SE Asia's Highest Mountain

Trip Start Jun 19, 2009
Trip End Sep 17, 2009

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Flag of Malaysia  , Sabah,
Tuesday, August 11, 2009

So we'd decided to climb the highest mountain in South East Asia. This was mainly due to it being described as a highlight in our guidebook. It was going to be the biggest hill we’d ever climbed by a long way. Most travellers that we’d met recently had either just done it or were about to do it or they’d tried to get accommodation and failed!

We caught the express bus to Mount Kinabalu (as usual we waited at a bus stop for some random time, totally unrelated to anything anyone had told us about bus times) and nicely, it dropped us off right at the door of Rose Cabin. We were staying outside of the national park to keep costs down – the 2km walk to the park was good to loosen up our legs in any case.

We lazed around for a couple of days enjoying the cooler mountain air in sight of the mountain. Our room had a little balcony and it was really nice sitting watching butterflies in the trees.

At the park we went for a nice guided tour of the tinybotanical garden and saw orchids and other pretty flowers . Then we worked out some of the details for our trip up the hill - they don’t offer much info so, it’s a bit of a puzzle game with some guessing thrown in.

Climbing Mt. Kinbalu was not going to be technical but certainly wasn’t just a matter of parking in a lay-by, pulling on your boots and slogging up a hill, as in Scotland. And it wasn’t going to be easy for us as neither of us has spent too much time in the mountains recently.

The usual approach is to walk up from the park to a hut at Laban Rata, the only mountain accommodation, have dinner and grab a few hours sleep. Then get up at 2am for some ‘supper’, climb to the summit in the dark before sunrise, descend to Laban Rata for breakfast and then down all the way to the park for a late lunch the following day (some supermen do the mountain in one day but we certainly couldn’t!). Access is strictly controlled, limited by the number of beds at Laban Rata, and we’d had to book some time ahead (which in itself was a bit of a saga but we’ll leave that for another day).

To put this into some perspective, park headquarters where you start is higher than Ben Nevis. Laban Rata is then more than another Ben Nevis up and the last bit above this is a Corbet that you go up in the dark!! The top is at 4095m (or 13,435 feet in old money).

Not a good start as Sarah started off with a dive for the loo (something in some water we’d drank we think). An early taxi to park then, where we got our permits for climbing . We then arranged our (obligatory) guide – the park helped us to share a guide with Cornelia, an Austrian lass (who was nice company and by a strange coincidence turned out to also be heading to Indonesia on the same plane as us on Tuesday!).

We picked up our packed lunches and took the mini bus to the entry gate (everyone does this, honest!) and started on up. The first 4km was an almost continuous set of steps (some as high as ~50cm/20”). The following 2km up to Laban Rata was even more steps roughly formed from boulders. We’d been advised to take the first day trek very slow and we did exactly that, taking a leisurely 5 hours to reach the hut.

There wasn’t much in the way of views as the afternoon mist came down but it was a friendly walk up with different groups chatting as we passed going up or down and wished each other luck (Sarah, still not feeling great felt in need of this!). We kept meeting the same folks at the rest stops.
As we slogged up to Laban Rata the porters who carry up all the supplies passed us at times – and their 30kg packs looked really heavy!! They had huge calf muscles and made us feel really unfit.

When we finally got to Laban Rata Sarah made a bee line for the showers and was one of the few to get hot water (and has been very smug about it since.) While I had a dive for the loo and some pills – this was obviously not going to get any easier (for one thing we’d only brought a small supply of pills!).

We were sharing a room with Aiden and another Sarah, an Irish couple who doing an around the world trip. After supper and a lovely sunset (the food was really good too) we all settled down for a few hours of disturbed sleep, ‘waking’ at 2am for the next leg.

At 3am we started up the section above Laban Rata in the dark with our head torches on, climbing a series of steep wooden stairs before moving onto scambling up rocky slopes assisted by fixed ropes. You can imagine, over a 100 people prompted by 30+ guides all starting out from the hut at the same time, it was instant grid lock and we were effectively in a torch lit queue for the next couple of hours. A combination of stomach bug and the altitude made the whole thing a real ordeal for Sarah (who tried to be sick every ten meters!) but she pushed on courageously to the top regardless assisted by various tablets we were able to scrounge from our fellow climbers.

Each step was an effort for Sarah as she gasped for breath and she was certainly not alone with this. Martyn faired better and annoyed everyone by being really cheerful and taking pictures! We slowly made it to the summit at 6:30 am just after sunrise.

After only a few pic’ies we started on down very aware that we had all that decent to go – fortunately Sarah felt better as we went down. We stopped at Laban Rata for a couple of hours and then tackled the steps of despair downwards (now very slippery in the rain!). Easy going at first but by the last km our legs were jelly and we both literally hobbled out of the final gate at 1:30 in the afternoon. (Quite a respectable time by the way!)

We’d booked another night at Rose Cabin and after a hot shower crashed until the next day. We caught up with Adam, another Austrian who’d been unable to get accommodation at Laban Rata and had done the whole thing in one go! We swapped stories of failing legs and promised to send pictures by e-mail when we got a chance.
In the early afternoon we crawled across the road on wobbly legs to flag down an express bus to KK.

All in all another ’hell’ of an experience!! I quite enjoyed climbing the mountain while Sarah looking back just feels it was a huge slog for not much reward. As the pain fades maybe that’ll change…

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