Mount Kinabalu trek – reaching new heights

One afternoon in March whilst back in good ole Norwich, we asked ourselves “shall we climb Mount Kinabalu when in Borneo?”. We done some classic pre-travel research and after five minutes we said, “yeah, why not?”. Personally, I was thinking that the trek looked very doable (even reasonable compared to others I had done), not that high up in terms of altitude and a great thing to do. Fast forward to the second day of the trek approaching the ‘danger zone’ at roughly 3am in the cold with gusts of wind and head torches as our only guide. We were thinking “what the hell are we doing here?”, as we had to pull ourselves up a rock edge using only a rope. Safe to say this was no easy task, far from it and we were nowhere near to the summit at this point and well out of our comfort zone.
Rewinding to the start of the trip, we were collected from our hostel with fellow hikers from Australia, Malaysia, Holland and UK. We started chatting about the hike, is it going to be challenging, how long it will take, where each of us has come from and our hiking abilities. One of the hikers who was Malaysian and lived in Australia had done it previously about eight years ago and was telling us all the juicy details. He reassured us but at the same time scared both of us. Being relative novices at this sort of thing we knew that this could be a challenge and a half. We were transported to Kinabalu Park which was 1563m (5,128ft) in elevation. The plan was to acclimatise there before the trek began the next day. This little settlement amongst the UNESCO World Heritage site was in view of the stunning mountain which we were about to climb and it seemed monstrous. We both knew this was one hell of a task for two non-hikers.
Once arrived we saw some hikers who had finished the hike that morning and they looked exhausted. Another reminder that this wasn’t going to be easy. Our Amazing Borneo (the company we booked it with) representative informed us that we had a free upgrade from the hostel dorm we were staying in and they placed us in this luxury villa overlooking the mountain, glorious. We felt slightly bad for the father and daughter from Australia who had paid for this villa, but we quickly forgot about that when we settled in. This place had a super king size bed, en-suite bathroom, free tea/coffee, TV and super comfy pillows. What a place! Personally, I was still reeling from the sickness I had a few days earlier and was nervous that this could hinder my chances for the climb. I was able to muster myself for the buffet dinner provided and the plethora of options was stunning. Just pure veg and rice done the treat and an early night beckoned.


Luckily the full night’s sleep assisted my recovery and I felt ready to go. After some hash browns, eggs and beans for breakfast I was ready to hit the ground running. We met our group and the Amazing Borneo representative at 8am outside the reception and the place was heaving with fellow hikers and guides for the day. The area had a buzzing ambience but I was nervous. We met our guide Rose for the trek who was assigned just to us and she seemed nice and calm. Once the park admin including ID passes, meeting the guide, signing disclaimer forms and collecting some equipment was completed, we were transported to Timpohon Gate. It was 5.5km from the park headquarters at an altitude of 1,866 metres (6,122ft) and all treks begin there.


Standing at the gate we registered and thoughts such as ‘no going back now’, ‘oh no what have we got ourselves in to?’ and ‘surely it won’t be as hard as the Singalila Ridge Trek or the Inca Trail?’ were going through my mind. Emma and I both looked at each other with pure nervous tension and dread. These thoughts majorly increased due to the seeing how big this thing was from our room and the state of the hikers the previous day. They were mostly school/university students who were much younger and fitter than us. We both looked at Rose and said, ‘let’s do it’ and we set off in to unknown.
The first day was 6km of trekking, climbing up 1,404m (4,608ft) to Laban Rata base camp which stood in the mountain at 3,270m (10,730ft). All we knew at the start was how far we will trek and the approximate time it will take. We hoped to be done within six hours. The first 2km was a bit of a breeze and we were actively enjoying trekking. Rose informed us that there is a rest point at every kilometre and this settled the nerves. Before the 1km mark we saw a young school girl who was part of large school group attempting the trek, in absolute tears and seemed clear that she didn’t want to carry on. Emma and I both thought that there was much worse to come and that first bit was easy, even for us! The teachers and guides were trying to calm her down whilst her group at the 1km resting point were waiting but seemed in good spirits having a laugh and seemingly not caring that much about their friend. I found that amusing.
What was quickly establishing was the terrain which was becoming increasingly difficult with big wooden steps which require a leap and the stony incline which required you to pick out your stone and step on to the next one. This became tiring and annoying. 2km to 3km tiredness started to settle in, hard heavy breathing increased and the increase in altitude started to come in. We were relieved to see the rest point and took a well-deserved 10mins rest. My legs were starting to ache and hurt from the uphill battle on this terrain.

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We knew 3km to 4km was going to be tough and our guide was sensing that I was struggling with the inclines and lent me her hiking pole which in hindsight I knew I should had bought or borrowed before the trek. This enabled me to pick my spot and rely on my pole with my weight against these rocks and big wooden steps. The burn in my legs and the heavy blowing was starting to play on my mind especially about not being prepared enough. Yet again I am trying to ‘wing’ something which couldn’t and this was testing my mental strength. The constant steps were getting to both of us. The saving grace in this km was that lunch was at 4km and a longer rest period, we just about got there. Exhaustion was becoming apparent.
At this rest point, we saw a lot of trekkers in our daily group (only 135 people can hike per day in the park due to regulations) but also people who had been to the summit that day. They looked knackered and we spoke to an Indian couple who said the next 2km to base camp was tough as it is more of an incline, we were devastated but in reality, it confirmed our suspicions! To add more pressure, the guy pointed to his wife and said, ‘it is hard but if she could do it then anyone can’. I had to laugh at that and she agreed with him, a back handed compliment I must say!

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As we started to climb the next km it became clear the incline was more sustained and even harder. Also, there appeared to be more ‘proper’ steps where they are made horizontal and built within a staircase so you can hold on to the wooden railing. This was a slight relief but at this point we were both so tired it didn’t make a difference. What did make a difference this km was seeing the local people each carrying sewage poles and metal girders. We were in awe of these people who were carrying this on their shoulder! Not only did they have to watch their step on the terrain they had to make sure they balance it correctly on their shoulders if not it would tip and force them to drop it or fall over. Here is me with a little backpack and I am complaining about not being able to put one foot in front of another. For the last half of this km we were following one of these guys who was going at a nice steady pace and we felt better at the next rest point.
A bed, buffet dinner, a sit down, a can of coke, flip flops and a great view were the motivations for the next km which was going to be the biggest climb of the day and the one that hurts the most. We knew if just kept going we can lay down and rest. As much as real steps were a step up (excuse the pun) from the massive leaps from the previous kilometres they were starting to take its toll also. We were just getting fed up with steps! We eventually got to half way to a rest shelter which we didn’t know was there and met some fellow hikers and we were all encouraging each other that it is not long to go. There was a family of three with a mother and her young children who were maybe around 11-13 years old and the boy who was the youngest was keen to get up there.
As we finally set off I was starting to really feel it and couldn’t wait to stop, it was relentless. As we got closer, the pain kept getting stronger as we pushed ourselves to the camp. Finally, we saw that young boy from earlier who was in tears and wanted to stop but his mum was encouraging him that there was only a few more steps to go. After that we saw the camp generator and knew we had made it. Absolute relief. We made it at around 14:20 which was not bad going for us. We caught up with Blake who was an Australian guy who we got on well with straight away on the bus ride to the park and he got to this point at 12:00! Absolute machine! It was time to catch the view, get changed, have a rest, get some dinner and try to get some sleep for the 01:30 alarm call the next morning.


I struggled to consume some baked beans and bread at 02:00 as it was far too early and with hardly any sleep due to being nervous about the trek ahead, we set off with Rose. This was a 2.7km hike to the summit in the dark with headtorches for vision. There was a blustery wind and a cold chill so warm clothing was a must. This would take nearly the same amount of time as the day before despite it being shorter in length. The first 700m was lot of steps and with tired legs this was a struggle. We had to make the registration point by 05:00 which was 1km away but we set off at 02:30 to give us good time. We had been warned of the ‘danger zone’ coming up where everyone would be single file and overtaking was strictly forbidden. We got to the top of the steps and entered the ‘danger zone’ which was aptly sign posted quite a lot. This was an area where rocks could potentially fall and hit people hence the danger.
To describe this area with what we could see would be an area of smooth rock with a rope for guidance. There was a steep almost vertical rock to climb and you had to use the rope to pull yourself up. Just walking up there wasn’t possible. If you let go of the rope you would fall back in to the people behind you and serious injury if not death would be certain. We couldn’t see where we were going or where we had come from, this was seriously hard core. I had entered in to survival mode. Despite no overtaking I found a place half way up to take a breather. I said to Emma ‘I don’t think I can do this, it is too much’. We both were struggling but we had each other to rely on. Registration point was close and we were good for time. We somehow managed to pull ourselves up the rock with what little strength we had. I had never been so happy to reach a resting point. Relief was there but we knew there was hardship ahead to get to this summit. People were being sick in the toilets at this rest stop, people were sitting down and trying to collect themselves to go again. It was a sight of exhaustion and determination. We had to do this now.
The next 1km was to the bottom of the summit and this moon like surface continued with a rope as guidance. Although not as steep as the ‘danger zone’ this was a steady incline in the increasing altitude which Emma began to struggle with. The temperature got colder and the legs ached even more. Rose our guide was keen to get a move on but we kept at our pace and took regular stops. All we could see in the dark ahead was the rope and the light of torches which were at a higher altitude than us. We struggled along supporting each other to the bottom of the summit then saw what was ahead, a steep climb above rocks to the top. We stopped again and I began to realise Emma really was struggling to breath and speak, the altitude really was getting to her.
Adrenalin was pumping now as I could see the target. I muttered to Emma ‘come on, one last push to the top and we have done it, I can see the summit’. Somehow, we climbed the rocks dodging the people coming down who had already been up there and had started their descent. One rock at a time and a few breathers and I could see the sign and the little flat rock to stand on. I kept pushing Emma and she was starting to feel sick. The was a bit of light as sunrise began and with one hand I helped Emma up and gave her a hug, we had done it. Rose gave us a high five each and took some photos. Exhaustion and relief was rife. All this pain to get here was worth it. After a quick look around the foggy distance, a little hug and catching of breath, we began to descend.
The final climb became apparent as light took over dark and the fog began to disappear and we were a little in shock that we succeeded. What was playing on our minds was descending the ‘danger zone’. As we approached the dreaded zone we couldn’t really believe they let you hike up there with no safety equipment. On the way down our guide Rose was telling us about the earthquake a few years ago which killed numerous amounts of hikers and guides, horrendous. It is fair to say in the light more people would be hesitant. We safely negotiated our way down to base camp for a feed then 6k back to park HQ. What a hike!
If anyone is considering this hike, I would recommend some level of fitness/ training beforehand. We manged it with limited fitness but it might be more enjoyable if you’ve trained a bit beforehand!

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