On the summit for sunrise...

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Where I stayed
Park's Hostel

Flag of Malaysia  ,
Sunday, September 4, 2005

We'd gone down deep and peered into the abyss, and now it was time to climb high into the clouds. At 4095 metres, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia, between the Himalayas and New Guinea. It is also one of the most frequently climbed mountains in the world - apparently around 100 people a day, thousands every year, make it to the summit. We were confident we would soon count among them.

Early on Thursday 1 September, while the inhabitants of Semporna slept off the effects of the previous day's Merdeka celebrations, we boarded the express bus (which turned out to be a cramped 'bas mini', or minivan) in the direction of Kota Kinabalu (or K.K., as it is called). A long, uncomfortable and sweaty ride brought us to Kinabalu National Park at about 3pm, and we checked into the Park's hostel with no problems.

When we booked our accommodation at the half-way point, Laban Rata, in K.K. on 25 August, we were told that all the hostel accommodation at the starting point was full. However, we took the chance and were allocated beds in a quiet dorm (yes, friends, we are turning into dorm rats, but purely out of necessity!). Here's a tip for anyone planning to visit Mount Kinabalu: the accommodations reservations system is completely rubbish... they'll tell you on the phone it's full when in fact there are plenty of empty beds, so just arrive!

The National Park 'base camp', at the foot of the famous mountain, has a network of lovely trails by which to explore the cool and tranquil montane rainforest of towering trees and giant tree ferns. While Rich made an emergency dash for cash to the nearby village (typically, we had arrived without enough cash to finance the rather expensive permit & guide fees etc.), I took a stroll around to enjoy the cool mountain air and profusion of bird life. In the evening we attended the climbers' briefing (rather amusing but nevertheless worthwhile) and enjoyed a fab meal and a Guinness in the restaurant just outside the Park gates. (Another tip for anyone planning to go there: the Park restaurant is pricey; the Bayu Kinabalu eatery just outside the gates is excellent value).

At dawn on the day of our climb, we packed our small daypacks with the necessary - warm clothes, sleeping bags, snacks - and after breakfast we met the guide allocated to us, a chap named Dhosib. After breakfast, at 10am, we took a minibus to the starting point (1866m) and set off. The path is well-constructed, but this also means thousands of steps, many of them too high for my short legs... arrgggh! The 6km route to the overnight stop, Laban Rata (3668m), is relentlessly steep, plus breathing gets harder as the air thins at higher altitude. I must confess I was really taking strain about two hours into the walk, even though we were keeping a slow and steady pace and taking plenty of breaks.

Despite the physical agony, the walk up was pretty amazing as we climbed through several vegetation zones. The lush forests of tall trees and ferns gave way to more stunted shrubs and finally tough, low-growing scrub and small, gnarled trees festooned with lichens. The stars of the show were the lovely orchids and colourful rhododendrons on the upper slopes, and the conspicuous, carnivorous pitcher plants beside the path about half-way up.

We reached Laban Rata at 2pm, four hours after setting off - all in all we made pretty good time. Spent the afternoon chilling out and sipping hot drinks in the lounge-dining area of the heated resthouse, and scoffed our way through an early buffet dinner. We retired to our accomodation - an unheated hut with dorm rooms - at about 8pm to get a decent night's sleep before starting our climb to the summit well before dawn the following day.

At 3am the next morning, we were up and ready to tackle the remaining 2.5km to the summit. Together with hundreds of other hopeful hikers aiming for the summit, we crept up the steep path in total darkness, torches in hand (or on head). Initially we ran into quite a traffic jam, as the slower walkers, who had started before us, blocked the path. We overtook the crowds with some nifty footwork, and within an hour we had reached the uppermost reaches of the mountain, where vegetation gives way to slabs of sheer granite. We kept going at a steady pace, using the ropes provided to hoist ourselves up when necessary.

Looking down the path at the long string of torchlights slowly winding its way upwards made one realise how determined ordinary people can be to conquer a physical challenge. I was finding this bit much easier and more bearable than the previous day's walk... the reason is largely psychological, I think, because in darkness you cannot see the path ahead and so you're unaware of how steep the climb really is. When we came down later, in daylight, we were surprised to see the gradient in some places.

We reached the summit (4095m) at about 5.10am, tried to get comfy on a rock and waited in the freezing cold for the first sign of dawn. The clouds were rolling in thick and fast, and by the time the sky lit up, at about 5.40am, there was not much hope of us experiencing the panoramic sunrise views that this summit climb is famed for. However, the soft pink light was magical as it bathed the banks of cloud and the granite peaks around us. As the cloud swirled and lifted in places, we peered into the dark, ominous depths of Low's Gulley below us.

We started our descent at about 6.20am, marching briskly over the granite slabs and down the steep path, and reached the overnight hut at 7.45am. After a quick breakfast back at the hut, we started the long trek downhill at 9am. Torture for the knees! Those horrible high steps had me groaning in agony all the way.

We were back at Park Headquarters by 12 noon and checked into the hostel for another night... though we had considered heading for KK that afternoon, we felt we could really do with a good long rest. And so, for the first time in ages, we had an afternoon nap of a whole 3 hours! We surfaced at about 4.30pm and had a little stroll (or shall we say hobble) around. After an early dinner we were back in bed by 8pm - almost unheard of for the two of us!

The challenge of reaching the summit, and the sense of achievement in doing so, were not the only rewards of this climb. We found the sense of cameraderie among the climbers, and the natural beauty of the mountain, unique and memorable.
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