ASCENDING TO THE SUMMIT
1:30am?!?! What is this?! Who set the alarm for this time?! Who even wakes up at this time?! Why are there so many people snoring in my bedroom? Why am I dressed like the Jamaican bobsled team?
Oh yeah… Mt Kinabalu summit time. You little beauty. Being the conscientious traveller that he is, Jai had pre packed a joint day pack in preparation for the early morning summit climb to catch the peak at sunrise. So we rolled out of bed, basically already dressed, layered in the exact clothes we were wearing up to the summit. We had a bit of breakfast (a second helping of 2 minute noodles), still maintaining that a 1:30am wakeup call is cruel and unusual punishment, brushed our teeth, popped our headtorches on and strolled out the front door of the Pendant Hut.
Struth it was nippy. It was well into single digit temperatures and were bulked up in our thermals, jackets, windbreakers, gloves and beanies (remember to check out our blog post on ‘Mt Kinabalu – what YOU need to take’).
Surprise, surprise, guess what direction we went right away? That’s right! Up! The summit climb from Laban Rata starts through a gate and consists of a series of brutally upwards stairs. It was kind of bearable psychologically however, as in the pitch black, with just head torches to guide our next few steps, we had no real way of telling how far we had to go, or even how far we had come. There was just a trail of people, in the dark, layered up, grunting, breathing heavily, some im pretty sure were farting and all were heading UP. Good times!
We pushed slowly up through the initial 1.2km to the final checkpoint where we had to show our climbing permits. It was still pitch black at this time as it was 4am.
The trail became not really a trail after this point. The ‘trail’ transformed into climbing up curved granite rocks with the assistance of a rope. This was so cool! We were hoisting ourselves up a massive mountain in Borneo using only a rope that had been fixed into the massive granite slopes at 4:30am in the morning! From fetching a beer from the fridge in Australia to this was an awesome change of experience!
Several hundred metres on and the rock flattened enough for us to not have to use the rope. Although it was there as a good guide as without it we literally couldn’t tell which exact direction the summit would have been.
We looked around and we started to see the ominous rocky ridges of Mt Kinabalu taking shape as assisted by the sun which had not quite risen yet. It was a humbling feeling to know how huge the mountain was in comparison to our tiny selves and really reminded us that anyone climbing Kinabalu is simply a visitor who should respect the powerful forces of mother nature. Look what she has created! This humongous, rocky behemoth from the ground up. It was a moment we wont forget any time soon.
As we willed ourselves up over another ridge, there were lights bunched up ahead in the distance. It was the summit! And it was the headtorches of those superfreaks who climbed it with no dramas at all and had reached the peak already! After hours and kilometres of intense vertical climbing (by our unfit, first world fitness standards), we could finally see the top of Mt Kinabalu, the highest point in between the Himalayas and New Guinea at 4,096m above sea level.
An awesome surge of energy greeted us. We had been climbing up and up for hours and hours with no real end point in sight and now to have one was exhilarating. With this new found energy, we raced along at a speed that we felt was like a pebble lightly skipping across a lake, but probably more-so resembled a waddling fatty toddler who has gorged too much chocolate.
The last 150m is fairly tough as it is quite simply a clamber up rocks with no real designated trail and no dedicated footholds or handspaces. Just nature’s rockface staring back at you with a cheeky grin, greeting you for your final test. At 4000m, you do feel the altitude and we probably stopped a good ten times in this last 150m (remember… first world fitness here).
Reaching the top of Mt Kinabalu was an awesome feeling. There was a real sense of euphoria amongst both us and the other climbers. Whilst it isn’t the tallest mountain in the world or has the hardest degree of difficulty, there are some climbers who don’t make it up due to weather conditions, altitude sickness or fitness levels. But to sit on the highest rock of Kinabalu and know that we, two absolutely amateur climbers from South Australia can set out for a challenge like this and do it successfully was something we are really stoked with. That, combined with the amazing personal memories we have from the ascent made Mt Kinabalu one of our most memorable experiences ever.
We spent a good half an hour at the summit, taking photos, watching the sunrise and absorbing the awe-inspiring view before we began our descent.
At about 6:30 am we left the summit and made our way down. Kate was cruising but Jai’s knee’s are dodgy so he had a bit of a man-whinge and decided going zig-zagging down the mountain would help. He managed to do that without falling down a cliff face.
Using the ropes to climb back down the mountain was awesome – it was like free abseiling!
As we descended towards Laban Rata, we noticed these huge chunks of rock missing from the cliff face of the mountain (the photos here really don’t do the sheer size of the rocks any justice). We asked our guide what they were from and he told us the story of the earthquake that hit Mr Kinabalu in June of 2015 where 18 people died, two of which were friends of our guide. He also told us a touching recount of how he and his incredibly brave and courageous fellow guides rescued those who were stranded on the mountain, despite aftershocks and weather conditions. We have the deepest respect for the people involved in that event and their amazing efforts, which highlight just how good humans can be to one another.
We reached Laban Rata at approximately 9:30am, had a quick feed and checked out of the Pendant Hut by 10am. Our guide reckons he does the descent in 50 minutes… it ended up taking us almost 5 hours. As obvious as it sounds; if going up is straight UP… then going down is straight DOWN. It is also harder than it sounds. You would think that going down is easy. It’s not.
It rained most of the way down and we were so focused on where our next foothold would be that we didn’t really take photos of the descent. It was pretty cool however to notice the landscape change from the rocky mountainous outcrops of the summit to the humid, wet jungle down below.
We reached Timpohon Gate (the original starting point) at about 3pm and cruised the couple of hours back to Kota Kinabalu in a mini bus. We were absolutely exhausted but so incredibly happy with the experience we had just had. It was simply amazing and we honestly recommend it to EVERYONE.
To end, some important things to remember if you decide to climb Mt Kinabalu:
BE CULTURALLY SENSITIVE. Save the swearing for the football field and the gratuitous nudity for the seedy strip clubs. You might feel relatively isolated up there on the mountain, but Malaysia is still a modest nation in terms of social norms and nudity of any kind is highly frowned upon. Even Jai managed to keep his rig in check and hidden under his collared shirt (typical fashionista).
IT’S COLD. Sure, Malaysia is a tropical climate but it does get fairly cold at the top (anywhere from -4c to 6c is normal) and if it gets windy and rains, those temps can be bloody cold to state the obvious! And yeah, it’s warm and moist like a sauna full of old fellas down the bottom (don’t let that put you off… some people like that kind of thing right?) so remember the lighter clothing there and you’ll be right.
BRING SNACKS AND WATER. Nuts, fruit, chocolate, muesli and energy bars. That sort of thing. We took 4.5 litres of water up for the first 6 hours and that was just about right. Its better to take more water up the mountain than to take less, because you pretty much don’t have access to water until you reach the rest house at Laban Rata on the first afternoon.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CLIMB. It’s pretty much straight up for the first 6 hours on day one so set your sight on something deliciously motivating ahead of you… be it a rest hut in the distance or that fellow tourists well defined rear-end. Set yourself to go at a slow pace and accept that it’s going to take quite a few hours and you’ll do awesome. Also, it’s a journey not a destination remember?! We know you’ll love the amazing scenery all the way from the bottom to the very top.
THE VALUE OF THE GUIDE. If you are a relatively experienced climber, you might think that you can ascend Kinabalu without a guide. But when it comes down to it, they’ll be there for you in any emergency situations (they do happen) and it is park regulations to have a guide with you. Plus – it gives them a job, therefore importantly contributing to the local economy, and you’ll have someone to bounce off (metaphorically and literally) as you go up and down.
Are you thinking of going to Borneo? Have questions? Ask us in the comments section below.
Have you been to Borneo? We would love to hear your travel stories also!