Waiting for the bus to take me to the start of the 8k trail to the top of Kinabalu I was excited and just a little nervous. Seriously out of walking practice, only a week in the hills since leaving the UK last August I wondered if my legs would make it.
Forewarned that as with any other mountain, the weather was unpredictable, my backpack looked and felt ridiculously heavy with three litres of water, fleece, down jacket, rainwear etc. At 6.30am it was over 25C in Kota Kinabalu! My nerves dissipated and excitement kicked in during the 80k, 2 hour drive to the mountain park.
- First glance of the summit
Access to the Summit trail is strictly controlled and regulated. Passes need to be applied for In advance. Completing the ascent, unless you are a lot fitter than me and used to altitude, means an over night stay in a bunk house, and with temperatures ranging from the high 20C on the lower slopes to 2C at pre dawn on the peak, strategic packing was imperative.
- Guides and porters for hire
A couple of hours drive and we arrived at the Timpohon Gate. Formalities of registration, mountain pass and meeting my guide to be dealt with. People of all ages, nationalities, shapes and sizes milled around. Being more of a ‘hike and scramble’ Kinabalu attracts all sorts and looking around did give me that thought ‘well if they can do it….’
At 1166m cloud was below. Sharp gray granite of the mountain posted clearly against the azure blue and I was itching to start. Even after the formalities there is another short bus ride to the start of the 8.72km trail. Eventually I started walking. Around 9am Jamal, my guide, (compulsory for all ascents, though can be shared with up to five others), logged me into start the trail.
- Steps, steps….
Even with a hundred or more a day heading up, the crowds soon thinned and we were able to enjoy an almost solitary experience at times. The well marked and stepped track begins in tropical rainforest with dense greens sheltering from the, by now, strong sun. My erratic packing for a year away had included my walking poles and my camel pack. I quickly became grateful I’d brought them in favour of sensible stuff like work shoes.
The first 3km sped by with relative ease. I happily brushed aside Jamal’s suggestions of stopping at the frequent rest points until my stomach reminded me of the energy I’d need to make it to the top. And at least by eating something my pack would be a little lighter.
According to my camera, wonderful what digital photos record, I did those first 3km in one and a half hours. Little did I realise it would take me three and a half to do the subsequent three. At 2455m my lungs began to notice the lack of oxygen and my steps just became slower. Photo stops became compulsory. Blessed with a day when the cloud did not even flicker across the sky, it was a perfect day to see the formations adorning the summit and the changing foliage along the trail.
Rising up the trees thinned and changed to fir. Gnarled and battered by weather, thin trunks reaching up and spreading in small round umbrellas to capture the sun. Thin air it might be but pale green air-plants drape over branches beyond the 5km. Pollution thankfully absent.
And so I plodded on, as did most people. I am sure Jamal must have found it an excruciatingly slow pace but his good humour and tales of local life kept me from thinking much beyond my next step. A few younger and fitter sped past and I was later to meet a couple who had completed the first day in three hours, but fastest were the local porters.
All supplies to the mountain huts are taken up by hand. Including building and renovation materials. Then all rubbish has to be brought back down. Porters are paid by the kilo, 4 to 5RM, around £1. The loads they carry are quite incredible. All on a wooden board. No luxury modern backpacks or straps to ease their burdens. Suddenly my pack felt much lighter.
Eventually, at 1.45pm I signed into the bunk house at Laban Rata just beyond 6km. Along with everyone else trickling in, no I was not the last, I lay on my bed and found sleep took over for an hour before the briefing for day two.
With around a hundred people plus porters making the two day ascent there are a few huts scattered around and dinner is a communal affair in the largest, timed perfectly to watch the sunset. The briefing included instructions to ‘eat a lot’ as there would only be a light breakfast in the morning before the 2.30am start for the final 2.7km and 800m ascent.
- Laban Rata
A wooden set of stairs at 2.30am the next day was probably the hardest steps I have ever climbed. In the dark, unable to go faster than the slowest of the crowd and squeezing round several overcome by altitude sickness I was rather glad my head torch provided little peripheral vision. Eventually the steps gave way to a rock trail, the crowd spaced away and my legs loosen up. That is not to say they speed up. Increasing altitude kept me to a slow steady plod and I was rather glad of the darkness to focus my mind on getting to the top, especially when Jamal cheerfully announced we had come to the ‘danger zone’.
- Danger Zone by day
By now we had reached the smooth open rock I had so admired the day before. The danger zone is a traverse across an almost vertical slope aided by rope looped across. Clearly we had reached the ‘scramble’ stage. Thick white rope marked the way over the rock to the summit. Jamal being a great help in negotiating more difficult and steeper stretches. I ignored the headlights flickering above, I knew I would get there eventually and Jamal assured me we were in good time for sunrise. I did take the odd glance behind just to note that I was not at the end of this somewhat crazy Congo.
5.15am. I was there! Low’s Peak. 4095m above sea level. It may be one of the most accessible ‘climbs’ in the world with over 20,000 completing it each year but as I am closer in age to the reported oldest, 80, than to the youngest, age 3, I did allow myself a pat on the back.
So then there was a wait. Sunrise was 6ish and though I had on most of the clothes which I had carried up the previous day my body temperature dropped rapidly and the rest were bundled on. Fleece leggings, top, down jacket and wind jacket in Borneo? Thank goodness for all those summers spent hiking on Lakeland hills preparing me for the worst!
Clear night sky and glittering stars had held promise of a beautiful sunrise. A initial thin line of orange and red expanding to cast a warm glow. Washing the surrounding peaks with soft orange and red. The slowly ascending certain of dark revealing the morning route and I just had to stand and stare.
- Down from Low’s Peak
Cold eventually jolted me out of my reverie and I sought out Jamal to lead me down. Despite the harsh terrain tiny flowers and plants still find sustenance and eek out life in the crevices. Mostly deep greys, other colours shimmer in patches in the vast expanse of rock. White lines criss cross with the accuracy of a tennis court and a white coat of sugar frosting dusts elsewhere.
Close to the top is the edge of a volcanic crater where even more wondrous shapes sit precariously along the side each with their own local name, the donkey ears needing little imagination.
Going down at altitude is so much easier than going up and wandering around this delightful rocky park was a privilege never to be forgotten, nor was the next hour. I had signed up for the Via Ferrata. ‘Walk The Torq’. Fantastic. And another first for me. If your going to try something new why not try the highest in the world. There are a couple of circuits and I did not opt for the longest which can add up to four hors to the descent. I was only too aware of the 6km of steps I had yet to cover before the end of the day. It was wonderful and avoided that hideous set of stairs I had earlier endured.
By 9.30 we were back in the bunk house and ravenous. A second more substantial breakfast awaited. Mashed potatoes, baked beans and eggs! Bags were re packed and clothes discarded for the long trek down. This time it was not the thin air but the steps which slowed my pace.
My poles were so needed especially as the euphoria of the morning subsided and my body and brain realised that I had been up since 2am and at 10 still had another 6km of staircase to go.
But what goes up has eventually has to come down and with my cheerful companion Jamal pointing out plants and, views I plodded down to arrive around 2.15pm. Not such a bad time. Though I have to admit not seeing much of the views on the bus journey back to Kota Kinabalu
And my legs? Well they were a little stiff the next morning but on the whole swimming and a running machine, at sea level, had proved adequate if not ideal training.
- Donkey’s Ears
My booking, guide and transport organised very efficiently through Sticky Rice Travel.