Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
By Jim Taylor
The night before we set off to climb Mt. Kinabalu all the reports coming back from the base camp weren’t too encouraging. We’d met a steady stream of exhausted climbers trickling back down the mountain from the summit’s base camp at Laban Rata. Most had just sat through the night waiting for a gap in the weather with no luck. It’d been raining continually for two days with up to 120 kilometer per hour winds.
So no one made it to the summit? Well not quite, we did meet a guy from Birmingham who got there with an Australian he’d met along the way. He told us he’d gotten up at 2 a.m. to find his guide drinking beer and mumbling “no way mate” so they both just went ahead and did it themselves, “There’re guide ropes all the way up to the summit, it got a bit hardcore at times, it was raining sideways. Great though, you’ll have no problems. Take a lot of chocolate with you.”
|Near the Summit|
The next morning we met our guide, Rowdi, a Dusun from the local area and the strong silent type who hardly said a word throughout our two days together. “Go slowly. Slow but not slow like a snake. That’s a pitcher plant. It’s five more kilometers… It’s four more kilometers..it’s three… ” We liked Rowdi, he did the whole climb in jeans, sweatshirt and pumps, never broke a sweat and only carried a bumbag. At his most talkative, the first hundred meters, he told us he’d been guiding people up the mountain for four years, three times a week – just a stroll in the park then.
The first three kilometers were just an endless series of steep steps. In the clouds and mist of morning the jungle was a looming mass of giant silhouetted trees and vegetation but gradually the path became more rocky, with small irregular boulders making up the ever steepening trail; the vegetation shrank as we gained altitude and after three hours we were walking through a stunted rhododendron forest. The wind picked up on this exposed face of the mountain twisting and shaping the trunks and branches into Bonzai-like contortions.
This stark and beautiful landscape led us up to Laban Rata. At over 3,000 meters you could already feel the air thinning around you. We’d managed to cover 6 kilometers in five hours, a stirling performance we thought as we collapsed into the lodge canteen’s plastic chairs to gulp down consecutive cups of hot tea like it was water.
|Descending Mt. Kinabalu|
Standing there in the cold I was starting to feel a bit envious of the other climber’s clothing. Most seemed decked out in the latest foul weather gear, fleeces and breathable Gortex from head to foot, while I was making do with wearing all my clothes at the same time, five T-shirts, two pairs of pants and a sagging windbreaker I’d hired from the Lodge. I had to put all my hope of staying dry into a poncho-binbag thing I’d bought in Kota Kinabalu.
Finally groups started to set off despite the rain, and after a bit we persuaded a reluctant Rowdi to give it a try. In the dark and rain we worked our way up steep rocky slopes and had to pull ourselves up and over rock faces using the slippery guide ropes. It was like reverse absailing, having to lean back and brace your legs wide apart as you pulled and walked your way up the rock face.
After what seemed like hours we had covered this single kilometer of trail and took a rest in the final shelter just below the Summit plateau. It was a small space, packed with people all undecided whether to stay, go on or turn back. The rain was still coming down and the ever informative Rowdi simply said “Rest. Eat chocolate,” before sitting in the corner, putting his head down and not moving for the next twenty minutes.
It was a strange twenty minutes standing in that tiny space crammed with cold and mumbling climbers. There was a couple stretched out under some emergency thermal blankets and we were thinking how nice it’d be to give up and join them. Standing around made us colder by the minute. My windbreaker had soaked in the water like a treat and I felt like I’d wrapped myself in a drenched blanket and then put on a bin bag. Some guide asked us who we were with and we pointed at Rowdi in the corner (sleeping? hung over? bored? praying to the gods?). He informed us promptly that he was taking his group back down and the only thing I could think of saying was “Oh right, see you then.”
The rain had started to die down but standing in the hut had left us freezing in no time at all. We prompted Rowdi to make a move, he gave us a look and sighed “Come on then. One thousand seven hundred and fifty meters,” and strolled out the door and into the drizzle.
|Stunted Forest Near Laban Ratan|
Lowes Peak comes to you as a bit of a kick in teeth. After getting into the four step shuffle then rest routine across the plateau you’re suddenly faced with a final sharp ascent, climbing over boulders and rocks for another thirty minutes to reach your goal. And in a trance-like oxygen starved state this we managed to do.
The very summit of Mount Kinabalu is a tiny plinth, wide enough for two bums and a look across the heavens, way above the clouds that morning without rain or mist to spoil the view, just the wind trying to push us off. We sat there for a while, you can’t really say just admiring the view as your sitting above the clouds, watching them form and dissolve at high speed at your feet. Whole blankets of white pouring over the outer edges and rocky peaks of the mountain summit then breaking into whispy strands flying off and away, across the valley below.
I turned to my girlfriend and saw that she looked exactly like I felt, her expression had gone beyond tiredness or discomfort to some strange mask of utter exhaustion. Taking cameras out of bags involved moving muscles and touching freezing metal, far too much effort by this point so we just sat there and watched it all.
Rowdi strolled up after us and gave us a nod and a smile, crouched down by the ledge and lit himself a cigarette. We stared on in amazement. Still looking like we were all out together taking a pleasant stroll through the park, he enjoyed his first smoke of the day at 4100 meters, admiring the view of the unfolding valleys way down below.
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