slowly started to get ready and have some late night/early morning supper. Ricky joined me, the last remaining person at the hut at 2.30 and after a cup of some very nice Sabah Tea we were off.
The journey from Laban Rata to the summit is slightly under 2km in distance yet it takes the average person between 2 and 3.5hrs to climb. The first 500m are a traffic jam of tired, sore bodies and almost as much time is spent weaving through the crowd (where possible, sometimes it is just too dangerous) than is spent climbing stairs. The gratifying feeling one gets when reaching the end of a huge flight of stairs is short lived as you enter the most dangerous section of the entire mountain. A large rope, with various anchor points criss-crosses its way up the cold, dark rock face that could barely be seen if not for a headlight. Both the rope and the ground beneath it are wet and slippery from mountain water runoff that quickly numbs the hands in the barely above zero temperature. Using the rope in a one-at-a-time fashion the horde of climbers pull themselves up, ever weary of where that next foot should land until reaching the checkpoint.
Awaiting us at the checkpoint is a Sabah Parks worker who checks to ensure that everyone going to the summit is wearing their lanyard indicating that they’ve paid the park fee. I hate to think what would happen to anyone who left their lanyard back at the dorm room. Fortunately, I had mine and walked right through. Looking at the time and realizing that we were somehow at the front of the pack, we decided to take a rest for 15 minutes where there was a little bit of shelter and the temperature wasn’t too unbearable. The rest gave me an opportunity to gaze in awe of what was both before me when looking down, and also what was up above. Looking down to the right, the golden lights of Kota Kinabalu city are glittering away, whilst on the left there is an almost ant-like march of headlights as one by one people make their way up the mountain.
When the 15 minutes are up we push forward to where the path opens up wide, where you could almost choose your own path to the summit. Opting to conform to safety by following the rope that leads up the mountain I found myself continually stopping, turning my light off and letting my head fall back. It wasn’t due to pain or stiffness, it was the overwhelming beauty of the stars in the sky (and the number of them!) which simply blew me away. The further I climbed the less this was necessary as the incline was such that it felt as if I was climbing to the starry heavens, an almost spiritual feeling.
At one point, perhaps 500m from the summit which I still couldn’t see from the never ending crests that needed to be conquered to gain visibility, I was overtaken by a guy in a Bond’s ‘wife beater’ singlet and footy shorts. As he flew past I heard a distinctly Australian ‘how you going mate?’ and thought I’d better pick up the pace. I did feel a bit silly though, wearing three layers, beanie and gloves whilst this speed demon was dressed more appropriately for beach footy. I put my head down and pushed through the last of the steady incline of the mountain face where I was passed by another Aussie, this time in a Swans jersey before reaching the start of the final summit climb.
The final part of the hike is a painstaking climb up large boulders, often having to use both hands and feet for stability as you inch further and further to the top. Once there, the feeling is unbeatable. It truly is one those ‘on top of the world moments’ in the literal (or at least, on top of South East Asia) and figurative sense. I didn’t quite have the energy to jump around and cheer for the moment, however I was overrun with such a feeling of accomplishment that I felt if I was ever asked what I’ve done with my life, ‘Kinabalu’ would have been a gratifying answer. Don’t worry Mum and Dad, I do have other goals to accomplish too.
Being the third to the top I was also graced with plenty of space (and time) to take photos and find the best spot to watch the first glimpse of sun rise above the mountain peaks. It took around 20 minutes before first light broke and by the stage myself, and the now marginally more rugged up Aussies were freezing. Mainly, I was cursing myself for not getting waterproof gloves, a lesson for anyone about to climb Kinabalu.
When that first light broke all the worries about being cold vanished everyone at the summit let out a synchronized ‘whaoww’. As light slowly chased away the stars and the night sky, thick rolling clouds hundreds of meters below were illuminated, whilst increasingly more of the glorious granite formations nearby became visible. It would have been well over an hour spent at the summit before making a descent to the checkpoint filled with photo-breaks capturing what was invisible only hours ago.
Once back at the checkpoint myself and six others were harnessed up and taken off the path and down to the starting point for Mountain Torq’s via ferrata activity. Via ferrata translates to ‘iron road’ and basically, the participant climbs down the mountain using ropes and iron rungs that have been drilled into the rockface. Being a keen rock climber I thought the activity would be really fun however was a little disappointed by the end. The slow pace of the group and lack of skill/effort required didn’t even match the thrill of abseiling. Nevertheless, it was something different and in an hour’s time I was back in the hut eating a quick breakfast before making the final descent to park headquarters.
Ricky could tell that rain was on its way and suggested that we get down the mountain as soon as possible which was exactly what I wanted to do. It took two hours – almost to the minute, to get down with the pain in both my knees getting worse with each step. The wooden stick I bought, along with the knee braces helped a little bit however no amount of pain would have slowed me down as I just wanted to get to the bottom. Not long after I got to the bottom I was sitting at the restaurant having lunch and waiting for the bus to Sepilok when that rain did come.
To anyone planning a trip to Borneo, I implore you to fit a Kinabalu climb into your trip – you won’t regret it. Yes, Sutera Sanctury Lodges (SSL) have all but monopolized the mountain, making it quite expensive (for backpackers at least), but the value well exceed the costs. People say that you need to book months I advance but from everyone I talked to, this isn’t completely necessary as there were reports of plenty of empty rooms/bunks. I booked mine in advance and I met others who booked when they arrived in Kota Kinabalu, it is up to you if you want to take the risk. Also worth mentioning is that if you don’t have any warm gear at home (or don’t want to pack it), the Kota Kinabalu night markets have plenty of cheap, warm gear that will cover your needs. Except, in my case, for waterproof gloves.