Mount Kinabalu Part 2 – The Land of Forgotten Giants

Posted by on November 20, 2013 in Borneo Notes, Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments



Continued from Mount Kinabalu Part 1 – Climbing Into the Clouds.

Awoken from a fitful sleep in complete darkness… In a strange place, in a strange bed… Somebody was snoring… loudly.

“Would it be okay if I turned on the light? Does anyone mind if I turn on the light?” An unfamiliar female voice with a Scandinavian accent was asking me. “Is it okay if I turn on the light?”

The light came on, and I remembered where I was. The three of us had shared a small room with three double bunk-beds, along with a middle-aged Danish couple, and an American woman. It was 1:30am. And it hurt to wake up, it was literally painful, but I couldn’t identify what hurt or where.

Time to get our gear together and set off on the final part of our Kinabalu trek, the 2.7km hike, with a rise of 1km in altitude.

After a brief breakfast (which I found hard to digest at that time in the morning), and loads of coffee, we were reunited with our guide, and along with the other 143 people who would be making the ascent that morning, we set off, headtorches on, into the blackness of the night. It was wet. Not raining-hard-wet, just drizzly-wet, the kind of wet that soaks you before too long. Consistent drizzle, enough to make the path into a stream. Thankfully we had the foresight to wear our waterproof jackets, or we would have been drenched to the skin.

The first part of this last push to the top consisted of a staircase that, like the rest of the hike, was relentlessly driving us upward. Hundreds of headtorches could be seen above us, in front, and below us, behind, my torch casting a small pool of light just big enough to be able to carefully choose footholds in the darkness. Occasionally the caravan of people would come to a halt, as someone ahead had either slipped, stopped to catch their breath, or hesitated on their next move.

A caravan of dripping plastic jackets and LED lights. Then we reached the first rope.

It was a thick rope, about 3cm in diameter, frayed and dripping wet. We were told to put our gloves on here so that we could grip the rope properly. The rope extended upwards on a steep angle and disappeared into the darkness. The stairs gave way to granite slabs, with the water making the footing precarious in spots. We could not see the drop-off below us, but we were all aware it was there in the cavernous inky black.

Soon we found ourselves on a slab with a shallow incline, the rope continuing off into the distance. The vegetation had disappeared, all that was around us was rock, granite, slick from the rain. We could just start to make out shapes around us, huge shapes, like sleeping giants, black against the slightly lighter sky. Huge, pointy obelisks, menacing in the darkness.

The clouds broke intermittently, revealing patches of sky, only to be once again engulfed in the haze. In the far distance we could see the city lights of Kota Kinabalu, the largest city on Sabah.

LowsPeakHikers atop Low’s Peak, the summit of Mount Kinabalu.

Onward we trudged, like hundreds of fairy lights in a string, bobbing along forward along the rope. The air was noticeably thinner up here, but n0t enough to be troublesome. After 2 and a half hours, we finally made it to the top of Mount Kinabalu, on the summit called Low’s Peak (4,095m above seal level), just as the sun was rising in the east. Unfortunately for us, it was still quite cloudy. Actually it soon became apparent , we were actually in the clouds. And it was cold, cold enough that my fingers lost feeling for a while, even with the gloves on.

MountainMonstersMountain monsters.

The light was getting stronger, and the faint glow in the east was shining through the haze and fog. The monoliths of the mountaintop were peeking through the whitewash, like immense stone gollums from a bygone era. It was as if they would come to life and start lumbering about, if only we could remember the right incantation.

SummitViewSunriseHayley and Charmaine watch on as the sun rises behind the cloud from the summit of Mount Kinabalu.

As the light intensified, we could see why the guides told us  not to stray away from the rope. Sheer drop-offs of several hundred metres were revealed, only metres from the walking trail. The swirling mists of the caverns came up to meet us, like the ghosts of the unfortunate travelers who lost their lives on the mountain, all those years ago during the early expeditions to the summit.

SummitPeak2Hayley and Charmaine in front of one of the huge monoliths on Mount Kinabalu.

While the view was spoiled by the clouds, the summit was no less spectacular. The pillars of stone were all around us, coming into view like hungry wolves to the light of a campfire. In this light, for a moment their surreal forms harkened a prehistoric past of tectonic upheaval and volcanic explosions, like ominous signs of an angry and vengeful underworld. This fleeting feeling was quickly being washed away by the sunlight.

SouthPeakMe in the foreground with the incisor-like profile of South Peak, peeking from the haze.

It was time to make our descent. The downward path was revealed to us with the daylight, and what was merely a mystery in the darkness previously was a slowly sloping granite slab, the beginning of our descent back to the Laban Rata hut. Walking alongside the rope for the most part, we traversed past more of the ancient stone giants, their ominous presence reduced somewhat with the growing light.

TheDescentOnSlabsAncient stone giants, frozen in time.

The steeper parts of the descent required us to lower ourselves backward down the rope, and in the daylight we could see that the drop-offs were considerably higher than the ascent had suggested. Eventually we were back on the staircase that we had climbed earlier, now walking through a dense canopy of shrubbery, none of which we had seen on the way up. Overhead, the rhododendrons were in bloom, peeking through the ancient epiphytic  mosses on branches of the shrubs.

rhododendronsEpiphytic mosses among the rhododendrons.

The valley, it seemed, had missed the rain we experienced on the mountaintop. Below we could see the golden roof of Laban Rata, where we would grab our breakfast and the rest of our belongings, and continue our descent to the Mountain Centre. There was a lot more vegetation here than we had though when going through here in the dark. In fact it was like a mini-rainforest of ferns, mosses and shrubs.

LabanRataFromAboveThe roof of Laban Rata visible below, and the valley far off in the distance.

Upon reaching Laban Rata again, we quickly packed the rest of our belongings up, and had breakfast. It was already 8am, and we had already hiked that morning for 5 hours. No time for a shower (they were cold anyhow), and when Byron, our guide, showed up again, we began the long journey back to the Mountain Centre.

TheDescentInForestHayley and Charmaine on the descent off the mountain.

Being that we were on the descent, a lot less effort went into keeping stamina up, and going was pretty fast. It gave us some time to appreciate the biodiversity of the jungle a bit more. We were also assured by our guide that he knew a place where the world’s largest pitcher plant grew, the Nepenthes Rajah, another pitcher endemic to this region. There was an array of orchids, ferns and other plants along the walk, the colours intensified by the rain and mist.

orchidsVarious orchids on the Kinabalu hike.

Along the path I spotted a very curious looking creature, crawling very slowly along the path. Looking somewhat prehistoric, I took a photo of it so I could look it up later. Upon researching it on my return, I found out it’s called a trilobite beetle, or Duliticola, after a nearby mountain Mount Dulit. The females stay in the larval form for their entire lives, and the can grow up to 8cm long. This one was about 6cm.

TrilobiteBeetleTrilobite beetle female on the path on Mount Kinabalu.

Our guide unformed us that we were getting near to the spot where Nepenthes Rajah, the giant pitcher plant could be found. Ducking off the path and down a short side-track, we were greeted with the amazing plant, though the one the guide had found was a little damaged. It was missing its lid, and had already snapped off the main plant. Impressive nonetheless. Also in the area we saw more Nepenthes villosa, and another specimen I am yet to identify. One can easily see how a frog or mouse could fall into the Rajah and become lunch for the pitcher plant.

RajahNepenthes Rajah.

VillosaNepenthes villosa in three stages.

UnknownPossiblyVillosaUnknown pitcher plant, possibly a smaller Nepenthes villosa.

One thing worth noting about Mount Kinabalu is that all the food and equipment needed for the huts near the summit have been brought up by porters. We saw literally dozens of these guys carry all manner of things, from big bales of toilet paper, to cans of soft drink, to full gas bottles. Their loads can weigh as much as 50 kilograms, and this is the way many guides spend their days off from guiding. Some even do tow fully laden trips up the mountain in a day.

porterA porter carrying supplies up to the huts near the summit.

It was really very telling that the work that the porters do is much harder than what we had done on the previous day (I was carrying 7kg, mostly water), and that my legs were starting to lose control. By about hour three of this part of the descent, I had lost all strength in my legs. The muscles above the knees had turned to jelly, and were not responding to any commands from my brain. This was where the walking poles we had hired became very useful indeed. It was a matter of lowering myself using my arms, rather than the strength of my legs, from stem to step to step. And there were a lot of steps. Thousands, in fact.

Eventually we made it back to the bottom, the waterfall that only the day before had signified the beginning of our ascent into the Kinabalu plateau. The last 200 metres seemed like kilometres, and my legs were so weak I could hardly stand. We had been hiking since 2am, and by the end it was 2pm. A total of 10 hours hiking to complete the journey.

Some people say that the measure of a good climb is how you feel when you are finished. If this is true, then 3 days later, when I could no longer walk down stairs, that must signify that it was a really good hike. And it was. Also, it was the hardest hike I have ever done.

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  1. So glad to have read this. Now I know what we missed by ascending only to the first huts. Well written.

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  2. Hi, Martin. I’ve been following your blog for about a year now, but only just spotted your Mt Kinabalu articles. I climbed MK with some friends less than two weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed your account. Believe me, I can relate. There were a few major differences between our experiences though. To begin with, we lucked out on weather – nary a drop of rain for the entire two days (not counting droplets from the mist as we climbed through the clouds). We had a beautiful, cloudless, moonless sky during the night climb, and I have never in my life seen so many stars. And they didn’t twinkle! We also climbed a month or so after the trail reopened following last year’s tragic earthquake. The new Ranau trail runs from just above Laban Rata to just before Sayat Sayat and the recent construction still shows. We climbed midweek and that combined with the recent reopening might account for the relatively few people we had with us, around 30 or so. I was the oldest at 60, my mate Jim turned 60 on the night we climbed. He wanted to see the sunrise on the morning of his 60th birthday – successful too, I might add. I looked in vain for the wildlife you described: aside from the ever-present squirrels and some interesting insect life, nada. Dry weather, perhaps. Likewise with the pitcher plants, but I never ventured from the main trail.

    I found it easier than you because for the previous three months I had trained by hiking around the local hills around my town. I’ve calculated that in that period I climbed an average of nearly 300 metres a day. I was breathing easily and normally by the time we reached the top. Going back down was another story. Like you, my legs made their presence felt for the next few days.


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  1. Mount Kinabalu Part 1 – Climbing Into the Clouds | Martin S Pribble - […] NEXT: Scrambling in the dark, Monsters from the past, Legs of jelly. Stay tuned for part 2 of the…

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