At the Top of South East Asia!

Trip Start Feb 01, 2005
Trip End Dec 31, 2020

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Laban Rata and Rock Hostel

Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Breathe, breathe, suck the oxygen in, you can do it"

No, I am not being coached while giving birth, though climbing Mt Kinabalu is akin to that experience, I am instead trying to get enough oxygen into my lungs in the rarefied air, close to the 4,000 meter mark on Mt Kinabalu. It is 5am and we have been climbing from the climber's rest house, Laban Rata since 2.30am. I am struggling to get enough air to keep going for a minute without a rest. Avan could see that I wasn't getting enough air in, as I was  panting instead of breathing deeply, so began a mantra “ breathe, breathe…”

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu has been a challenge I have had in the back of my mind for around 15 years. I read a story about a climber’s experience then and it appealed because, whilst it is very high at 4,050 metres, due to its proximity to the equator, it rarely has snow and can be climbed without any special equipment. Mt Kinabalu is in Sabah in Malaysian Borneo and is the highest mountain between New Guinea and the Himalayas.

We made the climb into a three day affair by having a day and night in Kinabalu park first, to adjust a little to higher altitude. We booked to climb in advance as the accommodation at the rest house  is usually booked out, which limits the numbers that can climb. It is park policy that you take two days to complete the up and back. We trekked a few trails the first day to get a bit of practice in and also visited the botanical gardens in the National Park which have UNESCO World Heritage status. Kinabalu Park is a bit of a strange set up. There is a park headquarters, a transportation office, then the reception for all the accommodation that is spread out over the park. This is run by a different group, Sutura Sanctuary Lodges. Lastly the Belsam Café, where we were to take our meals provided by the package we had paid for, sat in a valley at the bottom of 64 steps – not an issue BEFORE the climb but a different matter after the climb, when the sight of a step sends you into a spasm.

Our package was organized by Sutura, but when we arrived, they said they only managed the accommodation and we needed to sort everything else with the parks office. We found that a lot of charges were not included and we had to continue to put our hand in our pocket for expenses not explained.

That evening there was a briefing on the climb at 6pm, but it was not well advertised and only five climbers turned up. It seems that a lot of climbers start day one by travelling the two hours from Kota Kinabalu City, rather than pay the expensive prices for staying in the park the night before. At the briefing it was explained that the climb on day one, taking us to the Laban Rata rest house, would take on average 4 - 6 hours and be mainly steps, rocks and tree roots. Then on day two we would rise early and continue to climb up to the summit in time for sunrise. This would take 3 - 5 hours and would be the steepest part of the climb, involving some ropes. We would then climb back down to the rest house for breakfast, before continuing the rest of the way back down the mountain. 

The next day we were up early, had our breakfast, picked up our pre-packed lunch, put our luggage in storage (another unbudgeted charge of 10 MR each) registered and met our guide Edmund. We were given identity check point tags to wear around our neck and boarded a transport vehicle to take us the 4.5 kms to the Timphoon Gate, the start of the climb. We were later to find we had to pay a whopping 33 MR for there and back, but no mention of this at the time.

The first few hours we kept a good steady pace of up, up, up through beautiful rainforest. We saw exotic plants including a pitcher plant and lots of baby squirrels. We talked to those coming down and found that not a lot had made it all the way to the summit. Some had started at 2.30am but found it too hard and turned back and others had decided when they arrived at the guest house they couldn't even attempt going higher.   

It got harder and harder the higher we got and towards the end of the first day's climb we were scrambling up a water course of quite big boulders. Edmund our guide who incidentally had virtually no English, lent me a walking stick to assist to negotiate the huge steps. The guides, which are compulsory, are really just following you to make sure you don't get injured or stray off the path. We were really struggling by the last klm, and our resolve was not helped when a group of porters bustled past carrying a stretcher bearing an injured climber. 

Laban Rata Rest House finally appeared and we were quite proud of our five and a half hour climbing time.. We were way not the last and sat, watching others straggling in, over a welcome hot cup of tea. It was by now quite cold, as we were high above the clouds, and we were able to view a gorgeous sunset over the clouds and get a glimpse of the challenge ahead, by seeing the summit.

After an early evening meal, (every item at the rest house has to be brought up by porters. You almost feel bad eating and drinking!) we were in bed by 7.30pm. We had a twin room to ourselves which we thought would guarantee better sleep than the dorms, but not so. The rest house is all made of thin timber and people were clumping up and down stairs and corridors and making lots of noise. 

When the alarm went off at 2.00am we felt the least ready we could possibly be, to attempt the summit. Neither of us could eat, even though there was a pre-climb breakfast and when Edmund came for us at 2.30am we were seriously considering pulling out - but we didn't!

The climb was punishing, on already punished muscles, and in total darkness. Much steeper over large rocks for an hour or so, then we reached big granite boulders that required ropes to be used to pull ourselves up. It is pitch black and ahead and behind we could see tiny lights of people on the path. It seemed interminable - onwards and upwards and the air so thin and cold. That was when I was really struggling and Avan got me onto the mantra of "breathe, breathe...."

Finally one last very difficult push to the summit and we had made it!!!!! The dawn was just breaking as Edmund took our photo. We had made the last stretch in a respectable three hours. It was freezing cold - about zero degrees and we were so glad of our thermals, balaclavas and gloves. After some time on the summit and lots of photos we turned around and headed down.

No-one dwells on the down. One just wants to forget it, but I think it was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life! When we were going up, some of the coming down people said it was much harder but we didn't really believe them. We were amazed traversing the track we had come up, seeing it in daylight and wondering how we had managed it, just a few hours earlier in the dark. Back at the rest house we had a very welcome cooked breakfast, then headed off for the last 6 kms back down. Well, it was unbelievably painful, I have never known it to take so long to cover each tortuous half klm. Each step down jarred, and leg muscles had seized up, refusing to flex. At least we were not short of oxygen anymore!

 Finally twelve and a half hours after we had set out that morning at 2.30am, we staggered through the gate having completed in one day, 3 klms up and 9 klms down. 12 kms of hard work, after 6 kms the day before, and we were really done in. After a short wait the transport arrived to take us the four and a half kms back to Park headquarters and we fronted up for our certificates (had to pay $10 MR each). It was then we were told we had to pay for the short trip there and back from the gate and for two very tired people, this was a big deal because we had not been told earlier and we didn't even have that much money left. We simply refused to discuss the issue, willing our muscles to get us down the 64 steps to the restaurant for a meal and then it was back to our hostel for much deserved and needed showers and sleep.  


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