Mount Kinabalu Part 1 – Climbing Into the Clouds
Many treks I have undertaken promise difficulties, and deliver rewards beyond expectations. The hardships you endure on any trek stand in direct opposition to the exaltation and awe you feel upon completion of the trek, and it is only on reflection that the true nature of what has been achieved can be truly appreciated. When you look back at any trek, with bones and muscles burning, that feeling of unwashed greasiness from a combination of sunscreen and insect repellant on your skin, often wet and cold, the relative comforts of simply being “back in civilization” are amplified, and it gives the adventure an aspect that you couldn’t experience without the discomfort.
Mount Kinabalu (or Gugung Kinabalu in the Malay language) stands at 4,095m above sea level, which is about half the height of Mount Everest, and almost twice the size of any mountain in Australia. It sits prominently on the tropical island of Borneo, in the state of Sabah in territorial Malaysia, and is home to the Dusun people (specifically the Kadazandusun), a northern tribe of indigenous Bornean people. The slopes of the mountain fly upward, seemingly vertical in places, and reach the clouds far above the foothills below.
The trek itself is considered reasonably difficult, though most of the literature I have seen says “anyone of reasonable fitness can complete this hike”. Don’t be fooled, it is not easy, and some training beforehand would not go astray. It ascends from the Kinabalu Forest Centre at 1.5km above sea level, slowly over 8.3 km, and covers terrain ranging from dense jungle and rainforests, to inhospitable rocky outcrops at the summit. The track is well maintained, the footing good for the most part, and at its steepest, ropes are used to pull yourself up. Having said that, I found this to be the most difficult trek I have undertaken, which wasn’t truly apparent until a few days later, after which I found it difficult to walk at all.
Mount Kinabalu was the main reason for our holiday to Borneo. Joined by my partner Hayley, and our oft-time traveling companion, Hayley’s sister Charmaine, Kinabalu beckoned to us, not only because it surpassed all of the previous mountain ascents we had done, but the also because it would be the first ascent we had done where altitude and oxygen could be an issue. Not that we are thinking of attempting anything like Everest, but there are no climbs in Australia where we even have to consider altitude as a potential hardship.
We stayed the night previous to our trek at the Mountain Centre, in a self contained apartment (there are four of these available at the centre, with the additional cost well worth the comfort), where we were able to prepare our gear for the trek. We would need water, energy food, and enough cold and wet weather gear to remain comfortable in temperatures as low as 2 degrees Celsius. We would also need toilet paper and various other toiletries, and a head-torch, the reason for which will become apparent.
We met our guide, Byron, a local to the Kinabalu highlands, at 8am at the Mountain Centre, and were driven by mini-bus to the Timpohon Gate, which at 1866m would mark the beginning of our hike up the mountain. All hikers must be accompanied by a guide, both for safety reasons and out of respect for the mountain parklands. This is also quite a lucrative form of employment for many local Dusun villagers, and helps to boost the eco-tourism economy in this area.
The hike begins with a couple of hundred metres of downhill (the only downhill during the ascent) to a beautiful and picturesque waterfall. It then turns upwards, and the 4+ hours of climbing begins. The rainforest here is incredibly lush, but the temperatures here are noticeably cooler than on the flats below the mountain. Still, it was warm, about 25 degrees, and sweat was already pouring off us, even at this early stage.
Up… UP… UP! An unrelenting upward climbing, for hours on end. We had hired a walking pole each (for 5 Ringgit each, approximately $1.60AUD), which we all came to appreciate, taking some of the work away from our legs and easing the impact on our knees.
The vegetation here was lush. A deep veridian hue in all directions. And the humidity was high enough that we could see our own breath, even in the warmth of the tropics. The jungle floor was covered in a deep, soft moss, with small plants poking up here and there, all under the high canopy of ancient trees. Orchids, ferns, shrubs and grasses, some covered in colourful flowers. The constant and deafening drone of cicadas made the ambiance of the forest almost prehistoric.
As we progressed ever upwards, we could see in breaks in the forest canopy the jungle extending far below us. Above us, Kinabalu was also visible, a foreboding and dark spectre of stone.
Along the sides of the path, between catching our breath and gulping down water, occasionally we saw some amazing vegetation, including this seemingly common pitcher plant (Nepenthes). Pitcher plants are carnivorous, feeding on any insect, small lizard, small frog or small mammal unlucky enough to stray into it. This particular one was small, about 10cm from tip to tip.
Along the walk there are six rest huts, or “pondoks”, which serve as a welcome break from the trudging and constant walking up this massive mountain. They also provided a welcome relief from the sunshine, which, when it peeked through the clouds occasionally, was hot enough to burn quickly. Luckily for us, the clouds had settled in by the halfway point, which made for more comfortable travels.
At the pondoks, we were constantly greeted by these little fellas, a common brown Malaysian squirrel. They were not shy, and would crawl up your pants leg to see what you were eating. There were lots of them, and they were fast. One even tried to break into my backpack, smelling the food I had in there.
Farther along the track, joining in the chorus of cicadas was the sound of frogs. Mountain frogs can be seen all through the Kinabalu park area. They are notable because they don’t so much jump as climb up things, slowly and meticulously. The Mount Kinabalu region is home to over 80 species of frog, and some are endemic to this region.
We continued to climb, onward and upward, when to my left, i spotted a huge pitcher plant, larger than any I’d seen before. This was Nepenthes villosa, with a vessel as large as your fist. The guide is holding it in this picture for size reference. This pitcher plant is also endemic to Mount Kinabalu, and has the distinction of being the highest growing of all known nepenthes species, growing at altitudes of up to 3200m above sea level.
After about three and a half hours of hiking ever upward, my legs were burning, and I could start to feel the lack of oxygen. It wasn’t painful or debilitating, but it did make breathing just a tad more difficult than it would at lower altitudes. It was also a lot cooler up here, and it had begun to rain, so while I felt hot, every time I stopped to get my breath, the sweat and rain in my clothes caused me to shiver. Not far to go now.
We rounded the final turn among shrubbery to be greeted by the sight of Laban Rata with its iconic golden roof, a large ski-resort style building, with multiple dorm-rooms for shared accommodation, a small restaurant which served a bain marie feast several times a day, and a small giftshop which sold various items, including beer and softdrinks. The view from Laban Rata was spectacular, and our point of origin at The Mountain Centre could be seen in the valley far below.
Far above us, looking like long forgotten giants from a bygone era, the stone spires of Kinabalu beckoned us onward. The ever present “Donkey Ears” were visible from Laban Rata, and the track up the summit could seen faintly on the stone face of the mountain. But having already walked uphill for more than 4 hours, we were ready for a well-deserved rest. I treated each of our group, including Byron, our guide, to a beer (at a very steep 25 Ringgit each, approximately $8.33 AUD), and we had prepared for the next day’s summit siege. It would be an early start, waking at 1:30am to be able to reach the summit at sunrise.
NEXT: Scrambling in the dark, Monsters from the past, Legs of jelly. Stay tuned for part 2 of the epic hike up Mount Kinabalu. Mount Kinabalu Part 2 – The Land Of Forgotten Giants.