Photo above taken from Wikipedia. Click on photo to go to source.
There is no point in living if you do not feel alive.
– Elektra King, The World is not enough
Having experienced Ravana Caves, i wanted to try something a little more real. I wanted to climb a real mountain and experience how it feels like. Being in Singapore and surrounded by so many mountains In the region, i had to pick something that was safe yet challenging.
I wanted to climb something that was well established in terms of tourist attractiveness, decent infrastructure, not too technical or challenging for an amateur and in close proximity to Singapore so that i do not have to take too many days off from work. So, i settled on Mount Kinabalu.
The plan was to complete the entire trip in 3 days – 7th December 2012 to 10th December 2012.
Mount Kinabalu is situated in the island of Borneo, in the state of Sabah. It is the highest mountain in Malaysia and in terms of prominence, it is the 20t highest in the world. Since the second highest mountain is a mere 2,000+ m in highest, the Kinabalu stands out majestically overlooking the surrounding forest.
The mountain is sacred to the locals in the area and they take preserving the sanctity and cleanliness of the mountain seriously. There are a lot of stories and legends regarding this mountain and the name itself has a few interpretations one of which is the “The revered place of the dead”.
I searched online and contacted several local agencies in Kinabalu with the pricing and itinerary. Then i shortlisted a few of them and then finally settled on one. Most of the agencies offer the same service and as a result, the choice of which agency to go depends basically on their review of online travel sites like TripAdvisor, their promptness in response to emails and calls and the general comfort level that i felt with them. I did not pick the cheapest one as cheapest does not guarantee safety and being my first climb, i did not want the agency to cut corners or short change me.
I booked the Gaya Centre Hotel where i would stay before and after the trek. I did this independently, although you can also book through the agency as part of the package. This is a decent 3-star hotel where i wanted to stay.The hotel is close the sea shore and the shopping and dining areas nearby.
There are much cheaper options such as lodges and home stays that you can choose if you are on a budget.
For fitness preparation, i did my usual jogging and running of about 8 to 10km two to three times a week. I thought that this will be good enough for the climb. Boy was i totally wrong!
7th December 2012
The flight from Singapore Changi airport to Kota Kinabalu airport lasts for about 2 hours plus 1 hour adjustment for timezone. The agency had dispatched a vehicle for me to pick me up and drop me at the hotel. Having landed at about 11.30am, i had the whole day to myself to explore the nearby areas. We were to begin our journey the next day in the morning.
I sorted out some of the luggage and kept the city clothes at the hotel itself since i was coming back to the same hotel after the climb. The rest was packed in a 35 LTR bag i was to take with me up the mountain.
8th December 2012
The 4×4 had picked me up in the morning the next day from the hotel from where we had a 1 hour drive to the Registration Centre of the climb. As we went higher, it became foggy with a slight drizzle. The drive up to the Registration Centre was amazing when you can see the surrounding environment.
After an hour’s drive, we arrived at Registration Centre – Kinabalu Park HQ.
The Park HQ is very well maintained by the authorities and has a cafe and a souvenir shop. This where all trekkers are required to register before the climb. This is where i met my guide, Sylvester, who was assisting me all the way to the summit. Sylvester is a veteran in the area. Born in the surrounding region, he has been climbing since his teens. When asked how many times he has been up to the summit, he replied that he has lost count.
At the Park HQ, you will have to provide some form of identification such as passport to register. Each one is given a tag upon registration. The guide did the necessary paper work and also brought the lunch box which consisted of eggs, banana, sandwich and a juice drink. Enough to last the climb to the cabin at the top. I also had some snacks with me that i bought the previous day.
We had to take another vehicle to the actual starting point of the climb – Timpohon Gate. This is about 15 minutes drive from the Park HQ. There, we alighted and did some final checks before we pass through the gate to the climb. Here again there is a shop where you could buy some last minute stuff like water or snacks. You can even get rain coats. However, they are over-priced and it would be wise for you to buy them in town.
The climb gradually ascends with well marked pathways. There are regular sheltered rest points. There are toilet facilities at the rest points that are also well maintained.
Kinabalu is a very active tourist spot so you will meet a lot of people going up and down the mountain. Occasionally, we stopped to take pictures of the surrounding environment.
Sabah is known for its rich flora and fauna. Although i’m not much of a flora and fauna guy, i did manage to appreciate some of the plants and animals around. Sylvester was quite knowledgeable in these aspects and he pointed out various species thriving in the forest.
The whole trek took about 5 hours and we eventually reached the cabin on top – Laban Rata (3,424m). Laban Rata is a full blown cabin with excellent facilities. There are bunk beds, showering facilities and a cafeteria where the food is cooked in buffet style. The food is fresh, thanks to the porters who regularly carry stuff to the cabin. You will come across them on your trek, carrying close to 40-50 Kgs of goods on their back and racing past you. Makes you wonder whether you were standing still.
The temperature at the cabin can be in the single digits. So it is best advised to wear your warm clothing. Dinner is served from 6pm and there is quite a variety of dishes to choose from starting from bread to porridge and vegetables and meat. After the trek, you will certainly be famished. We had a snack at 3pm and then retired to our cabins for some rest. Then came for dinner again at 7pm. After some chit-chat with fellow climbers, i decided to head to sleep as we will have to get up early in the morning, around 1am to make the summit bid. The view of the mountain is amazing from the cabin, although you cannot see the summit from there. The photo below shows that the vegetation gives way to solid rock face.
9th December – Summit Day
We were woken up at 1am in the morning to start our summit trek. With a solid 4-5 hours climb before we reach the summit in time for the sun rise. We all congregated on the cafeteria to have a quick breakfast of porridge and coffee before venturing out. The initial start of the climb consisted of wooden steps which eventually gave way to the regular trail. The steps are quite slippery due to the rain overnight and also the fog.
After about 2 hours of climbing, we reach the final check post called the Sayat-Sayat Hut (3,668m) where you need to register before kicking off on the climb to the summit. After the check post , the climb is purely on rocks.
After the check post, the climb leads to a section where you need to use pre-fixed ropes to navigate through a section of the rock. You do not need to use a harness or supporting tools like karabiners to go past this section. After that, it is a steep climb to the summit on rock surface. Some scrambling may be required.
At about 3,700m, i started to feel dizzy and nauseous. I wanted to turn back and go, but the guide was very patient and made me sit for awhile after every 10 steps so that i reduce the rate of climb. At one point i really turned back and began my descent. Then i saw a couple of 50 years old from Japan who were slowly making their way to the top. It was then that i felt that if they can do it, i surely could do it. I did an about turn and proceeded towards the summit again. I got rid of the pressure to reach the summit before sun rise which was bothering me initially. I decided to enjoy the climb at my own pace and the guide was quite supportive. Luckily he wasn’t too bored with my pace as he had other guides to chit chat with as we slowly walked up the mountain.
True enough, the sun had risen before i made the summit, but i did manage to get some great shots from where i stood. It was an amazing experience with breath taking view of the clouds below us, covering the earth like a white carpet. Here i was, above the clouds, in a world different from the one i was used to. With people who live their life to experience the wonders of nature and the human spirit.
The climb became even slower as i frequently stopped to take photos of the surroundings. The entire pathway has ropes that you can use to climb. This becomes necessary when it starts to rain as the rock face becomes very slippery.
Eventually, by the time i reached summit, it was 8am. The summit, also called the Low’s Peak, is located at the apex of a steep section of rocks. Mostly scrambling is required to reach the summit. The temperature was close to zero degrees in the night. After sun rise it becomes warmer.
We hung out on the summit for about half an hour taking pictures and videos before we started our way down. Coming down was equally tough due to the slippery path. I needed every bit of concentration to climb down using the ropes to prevent a fall. Eventually, we reached the Laban Rata cabin in about 3 hours.
It was a great experience and i had to thank my guide for being so patient with me. In hindsight, there were a lot of things that could have been done right. For one, i should have exercised more often with the right type of exercise and regime. Just because you can run 8-10km 3 times a week on a straight road does not mean you can climb a mountain. Along the way, i met a few marathoners who were climbing even slower than i did as they had, just like me, totally underestimated the effort required. Also, the clothing and the kind of shoes are very important. Being an amateur, i got both these two wrong from the get go.
After the initial celebrations, we rested for an hour before we packed our bags and headed back down to the starting point. The climb down was fast and we made it in good time. At the Kinabalu Park Registration Centre, you can collect your official certificate of achievement. By noon we were at the gate where i bid farewell to my guide after tipping him and climbed onto the van that took me back to the hotel. Reaching the hotel, i had something to eat and took a nap. At night, i went out and had a nice dinner, did some shopping and then retired back to bed early for my morning flight back to Singapore.
10th December – Back to Singapore
Got up early in the morning and went for an English breakfast that came complimentary with my stay at the hotel. Then packed my bags and left for the airport. The agency’s van took me back to the airport and i left in one piece.
Apparently, those who reach the summit are awarded with a colored certificate of achievement. Those who do not reach the summit but at least make it to the Sayat-Sayat Hut are provided with a non-colored certificate. For the rest, you are out of luck. Reaching Laban Rata does not count.
Being the first climb of a serious mountain for me, i did manage to summit with a lot of effort. But i could have been more prepared for the climb.
- The right shoes is very important for the climb. Normal sporting shoes are fine if the weather is good. This is what the guides wear. However, if the weather is moist or rainy, then sporting shoes are extremely slippery. I had worn a normal trekking shoe which was perfect for the job, provided i had worn it enough. It was fairly new on me and did cause a lot of irritation. Ended up with some blisters on both feet.
- Jogging or running 8 to 10km every 3 weeks is good for marathons perhaps, but not for mountain climbing or trekking. You really need a lot of stamina to endure the climb than can take a toll on your knees and thighs. So, preparation for a climb is very different from that of a marathon.
- Clothing is something that is very important. You need to have a inner clothing to keep you warm as well as outer shell. You could wear two level of gloves as well. The mistake i made was to not wear an outer shell. I did wear multiple levels of clothing, but they were not water proof. So, i did get wet from the intermittent rain that fell during the climb.
- The climb on the day of the summit covers a vertical height of about 800m above 3,600m MASL. So, you will feel the effects of altitude sickness. Altitude sickness can be in the form of headache, dizziness, nausea or other manifestations. Those who do feel sick will need to go lower to rest. If they cannot proceed any further, they must go back to Laban Rata.
- Diamox can be taken to reduce the effects of altitude sickness. I did not take any as i didn’t know such a thing existed.
Mount Kinabalu is a very good mountain to start your climbing as it is very well organized and a very good support structure. The climb is hard but not very difficult. At some point, it is mind game where you will have to will yourself to reach the summit. If not for the old Japanese couple that i saw, this would have been a failed attempt for me and i would have permanently shelved my plans for any future climbs. Thank those two souls for pointing me in the right direction.
Trail Map from The Information & Booking Centre