Conquering Mount Kinabalu

3rd Jul 2014
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 1/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 2/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 3/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 4/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 5/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 6/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 7/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 8/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 9/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 10/11 by Vicky Chong
Photo of Conquering Mount Kinabalu 11/11 by Vicky Chong

Ascent to Laban Rata (3273m)

We assembled at the HQ at 8am and started the climb from Timpohon Gate, a shorter and more direct climb to the summit than the more scenic Mesilau route.

I was excited and relieved that the day had finally arrived. We did a short warm up and reminded each other to take our time to climb. Although I use the word climb, there is no hands involved in our ascent to the summit, just leg power going up steps made unevenly of rocks, granite and occasionally wooden planks. The total journey to Laban Rata would be 6km, with rest stops equipped with flushing toilets at every mile-stone.

I started my Runkeeper Apps on my phone. My group of five included my friend’s seventy-year old father. Each of us had a hiking stick to assist us. As I walk, my Apps updated my progress every five minutes and I was horrified that I took about 55mins per km, twice my usual training time at Bukit Timah Hill. At that rate, I would need approximately 6 hours to reach Laban Rata.

I trudged on, and met two friendly couples from Malacca. May and hubby Bak Kut Teh were a jovial couple and I felt an instant connection with them. I was to meet them often during my climb. The climb was made harder by the uneven surfaces. My husband Mike urged me to slow down but I find myself losing momentum every time I stopped and waited for the group. In the end, I told them I would go ahead first.

I reached out lunch destination at Layang layang (4km mark). It was crowded with hikers taking their lunch break. My stomach started growling as well and I finished my ration of  Wang Wang rice crackers and Snicker. Still, there was no sign of my group. My lunch was with the porter. Although it was sunny, I started feeling chilly in my thin attire and shivered. I finally spotted my friend SH. Still hot from her climb, she loaned me her windbreaker and a sandwich. The rest finally arrived, with my food and extra clothing.

Hiking in an unfamiliar terrain requires mindful walking. One missed step and you may find your face on the ground, as what had happened to me while hiking in KL. Here, you really had to consider which stepping-stones are the least strenuous to your knees. Still, I wanted to take in the scenery and was delighted to spot some huge Pitcher Plants by the side of the trail.

As the altitude increased, tropical plants gave way to alpine shrubs with its needle-shaped leaves. I met some hikers on their way down and asked them about the summit. Most could not reach the summit as there was heavy rain the night before and the guides had stopped the climb for safety reasons. Their news hit me hard. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might not succeed due to weather. To go all the way and fail? My heart sank as I felt rain drops falling. It got heavier and I had to put on my poncho to protect my backpack. I felt like an impatient little kid as I asked everyone I met who were coming down, ‘How long more to go?’ They were all very encouraging, although not very truthful as they replied, ‘You’re almost there.’

As I dragged my increasingly heavy foot up yet another step, the tightness on my upper back also increased. I met May and she was all bright and cheerful, in contrast to my gloomy look. She pointed to a building in front and said, our destination was below that building, hidden from sight, about five minutes walk away.

My heart lifted and so did my feet. I needed to get away from this wetness quickly to rest my feet on a comfortable seat, hopefully with a cup of hot tea at hand.

And I made it to Laban Rata, into the warm, dry canteen and my hot cup of tea.

Summit (4095.2m)

I was lucky. My friend managed to book the only available room with heater and bathroom attached (one of three ‘Buttercup’ rooms) for Mike and me at Laban Rata, while they were booked in a 6 bedder hostel with communal bath and toilet. We went to bed at 9pm, but I couldn’t sleep despite the fatigue. We would have five hours of rest before we were to meet again at 2am to scale the summit.

There was a daily limit to the number of people climbing Mount Kinabalu, but still it seemed crowded to me as we made our way out of Laban Rata to the gate of the summit at 2.30am. If we were lucky, we might be able to view a spectacular sun rise at the summit. Mike paid the guide RM40 to carry up his photographic equipment, which in the end he didn’t use. He was just too tired for photography, but he explained that it was too misty.

I was dressed in Heattec inner top and bottom, a tee, a fleece sweater and a windbreaker. (Thanks to my son Aaron, who taught us how to dress for mountain climbing when he went to Nepal a few weeks before.) On my head, a woolen beanie topped with a headlamp. Mike again asked me not to leave the group but I told him there was no way we could keep in group. Indeed, during the arduous journey, most of the people I met were single and alone.

We made our way in the dark, the path illuminated only by a single spot ahead. As I looked up, I saw spots of light up ahead, much like fireflies in the darkness. Soon we reached the famous rope section, where I knew to our right was a steep drop. A guide kindly helped me attach my hiking stick onto my backpack and then I was off. My gardening gloves were immediately soaked by the rope attached to the granite wall. I held on tight and made my way gingerly on the narrow edge, following the people in front. The rope swung and suddenly, there was a collective gasps as a man slipped, his hands still holding tightly onto the rope. I didn’t know how, but a guide was by his side and after being assured that he could continue, the crowd started moving again.

The air got thinner and I had to sit and rest after every few meters. It was a funny sight. Whenever we see someone sitting down, it was as if the rest of us were also given permission to rest and the whole group of strangers would sit at the same time. One would then get up to move and the rest would follow suit.

At one point, I spotted a boy crouched in a position and approached him. Thirteen year old Mohd Eddy was alone and suffering from altitude sickness. He was also freezing in his wet gloves and sweater, no protection against the wind. He was adamant that he could continue and started following me. Soon, he was resting too often and shivering. I decided to call out to a guide and luckily, there was one nearby and he came to our aid. Last I heard, Eddy turned back and reached the Headquarters (HQ) safely.

After I left Eddy, more and more people dropped off and I found myself walking alone in the dark most of the time. I wondered how the rest was doing. As day broke, I had 500 meters more to the summit and amid the clouds and mist, an orange glow appeared. But that glow was soon covered up by the clouds again. The large expense of granite land was foreign and familiar at the same time. The landscape I had never seen anywhere else before but I remembered walking the same path 29 years ago on my first trip to Mount Kinabalu. I met some people coming down and they gave me words of encouragement. They were worried about the weather and decided they shouldn’t linger up there longer than necessary as we felt raindrops falling, which thankfully stopped after a while.

I followed the rope, occasionally holding on to it to help propel me up the slippery slope. As I climbed up some rocks, I saw a nondescript signboard signalling my destination. The summit, Low’s Peak, was just a 3m x 1m platform. There was a literally a queue for that spot and after a few photographs, I made my way down. As I said, most of us were alone, so we were happy to help each other take photos on our phones.

As I walked my lonely journey back, I spotted my friend SH with Mike. I had wanted to wait for them at the summit, but the cold deterred me. They told me that another friend Carmen and her father had to turn back. I traced my return down by the rope, determined to enjoy the view, which mostly was non-existence.

The rope was helpful again as I held on to glide down the slopes and I wondered why more people don’t use it. Perhaps they didn’t know how.

I reached the dreaded vertical incline. It was a different feeling walking that path in day light, where the cliff was now visible. I reminded myself to not let go of the rope….and then, my legs slipped and I found myself hanging on the rope. The woman behind me shouted for me to hold on and don’t let go. Very quickly, I stepped back on the ledge, relieved that my arms were able to support my body weight.

The rest of the journey to Laban Rata, where we had spent the night before was uneventful. I met a group of hikers from JB. Although they looked older than me, they were nimble on their feet as they made their way down effortlessly, as compared to me.

I reached Laban Rata at 9.30am, checked out of my room, and helped myself to the buffet breakfast, packing for Mike and SH. Carmen and her Dad had left for HQ. Although I was very tired and had no appetite, I knew I needed the fuel for my way down, which was another 6km. I drank two cups of sweetened tea and forced the food down. Mike and SH arrived at 11am. They took their meals and we left Laban Rata together at 11.30am.

I had expected the journey down to be faster but I was wrong. The initial part was extremely rocky and slippery. Imagine going down a gradient waterfall minus the water. Mike and Sh were faster at going down initially. I was extremely exhausted but I had no choice but to go on. While ascending the summit, there were many who gave up but the thought had never crossed my mind about giving up. But now on my way down, I wished there was some way I didn’t have to make this journey. Perhaps I could get someone to piggy-back me down? It would cost me RM350 per km. The seemingly never-ending journey reminded me of my marathon run, as I told myself to take one step at a time. I met May and Bak Kut Teh again, who had left much earlier. It seemed some people have more trouble going down than up.

We met Carmen and Dad and Mike decided to stay behind to help them, as SH and I struggled down silently by ourselves. One of SH’s knees refused to cooperate and she could not balance out her descent on both knees, relying on only one banded knee to go down. At 4pm, we still had 1km to go. I texted for my friend at the HQ to help us pack our free buffer dinner, which closed at 4.30om.

SH asked me as we struggled with every step, doesn’t a return journey always seem shorter, why then does our return journey not feel the same? I told her it’s because we had been walking since the night before at 2am, effectively walking 10km as compared to the 6km going up Laban Rata.

As I write this, my thighs and shins are still sore, five days after our climb, while the rest of the group had recovered. They said I went too fast and that I should have rested more in between. But I kind of like the ache, this feeling of achievement that reminds me that I had conquered Mount Kinabalu, but more importantly, conquered my mental obstacle. When this pain subsides, as it will in another day or two, I have my beautiful certificate to give me the same sense of satisfaction.