In a fit of optimism, I had decided Borneo would be where we made our mountaineering debut and climb Mount Kinabalu. Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Malaysia, and indeed all of Southeast Asia at 4,095 metres. For comparison, Ben Nevis sits at 1,344 metres and Everest’s South Base camp at 5,364 metres. However, due to its equatorial location Mount Kinabalu is never topped with snow.
We booked our climb as one of our earliest travelling tasks: climbing to the peak is generally done as a 2 day, 1 night climb and the number of climbers is essentially restricted by the number of beds in the overnight stop – Laban Rata – so some form of advance booking is wise.
Our day got off to an early start with a 6:30am pickup from our hostel in Kota Kinabalu. Our cheery tour guide, Jackson, chatted to us while performing somewhat breathtaking overtaking manoeuvres as we sped up into the hills.
We arrived at the Park HQ, which is already some 1,800 metres above sea level, and met our guide for the 2 days – Lei.
Craig and I opted to share a light rucksack for an overnight bag and were asking about porter options; we had read that for about £2pp each way, we could send our overnight bag ahead of us which sounded incredibly appealing. No problem, Lei would be our porter, and guide. I would have to watch him carry our bag. Mortified.
I did feel a bit better when he told me his last porter job had been 30kg of bags: our combined bag was a poxy 9kg but it didn’t stop me offering to carry his overnight bag for the first hour or so!
We were issued with a standard packed lunch (sandwiches, an apple and a boiled egg – rather Famous Five but alas water rather than ginger beer) and set off, pausing to admire the results of the most recent climbathon. The fastest man had summitted and returned in 2H28M and the fastest woman in 3H15M. Wow.
The initial trail is deceptively easy – the path starts downhill (we’ll come back to this) and passes the charming Carson waterfall, which douses you in a refreshing mist as you pass. We trotted off in high spirits.
Then came the steps. The first few kilometres of the 8.75 kilometre hike to the summit begin with steps fairly neatly carved into the hill and secured with metal edges. That said, I’m a lanky so and so and I found the steps pretty high climbing. Beware, shortarse climbing comrades.
As we began to ascend we were (rather embarrassingly) passed by the porters. Everything at Laban Rata, and within the mountain trails, has been carried up. There is no secret pulley system (believe me, enquiries were made) – the mountain is kept running by these guys huffing up to 40 kilos of food, furniture and construction materials up the trails every single day on their backs.
Steps. More, never ending steps. The trail is surrounded by steamy rainforest – some of the oldest on earth. As we climbed, Lei pointed out some of the plants surrounding us, such as carnivorous Pitcher Plants. I’m no botanist, but I gather these (rather elegant looking) plants trap flies in their long “pitchers” and digest them in their slimy depths. Yum.
Up we climbed, increasing the frequency of our rest stops to devour high-energy chocolate bars and nuts (advised by the tour company and thus guilt free. Huzzah!). I’d expected the altitude to result in a kind of “puffed out” feeling, but actually it just felt like a creeping knackered-ness, more like you were just running on empty and increasingly drained and fuzzy.
At this point, we were approximately 5 kilometres into our hike. The landscape had changed dramatically.
Gone was the lush rainforest and steep steps; these had been replaced by scrub, bushes and a rocky, uneven trail which led upwards just as steeply.
At last, we stumbled in to Laban Rata. The mountain climb had taken us a bit over 5 hours and the weather closed in a few minutes later.
Laban Rata reminded me of a scout camp – a large open dining area with a small, extortionate gift shop in the corner which sold snacks and, unbelievably, postcards.
We purchased the most expensive cup of tea I hope to ever buy. They were free with dinner twenty minutes later but dammit, I’m British, I was tired and I wanted a brew. Craig was delighted. Out came his pack of HobNobs (lovingly carried all the way from the UK) and we happily dunked our way back to life.
The accommodation in Laban Rata, as you might expect, was rather basic. The sparse dorms had bunks in and little else and, as there was no hot water, we opted against an ice cold shower. After a fairly comprehensive dinner, we headed to bed about half 7 ready for our early morning wake up call to make our dawn summit bid.
Sleep came briefly and then I was awake again by about 10pm, despite the days climb. It’s very hard to get to sleep at altitude – the deep, regular breathing you need as you drift off to sleep is impossible when you can’t catch your breath and meant I spent most of the night awake in the pitch black, waiting for our alarm…