At the Roof of Borneo: The Climb to Kinabalu

The bus we had taken from the junction coming from the Kinabatangan dropped us off right in front of the entrance to Kinabalu National Park.  It was a three hour trip that took us along winding roads.  There was a brief stop for lunch where Dan and I bought some pineapples cut into squares and a fruit that looked and tasted like macopa. As we stepped off the bus on the curb of the large parking lot and eatery across the road to the park headquarters, the cool air greeted us.  The friendly staff pointed us to the Mountain Resthouse about a hundred meters away.  If it was any indication of what we would do the next day, the resthouse was on top of a low hill with  a few staircases to get to the reception area.  The middle-aged woman who I shall refer to as “manang” brought us to the second deck where I was made to choose between a room with a double bed and a single bed or a room with just a big double bed.  Both had ensuite bathrooms but not hot water.  I chose the latter because it had a balcony which would come in handy if we wanted to dry our stuff.  The resthouse was very basic but clean.   It was only RM30 per night so we couldn’t really ask for more.  We just dropped our stuff then headed to the park to register for the climb.

It was about 2 pm so there were hardly any people around as most are presumably on the way up or down.  First stop was at  the Mountain Torq office to register.  We had already reserved and paid our slots at Whoa Adventures previously. As I filled-up the form, t he girl said to hope for good weather as strong rain would mean that park rangers cancel the summit  climb and the  Via Ferrata.  Apparently, the previous week had had all-day rains and it was only in the recent days that the weather had been merciful.  Saying goodbye to the summit AND to the Via Ferrata would have been a real bummer and waste of a lot of money.  No refunds.  But we were optimistic.  After all, the gods had been blessing us since the trip began.  The weather had been generally cooperative with just brief showers that stop in time for any activity to begin.  We bought some badges for RM12 then went to the headquarters of Sabah Parks to pay the park fees and the guide.  We were told to go back the next morning when the office opens at 7 so we can get our guide.  At the transport office, we paid for our return park headquarters-Timpohon gate shuttle.  The entire registration process was smooth and easy.  The fees were a little hefty though.  RM 107 each for the climbing permit and insurance and RM 85 for the guide for both of us.  The return shuttle was at RM 16.

Since it had began showering, we decided to just head to Balsam for some lunch.  Or maybe because I saw the word “buffet lunch” so I just used the showers as an excuse.  Hehehehe.   It was almost 2pm and there were quite a number of people who had come down from the mountain already.  A group of school-age girls from the UK occupied a table and every time someone arrived, they would clap.  At another table sat a young Japanese couple who looked utterly exhausted.  Perhaps they had just made it down.  The UK girls all seemed cheerful and happy.  Even Kelly, the recently-arrived girl didn’t look too exhausted. We felt like gluttons eating all that food surrounded by people who just summitted and gone down Kinabalu while all we have ever done yet was to register.  The food wasn’t particularly good but it was enough to satisfy.  I had my fill of fried noodles, chicken in sweet chili sauce, sausages, fish fillet, and banana and taro fritters.

The shower had ended by the time we finished lunch so we decided to just walk around the park.  We came upon the entrance of the Pandanus Trail but decided against taking it as I was in sandals and didn’t want to risk slipping. We followed a sign that pointed to the Botanical Gardens instead.  Walking along the road, we passed by a young white boy who suddenly exclaimed, “Watch out!”  We stopped on our tracks and on Dan’s feet lay a squashed centipede. “Aaawww.  I was going to use this (shaking a leaf) so I could bring it to the side of the road, ” his mom tragically said.  “Sorry I didn’t see it,” said Dan and we went on our way while the kid and his mom probably said their eulogies over the dead centipede.  The botanical garden was closed so we instead followed a little overgrown path that led to a mossy bridge and a small stream.  We decided to head back to our lodging to fix our stuff for the climb and rest. We were to leave our main packs at the rest house then check-in again on the 29th when we got down from the mountain.  I had already figured out that doing the Via Ferrata after the summit climb then going down the mountain would have us arriving at park headquarters around 6pm in not very ideal situations for a bus ride to Kota Kinabalu.  Better to stay another night at the rest house to recuperate.

The Climb Up. We were at park headquarters by 7 am to get our guide.  We were assigned Maik (short for Maikin), a young Dusun who apologized that he didn’t speak English very well.  I told him I spoke some Bahasa-Melayu so we would do just fine.  The sky was clear  and the weather seemed perfect for climbing.  People were starting to amass at park headquarters and there was a palpable air of excitement.  The shuttle arrived at 7:30 and we were whisked off to the Timpohon Gate.   Wanting to avoid the crowd, we immediately started out.  The trail deceptively led downhill to Carson’s Falls then along flat wooded pathways. A few meters later, everything started climbing and climbing and climbing.  It was just steps steps steps—steps carved out of the mountain, wooden steps placed over steep surfaces, natural stone steps, steps from the trees of roots— it was like going up and up and up on a broken escalator.

Huts or pondok were laid out every 400 meters where one could rest, go to the toilet, and fill-up on water.  We caught up with a small group of middle-aged Malaysian and Singaporean climbers (4 women and a man) who were resting in one of the pondok. They were all very friendly.  We set out together but soon overtook them.  I was actually climbing quite leisurely as I knew it was going to be a long long hike and I was conscious of the thinning air.  Past the 2.0 kilometer mark, I  started leaving Dan behind with the guide and would instead wait for him at the pondok.  Sometimes, there would be a little traffic jam as groups of climbers going down would meet those going up.  As you can see from the picture below, on reaching the 3.5k mark, I felt accomplished.  After all, that meant I was done with a little more than half the distance.

The Torture Begins. Reaching Pondok Layang-Layang where the Mesilau Trail met up with the Summit Trail, I waited for Dan about 10 minutes, the usual time difference between us.  There was a big group of  whites there which included a 70-year old lady!  It had began to get cold and I put on my jacket as I was only in shorts and shirt.  Wanting to move on, I decided to just continue all the way to the top without waiting for Dan.   At least he had the guide with him.  I was climbing alone most of the time.  The trail had become really steep by now and there were mostly large stones and rocks and stone surfaces to hike on.  I shuddered thinking the difficulty these would pose on the way down especially if it rained.

Can you beat these guys running up and down the mountain?

He has a gas tank on his back

Trees had began to become gnarled and the vegetation stunted, signs that the elevation was very high already.  I felt a little claustrophobic inside the forest especially when the mist came in.  My goal was to reach Panar Laban, 3,000+ meters on the mountain or 6 kilometers up where the accommodations were, by 12:30 to have my packed lunch at the Pendant Hut where we were to stay.  Fatigue had begun to set in and my pace was slowing down.

Me and the Squirrels. At the 5.0 kilometer marked, I decided to take a break at Pondok Villosa. I was hungry by this time and was cursing myself for leaving my packed lunch with Dan.  Fortunately, I had enough trail food with me and water was no problem.  I was alone in the pondok and there was nobody in the trail.  I am used to being alone on the trail when climbing  but for some strange reason, I felt so lonely at the pondok.  With squirrels and a bird watching me, I had my lunch of 2 cereal bars.  I had forgotten that my chocolates were in my bag and not at Dan’s. It would have perked me up.   I continued my walk and finally reached the 5.5 kilometer mark and the last pondok—- Paka.

The Last Push. Reaching Pondok Paka was like reaching the Point of No Return (as if you could simply turn back and return to Timpohon at any time in the earlier part of the climb).  400 meters or so between the pondoks didn’t seem to long.  This one was 550+ meters to Laban Rata.  My mind and body seemed to have been programmed for 400+ meters.  The extra 150+ seemed unacceptable.  Normally the final push would be an energy booster—you walk faster and your all buzzed up.  I sat and stared at the number.  “Stay and rest.  Wait for Dan,” my body seemed to be saying.  “Beyond this point, there will be no more pondok.”  Fatigue and the thin air had probably skewed up my thinking.  Sure. there would be no more pondok, but there would be the Pendant Hut where I can check-in, drop my bag, remove my shoes, and lie down on a bed.  All that didn’t cross my mind.  I simply stared at the sign.  I did not want to leave.  Weirdly, I felt that this was it.  It was the Final Frontier.  The Showdown.  I think I should have felt that when we began at Timpohon Gate.  At least, there’s time to turn back.  I snapped out of my thoughts and continued.

It was sheer torture by now.  I wasn’t walking.  I was trudging very very slowly and I could feel the effects of the thin air. I was really glad we did an acetozolamide prophylaxis or I would have been experiencing acute mountain sickness by now.  I had to catch my breathe every meter or so.  Being alone did not help any.  A family of Europeans went past me and I exclaimed, “how far can 500 meters go?”  “C’mon. You’re almost there. Keep going, ” encouraged the young man as his parents hiked past me and nodded smilingly.  I felt so slow and so weak.

Hauling myself up some steep steps, out of the mist, I glimpsed a hut!  It was like seeing the pearly gates of heaven.  I shook my finger at it and said to myself, “that must be Laban Rata.”  It was the Waras Hut. I went past it and a few meters later, I finally saw the iconic Laban Rata.

Laban Rata

I had seen the promised land!   Laban Rata—the place people fight for just to climb the mountain.  Laban Rata—- its name conjures up frustration and success.  Frustration that it’s almost impossible to book.  Success because you actually got a booking albeit at a hefty price.  The mist had lifted by now and suddenly, it didn’t seem very cold anymore.  I was pointed to Pendant Hut where all those doing the Via Ferrata stay. Following the sign, I came upon the most horrible sight——- stairs! I wanted to scream!  I clutched at the handrails and hauled myself up. stopping every now and then to catch my breathe.  There was absolutely no excitement.  I was heading to Pendant Hut for sheer survival.  I slid the main door open, took off my shoes at the ante room, flung the door to the lobby  and said to the guy at the reception counter, “I’m here!”

Around past 3 am on the way to the summit

I Made It. “You’re the first one to arrive,” he said.  I proudly wrote my name on the register (#1).  It was 1 pm and it had taken me 5 hours.  The hut was clean and the main room had tables and benches presumably for the morning breakfast.  On one side of the wall, a big tarpaulin of the Philippine Everest Team doing the Via Ferrata was displayed.  I did remember reading about the Sabah Tourism Office inviting the team to climb Kinabalu via the mesialu Trail and  the Via Ferrata.  A news clipping was also displayed on the corridor leading to the dorms.  He showed me to the dorm beds where I chose the one farthest from the door.  A short flight of stairs led to the shower areas.  A hot shower and a change of clothes revived me a but and I nuggled in the sleeping bag.

I was awakened at a little past 1:30pm by a young German couple who had arrived.  I said “hello” to the girl and stood up.  Dan hadn’t arrived yet and I was hungry.  I was thinking of heading down to Laban Rata for a meal but the sheer cold and fatigue brought me back to my sleeping bag.  Besides, we were due for the orientation at 3pm.  Finally at about 2pm, I woke-up and saw the familiar face of Maik.  I grabbed my packed lunch from Dan and gobbled it up in less then 10 minutes then went back to sleep.  A few minutes before 3, I woke-up and went to the main room for the briefing.  The German couple had already started theirs and there were three other English-speaking girls (from the UK I think) that had arrived.  During the simulation, the Germans both looked and sounded like experienced climbers as they were even discussing their experiences with rope tying and carabiner clamping in Germany.  We were intently watching them.  Then the staff turned to us and said, “tomorrow you join this team.  He (pointing to the guy) will be team leader, she will be #2 and both of you 3 and 4, ok?”  We were stunned.  The girl looked at us.  I suddenly began to feel very nervous.  We?  Novice Via Ferrata climbers with 2 experience d Germans who looked like they climb up and down mountain cliffs before they head to work?  At 3:30, we had our briefing with the 3 other girls who were all doing the Walk the Torque.  The briefing was very well done and excited us more.  We were shown the route and pictures of some highlights such as the cable bridge and the swinging bridge were shown to us.  Then we were taught to put on our harness and practiced setting the rope and carabiners.  It all seemed very uncomplicated.

More people arrived. I was delighted to see the Malaysians and Singaporean we had encountered on the lower slopes.  After the briefing and the simulation, it was dinner time at Laban Rata. On my way out, I asked the guy who briefed the German couple about my concern of not being able to catch up with them as we were novices on the Via Ferrata. I had done some indoor climbing but it wasn’t much.  He showed me a list of the other group and said, “I put you with the couple because this other group is going to be very slow.”  As he held up the list, I saw the ages of the participants which ranged from 40-52. I understood what he meant.

St. John's Peak

Buffet at 3000masl. Seeing those Kadazan and Dusun guys running up the mountain carrying food supplies and even gas tanks, you just gotta eat and appreciate all that food at the Laban Rata Restaurant.  Actually, the thought of the buffet dinner was one of the things that just kept me going.  It was 5pm and there was a long line at the buffet table.  I had some fried noodles, lamb, fried chicken, and a mini sub.  The restaurant, which was thankfully heated, was quite full but the German couple offered the empty space on their table.  Contrary to what we had expected, they were very very nice and friendly.  When I told our apprehension of slowing them both down at the Via Ferrata, they both laughed.  Karin, for that was the girl’s name, said they were both thinking the same thing. In fact, she was wondering why Andy was made team leader and not one of us as we both looked so experienced.   They’ve done the Via Ferrata in Germany but it was more of a route laid linking trees together with the elevation no higher than 3 meters.  I was so relieved to hear that. They were just as apprehensive as we were.  When they both went back to the hut to rest, I ate some more.  Dan bought some batteries and a head light at the shop as his wasn’t working.  The 2 double AA batteries cost RM50!

When we got back at the Pendant Hut, Karin and Andy were already in bed. I took a quick shower and wore my summit clothes already.  The constant shuffling about of people kept me awake.  I had already taken my medication but still couldn’t  completely sleep.  It was only when the light was finally turned-off around 10pm did I feel myself drift off to sleep.

Walk to the Summit. Dan woke me a few minutes before 2am.  Others were already taking their breakfast.  I had 3 peanut butter toasts and gulped copious amounts of water.  Karin was looking for her guide and couldn’t really remember how he looked like.  She showed me a blurred pic on her camera to check if it was the guy sitting on the bench.  It wasn’t him.  Maik was already there and by 2:30 we were on our way.  There was a long long line up the steep wooden steps.  After what seemed like a hundred steps, we  found ourselves on steep rocks.  I remembered what the Mountain Torque staff told us during our briefing.  “The Summit Trail is just like the last 500 meters on the way to the hut.”   I gotta give it to Maik who paced us very well.  While others rushed, he took leisurely steps which ensured that we were at a steady pace.  It was freezing cold and the steps just went up and up.  Finally, we reached the ledge where we had to cling to a rope as we made our way around the rock face.  It wasn’t as steep nor as scary as everyone made it out to be.  It was certainly not a vertical fall.  The guides were even walking around it.  A few hundred meters more of traversing and some scrambling then finally we reached the Sayat-Sayat hut check-point where we had to show our climbing permits.  It was also the last stop for a toilet break and to fill up on water.  Maik told us to go ahead with instructions to just follow the white rope as he needed to go to the toilet.  About 10 minutes up, I suddenly wished I had also taken a toilet break.  There is something about seeing a toilet in the mountain that triggers a psychological need to go to the toilet.  I almost turned back to to Sayat-Sayat for a toilet break; but the embarrassment of quizzical looks as I make my way down while everyone is making their way up stopped me dead on my tracks.

What Am I Doing? There are some moments in some mountains wherein you ask yourself the sanity of what you’re doing.  This was one of the moments in one of those mountains.  We were now on the sheer granite rock face with the thick white rope leading us to the summit.    I had never ever walked so slow in my entire life.  It was like one step for every two breathes.  I was in automatic pilot and was just trudging and trudging along the rock surface.  I couldn’t imagine how it would be like at Everest.  At the 8.0 kilometer mark, I could finally make out the steep trail to the summit.  Maik had already caught up with us.  People were stopping and drinking coffee or tea.  The sky was slowly turning to violet.  It was past 5 already.  I slowly clambered up the rocks and boulders, and as dawn slowly broke I reached the top of Borneo at 5:30.  It felt great.  The sun finally rose but it was a little cloudy.  We took our mandatory summit pictures and by 6am we started to make our way down in time for the cut-off at the 7.5 kilometer mark for the Via Ferrata.  We were reminded by the staff to make sure we make our guide bring us to the 7.5 k mark and not the Sayat-Sayat as the other day, a Filipino climber, ended up at Sayat-Sayat so he did the Walk the Torque instead rather than the Low’s Peak Circuit.

The descent proved easy. I had no need for my trekking pole as the granite surface wasn’t slippery at all.  We reached the  7.5k mark before 7.  The Malaysian guy was there and said that none of his group was going as they were all sick.  His  sister suddenly walked up which surprised him. We gave them some acetozolamide for their AMS.  Karen and Andy arrived.  Their guide fetched them at 2:45 and they made up to the summit at about the same time us as.  They’re really fast.  They did the Panar Laban the previous day in only 3 hours.  We put on our harnesses and helmets, knotted the ropes that linked us, strapped our carabs on the cables, and started the walk of our lives!

I think the Via Ferrata deserves a blog of its own.  So I’m going to stop here and continue with another blog on the Low’s Peak Circuit and the climb down.

Categories: Kinabalu, Malaysia | Leave a comment

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