It was a really emotional moment standing on the summit of Mount Kinabalu once more. It was the first serious mountain that i had climbed. It opened me to a whole new world of climbing.
Unfortunately, in June 2015, an earthquake had devastated the mountain and caused several fatalities. Since then Kinabalu’s summit had remained closed.
When we heard about the planned opening of the mountain for climbers on the 2nd of December, myself and 3 other friends from our Elbrus climb, Uantchern, Benson and Boon Leong, wanted to be one of the first to climb the new trail which was considered harder and more exciting. We got the ball rolling and made some arrangements. Fortunately, our request was approved and we were one of the 53 tourists to climb Kinabalu on the first day of the opening. This article is about our trek to the summit.
The plan was to climb to Laban Rata on the 1st Dec and attempt the summit on the 2nd of Dec. We arrived in Kota Kinabalu on the night of the 28th and spent the rest of the day in town visiting the weekend street market and exploring some places to eat. We capped off the night at the Kinabalu Waterfront Market and retired to our hotel.
We arrived at Kinabalu National Park at 6pm and stayed at one of the lodges. The weather had been favorable throughout the day with warnings of rain the next two days. We were mentally prepared to have a wet climb to Laban Rata and to the summit. Dinner was at Balsam Cafe and after that we returned to our lodges for some chatting and sleep.On the way, we ran into Ravichandran Tharumalingam, Ravi for short. Ravi is very widely known in Malaysia as an adventurer and mountaineer. He had been invited to attend the opening ceremony and flag off of the first group of tourists and climbers by State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun. We got chatting and felt a level of comfort and familiarity with each other.
All the while the weather looked good with clear skies. In the distance we could see lights at Laban Rata. Laban Rata, was still active with tourists allowed to climb till there.
We got up at 5.45am and proceeded to the Registration centre at 6.30am. We were assigned our guide, Bungin Kombiong, a native Kadazan who had climbed Kinabalu more than 200 times.While waiting for the registration to complete, we managed to take some photos of Kinabalu. Below is a comparison before and after the earthquake. A large portion of the mountain was sheared off by the quake leaving the internal rocks exposed in white. Some prominent features of the mountain has also been destroyed.
With all arrangements made, we went to the Timpohon Gate and started our Trek at 7am. The official flag off by the Minister was to be at 8.30am but we did not want to wait that long, so we decided to leave early so we can have a head start and be one of the early ones to “break trail”.
The trail was the usual and we took about 6 hours to reach Laban Rata. At some sections of the trail leading up to Laban Rata, new routes were placed. But these were very short in distance. Almost 95% of the route remains the same with the ususal resting places called Pondoks still in place. The picture below shows some new sections of the trail before reaching Laban Rata.
We reached Laban Rata at 2pm. Laban Rata was renamed as Panalaban now and a poster indicated that the Minister shall arrive at Panalaban at 8.30am the next day to welcome climbers from their trip to the summit. At spent some time at the cafeteria eating and drinking. We went out to take some photos of the mountain once the clouds cleared. The photo below shows the before and after of the earthquake.
Again, the terrain of the mountain is changed with rocks eroded and internal white rocks exposed. Dinner was quick and light and by 7pm we went back to sleep before our climb the next day at 2.30am.
Got up at 1.45am and got ready to climb towards the summit. With very little appetite, we just had coffee. Fortunately, the weather man was wrong and the skies were clear. There were no clouds in the sky but it was quite cold. The temperature showed about 5-10 degrees. There were not a lot of people as the parks had restricted the climbers to 135 which included 55 tourists, paragliding team, rescue personnel, media and reporters. We seemed to be the only group from Singapore and there were some western tourists and most of them were Malaysian. I wore a base layer and an outer shell.
At 2.30am, we kicked off the climb to the summit and were doing pretty good on time. The route from Laban Rata to Sayat check post was considerably damaged. As a result a new route had to be established. The new route follows teh ridge leading up to Sayat check post. The new route is near vertical with steep sections of wooden stairs of 70-80 degree incline. Some sections did not even have wooden steps and you need to haul yourself using a fixed rope over large boulders. Not for the faint of heart but still doable. Unlike the previous trail, which was in the valley, protected by the trees, the new route is quite exposed to the cold winds. So, speed is also of the essence. Waiting in this section, which inevitably has to be done, can be quite uncomfortable. Another challenge with this route is the rapid gain in height over a short distance. The older route wound its way to the check post while the new route cuts directly to the top. This could potentially lead to AMS (Accute Mountain Sickness), which we saw for a few climbers, who had to turn back. Overall the route seemed shorter and steeper, but the climb is slower, so it takes about the same time as the older route.
We reached the Sayat check post in about 2 hours, which was quite fast. We seemed to be in pretty good shape and we climbed all the way to the check post without taking any break. After the hut, there was no change in the route compared to the old one. There were new ropes placed to guide the climbers all the way to Low’s Peak. Since we were climbing pretty steadily, we estimated that we would reach the peak at 5.00am. We would then have to wait for the Sun rise at 6.00am. So, we slowed down our climb and took short 10 minute breaks in between.
Soon, by 6am we were at the Low’s Peak and had our summit photo taken. Ravi was just behind us and we managed to take a photo with him as well. Again, there was no change in Low’s peak as such and it seemed like new guard rails and summit post was setup.
We surveyed the surroundings and so much of the iconic structure had changed. The Donkey’s ears was destroyed and many sections of the rock faces showed visible damage.
The way down was much more enjoyable due to daylight as we could see the trail that we had taken.
Some of the photos of the new Ranau trail is shown below.
Trip down took about 2 hours and by 8.30am we were back in Panalaban. We heard that the Minister will be there at Panalaban to welcome climbers from their summit trek, but unfortunately, there was no one to “receive” us. Apparently, the minister had other pressing engagements that his trip to the Panalaban was cancelled in the last minute. Still everyone was not dampened by the disappointment and celebrations for Christmas was well on it’s way with people singing Christmas Carols and some cake cutting.
After some rest we started down to the Timpohon Gate and since all of us had wobbly knees, hurting from the descent from the summit and again coming down to Timpohon, we took out own sweet time of about 5 hours. Still we made it in good time and in high spirits.
We continued on towards Kota Kinabalu after collecting our certificates and thanking our guide. He was a wonderful chap and took the patience to follow behind us inspite of our slow climb and never once did he leave our side. Kudos to all those guides who have been through all those difficult times in the past 6 months and still their spirits were high.
The new Ranau trail is an exciting path to the summit. It is steep and quite exposed. But it offers a panoramic view of the surroundings. Most important is that, you will need a lot more arm strength to haul yourself up using the ropes and you will need to be extra cautious when coming down, especially when it is raining. The wooden steps and rock faces can be quite slippery in the morning due and so, extra caution need to be taken.
Overall, with the new Ranau Trail, Kinabalu has opened up an exciting opportunity to revisit the mountain again and to experience the more fun and challenging route to Low’s Peak. We had great fun in climbing this mountain.
I will post some more pictures and the route in another blog. So, please stay tuned.