28 March 2009

Mount Kinabalu

On Thursday morning I was picked at half six to start my two day hike up Mount Kinabalu. The trip was run by a company called River Junkie and I was joined by another of their clients called Tom. Tom, who was also from the UK, was great company for the climb. He's just about to make his way over to Vietnam to buy a motor bike to for a massive road trip around the Southeast Asian peninsular.

Mt Kinabalu, at 4095.2m, is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. To put it into perspective for people back home it's about the height of 4 Mount Snowdons or just under half a Mount Everest.

The mountain is about 90km from where we were staying in KK, so by the time we had driven there, sorted out the permits, got our guide and started the climb it was 9a.m. This is our guide James . . .
The walk starts inside the Kinabalu National Park at Timpohon Gate which is at an altitude of 1866m, so the actual ascent is just over two and a quarter kilometers and covers a distance of 8.72km. The scenery on the way up was pretty spectacular. We started the climb in dense rain forest with small waterfalls cascading down the surrounding rocks.

As the altitude increased the vegetation changed into a more open, stunted, dwarf forest which allowed great views of the towering peaks above. It was quite surreal at times as we climbed through the cloud line with the mist drifting through the strange looking trees.
Due to the limited amount of accommodation on the mountain, there are about 140 beds, we spent most of the first days climb on our own, occasionally passing other climbers who were on their way down from the top.

The first days climb took us about three and a half hours and ended at a small accommodation complex known as Laban Rata, 6km from Timpohon Gate at an altitude of 3272m.
The climb to Laban Rata wasn't technically difficult and mainly consisted of rough, uneven steps made from rocks, boulders and in some places wood.
The most difficult aspect of the climb was the Altitude. We had come that morning from Kota Kinabalu, which is at sea level, and had had no time to acclimatise to the thinner mountain air. Once the altitude got over 3000m at the 5km mark things began to get increasingly difficult. Even walking at a slow pace it felt like your heart was going to burst out of your chest as your body struggled with the lower oxygen levels. Quite a lot of people we spoke to on the climb suffered with altitude sickness and became nauseous or had splitting headaches. I'm not sure if what I had was due to the altitude, exhaustion or something else but near the end of the 1st days climb it felt as if my right inner ear was going to explode and I lost my (already poor) sense of balance for about half an hour.

Tom and I celebrated our first days good progress in the only way that Brits know . . . a can of "wife beater" at 10,735ft!
We spent the rest of the afternoon re-stocking the depleted energy reserves (i.e. eating lots of chocolate) and taking in the magnificent scenery of the peaks above and the valley below.

Tom also spent some time replacing his very expensive, £200, climbing boots with a pair of 15 Ringit (about £3) rubber spazz shoes!

There's no road access up the mountain past Timpohon Gate at the bottom, so all supplies are carried up on the backs of porters. To see a porter go sailing past you with a huge calor gas cylinder strapped on his back is quite a sight. This bloke looked like he was carrying a flat pack wardrobe . . .

Our accommodation in Laban Rata was in a building called Panar Laban Hut and although it looks like a metal shed from the outside, it was actually quite nice inside.

Although a trip to the little boys room after sundown was a bit of an adventure!
The sunset at half six was one of the more unusual ones I've seen as the sun dropped down into a thunder storm in the clouds below our feet.

Then at 7p.m. everyone went off to bed to try and get some rest before the early start for the push to the summit the following morning. In order to be at the summit for sunrise we had to get up at 2a.m. so that we would be ready to climb at 3. Another of the reasons why Liz stayed in KK!

Sleep for most of the people proved quite difficult due to a number of factors; the thin air, summit fever (the excitement and apprehension about the next bit of the climb) and for a fair portion of the climbers (Tom included) an altitude sickness induced headache. In the end I think I was quite lucky to get four hours sleep. When we went outside after getting up at 2a.m. we were treated to the most amazing night sky any of us had ever seen. The thinner air, altitude and absence of artificial light and moonlight meant that we saw a spectacularly starry sky. A huge swirl of the Milky Way was clearly visible across the sky, silhouetting the mountain peaks above our heads. It's a real shame that I wasn't able to capture it on camera.

The first half hour or so of the climb away from Laban Rata was a little frustrating. The route was mainly single file over wooden ladders and steps and it appeared that all of the slowest people had got up extra early and were at the front holding everyone up! It was doubly annoying as it was blooming freezing and the only way to keep warm was to keep moving.

We eventually managed to get ahead of the worst of the crowds and get warm by the time we reached the first of the roped sections at the Panar Laban rock face. Climbing up the ropes by torch light in the pitch black at half three in the morning is certainly an experience that will take a little while to forget. Whatever you do, don't look to your right . . .
Although most of the upper route was roped it was only the first few sections where you had to use the rope to climb, for the remainder of the route it is mainly used as a marker to show the way.

At an altitude of about 12,500ft the tree line abruptly finished and we found ourselves on a massive, desolate, wind swept granite plateau that seemed to go on forever. By this time the cumulative affects of the thin air, 8km of climbing and little sleep has reduced everyone to a snails pace. Ahead of us, illuminated by torch light, was a thin snaking line of people shuffling across the granite like a bunch of arthritic pensioners. Moving any faster was not possible as even going at such a slow pace caused your heart to race. There were even a couple of people who where reduced to crawling on their hands and knees and one poor unfortunate who had given up and rolled into a ball by a rock!

After what felt like an eternity of shuffling, we eventually made it across the plateau to the base of Low's Peak, the highest point on Mt Kinabalu. One final push saw us to the 4095.2m / 13 435.7ft summit for 5:30 with half an hour to shiver in the cold wind before sunrise. By the time the sun came up I was that cold that my fingers couldn't operate the buttons properly on the camera. It was all worth it though as we were treated to some spectacular views as the sun rose.
Me at the very summit . . .
The view across the granite plateau from Low's Peak to the South Peak . . .
St John's Peak just after sunrise . . .
The shadow of the mountain cast by the rising sun on the clouds below . . .
The view back at Low's Peak after sunrise, you can just make out the people on the top . . .

Then it was just the simple matter of getting back down again! The climb down to Laban Rata only took about an hour and a quarter. Once there we packed our bags and had a very greasy breakfast before continuing all the way back down to Timpohon Gate.

If the climb up was hard on the heart and lungs, the climb down was absolute murder on the legs. Tom was unfortunate to have a severe attack of the jelly legs for most of the three and three quarter hour decent and looked like he was in a hell of a lot of pain. On average 10 people have to be carried off the mountain by the porters each day and Tom was determined not to become a statistic! Fair play to him to as he got back in one piece under his own steam, although I'm not sure that he will have made the white water rafting trip that if's booked on today. I can barely walk down stairs without wincing at the moment let alone paddle a boat down grade 5 rapids.

Despite all the aches, pains and the physical effort the trip was well worth it. I've seen some spectacular scenery and had an amazing experience on what is probably the highlight so far of this trip for me.

1 comment:

  1. Great post on your Kinabalu climb! Couldn't find your email so I guess I'll just post here... I found your blog googling about River Junkie Tours - to check if they're a legit tour operator. How much was the climbing package? You should drop by the Philippines, too!

    Happy travels!