Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. Standing at an impressive height of 4,095 metres it towers over the rest of Borneo. Ever since I arrived in Malaysia last September, I’d wanted to climb it. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s there I guess. I’m not really much of a mountaineer. Prior to climbing Kinabalu the highest mountain that I had climbed was Ben Nevis which is a molehill in comparison, at just 1,344 metres. There was something about Kinabalu that really made me want to take on the challenge though. Therefore, in May this year, Janey and I headed to Sabah, with the intention of ascending the great peak.
On the first morning of our two day trek, we departed from the Timpohon gate, at 9:30am. Part of what makes Kinabalu unique is that for the first day of the climb you can’t actually see the peak of the mountain, as you’re trekking through fairly dense jungle. We’d been warned to expect sweltering heat and to sweat profusely. This didn’t really transpire as the temperatures were pleasantly mild. Nor did the steep steps seem too sapping. I naively congratulated myself for the many hours spent on the cross trainer and stairmaster in preparation for the trek. This wasn’t going to be that difficult after all! However, at about the 2.5km mark we started encountering people who were gingerly making their way down the mountain. One girl told me that she was so exhausted that her legs were shaking. Maybe that confidence was slightly misplaced.
Rain has a habit of following Janey and I around. Maybe it’s because I’m from Manchester. Just after we’d stopped for lunch, it decided to make its customary appearance. This wasn’t the warm tropical rain that we’re used to in Penang. This was ice cold, torrential and it meant business. We tried to take shelter for a while but as it showed no signs of abating we ventured out for what would be the toughest part of the trek. Between 4.5 and 6 km the trail maintains its steep upward gradient. Just to make it more difficult though the steps disappear and the walkers have to navigate their way over or around some very larger boulders. The added challenge of the torrential rain made it akin to walking up a waterfall. Finally though, the tree line cleared and Laban Rata, our home for the night, appeared like a beautiful beacon of light. Soaked and miserable, we staggered into the hostel. There was only another 2.5km to go in the morning, with the prospect of more rain to come.
At first you can’t believe it. Is my alarm clock really going off at 1:30am? Then it dawns on you, it’s time to get up and attempt to summit. After trying to force down some beans on toast (seriously difficult at 2:00am) we departed Laban Rata and started our ascent to the summit. The most difficult aspect of this part of the climb is not the darkness, but the volume of climbers. Around 150 people all leave at the same time, which makes progress painstakingly slow. Eventually though, the stronger hikers get to the front and the line starts to spread out, and you can relax a little bit. Until you reach the rope. This is definitely the most dangerous point of the trek. We had to tightly grip onto a rope to enable us to inch along a very narrow ledge, with a sheer drop to the right. This torturous ordeal lasts for about fifteen minutes until you reach the final checkpoint. After that the rope continues but only as a marker to guide you across a long ridge. Strangely, for me, this was one of the easiest parts of the climb. Gone were the steps and boulders. We were just walking across smooth granite at a slight gradient. The challenge though is mental. In the approaching light, the summit is visible for a very long time before you get there, cruelly playing tricks on tired minds.
After what seemed like an eternity the ridge levelled out and we only had to scramble up a rocky crag to reach the ironically named Low’s Peak, the highest point in South East Asia. The sense of elation was overwhelming. I had done the Inca Trail some years earlier, but Kinabalu was easily the toughest physical challenge I’d ever undertaken. For that reason it’s also one of my proudest achievements.
Once you have finished revelling in the magnificent views, it’s time to go down. And believe me, this is just as tough as the ascent, even with a stop for second breakfast (definitely the best meal of the day) at Laban Rata. Janey, who had performed heroically up to this point given the fact that she had twisted her ankle a month beforehand, started to suffer from exhaustion. This made the descent very slow. Throughout this section, we were indebted to our wonderful guide Doina for her seemingly endless patience and indefatigability. Finally, we dragged our battered bodies back through the Timpohon gate at around 4:45pm. The whole trek had taken about 16 hours from start to finish. Was it worth the agony and several subsequent days of muscle pain? Of course it was. Every single bit of it.
We booked our 2 day, 1 night package through a company called Sutera, who seem to have a monopoly on climbing packages and accommodation. Expect to pay about 1000RM. This seems pricey, but it includes 7 meals, 2 nights accommodation and all climbing insurance etc. Ss the official Mount Kinabalu website http://www.mountkinabalu.com/ for details.