Travel post. Mount Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia. 13,436 ft (4095 mt)
When I started my blog, I knew I wanted it to be a food blog, all about recipes and food stories and yet, here I am, writing my first travel post because I mean why not? Food will always and forever be my first love but travelling is a very close second. So every once in a while when I do something interesting, something that I think is worth sharing, I will. Warning- this is going to be a picture loaded post.
So here goes – our experience climbing Mt. Kinabalu.
Once you’ve made up your mind to climb Mt. Kinabalu, the first order of business would be to book your climb well in advance; three to four months is the minimum especially if your dates aren’t flexible. A climbing permit and a mountain guide accompanying you is a must, so it makes sense to go through one of the many tour agents listed online; we booked through Amazing Borneo, based on online reviews and feedback. The package we opted for was the 3D2N package including the ‘via ferrata’. A via ferrata (Italian for “iron road”) is a protected climbing route found in the Alps and certain other locations. The essence of a modern via ferrata is a steel cable which runs along the route and is periodically (every 3 to 10 metres (9.8 to 32.8 ft)) fixed to the rock. Using a via ferrata kit, climbers can secure themselves to the cable, limiting any fall. The cable can also be used as aid to climbing, and additional climbing aids, such as iron rungs (stemples), pegs, carved steps and even ladders and bridges are often provided. Thus via ferratas allow otherwise dangerous routes to be undertaken without the risks associated with unprotected scrambling and climbing or the need for climbing equipment such as ropes. They offer the relatively inexperienced a means of enjoying dramatic positions and accessing difficult peaks. (Source- Wikipedia).
Mountain Torq/ Walk the Torq is also the highest via ferrata in the world so we were super excited to be doing this #braggingrights.
The Kinabalu National Park is about a two hour drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu; Mt. Kinabalu is a part of Kinabalu Park, it’s also where the climb begins from and ends at. We reached Kota Kinabalu (KK) two days before we were slated to climb; we spent one night in the city for some last minute shopping like head lamps and waterproof covers for our backpacks, which we were unable to get in Jakarta and the next night we spent at Kinabalu Pine Resort a hotel close to Kinabalu Park. The stay at Kinabalu Pine Resort (including pick up from the city, dinner and breakfast) was part of the package. We had our own car so we drove up around mid afternoon and spent the evening relaxing and enjoying cooler climes. The next morning after breakfast we headed to Kinabalu Park, where we met Mike, our mountain guide and we were off.
There are two trails to choose from but after the Sabah earthquake the Masilau trail has been closed off and only the Timpohon trail is operational. It was quite exciting to finally begin the trek but a couple of hundred meters in and I knew it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park (pun intended). The trail is filled with steps and stairs; although I consider myself to have reasonable stamina thanks to my love of long distance running, climbing stairs is not something I like doing especially as some of these steps came up to thigh level for me and I was climbing it like a baby crawling up. No it wasn’t a pretty sight but I had to move forward and this was the only way for me since I’m quite short with even shorter legs, being short is just no fun. The first four kilometers had more or less the same terrain, green tropical forests with a clear path marked out that was easy to navigate. At every kilometer or so rest stops are built with shelters and wash rooms but due to the mountain facing a drought, there was no drinking water available along neither the way nor any water in the washrooms. Luckily we were carrying about a liter of water each which barely lasted us till we reached camp. Anyway so at the four km mark we had reached layang layang where we stopped to eat the packed lunch that we were carrying (provided by the tour operator). It had taken us two and half hours to cover these four km and when we came to know we had only two more km to go till the camp we were quite excited, we thought we are more than half way through and the next two km will be quickly and conveniently covered. Our excitement however was short lived. Unlike the first four km the terrain had dramatically changed, there was no clear path marked out and the road was just filled with large brown boulders and rocks, also it was a much steeper gradient than what we had been climbing earlier; we had to make our own way climbing over the uneven boulders and the sharp incline only made it more difficult. When we reached the five km mark, it was a huge relief but we still had one more km to cover and by now we had realized it wasn’t going to be easy. The terrain changed quite a bit here also, we again came into some greenery and instead of the brown rocks we were now navigating through large black stones; again there was no clear path and we had to make our way over the large and sometimes slippery stones. It took us two and a half hours to cover the first four km and about two hours for the next two km; 4-6 km is hard! At the end of 6 km we finally reached the camp- Laban Rata; because we had opted for the via ferrata we were staying at the Pendant Hut, which is another 200 meters further up than the other living quarters and the dining area.
Pendant Hut has three or four dormitories with 5-6 bunk beds in each dorm. All the dormitories share the bathroom facilities. Although there are shower cubicles in the Pendant Hut, they were closed off due to the water shortage; I guess we were just grateful that there was running water in the toilets and sinks. The entire Pendant Hut scenario really took me back to my school days; I grew up in dormitories with bunk beds and water shortage, so I should’ve been used to it all, however school was fifteen years ago and after a day of intense trekking, all I wanted was a hot shower but alas that was not to be. So we did the best we could to freshen up and tried to get some rest. At 4 o clock we all had to gather in the common area for a briefing about via ferrata, the instructors explained how and what we would have to do, we also practiced putting on a harness and maneuvering the steel cables. After the briefing we were served dinner and planned to go to bed as soon as possible as we were to begin trekking again at 2.30 am so we could reach the summit in time for sunrise. Sleep though eluded us; imagine trying to sleep at 7 pm in a shared space using sleeping bags, even being exhausted didn’t help; we eventually did manage to get about three hours of sleep.
We woke up at 1.30 am to get ready for the long day ahead. We only carried a small backpack for water and snacks for this leg of the trek and left behind most of our things and larger backpacks as we had to come back to camp on our way down. After a quick breakfast of toast and coffee, we layered up in warm clothes, socks, gloves, beanies and finally the headlamp to show us the way in the dark. It was cold with high winds and of course totally darkness. The first 800 meters we had to climb stairs – again! The next two km the terrain drastically changed and became quite stark, no greenery at all; we were going up sheer rock face, at places it was almost a ninety degree climb and we had to use ropes to pull ourselves up. By now we were moving quite slowly, the steep climb left us breathless and we had to stop to catch our breath, the higher altitude wasn’t helping either. The higher we got, the fiercer the howling winds got, even though we were tired and needed to rest we couldn’t stop for more than a few seconds as the wind chill made us feel like we would get frozen. The dark and exhaustion made us feel like the hike was unending but after two and a half hours we made it to the top and not just that, we made it just in time to witness dawn break.
Witnessing a sunrise is a lovely feeling but being able to see the onset of dawn, that too in beautiful Borneo, standing at the peak of Mt. Kinabalu was just magical; I will never forget what the horizon looked like on that day, the colours in the sky, the clouds floating just below us, the mist passing by just barely kissing the mountain, that exact moment when the darkness of the night tired and gave in to the morning light.
The magical sunrise also made us magically forget the tiredness in our bones and we felt blessed and happy to have been able to see a wonderful morning. We didn’t carry our camera (regret!) so all we had was our phones which did a pretty good job I think. When we began to make our way down in the clear morning light, that’s when we actually realized what exactly we had climbed up, sheer granite rock face! The two km down felt pretty easy as we were still buzzing from having reached the summit; here we took a slight detour for the via ferrata. We met our instructor Fred, wore our harness and started the via ferrata adventure. I’m not sure how to explain the experience, I’m just so glad we did it; I’m hoping the pictures below can convey what I’m unable to do in words; the only part that made me a little nervous was the helicopter ladder, since it is suspended mid air, it sways in the wind and is not exactly easy to climb, but the difficult part for me was letting go of the ladder and latching onto the rock surface once I reached the top.
The via ferrata took us about two hours and a big thank you to Fred for having patience with me and for taking all the pictures, there was no way either the husband or I could have freed our hands for clicking pictures. So thank you Fred for being our instructor cum photographer.
After the via ferrata we headed back to camp, packed our bags, ate a little breakfast and started for the final six km back to the start…finish…start?
We were feeling great after having reached the summit and successfully done the ferrata, we thought we would easily finish the remaining trek in about three hours as it was all downhill. By now my toes had started hurting a little (from jamming against the shoe coming downhill) but I didn’t pay much attention to it and continued, half a km down though, I could feel my toe getting quite sore, every step down was becoming more difficult and how I managed to get through those two km and reach layang layang I will never know. We stopped for a bit of rest at layang layang and by this time my toe was absolutely throbbing with pain, my nails had started to turn blue and I still had four km to go. We weren’t carrying any slippers/sandals to avoid weighing down our backpacks so changing out of my shoes wasn’t an option. Then suddenly the husband asks me to take off my shoe and declares he’s going to cut it…cut it? What? How? He borrowed a Swiss knife from Mike and actually cut out the shoe from where my toe thumb was jamming against it; and that was the end of my relatively new north face shoes. I have to say though it really helped relieve the pain as it freed my thumb though a km or so down it started again, this time it was the fingers, by now my legs had also started to stiffen quite bad and climbing down the stairs had become torturous. Thanks to me our pace had slowed down to a point where we were one of the last ones to complete the trek; what should’ve taken about three hours had taken us five hours. I felt terrible about being so slow but the husband had wise words, he said “it wasn’t a race, and despite all the pain you continued to carry your own backpack and you made it and we weren’t last” ha! I took solace in his words and I have to say that for the first time in many years I was proud of my body; the chubby face, the short fat legs, the stubby fingers all of it, it had carried me up the mountain and brought me back down without having to ask for help.
So that was it, after walking pretty much nonstop from 2.30 am- 4pm, we had finally completed our climb.
We were lucky to have been blessed with perfect weather on both days. It rained only slightly on the first day and was cloudy the rest of the time; not having to deal with the scorching sun was a relief. On the second day as well we were lucky it was a full moon night so there was plenty of moonlight to help us, also the clouds parted just in time to give us a beautiful sunrise; the rest of the way down was also mainly cloudy with only slight rainfall; for this we thank the powers that be; a big thanks to Mike too for helping us throughout the climb and for being so patient with me. At the end of the climb we were totally shattered, hungry and sleep deprived with aches and pains and swollen blue-black toes but the satisfaction and joy in our hearts and souls was so much greater than any pain.
*Kota Kinabalu is the nearest International Airport.
*There is no individual accommodation in Laban Rata, dormitory style is all you get.
*Carry good quality, warm clothing, preferably water proof as it almost always rains. You will also need warm socks, a beanie or warm cap, gloves with a good grip (especially if you’re doing the via ferrata) and headlamps.
*Good trekking shoes are probably the most important thing. Do your research and make sure you’ve walked in those shoes earlier, brand new shoes are more likely to bite.
*Carry enough water and some snacks as well, we carried nuts and chocolates in small 100-200 gm packets which were easy to eat from and discard.
*If your backpack isn’t waterproof, carry a cover/parka for it.
*Carry some Ziploc bags/ waterproof pouches to store your phone, passport and cash in, in case of rain.
*Remember to take with you some aspirin/panadol in case you suffer from altitude sickness and band aid for small nicks and scrapes