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Climbing Mount Kinabalu in Borneo for the first time

My immediate reaction to an adventure is to say yes, and think about it afterwards. So when a girlfriend I’ve known since I was 18 – she’s now living in KL – asked if I wanted to climb Mt Kinabalu over the Chinese New Year break, I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. It was only a month away.

Preparations in Singapore

Stories slowly began to roll in about different people’s experiences on the 4095-metre mountain. It was the scariest thing some had done; others said it was doable but warned of lots of steps. I thought I’d better do some preparations. I bought proper hiking boots and planned to climb Singapore’s massive Bukit Timah (163 metres).

I thought I was fairly fit. I work out with a trainer at Body Temple once a week, and do slow running or walking when I can. Erik of Equator Adventure said, “Just take it slowly.” Following his advice, I bought a heart monitor to stop me going too fast at the beginning and burning out too early.

The monitor also helps with altitude sickness. Contrary to popular belief, air at higher altitudes has the same amount of oxygen; it’s just that our body processes it differently. This can lead to panic if the heart rate is too high or we’re not breathing well as we feel that we are not getting enough oxygen.

I was determined to do be as prepared as possible so I could go all the way. A friend sent me a photo of himself at the summit – it looked fantastic. He also sent a photo of endless steps…
The weekend drew near. I dug out my daughter’s ski jacket, and bought some wet/dry long johns and an undershirt as I had heard it could be really cold at the summit. There are a few ‘outdoor living’ shops at Velocity, Novena.

First leg: day climb
Before I knew it, I was flying to Kota Kinabalu. We stayed in the very basic Western Hotel (about RM200 a night) but it was right next to a fantastic Italian restaurant, Little Italy, where we all successfully loaded up on carbs!

Our group was collected at 6.30am on Saturday for a two-hour drive to the lodge (1800m). Everyone seemed quiet, munching on boiled eggs and drinking water. The scenery was beautiful: low-lying clouds hanging in the valleys below us and the first sighting of the mountain. Yikes, I thought – it’s bloody big!

At the lodge, we met our guides, Richard and the aptly named Friendly. They weighed our bags. Despite leaving most of my things at the hotel, I still had 8kg so I had to pay RM56 to the porter.

The initial then minutes was gentle and very pretty. The forest is different to the tropical jungle of Singapore and West Malaysia, so we were all excited. Then the steps started. The incline quickly increased to anywhere between 30 and 60 degrees. Some steps were made of wood, others cement-filled rocks; some were mid-thigh height. There was the occasional gentle patch, but apart from that it was all steps.

My heart rate rapidly rose to 155. I couldn’t believe how unfit I felt. The lovely Richard was my stalwart: “Take it slowly,” he said, as I began worrying that I might be slowing the others down. I told them to go at their own sped and I stopped every fifteen minutes just for only a minute or so to let my heart rate drop.

The temperature changed as we came into mist; the wonderful cool air spurred us on. There are rest stops approximately every kilometre. It sounded like a lot at the beginning, but after a while – and especially on the way down – each one felt like the longest kilometre I’d ever done.

My tactic was to eat little bits along the way. I had packed nuts, raisins and some protein bars; these were washed down with small but regular intakes of water (aim to carry two big bottles).

At the halfway mark, we were beginning to wonder why we hadn’t decided on a nice beach break instead! We were now above the clouds and the midday sun was hot on the back of our necks. The mountain loomed ahead, looking more ominous than ever.

The camaraderie helps urge you along. Often you’ll pass people as they rest, only to be overtaken by them later while you do the same. There’s plenty of puffing.. In the annual race up the mountain the fastest time  to the summit and back is just over two hours. After we’d gone five hours with still no sign of base camp, we realised just what an achievement this was.

Halfway house
At last, after another hour, Camp Laban Rata was in sight. We were impressed – it was like an après ski chalet. A long veranda at the front looked on to a bed of ever-changing cloud formations below and we sat with a (warm) beer and watched the sun set beneath us. It was magical. I could suddenly see why people from all over the world come to climb Kinabalu.

The food was a surprise. We’d been told it was basic noodles and not much else, but actually it was pretty good. During the day, porters would regularly overtake us carrying large quantities of supplies; we were in awe of their speed and strength. Now, as we ate our beef curry and banana fritters, we appreciated their role even more.

We stayed in a ten-bed dormitory with a couple and their son from Beijing. There are certain times when the water-heaters are switched on, so
time your shower right – mine was freezing. We played a couple of rounds of cards, but by 8pm we couldn’t stay awake any longer. It was pitch black thanks to a new moon. As a result, going to the loo in to the night was hysterical; I’m still not sure how I did it. (Tip: keep your flashlight handy!)

Second leg: 2am to the summit

We all had a patchy sleep and soon it was 2am: time to get up and wrap up. Breakfast of scrambled eggs and coffee went down remarkably well. I used up over 4,000 calories on the day climb, according to my Polar watch, so I felt justified in eating everything in sight. It was probably too much. Along with all the layers of clothing, I could hardly shuffle up the first long set of steps. I recommend a head flashlight, by the way. Some people carried torches but you need your hands for pulling yourself along ropes and scrambling up rock faces.

Soon my heart was racing again and I was hot. The thick ski jacket was definitely too much. I took off some layers, at which point our wonderful guide Richard offered to take my backpack. I nearly kissed him!

The first long rope-haul came about 30 minutes in; already a couple had turned back. The air was definitely thinner by now, and it all felt more laboured. But I enjoyed the climbing so much more than the steps. Still, the face is quite sheer in parts – one of our group turned back because he was scared of heights. He’d been told that the route was mostly protected; in fact, most of the summit climb is exposed. He didn’t look great and we weren’t sure what to do. Obviously the guides are used to this: Friendly (about half the size of our friend) volunteered to take him down, and still managed to join us again soon after.

The final section before the summit was open 45-degree rock face. The sun was starting to come up. Some of the others were way ahead of me, but I took it easy, getting plenty of photos of the amazing sunrise. Others were starting to walk back down as I shuffled along with loyal Richard still carrying my backpack. Near the summit, I could hear “yo, Becca, go!” or something like that. My group was perched up there, with about 30 others. At last, after three hours, I had made it.

We took the obligatory photos, had a snack, and made the most of the breathtaking views. From the top, it took about two and a half hours to get back to base camp. We ate another breakfast there, then packed up our stuff and began the final ascent.

Third leg: down again

Getting down seemed to take forever. You’ve been up since 1.30am, so the steps seem even more repetitive. I chose to wear trainers but my toenails pushed in to the top of the shoe the whole way down so in hindsight I should have kept my boots on. (Some recommend open toe sandals for the walk down). Others were feeling the strain in their knees.

The hardest part was passing people on the way up and refraining from saying “Don’t do it!” There was a rather overweight 10-year-old boy being coaxed along by his father. Both of them looked like they were going to have heart attacks and they were only two hours into the climb.
After a meal and a shower back at the hotel in KK (I would recommend staying somewhere like the Shangri-La for a few creature comforts and a bath!), we headed to the waterfront for dinner and drinks. It was only then that we were able to really appreciate what we had just done. We had a good time talking about it.

Don’t underestimate Mt Kinabalu. Apparently only 60 percent of climbers make it to base camp, so it is a challenge. Take it seriously, especially if you’re not a fitness fanatic – this is no leisurely hike through pretty countryside. Gary in our group went to base camp of Mt Everest last year and reckons it was much easier in comparison. We paid about 800RM per person through Summer Tours based in Sabah. (I am sure you can find more efficient tour operators in Singapore though..)

Now that I have the boots, who knows, maybe base camp Everest will be next on my list.

For Mount Kinabalu trips, contact Summer Tours & Vacations, Kota Kinabalu. stephanie.teo@summertours.com.my

Erik from Equator Adventures is organising groups to climb to Everest base camp.
For more information, email erik@equatoradventures.com.
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