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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Conquering Kinabalu: The Long Road to Laban Rata

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.

Kinabalu Park

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.

The entrance to Kinabalu Park. Terrible angle, I know.

The entrance to Kinabalu Park. Terrible angle, I know.

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.

Lots of these

Lots of these “slinky” trees around Kinabalu Park.

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Living like royals in our mountain lodge.

Living like royals in our mountain lodge.

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:

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Gunung Kinabalu says hi.

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

“Happy Mountaineering!”

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.

Just like climbing a looong flight of stairs.

Just like climbing a looong flight of stairs.

Still smiling. Genuinely.

Still smiling. Genuinely.

Still energized.

Still energized.

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.

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Squirrel!

Squirrel!

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?

Porters, the mountain's superheroes.

Porters, the mountain’s superheroes.

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.

The real struggle begins.

The real struggle begins.

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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.

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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.

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That white thing are clouds. Very wet clouds.

Smoke? No, clouds. Very wet clouds.

Final Stretch

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.

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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.

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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.

Fourth in Boracay

For our fourth (!!!) anniversary as a couple, Edge and I packed our bags for Boracay.  It would be his first time there while it was my second.  I’ve been to the famous island in 2005 when I was in Kalibo competing in the National Secondary Schools Press Conference (I lost).  Still, it was exciting for us to visit Bora together.

Ilig Iligan Beach, Boracay

Ilig Iligan Beach, Boracay

Unlike our many other backpacking trips, we decided to let our hair down for this one and spend a little more lavishly.  It was our anniversary after all, and we needed the time for total R&R.

Nothing beats a nice stroll at a beach if you want to do some soul-searching.

Nothing beats a nice stroll at the beach if you want to do some soul-searching.

And of course, swimming. Or just playing with the waves.

And of course, swimming. Or just playing with the waves.

Being mid-July, the weather was far from sunny, but upon arriving on Friday, we were lucky enough to catch a few hours of the summer heat.  We managed to work around the occasional rainfall to do some of the water activities that Boracay is famous for.

Snorkeling and fish feeding off Bolabog Beach.

Snorkeling and fish feeding off Bolabog Beach.

All set for our first parasailing experience!

All set for our first parasailing experience!

Fifteen-minute high!

Fifteen-minute high!

Some realizations!  Edge had always thought of Boracay as an overrated island and our trip didn’t change this particular opinion of his.  While we both think that it is indeed a beautiful place, we concluded that there are other places in the Philippines that could rival Boracay’s beauty.  For one, the same white sand that makes Boracay world-famous can be found in Panglao Island in Bohol.  Plus points for Panglao since it isn’t as crowded and noisy, which makes it ideal for vacationers looking for peace and quiet.  BUT more on this later on, since I’m writing a piece about this on our travel blog, The Backpack Couple. #shamelessplugging

If you don't like the strong waves in Stations 1-3, try the calm Ilig Iligan Beach.

If you don’t like the strong waves in Stations 1-3, try the calm Ilig Iligan Beach.

Looking back, we have no regrets for choosing Boracay as our fourth anniversary venue since the place still took our breath away.  Boracay marks a new chapter for us towards more adventures in more places in the country and beyond.

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Stay classy, Boracay.

Stay classy, Boracay.

Four years!

Four years!