Day 2 of a Mt. Kinabalu climb is what separates men from the boys. It has got to be the longest day of anyone’s climbing life.
Waking-up at 1:30 in the morning is not exactly something I was looking forward to. After the buffet dinner at Laban Rata, I took a quick shower and fixed my assault pack. The Germans finished dinner much earlier and were already in their bunk beds. I aimed to be snuggling in my sleeping bad by 8pm but kept coming and going and the light was turned-on. I had already taken my dosage of Rivotril but I kep waking-up. Finally at around 10 when finally the light was turned-off and everyone else in the fully-packed dorm room stopped scurrying, I drifted off to sleep.
Gasping and Gaping at the Summit.
Dan woke me up at 2 am. Everyone was awake already. I had a quick breakfast of pancakes then went to the toilet. Our guide, Maik, was already there waiting. Karin was still looking for guide. She showed me a pic on her celphone and asked me if the guy sitting on the bench was the one. The other guides had assured her that he was probably on the way. Dan and I started off at 2:30 while Karin and Andy waited for their guide. People had already started out and it was slow going as we were all in a single file, not that you could rush all the way up. It was bitingly cold and really dark. We were told yeterday during the Via Ferrata briefing that the trail was similar to the last 500 meters of the trail to Laban Rata. After the endless wooden steps, we climbed on rocks and boulders which soon gave way to smooth granite. A thick white rope aided us as we traversed cliff face. It wasn’t scary as it didn’t drop straight down but rather gradually descended. In fact, the mountain guides simply walked along the cliff away from the rope. Nevertheless, it felt good to be hauling yourself up with your arms for a change. A few meters up and we reached the final check point where we had to show our climb permits. It was also the last stop for a toilet break and to load-up on water. Maik went to the toilet and told us he’d just catch-up. About a hundred meters up I wished I also took a toilet break. Too late to go back down now. Past the South Peak, the summit looked deceptively close. A thick white rope guided everyone to all the way up. The gradient of the slope was gradual and there was no need to grab onto the rope but we were advised to stay close to it as fog could come and make you lose your way. Some people were stopping to sip from their flasks of hot drinks. I simply kept going and going. I was walking very slowly and had started to resemble a zombie. Maik had caught up with us and was trudging along. It was so cold and the air so thin that everyone step seemed to produce a slight gasp. At this point, I started to cross-out any dreams of climbing Everest or any alpine peak. I finally reached the end of the granite slope and scrambled my way up to the tiny summit that was the roof of Borneo. It may no longer be the highest mountain in Southeast Asia but it was still magnificent. It was 5:30 am and dawn was breaking. Maik pointed to summit marker so Dan and I squeezed oursleves past the throngs of people and posed. At about quarter to 6, the sun finally rose. At 6am, we started our descent to the 7.5k mark for the start of the Via Ferrata.
Descending the granite slope wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I had no need for my trekking pole. We quickly made our way down past people who were still on the way up. The day before, we were told by one of the Mountain Torque staff that we had to be at the 7.5 marker by 7 so we would be the first team to do the Via Ferrata. The actual cut-off is 7:30 but I guess he wanted us early to avoid a “traffic jam” due to a much slower group. Dan and I made it to the 7.5k marker before 7. Maik left us with the Mountain Torque team and said he’s meet us back at Pendant Hut. There was enough time to pee behind a large boulder and eat a chocolate bar. Karin and Andy arrived shortly thereby completing our team.
The other team was composed of the Malaysians but only the guy and his sister were able to make it as the others were too sick to even try to walk-up. We gave them some acetozolamide for what was apparently altitude sickness. The third group was composed of some Japanese who looked no older than 25.
We put on our safety gears (harness and helmet), roped together than were good to go. We were doing the Low’s Peak Circuit which as estimated to be 4-5 hours. Team leader was Andy followed by Karin, Dan, me, and then our guide, James. Listening to the relaxed and encouraging voice of James as he reminded us to unhook and hook the ropes, clamp and unclamp our carabiners, and even where to put our feet, was a big boost to our confidence, not that it ever wavered.
The most difficult of course is the first step especially the descent. Clinging to the cable, we slowly made our way down the sheer rock face. It wasn’t as nerve-wracking as I thought it would be. I actually found it easier to ignore some of the footholds and just lean back and plant my feet on the granite. It took about half an hour before we reached the ledge and started circling the rock face.
It was exhilarating to have nothing but the sky and the mountain around you. The scenery was spectacular and we knew we were seeing things that nobody would be able to see from the summit trail. Looking down from the rock face itself as it dropped vertically thousands of meters down was beautiful in itself already.
Some parts were a little tricky especially in areas where some water was trickling down making it a bit slippery but Andy, who was such a good leader, would always advise us of those spots. A couple of hours later, we reached our first bridge—- a suspended wooden plank. To get to it, we had to stoop a bit underneath the cable which presented a problem to me as my trekking pole jutting out from my bag would always snag. A more exciting bridge was a single cable line we had to tread on while holding on to two other lines for support. I never even tried the crossing the cable strung across the river at Manalmon and yet there I was crossing one at 3,000+ meters above sea level!
Kinabalu is tortue on the legs was the Via Ferrata is torture on the arms as most of the time you had to lean back with the arms extended as you held on to the cable. Some people make the mistake of staying too close to the cliff face and just inching along which makes for very slow progress. At one point, I tried leaning back without holding on to the cables with only the lanyard supporting me. It was a bit scary but fun. We went all the way down down down until we reached the start of the jungle trail. It was a bit of a relief to finally unclamp ourselves and be walking normally.
Mangled trees and branches covered the jungle. The trail wasn’t very visible but it wasn’t enough to make you lose your way. Thankfully, vegetation was thick so there were enough roots, trunks, and branches to hold on to for supports. It was about 15-20 minute walk and we exited to clearing of granite. Dan had run out water and I was running low on it. James pointed to a pool of bubbling water from the mountain. Without any hesitation, I sat down and scooped the water with my hand. It was the sweetest and most refreshing water I’ve ever had.
Our rest stop cost us a little time as the other groups caught up with us. By the time we hooked-up at the cable for the Walk the Torque part, the Malaysians were the first group and we were last which made it a little slow going. We kept asking James if we could switch places as it was a little boring to be stopping while waiting for the first group to move on. James simply smiled and told us, “later… you will see…” The weather also seemed to be changing and it looked like it was going to rain. At one point, a cloud passed us and we were covered in mist.
The last stretch of the Walk the Torque route was a little slippery and it didn’t help that there was a light drizzle. My arms were really tired and my stomach was shouting for food. 5 hours after we started the circuit ended. I unclamped myself from the cable and walked to the Summit Trail. I was weary but elated. It was the most exhilirating thing I had ever experienced in my life.
I’m glad we took the Low’s Peak Circuit as the Walk the Torque route wasn’t much. It was short and the path wasn’t thrilling. Or maybe it was just an anti-climax after the excitement at the Low’s Peak. Incidentally, those taking just the Walk the Torque route start from the Sayat-Sayat checkpoint which means that they’re at a lower level and closer to the Summit Trail.
The rain had made the wooden steps slippery and I slip down a few steps. Fortunately, I was holding on to the handrails or I would probably have gone all the way down. I was really really hungry and we tried to rush Summit Trail as best as we can to the Pendant Hut for breakfast as it was almost 12 noon. Karin and Andy were already there and so were the others. Toast and boiled sausages never tasted so good. One of the Malaysian women didn’t look too good as she could hardly eat. Dan gave her some medications to tide her over and we assured her that once she starts descending she’s going to feel much better. The bed was calling me but there really wasn’t much time to rest after breakfast as we had to pack our stuff and descend the mountain. Yeah! After 3 hours of summitting, 5 hours of Via Ferrata, there was still the long hike down. You could cry just thinking about it. Karin and Andy bade their goodbyes. Dan and I were the last ones to leave and at 12:45, we started our descent.
Down the Mountain
At breakfast, peering from the windows, the weather didn’t look too good already. Mist was coming-in and some gray clouds were hovering. I was thinking of the stretch to Pondok Layang Layang which was really steep and slippery due to the stones. About 200 meters from Laban Rata, we met the first group of climbers on their way up. “You’re almost there! Keep going!” we encouraged them. Slow to descend, Dan soon left me behind with Maik behind me. I just kept going and going and going ignoring the pondoks. Ahead of me were the Japanese which made it a little slow going. At the 4.0k marker, they paused for pictures which gave me the chance to overtake them. It had started to rain lightly and I took out my poncho. The trail was one muddy mess. I promised myself that I would only stop when I reached the 3.0k mark. When I got to the pondok, there was nowhere to sit as a big group of Europeans had taken over the entire pondok and didn’t seem to be moving forward anytime soon. I leaned on my trekking pole to rest a bit and tried to look as weary and exhausted as possible hoping that someone would give me a little space to sit on. Fat chance. On the trail to the 2.5k mark, I finally caught up with Dan. We were able to rest at the next pondok. Steep steps were finally giving way to more flat trails. Our final rest stop was at the 2.0k mark after which I just kept going and this time left Dan behind. At each marker, I would shout at the distance “1.5 kilometers. . . 1.0 kilometers . . . 500 meters . . . Carson’s Falls…” Dan would later say that he could hear me shouting all the way. The sight of Carson’s Falls meant that I was near the end of the trail. When I finally reached the wooden steps leading to the checkpoint, I could hardly walk. I slowly hauled myself up and then finally presented myself to the park attendant. “Here I am,” I wearily said. It was almost 5 pm. I slumped on one of the seats and waited for Dan and Maik who both arrived a few minutes later. The shuttle to park headquarters showed-up around 5:30pm. Back at park headquarters, we gave Maik a tip then collected our Kinabalu and Via Ferrata certificates.
We still had to haul ourselves to Mountain Resthouse which involved an inclined pathway and some stairs. “Manang” had our old room ready and we collected our bags from the storage area. She was kind enough to heat some water for me as I badly needed it for my sore legs. My body was just shouting for rest and at 6:30pm we were fast asleep.
Searching for Food. Our stomachs woke-us up at 12 midnight and we went out for food. Dan led the way to a 24-hour eatery just across the D’Villa Lodge about a hundred meters from us where he had late dinner the day we arrived at Kinabalu Park. We got to the place and it was dark and closed. I gave Dan the evil eye and I wanted to cry. I have had enough cereal bars and chocolates. We just stood by the side of the road as if waiting for it to just magically open. And it did, at least the attached store. A van with Wildlife Expeditions painted on its side pulled-up a some men got out and started knocking on the door. A middle-aged guy opened it and they went in with us following from behind. Learning that we were from the Philippines, the guys made conversation and were very friendly to us. “Here in Borneo we have a tradition of alchohol drinking, ” one guy said as he pointed to the bottles they were buying. “We also eat that,” he pointed to the can of stewed pork we were holding. We bought some drinks, noodles, and the stewed pork.
Back at the resthouse, we heated the food at the kitchen, careful not to wake anyone up, and brought it to the second floor landing where our room was. Food never tasted as good.
Climbing Kinabalu in itself was an awesome experience more so with the Via Ferrata. It was simply spectacular and not to be missed. Looking at the pictures and the videos on the internet and then going through the orientation, you sometimes wonder why you signed-up for it in the first place. Climbing the mountain is hard work enough and doing the Via Ferrata was going to make it harder. But once there and you’re traversing the cliff and looking up at the sky or at the jungle below you, you know you’ve made the right decision. Life is supposed to be exciting and thrilling. As you clamber around steep slopes and narrow ledges, you know you are living life the way it was supposed to be.
Postscript: Climb Cost
Any climb to Kinabalu is inevitably linked to the economics involved. It is definitely not cheap as the cost is staggering. A lot of travelers have simply opted not to climb and instead just do the trails around the park. That was exactly what I had in mind when I first planned the trip. But you know deep in your mind, you want it and you probably want it bad. Google turned-up a lot of results but the best that I got was from Whoa Adventures (www.whoaadventures.com). Here’s the entire cost of the trip:
Bus from Sandakan junction to KNP – RM 25
2d/1n package with Via Ferrata – RM 850
Sabah Park Fees – RM 107 (Permit – 100, Insurance – 7)
Certificate – RM 10
Guide – RM 42.50 (total is 85 for the 2 days but since there were 2 of us, the cost was split between us)
2n at Mountain Resthouse – RM 60 (pre and post-climb; total cost is RM 120 split between us)
Bus from KNP – Inanam bus station in KK – RM 20
Public bus to KK bus station – RM 2.25
City bus to Jalan Gaya – RM.50
GRAND TOTAL – RM 1,117.00 >>> Still cheap because the lowest total package I got was RM 1800 (and that does not include pre and post- climb accommodations in the vicinity of the KNP)