Chjango Climbs Mount Kinabalu, Limps Away Unscathed

I consider myself an athletic person and so with confidence, thinking (incorrectly) that this would be another cute touristy bucket list item to check off, I agreed to do the climb. Collectively, our group felt that we each were prepared for a “casual hike” up Mount Kinabalu, imagining ourselves standing at the top of the glorious peak while failing to conceive what kind of work goes into reaching the summit of a mountain. We signed up for a 2 days, 1 night (2D1N) package without doing any research or preparation.

Avid climbers who are aware of the physical and emotional demands of this mountain train for months, like marathon runners do, to prepare themselves for what we rather spontaneously agreed to do. Don’t you worry; we’ll regret this decision later.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu was the most physically challenging thing we have ever done in our lives up to this point.

Logistics

Mount Kinabalu is located in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. It stands as the tallest mountain in Malaysia. Its peak is slightly higher than the highest peak in New Zealand.

How tall is the tallest mountain in Malaysia anyway?

Mount Kinabalu’s summit, ironically named Low’s Peak, after the first man who ever reached it, sits at 4,095 meters, or 13,435 ft, above sea level, bucketing Mt. Kinabalu with Mt. Everest (8,848 meters) into the category of some of the highest trekkable peaks in the world.

Yes, but what do those numbers mean?

To put it into perspective, the distance between Timpohon Gate (start) and Laban Rata Resthouse (Day 1 finish) is 1,406 meters. The start and finish is lined with stairs. There is no record of the number of stairs in total but I’ll venture an estimate. Using the Empire State Building as the basis for our comparison, which stands at 381 walkable meters (to the roof) with 1,576 stairs, we know that we can stack 3.69 Empire State Buildings into Mt. Kinabalu’s Day 1 ascent. This means that just getting to the resthouse alone equates to walking up 5,815 stairs — or one mean marathon on the Stair Master.

Cost

There are a range of fees imposed by Sabah Parks for all climbers. For the typical non-Malay adult tourist, it will cost about RM550–600. This covers the cost of:

  • Climb permit
  • Mountain guide fee
  • Insurance
  • Shuttle transfer from Kinabalu Park Headquarters to Timpohon Gate
  • Laban Rata Resthouse Dormitory Lodging
  • Kinabalu National Park entry fee
  • 6 Meal tickets & Packed lunch

**Transport to and from Kinabalu National Park, food and equipment costs are not included in this price.

2D1N Schedule

Day 1 — Ascent to Laban Rata Resthouse (5,815 stairs)

  • Distance — 6 km
  • Est. travel time — 4–5 hours

Day 2 (Part 1) — Sunrise Climb to Summit (guide rope climb)

  • Distance — 2.72 km
  • Est. travel time — 2–3 hours up, 1–2 hours back down to resthouse

Day 2 (Part 2) — Descent to Timpohon Gate (5,815 stairs)

  • Distance — 6 km
  • Est. travel time — 2–4 hours

Two Portals into Low’s Peak

The portal to the summit trail through Timpohon Gate is easier and slightly shorter than the hillier trail out of Mesilau Nature Resort. We went through Timpohon Gate.

The packaged deal includes a four kilometer shuttle ride from Kinabalu Park Headquarters to Timpohon Gate — this will make all the difference after you complete the climb to return to headquarters on the second day.

Getting to Kinabalu National Park

The cheapest way to get to Kinabalu National Park from Kota Kinabalu is with a small van bus that you catch at the bus terminal in KK, which operates wholly independently from the nature park. We were told to catch the earliest 7:30AM bus that would get us to Kinabalu Park by 9:30AM, right on time to eat our brunch buffet, meet our mountain guide then get briefed before the climb.

That was the plan. However, when we got into the van bus at 7:30AM, our driver, because he was charging by the headcount, kept everyone waiting for another hour until our bus eventually hit capacity. We got to the base of the park at around 10:30AM — an hour late. The group, along with our mountain guide that we were supposed to ascend with had already left without us. By noon, we got ourselves sorted with another mountain guide that the staff had to specially call in on his day off to rush over and take us up, about four hours behind schedule.

The takeaway here is that it’s your responsibility to get to the park on time for smooth sailing. While the bus is the cheapest way to get to the park, it’s not the most reliable, because it’s not — contrary to what we we were mistaken to believe — a part of the packaged deal.

Meeting Charlie

Distraught because we missed our group, Jen, Stacy and I sat waiting for our new mountain guide. Running into the park headquarters where we waited for about an hour, a thin Malay man in his early twenties pushes through the doors, breathless, to report for duty.

We couldn’t pronounce his proper name so we called him Charlie — of Charlie’s Angels — as we declared our trio the Angels who would manifest above the clouds at the peak of this mountain, no sweat, like this:

Right after checking in at Timpohon Gate, we enter a flat trail which looks and feels like your average nature hike.

“Oh, this isn’t so bad,” I think, forgetting to pace myself, charging ahead in overconfidence.

Not so fast, Chiang. Only half a kilometer ahead, I’m met with the bottom of a merciless set of never-ending stairs that penetrates the clouds — 5,815 stairs up, to be precise — a foreboding stack of wooden beams, one after another after another. After another.

Thankfully, eight rest stops — each about 1 km apart — equipped with toilets and benches gives us a few minutes to recoup.

No further than making it to the first rest stop, huffing and sweating, do I realize the arrogance in my ways.

By the second rest stop, only a quarter of the way there, we realize our mistake of signing up to climb this mountain.

At the third rest stop I leave my liter of water behind, the additional weight simply too much to carry.

<– Then this guy walks by.

[Humility instilled.]

All along the way we see men and women — park staff — carrying giant canisters on their backs, shuttling supplies up to the resthouse and carrying waste down to headquarters like diligent ants. Laban Rata has no means other than arduous, human labor to move supplies manually up and down the mountain every single day.

A little more than halfway there, sweat-drenched, heat beating down on me, I begin to feel the effects of altitude significantly ramp up my heart and breathing rates.

The only thought that encouraged us to keep going was, “Just three more rest stops”, “Two more stops”, “Only one more to go.”

After passing the last rest stop, despite only being one final kilometer from the resthouse, the combination of heat, our expended bodies and the new altitude bore down on our backs like the weight of a giant blue canteen.

I was crawling on all fours by the time the stairs opened up to the merciful sight of the Laban Rata resthouse. Jen hid from sight as she wept a little. [This really happened.]

Arriving to Laban Rata Resthouse

Four hours later, 5,815 stairs into the sky, the then zesty Charlie’s Angels who started their journey off full of energy, limp into the Laban Rata cafeteria and disintegrate onto the chairs three piles of lifeless rubble — Charlie and his dirt angels have arrived.

Our moods soon lift though watching the sun set from the balcony.

After the buffet dinner, all I want is to wrap myself into a cocoon of warm blankets and die in peace. Acclimatization, though, had other plans for me.

In bed with Acute Mountain Sickness

I had trouble falling asleep despite being thoroughly expended. I’d get out of my bunk bed several times over the course of the night to pee, waking up to a pounding headache that wouldn’t let up.

During acclimatization, it’s common to have headaches, frequent peeing, suboptimal digestion, difficulty sleeping, and sometimes, nausea and vomiting.

Tip: Pack a pain-reliever like Panadol.

Day 2 — Pilgrimage to Low’s Peak

Cold feet

Not long after I slip into unconsciousness, my alarm goes off at 1:30AM. Under the covers, nursing a dull headache, I’m coming up with excuses not to get out of bed. Then the thought of not completing the climb after coming this far gives me a swell of disappointment in myself.

2AM — Downstairs, out of bed, taking supper, we’re getting a briefing from Charlie.

Among the pool of trekkers and mountaineers converging in the dining area, gearing up with their walking sticks, heavy boots, snow jackets and waterproof gloves — a group fitting of a scene at a ski resort — our trio stands out with our casual, fit-for-autumn-at-best outerwear.

I had on leggings, a shirt and a windbreaker. Jen had on leggings, a button-up and a beanie. Stacy had on yoga pants, a zip-up and a sweat band. We were a bit under-prepared.

The 2.72 kilometers standing between us and Low’s Peak turned out to be the most emotionally testing portion despite the shorter distance. My legs and back had not recovered enough overnight while I was phasing in and out of sleep so I had to use the snaking method to climb the sharp incline. My body was too fatigued to endure walking directly up.

Delirium

Engulfed in the darkness of night, you’re slogging up the cold — sometimes wet — slope, watching your step as the spotlight of your headlamp shines over the same barren landscape of never-ending gray rock. The surface, devoid of all plant life, makes you think you’re on the moon, nothing for miles, the same image repeating itself in your only circle of light for what seems like eons. You get the impression that you’re getting nowhere, making no progress, despite pushing your muscles to the brink of unraveling in order to drudge one step forward.

Oxygen is noticeably thin. Hyperventilation sets in, the effort so greatly exaggerated that for every one step taken, 10–12 breaths are heaved. That feeling of blowing air into a balloon then trying to suck back from the balloon an empty supply of flat, flat air.

Then nothingness. No one is talking. No sound besides the acute heaving of your own breath penetrates your consciousness. You suspect you’re inside a vacuum.

Morale dips to an all-time low. So this is what it feels like to be in limbo.

Low’s Peak

Nearing the summit, we make it about an hour before the sun will rise. The wind blows so hard that it chills you to the bones. Charlie shelters us behind a rock, under his snow jacket to conserve body heat.

Thirty minutes before sunrise, a small snow-jacket tent behind a rock quivers. Under it, four sniffling humans question why they ever went on this climb, damning the sun for showing up late to the party.

It’s freezing and it’s obvious that everyone is experiencing the same level of low-grade misery as everyone else. And yet here we are at the very top of Low’s Peak just before sunrise.

Then came the moment we were all waiting for…

Along with it, warmth. And more importantly, hope. A visceral feeling of accomplishment washes over as you watch the same sun you’ve watched a hundred times break the horizon and color the sky in pink-red-orange — only this time, you’re watching it from above the clouds.

The thought that “If I did this, I could do anything” takes over and you feel equipped to take on every challenge life throws your way. Come at me bro.

After all is said and done, this experience was worth every drop of blood, sweat and tear shed.

Descent

The sunrise climb portion is steep but has guide ropes to aid you, especially during torrential weather.

After refueling with a breakfast buffet at Laban Rata, it’s time to descend the 5,815 stairs back to Timpohon Gate. The stairs seem even steeper going down, and the uneven spacing between each step can throw you off. Those who are older though may have trouble doing the descent due to impact on the joints, particularly in the knees.

Resting hut after resting hut, we pass our checkpoints much faster today than we did yesterday, sometimes passing one completely without a resting period — we want badly to be over with it.

At last, Timpohon Gate appears within sight. Elated, we hobble through the double doors, pile into the shuttle bus and push past the cafeteria doors at headquarters in one final burst of energy to devour our last buffet lunch, signifying the end of our big adventure. As much as I want to close this post on a victorious note, I must concede complete and utter defeat to Mount Kinabalu. You win.

Mount Kinabalu: 1; Dirt Angels: none.

Aftermath

The body burns through carbohydrates and proteins much more rapidly at very high altitudes than at sea level, accumulating a backlog of lactic acid in the bloodstream over a longer period of time. In the days following the climb, a trio of hobbling girls would limp around Kuala Lumpur, still sore and slowly recovering from their “hike” up a mountain.

Elevator-less places that forced us to take stairs were a cruel joke I took personal offense to. It would be about six days later when we recovered enough to stop limping everywhere.

That said, at no point during the ascent or descent did it feel like I was close to injury or meeting disaster, even at the very high altitude. However, do check the weather ahead of time, as mountain weather is volatile and can pose a serious threat to the safety of climbers. We were very lucky to have had such good weather, being so unprepared during our trek, but others have not been so lucky.

Otherwise, people at all levels — from having no experience to being trained mountaineers — who are reasonably fit and are free from past or existing injuries should expect to complete the climb with no problems. There’s about a 95% success rate of completing the climb. Young children and the elderly may get tired early on, however.

As for what to pack, because you feel every ounce of weight you carry during the ascent, prioritize only packing essential items and consider hiring a porter if you have heavy things you feel you absolutely must bring.

Essentials You Need For Mountain Climb:

  • Trekking or running shoes with good grip
  • Warm clothing/Long-sleeved shirt/Hiking pants
  • Jacket/Wind breaker
  • Small towel
  • Waterproof hand gloves and winter hat
  • Headlamp
  • Refillable water bottle (0.5–1 Litre)

Recommended Things to Pack:

  • Disposable raincoat
  • Medication such as headache tablets like Panadol or altitude sickness tablets
  • Change of clothing and socks
  • Sun block, lip gloss
  • Insect repellent / Mosquito Oil
  • High energy food such as chocolates, nuts, biscuits, sweets, energy bars
  • Whistle, in case of emergency

Websites for Booking:

Mount Kinabalu — http://www.mountkinabalu.com/packages/2d1n-mount-kinabalu-climb-budget
 Amazing Borneo — http://www.amazing-borneo.com/tours/mount-kinabalu-packages-1.html

Originally published at goingbeyondthepicketfence.com on August 19, 2015.