Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

Like this article? Please share!
Do you like BootsnAll?


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
Near the Summit
To climb Mt. Kinabalu takes two days, first you climb up two thousand meters in elevation over a 6 kilometer trail to rest at the summit base camp. Then you set off again at 2 a.m. for the final and hardest bit, the last 1,000 meters in elevation over a 2.5 kilometer trail. The summit is 4,100 meters above sea level making it the highest mountain in Asia between the Himalayas and Papua New Guinea.

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
Descending Mt. Kinabalu
After little sleep but lots of food, tea and chocolate we were ready to carry on at 2 a.m. The base camp was buzzing with people getting ready for the nod from their guides. It hadn’t rained most of the night and the wind wasn’t too bad. Sure enough though it started to pelt down around two thirty, and a lot of people were having second thoughts. “The main problem being,” someone explained, ” the guides won’t take anyone onto the near summit plateau, it’s a giant bowl of granite rock and they don’t want anyone getting washed off the mountain.” A reasonable concern for sure so there was nothing to do but wait it out.

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
Stunted Forest Near Laban Ratan
Over the next kilometer as we traversed up the granite slope towards the summit a few things happened all at once. Light came as the dawn broke and a brief gap in the clouds offered an incredible view of the valley floor far below. The rain stopped and the wind picked up to a gust, and finally we realised that we could no longer breathe normally. We were reduced to stopping for breath every ten steps, then eight, then five. We shuffled along the granite floor like this and I remember thinking that this should have been the easiest part so far, just a walk up the slight slope of the basin, no steps, boulders or rain soaked ropes. After an hour I realised that we were only half way from the hut to the summit and started to fight off a sudden urge to be sick. I didn’t mention this to my girlfriend as I thought I’d throw up there and then if I did. Then suddenly she said it and I thought “Christ we’re both gonna throw up on the roof of Southeast Asia.” Luckily this effect of altitude and tiredness gradually receded and after another hours shuffling we reached the back of the basin to Lowes Peak, the summit named after the first cracked European to embark on this adventure.

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.


Check out more writing by the author on his website.





Like this article? Please share!
Do you like BootsnAll?
Home » Articles » Climbing Mt. Kinabalu