Conquering Kinabalu: Assault to the Summit

(This is the continuation of my blog on our Mt. Kinabalu climb.  Read the first part here.)

After nine grueling hours of climbing from the jump-off point to the Laban Rata mountain lodge, we had to sleep for a few hours to prepare us for the summit assault.

But first, let me tell you about our Laban Rata stay.  We opted for a heated room, which was evidently useless since there were some electricity problems in the lodge during that night. Due to the summer drought, there was also a water shortage which meant we couldn’t use the shower (we didn’t want to anyway; it was freezing cold!).

Thankfully, our room had cozy beds with comforters, which, believe me, did little in keeping us warm. I was wearing double layers of jackets, but I was still so cold that sleep was hard to come by. I also learned (the hard way, mind you) that sleeping in high altitudes is quite difficult.

Early Morning Ascent

After just a couple of hours of sleep, we got up at the ungodly hour of 1:30 in the morning. Light supper was being served in the canteen, which was already jam-packed with sleepy tourists.  Outside the hotel, everything was wet with the morning dew and it was much colder.

Dawet, our mountain guide, grouped us for a final briefing. He gave us the usual tips and said that “we will try to reach the summit.”  Emphasis on try.

Finally, we started the ascent.  There wasn’t much to say about the first part of the assault since it mostly entailed climbing a flight of alternating wooden, steel and rocky steps, with nothing but light from our headlamps guiding us, for a long time.  It seemed endless.  We were higher up in the mountain and breathing became even harder.  I paced myself as I trudged on, climbing five steps and taking 10 breaths of air.  I don’t know the first thing about pacing, but it certainly worked.

Welcome to the Danger Zone

After an hour or so, we finally arrived at the most dreaded part of the climb, the so-called “Danger Zone”.   In this 700m stretch, climbers have to cling onto a white rope as they scale the inclined part of the mountain.  This is where those shoes with good grip come in handy.  I felt unnerved as I moved, checking the narrow path for footholds while ignoring the thought of falling down the steep mountainside.  The darkness helped since it forced me to focus on the path straight ahead.

It was evident that we were making slow progress since we could already see the trail of lights of faster climbers higher up the mountain from the Sayat Sayat Hut, the final checkpoint.  Our guide reminded us that we only had around two hours of climbing left before sweepers descend from the summit, ushering climbers to go back down.  Nobody is allowed to reach the summit beyond 8AM, so we were advised that we have to be there by 7:30.

Almost There But Not Quite

Here’s the nastiest part of the climb, the part that gave new meaning to the phrase “so near yet so far”.  It seemed to us that the slope of the mountaintop wasn’t too steep.  It actually looked manageable.  But when we were there, we had to battle the cold, the fierce winds, and the thin air.  Before I knew it, I was panting furiously for every three steps I took.

So near yet so freaking far.

So near yet so freaking far.

I was probably too focused on reaching the summit that I didn’t notice that I was just a few meters away from the mountain’s South Peak, probably the most photographed and most iconic part of the mountain.  I was overjoyed!  I looked back and saw the endless sea of clouds.  Sunrise illuminated the many other peaks of the mountain. It was awesome.

Edge, Dane, Afol, me and Dawet, our guide.

Edge, Dane, Afol, me and Dawet, our guide.

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With our pace, Dawet estimated that we still have an hour an a half of climbing before reaching the summit. Bad news. This meant that we’ll make it there by around 8am, far too late.  Eventually, Edge and I made the decision not to go forward. We were just too tired. Our companions Afol and Dane hiked further to reach the 8 kilometer mark.

The Dreaded Descent

Everything that goes up needs to come down. Around 8am, we finally made our way back to Laban Rata to pack our things and get off the mountain.

Final snapshot at Laban Rata.

Final snapshot at Laban Rata.

Lots of bloggers who’ve scaled Kinabalu say one thing in common: the descent is much, much more difficult than the ascent. And they’re not lying. So much pressure is being put on your knees and the base of your feet that they start to hurt after a while. While I had no problems going past the danger zone on our way up, it was probably a thousand times scarier going down since you can clearly see the steep cliffs. Thank God for my Merrell hiking shoes and my gloves, which protected my hands from rope burns.

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The Danger Zone is much more frightening during daytime.

The Danger Zone is much more frightening during daytime.

Having climbed for a total of more than 15 hours and running on only a couple of hours of light sleep, we struggled during the descent. The gods of luck also frowned on us that day for it started raining while we were making our way down. It made the trek through the rainforest much more dangerous, with muddy trails and loose, slippery rocks all over the place.

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Tired, dazed and angry at our legs for giving up on us.

Tired, dazed and angry at our legs for giving up on us.

It took us six hours to see the familiar and welcome sight of the Timpohon Gate. We were drenched in rain and sweat and our legs felt like jelly, but we couldn’t have been happier that we made it back in one piece.

Final Thoughts

Of course, I was initially disappointed that we hadn’t reached the summit. My resolve was stronger than my body. For all I know, forcing myself could have proven dangerous. Edge also encouraged me when he said that it’s not just about conquering the mountain, it’s also about knowing when to throw in the towel. I never beat myself about it. Instead, I felt proud. Making it to the top of the Mt. Kinabalu is a once in a lifetime experience that only a chosen few can do. Climbing this epic mountain is not about pushing your limits, it’s about discovering them. What I discovered about mine surprised me and made me feel good.

As consolation, we took several great snapshots of the South Peak (which is more photogenic than Low’s Peak, in my opinion, haha).

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Besides, not making it all the way to the top only means one thing: we have to come back, right?

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Tips:

  1. Be physically fit. If you’re trying to use me as a baseline for fitness (come on, I know that I’m quite heavy) and you think that you no longer have to train since I myself made it, then don’t. Train, train train. Train hard. Train months in advance. Climb stairs rather than run long distances in order to strengthen your knees.
  2. Invest in proper gear and good shoes. Conditions at the top of the mountain are rough. You need a good, thick jacket to protect you against the cold. Shoes with excellent grip are recommended not only for the summit assault, but for the entire climb.
  3. Take it easy. If you’re not used to staying at high altitudes, climbing too fast can make you susceptible to altitude sickness. Many have climbed so far only to be inconvenienced by headaches and vomiting, cutting their journey short. Climb at a normal pace. You can ask your doctor for prescription medicine that reduces the effects of altitude sickness.
  4. Bring or rent a walking stick/trekking pole. It helps you balance during the ascent and takes some of the pressure away from knees during the descent. A real life-saver!
  5. Bring trail foods and plenty of water.
  6. Follow your mountain guide and don’t stray from the white rope at the mountaintop.
  7. Bring a poncho or a waterproof jacket in case it rains.
  8. Remember the golden rule: leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photographs, kill nothing but time.
  9. Check the official Mt. Kinabalu website for more details.
  10. Enjoy!
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