Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
By Leif Pettersen
|Porters carrying up a variety of odd objects|
The guy that had passed on this hard-won information to me was told by the same people that there were no openings on the day he wanted to go, three days in the future, unless he was willing to sleep in a cabin with no heater. The guy sucked it up and booked in the non-heated cabin. Then after freezing in his bed, he met a group of girls that had booked beds in the heated cabin, on site, just the day before. I made the risky decision to just show up at the mountain and hope this rumor was true or, at the outset, that there would be a last-minute cancellation.
Meanwhile my body was working to foil these carefully formulated, half-assed plans. I had woken up that morning with the calf muscles in both legs sore and throbbing. Considering all I had done the previous day was sit on two freakishly rough ferries for a cumulative four hours, I wasn’t sure what I had done to earn this pain. The mystery didn’t last long as I got the shits right about lunch time. I was on the toilet 11 times in 10 hours. Imodium provided minor relief, but in the interim, the aching in my legs slowly spread over my entire body. I felt like one big bruise. Every move hurt. My first thought was the flu, but when I told Lucy about this – as in Lucy of KK’s legendary hostel “Lucy’s Homestay, Backpacker Lodge” – she immediately whipped out a can of bug spray the size of a didgeridoo and sprayed my room top to bottom. I was too stunned to ask what she thought that I might have contracted via mosquitoes. Instead I ran to the bathroom and examined my whole body for mosquito bites. I found nothing, but nevertheless when you’re a former Planet Earth Hypochondria All Star, developments like this are hard to swallow. I eventually doped myself silly on ibuprofen and went to bed early, sourly thinking that I would have to delay my Mount Kinabalu trip and spend a few days in KK recovering.
Miraculously, the next morning, I was felt 60% better. This improvement combined with the non-demanding two hour bus ride that I needed to take to the Mount Kinabalu park headquarters encouraged me to hastily set off from Lucy’s with wavering confidence. I was up and down the whole day. One minute I felt fine, the next I felt like I needed a hospital bed. I resolved to sit and rest in my hostel at park headquarters for the remainder of the day, pooling strength and health for the first leg of the climb; a five hour, six kilometer death march straight up to Laban Rata, the overnight summit staging area, three quarters of the way up the mountain.
The bus ride to the mountain was fantastic, but I was stunned in that as soon as we were out of KK, we started going uphill and continued ascending for the entire drive. The scenery was amazing, but in the back of my head I was wondering when we were going to start heading downhill. If we kept going up would there be any mountain left to climb? Ninety minutes later, just after we had entered the cloud line, I was deposited at the park turn-off along with a few other backpackers. It was almost inconceivable that after all that uphill driving there was still a good eight hours of walking to get to the fog obscured top of this mountain. That’s 13,000 feet above sea level for you.
My legs had promptly cramped up on the bus and loosening them up was not pleasant. It was only about 100 yards up hill from the road to park headquarters, but by the time I got there I was already gasping for oxygen in the thin mountain air. The good news was that I was able to book a bed both at headquarters (not usually a problem) and at Laban Rata. I was relieved that I had gotten a bed (in your face Kinabalu Nature Resorts office!), but it was in one of the dreaded unheated dorm rooms. Then I recalled a message that I’d read in a BootsnAll discussion group, saying that the heated rooms were far too hot and uncomfortable and you could get all the blankets you needed in the unheated rooms. Hell, put a family of bats in the wall and it would be just like a February night in my old bedroom back in Minneapolis, with the added excitement of my mysterious ailments, exploding calf muscles and maybe some altitude sickness. Yes, I knew I was doomed, but when has that ever stopped me?
The next morning we convened, as ordered, at park headquarters at 7:30 a.m. With my roommates and a few other people that we absorbed at the last second, we swelled to a group of eight people, the maximum allowable per guide. The per-person fee for the guides go down as the size of the group increases. If you’re alone it’s 60RM (US$16). If you nose into a group of eight, it’s only 15RM (US$4) per person. Seeing as how our “guide,” Ronnie, was totally worthless, I was happy that I only dropped 15RM on this fleecing. Ronnie got us all organized and gave us some last second instructions. It became clear at this point that Ronnie didn’t know a lick of satisfactory English. He had memorized his pre-climb speech and beyond that he could only string together a few semi-nonsensical series of words in his effort to get a point across. This was not reassuring as we were firmly told at the briefing the night before that we needed to take special care to follow the instructions of our guide to the letter. Indeed, to hear the guys at the briefing tell it, our safety depended largely on us hanging on our guide’s every word. I wasn’t sure how they expected us to abide by this as I was having trouble following Ronnie through such simple statements as “Hello” and “Let’s go.” If there were to be a true emergency (presumably the main reason why Ronnie was there in the first place), effectively communicating the details to him would have been impossible and we’d all die like miserable dogs up there while Ronnie stood around puzzling our pleas for help.
Additionally, now was the time that they decided to present us with a list of ailments that, if we were now or had ever been victim to, we should not do the climb. Call me crazy, but maybe a subject as important as this should be broached the instant you arrive at the park, not after you have been there for 24 hours and dropped over 200RM getting ready for the climb. For the record, the list of aliments included:
- Heart Disease â€“ “The silent killer?” How the hell am I supposed to know?
- Hypertension â€“ Only after a three coffees
- Chronic Asthma â€“ Er, sorta
- Peptic Ulcer â€“ The what now?
- Severe Anemia â€“ Not at the moment
- Epileptic fits â€“ Only when I dream about chasing cars
- Arthritis â€“ After 22 years of intensive juggling, I’ve got joint oddities going on that you don’t even know about
- Palpitation â€“ Real or imagined?
- Hepatitis â€“ Not yet, but I’ve still got three months in Asia, so it’s only a matter of time…
- Muscular cramps â€“ Oh f*ck!
- Any other sickness that may be triggered by severe cold, exertion and high altitude â€“ Well, gee, do you mean something like the flu?!?!
So I was screwed, but I had already invested two days and over 200RM into this excursion and I wasn’t going to let something as trivial as my imminent death turn me back 30 seconds before setting off.
On the subject of prices, Kinabalu is a money pit like no other place in Asia. The prices at Park Headquarters are criminal and it gets even worse up at Laban Rata, though the situation at Laban Rata is forgivable because literally everything needs to be carried up by porters. Porters can be seen trudging up and scurrying down the mountain at all hours of the day. From what little we were able to piece together from Ronnie’s halted, Tarzan explanation, apparently these poor porters typically make the grueling climb from headquarters to Laban Rata five times a week, sometimes twice a day. What’s more, these tiny guys/gals â€“ eyeballing them I guessed that they weighed between 45/55 kilos (99/122 lbs) – carry loads of up to 40 kilos (88.4 lbs.) on their backs. They earn two ringgit (US$0.53) per kilo of weight carried.
Think about it; your own feet carrying you up 1,875 meters (6,152 feet) with up to 40 kilos on your back, twice in one day. For comparison, I was only carrying about five kilos when I made the climb and I nearly croaked from the effort. You really need to see the state of the paths to appreciate the heroic strength that goes into hauling up this kind of weight. While I was spewing sweat and gasping for air after a particularly bad set of stairs, a tiny female porter ambled slowly, but confidently passed me carrying 12, one-and-a-half liter bottles of water. While I was carefully negotiating a precipitous path overlooking a nasty sheer drop-off, an older porter nimbly overtook me carrying two, 20 foot flagpoles. While I was staggering up the last 500 meters so beaten and exhausted that I thought I could smell fire and brimstone, a teenaged boy passed me carrying a standard western, porcelain toilet. It was humbling.
Keeping the prices in mind, one should arrive at the park with a pile of lightweight, indestructible snacks (energy bars and candy bars are best) and a reasonable amount of water. Unless you love pain, you couldn’t possibly bring enough water with you to keep you happy for the entire two days (I’d estimate that I went through about five, 1.5 liter bottles of water all told, but remember, I was sick and dehydrating myself on the toilet as fast as I could re-hydrating myself with water…).
Ultimately, at some point you will have to buy their expensive water, but showing up with, say, three 1.5 liter bottles (one and some change for your night at headquarters and the rest for the climb), will help take the sting out of buying more water up at Laban Rata. Likewise, you need to bring a pile of cash with you as there are no ATMs or currency exchange places anywhere in the park. I brought what I thought was a generous 400RM (US$105), but after two days of the exorbitant park prices (by Malaysian standards), I barely had enough money left over for bus fare to Sandakan. Accommodations at park headquarters is 17RM (US$4.50) per night. A bed in an unheated hut at Laban Rata is 12RM (US$3.18) per night. Meals were 20-25RM (US$5.29-6.62) at headquarters and 25-30RM (US$6.62-7.94) at Laban Rata. Climbing permit 100RM (US$26.46), insurance 3.50RM (US$0.93), guide 15-60 RM (US$3.97-15.88). Water 5/10RM (small/large). Candy bars 5RM. Renting blanket, hat, gloves, flashlight, walking stick, etc 5-15RM. It adds up fast.
After white-lying my way through the Ailments Warning, we were herded onto a waiting bus and driven 20 minutes to Timpohon Gate, the start of the climb. Just so you have full comprehension of the insanity that we were about to embark on; the peak of Mount Kinabalu is at 4,101 meters (13,451 feet) above sea level, half the height of Mount Everest and only slightly less than the height at which I had jumped out of a plane the previous month in New Zealand. Park Headquarters/Timpohon Gate are at approximately the 1,500 meter mark, meaning over the course of the next 22 hours, we were going to climb about 2,500 meters (8,200 feet).
Our group was as follows: Me, a Swedish couple, a Danish couple, a Czech couple (the anti-deodorant kind we would soon learn) and a French guy. I had been eyeing the French guy with some concern ever since our group converged. He wasn’t packed light like the rest of us. He had his whole fricking backpack with him. It was only half full, but still this was not how one should pack for a 2,500 meter climb.
There’s a sign posted just on the other side of the gate showing the Mount Kinabalu Climbathon speed records. At the briefing, we had been shown a video of the 2002 Climbathon – part of the High Elevation Race Series – to get us all hyped for the journey and get a glimpse at what we were facing. These people had to race all the way up to the summit and then back down in one go. I wouldn’t appreciate until the next day how amazing this feat was. The woman record holder did the entire circuit in three hours and six minutes. The man in two hours and 40 minutes. Most normal humans gasp up to the peak in about eight cumulative hours, broken up by a 13 hour break at Laban Rata to acclimate and nap. The tender limp from the summit back down to the gate is usually done in about four hours. In retrospect, these records are stupefying, to say the least.
My favorite story of the Climbathon was the year that one of the local farmers, a woman named Danny, decided to enter the race as a fluke and in a landmark truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moment she f*cking won the race! Keep in mind that the other women competing were professional athletes with lucrative endorsement deals, who trained year-round and they were schooled by a diminutive, untrained farmer. Granted, Danny had the advantage of knowing every pebble on that mountain, but it’s still a testament to the amazing natural physical conditioning that the locals possess. Danny has since become a regular, terrifying presence at the Kinabalu Climbathon, routinely placing in the top three.
|Seeing this again makes my legs involuntarily clench|
The Swedish and Danish couples were also feeling a surge of energy at the beginning. I dropped far behind when I stopped to rest and remove two shirts and my pants, but I reeled them in soon after when their early hurried pace finally took its toll. After that, inconceivably, I actually led the pack until the lunch break at the half way point rest station. We caught and dusted the now very stinky and exhausted Czechs 90 minutes earlier at the first rest shelter. Being at the front with the humbled Danes and Swedes right behind me, I set an even, but slow pace. Small strides, with a deliberate and leisurely attitude toward the never ending steps. According to Lonely Planet, there’s at least 2,500 steps from the gate to Laban Rata, so I had no intention of rushing anything.
At the lunch shelter, I ate a candy bar and drank a fair amount of water. I felt surprisingly good for about five minutes and then it all went extravagantly wrong. I had been too focused on pace and distracted by scenery while we were moving to notice, but sure enough my full-body aches had returned and they were extra pissed off that I had been exerting myself so intensely. Then my stomach suddenly turned on me. I ran for the outhouse, a filthy, squat, hole-in-the-ground affair. In a panic, I sprayed the area down with the ubiquitous hose that is present in most Asian toilets, which historically takes the place of toilet paper â€“ as well as seemingly serving as an excuse to never clean the bathrooms â€“ and beared down for The Squat That Never Ends.
I won’t go into details, but I was in there for a very long time, so it came as no surprise when I finally emerged that my group, even the half-destroyed French guy, had pressed on without me. Worse still, someone had decided to turn off the water to the entire rest station while I was indisposed, so there was no way to flush down my efforts or wash my hands. Despite plentiful precipitation during my visit, Mount Kinabalu had been suffering from a water shortage and to combat this, some obtuse decision-maker concluded that turning off the water at random intervals would solve the problem. Moreover, the same genius got it into his head that if they locked half the toilets and wrenched shut every third sink faucet they would save even more water. Of course, this only resulted in a perpetual line of 2-5 people waiting for every bathroom on the mountain. Ironically, it never occurred to this think tank to address the numerous sinks that dribbled water constantly, that could have been fixed with a simple washer or even a quarter turn from a screwdriver. No wonder they had a water shortage.
So with body aches, stomach cramps, stiff muscles and soapy hands, I set off alone. With no one to help me set a pace or distract me with conversation, I came unwound in a hurry. My discomfort intensified with each passing minute. By the time I was three quarters of the way to Laban Rata I was convinced that I wasn’t going to make it. I still had 500 meters (1,640 feet) to climb and I was reduced to taking the smallest steps, resting every minute or so. At the final rest shelter, I sat down, drank lots of water and took careful measure of my condition. I was either going to have to finish this thing, ask for a helicopter rescue or throw myself off a cliff. I lingered for so long that the Czech couple eventually dragged themselves up, rested and moved on. Ronnie finally appeared and all but stood there tapping his foot, waiting for me. What, did he have a goddamn date up at Laban Rata? I pulled myself together and got going just as it started to rain.
I know I’m prone to teensy-weensy exaggerations in this journal now and again, but I can say with all sincerity that the last hour before Laban Rata was probably the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I was taking trembling strides, barely the length of my foot. I was gasping for air. I had to stop and rest after every few steps. My vision was tunneling on me and I was having a hard time focusing on the terrain so there was a fair amount of missteps and stumbling. My head was exploding, my neck and shoulders were on fire, my throat was throbbing, my hands were numb and I couldn’t feel my legs below the knees. It was without a doubt the most terrible hour of my life.
I saw Laban Rata long before I got to it. I was moving at the slowest possible speed without actually being at a dead stop. The short, but sadistic set of stairs that you’re forced to climb to get to the reception/restaurant area had me cursing and wishing a disfiguring disease on the guy that had designed the building.
I staggered in the door more exhausted than I have ever been in my life and collapsed into the nearest chair. I saw the rest of my group across the room digging into some food, but I didn’t have the strength to get back up and join them. I gave them a pathetic wave and used what little strength I could summon to drink some water. Ronnie tried to coax me into walking the 20 feet to the reception desk to check-in, but I wouldn’t have moved for a naked Jennifer Garner at that point.
After a very, very long time, I got to my feet. I still had almost no feeling below the knees and every fiber of my being was in pain. I lurched to the check-in desk using every available object for support, slumped on it and got down to business. I’m sure the desk clerks at Laban Rata are accustomed to dealing with half-dead people, but the look in their eyes revealed that I was perhaps the most dangerously impaired person they had seen in a very long time. My diminished concentration and numb hands made it nearly impossible to fill in their forms.
Finally, I was given a key and the guy said he would lead me to my room, where I had every intention of lying down and dying, but of course dying is never as easy as you would hope. Instead of leading me down the hall, he led me back outside, pointed way up the hill to a white cabin that was barely visible through the fog and told me that it was a 10 minute climb to my hut. I wanted to cry, but I was too tired.
I turned around and went back into the restaurant where I paid a ridiculous amount of money for a plate of cold noodles, a bottle of water, a 7-Up-like drink called “100 Plus” and a Snickers bar. I ate all of this as fast as my feebleness would allow, sat alone for another 20 minutes or so, enduring the stares of the concerned staff and then finally steeled myself for the climb to my hut. There were many stairs, there were steep rock inclines that required me to get on all fours at one point and finally an infuriating downhill wood plank walkway that lead to my hut – at that point, my logic was that any downhill movement meant that at some point I had been forced to go uphill unnecessarily, an offence punishable by a good old fashioned caning as far as I was concerned.
I fell into the hut to find the French guy slowly unpacking all his stuff. We traded stories about how unspeakably horrendous our days had been, before I gulped down two Ibuprofen and fell asleep.
Two hours later I woke up and felt shockingly better. Man, is ibuprofen the world’s greatest drug or what? I swung out of my bunk and stood up with astoundingly little discomfort. The French guy had also been napping and was waking up as well. Initially, I had no intention of going back down to the main building. It was only 5:00 p.m., but I had eaten so much back at 2:00 p.m. and considering that we were going to be getting up and having breakfast at 2:00 a.m., before our 3:00 a.m. departure for the summit to catch the sunrise, I thought that I would just go back to bed and sleep straight through until our wake-up. The French guy convinced me to go down just to drink something and try again to nail down meet-up plans for 3:00 a.m. with Ronnie. When the others had stopped him earlier in the restaurant and quizzed him about when and where to meet, the language barrier had been impenetrable. Several rounds of questioning had only produced a series of conflicting or incomprehensible answers. I was too tired to take part in this exchange and besides I was making a spectacle of myself with my food and my half-dumb, hand-mouth coordination.
Walking back down to the main building was surprisingly painless. I couldn’t believe that I had made such a quick recovery when only two hours earlier I felt like there was an even chance of me expiring in my sleep. We eventually found Ronnie and more or less told him when and where to meet us, after which I loitered in the restaurant for a little bit, trading stories with people, before heading back to the hut at 7:00 p.m. As tired as I was, my body simply did not want to go to sleep so soon after my two hour afternoon nap. The French guy came back and promptly went to sleep with an accompanying chorus of snoring and heavy breathing – for some reason sleeping on our sides, the position preferred by both of us, made it more difficult to breathe, so it was either pant on our sides or lie uncomfortably awake on our backs. Once every 20 minutes he woke up and blew his nose, making a noise that sounded like Volkswagen being run over but a dump truck. I slept sparingly until 1:30 a.m. when my stomach sent me running for the toilet again.
After doping myself up on ibuprofen, vitamins, and Imodium and eating a tiny, intestinally safe breakfast, our group set off for the summit. Ronnie proved to be even more severely inadequate with the “flashlight” he brought along. It was a kid’s army toy thing that cast a beam of light only half as bright as my key chain light. Other than the aforementioned key chain, I didn’t have a flashlight of my own. The key chain was actually more than bright enough to get by, but it had a push button switch, which meant that I had to keep my thumb on it at times, which was impossible with all the crawling and rope climbing we were doing. I could have rented a real flashlight at reception, but by that point I had dropped so much money on that effing mountain that I was starting to become genuinely concerned that I might not have enough cash for a bus ticket to Sandakan.
I ended up hanging back with a scrupulously over-prepared Japanese group that had among their arsenal of gadgets super bright, forehead lamps that lit the mountainside like a night game at Wrigley Field. Less than 10 minutes into the 2 and ½ hour climb, I was already struggling and questioning whether I could make it. My condition deteriorated quickly and soon I was reduced to the couple-steps-stop-and-rest routine from the end of the previous day. Fortunately, within another five minutes, nearly everyone else was in the same state and I wasn’t left behind.
I had assumed that the rope climbing part of the trek would be insufferable, but strangely it helped me to get a second wind. While my arms were aching a little from sickness, they weren’t numb from exhaustion like my spindly, quivering legs and using them to share the climbing workload helped immensely. I realized then that I was going to make it. Not very quickly, but eventually.
At Sayat-Sayat, the final check point before the summit, we checked in and turned to Ronnie for our whistles. We were supposed to be armed with whistles at this point so that if we got lost or separated we could blow on the whistles to signal that we needed help. Ronnie looked back at us blankly. He didn’t bring the effing whistles. As if to cement his status of being utterly useless, he told us to go on without him and he would meet us at the summit. Well, that was 120RM (15RM times eight people) well spent!
We pressed on, sticking with the forehead light people. The going was actually a bit easier after the check-point, consisting mostly of a mildly rising rock plateau, but we were already so pooped that it didn’t make any difference. We still had to collapse and rest every few minutes, desperately sucking in what little air was available. The last bit, a sudden jutting peak, strewn with boulders, was a killer. It was a near-vertical rope climb almost the entire way. We heaved to the top just in time for sunrise.
Except there was no sunrise. Clouds had uncharacteristically rolled in – usually they hold off until about 10:00 a.m. – and so there was no sunrise reward for us. Very anticlimactic. The upshot was that I was too mentally and physically annihilated for my fear of heights to kick in and I was able to just sit there and take in the views, which were mind-bendingly spectacular. It was windy and freezing at the top and people started heading down right away. Not only was I too tired to move, but I had put far too much energy into climbing that stupid bump to just turn right around and head back. I lingered for about 30 minutes, taking pictures in every direction and a few digital video clips just for a better perspective of what it was like up there.
|Just before dawn|
I was back at the hut in an hour. I had intended to pack up, check out and head for headquarters right away. My bus to Sandakan was going to speed by headquarters some time between 3:00 and 3:30 p.m. Then the French guy burst in and announced that he was taking a nap. Having gotten up at 1:30 a.m., I had completely lost track of the time. It was only 8:30 in the morning. Even if I crawled, the trip back down to headquarters would take less than four hours. Suddenly a nap sounded like a great idea. We set the alarm for an hour and passed out. You can guess what happened next.
We woke up and couldn’t move. Our muscles had stiffened and cramped up from the neck on down. Suddenly a nap seemed like a huge mistake. It felt like someone had snuck in and embalmed me. It took a long time to get moving. I was already packed so I just grabbed my bag and limped toward the main building. By the time I had hobbled down, I was limbering up enough to at least walk normal. I went against better judgment and dropped huge coin for another meal in the restaurant before setting off. The French guy joined me. With my various aliments and his huge bag, we felt that we’d be able to keep a mutually even pace. Again, once we got going and I loosened up, I felt unexpectedly energized. The French guy was the same. We zipped down the entire six kilometers, stopping only once to rest. Perhaps it would have been smart to stop more often but I had the fear that if I did, it would give my illness a chance to regroup like the previous day. Plus, it was going on four hours since my last round of ibuprofen and I was kind of racing the moment when it would wear off and I would return to a world of body aches.
We staggered up to Timpohon Gate in a scorching two hours and 45 minutes. We were making such good time that we were only minutes behind the rest of our group that had an hour head start on us. We bussed back to headquarters, I retrieved my bags and gave myself a sink shower in the restaurant bathroom. I wanted to find a phone and call ahead to Sandakan to reserve a room at an implausibly great hotel that Lonely Planet had reviewed, but it was going on 2:45 p.m. and knowing that Malaysian buses don’t normally utilize something we in the west like to call a “schedule,” I figured that I had better get down to the road in case the bus was also making good time that day.
The Danes and the French guy decided that they were going to go straight to the nearby Poring Hot Springs to soak and rejuvenate for a day. Not being a huge fan of immersing myself in scalding, muddy water and having read that the hot springs weren’t too great, I passed on their invitation to join them, opting for a spine-grinding five hour drive to Sandakan, with the allure of a private, clean room with my own bathroom where I could work out my intestinal problems in peace.