Two weeks ago, I did the most tiring, challenging, and foolish thing I have ever done in my life thus far: climb Mt. Kinabalu. Standing at 4,095 meters above sea level (masl), Malaysia’s UNESCO World Heritage and ASEAN Heritage site is considered as one of the highest trekkable mountains in the world, which means that you don’t need any technical skills to reach its summit. This doesn’t make the climb easy though; like I said, it’s a very, very hard undertaking.
So what happened during this struggle? Was I able to reach the summit? Join me as I retrace my steps up and down Gunung Kinabalu.
Edge and I, together with our friends Afol and Dane, landed in Kota Kinabalu on a Wednesday, a day before our supposed climb. From the city, we took a two-hour bus ride that brought us to Kinabalu Park, which in itself is already located in a high elevation at around 1,500 masl. Staying overnight at this elevation is important to reduce the risks of altitude sickness.
We strolled around and explored some parts of the park later that afternoon. The park is so lovely and is already a good spot to visit for those who would like to commune with nature but have no plans of climbing the mountain. There are lots of unfamiliar trees, plants and orchids everywhere. The weather was very cool, with the air being fresh and rejuvenating.
That night was the calm before the storm. We helped ourselves to a hearty buffet of Western and Malaysian dishes and turned in for the night. When we woke up, we opened the door to our lodge and this was what greeted us:
I felt mixed emotions when Mt. Kinabalu showed itself in its full glory. Mostly, I was in so much awe because it really is a beautiful mountain. On the other hand, fear of the unknown and apprehension also kept gnawing at me. But what the hell, I didn’t pay good money only to back out now.
When the sun finally rose, we headed to the restaurant to have our breakfast. I was still so nervous that I only managed to eat a bowl of cereal and a few slices of bread, a decision I would come to regret later. After eating, we registered at the park office, met our mountain guide, and finally headed to Timpohon Gate, the jump-off point.
So It Begins
At this point, I managed to drive my fear away and changed it with a sort of cheery resignation. We arrived at Timpohon Gate where Dawet, our Malaysian guide, gave a short briefing. Don’t stray away from the trail. Don’t get too far from your companions. Rest for no more than five minutes at a time. It sounded too simple. Easier said than done. Our group took off.
The climb surprisingly starts with a downhill trek all the way to Carson Falls, which looked a bit dry when we were there. Just when I was starting to think “Hey, this isn’t so bad.”, the trail starts to go up. And up. And up for the next six kilometers up to Laban Rata, our accommodation for the night.
Out of excitement probably, we were so energized that we made it to the 2.5 kilometer mark in good time. I wasn’t feeling the strain in my knees yet and I wasn’t carrying a huge bag, so I was fine physically. The trail is also well-established which made things easier.
Though it was a particularly sunny day, the forest cover is thick enough to provide us with some shade. I kept my eyes peeled for fauna, and I was later on rewarded with a sighting of a mountain squirrel. Well, actually, they aren’t rare in this area. They’ve grown used to humans and actually depend on us for food, so these critters tend to flock in places where humans gather, like the mountain huts.
And oh, those mountain huts. Thank heavens for those mountain huts. These sanctuaries are scattered in strategic points along the trail. These huts have benches where we can rest longer, segregated trash cans where we can dispose of our garbage, and, best of all, functional toilets! Huzzah!
Almost There? Nah.
Five or six hours into the climb, we were still far away from our goal. Exhaustion, as well as frustration, was starting to set in. Suddenly, I was struggling with every step and panting a bit more. Every now and then, porters would pass us by, making us feel both envious and inspired. These strong demigods with legs and back muscles made of steel dash up the path while carrying at least 35 kilos of goods up to Laban Rata. Without a word of complaint. Without a minute of rest. Sometimes we couldn’t help but stare at them in wonder. How are they doing it?
The higher we went up the mountain, the steeper the trail became. Secure stony steps turned into craggy, rocky slopes. At this point, it was getting harder to walk.
Into the [Bonsai] Woods
The transition was quick. The scenery changed. As we emerged out of the mossy forest, a different world came into view. The thick foliage and tall hardwoods were replaced by leafless trees, huge ferns and a sea of bonsai. It was so lovely that we forgot how tired we were. We took a brief moment for rest and photo opps.
Unfortunately, our joy was short-lived. Because of the thick fog, light rain poured which made it even colder. What’s worse is that the next set of steps were even steeper and we had to climb even higher. Unbelievable.
It takes the average hiker 4-5 hours to climb from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata. We were already on the eighth hour of our climb and, sadly, the coveted mountain lodge was still far from sight.
At this point, my knees were buckling. Despite the cold, I was sweating profusely. I was sure I didn’t even look human anymore. Like many climbers before me, I questioned myself, “What the hell did I get myself into?”
Suddenly, we came upon a clearing. I looked up and, for the first time, I saw the naked rock face of Mt. Kinabalu. I was so exhilarated that my strength returned. “One last push, I’m sure Laban Rata is close,” I told myself.
In truth, Laban Rata was still around 30 to 40 minutes away from that spot. But Edge and I trudged on. The high altitude was starting to take its toll on me and my breathing became heavy. Finally, after about an hour, we saw the iconic white paint of Laban Rata, our abode for the night. It was starting to get even colder so we hurried inside. The place was jam packed with tired climbers, majority of whom are already digging in to their dinners.
Reaching Laban Rata is in itself a major accomplishment for me. The mountain lodge rests at an altitude of 3,270 masl, which is higher by roughly 316 meters than Mt. Apo (2,954 masl). Somehow, by proxy, I managed to “conquer” the Philippines’ highest peak!
What’s even more motivating is that the summit and Mt. Kinabalu’s many peaks are just a couple of kilometers up. We could literally see it from Laban Rata. But for that moment, that’s all we could do, just look. In that instance, our priority was to sleep and to regain as much energy because the real climb will start in just a few hours, in the cover of total darkness.