Mount Kinabalu, Borneo - KK to Mount Kinabalu
Trip Start Aug 18, 2008
32Trip End Jan 07, 2009
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Where I stayed
So 7am rolls around and we are on our way to the what turned out to be the highlight of the entire 5 month exchange. The day before we had gone to the bus depot (Merdeka Field Bus Station or the “old bus station”) and arranged a van to drive us to the foot of Mount Kinabalu in time for 10am (the absolute latest recommended starting time to make it to Laban Rata before dusk). All 6 of us piled into the Mini van and embarked on a 2 hour drive from sea level to the check-in desk at roughly 1800m. Lonely Planet says the drive is 88km. We checked in at the office, dropped off our bags, got our tags, met our guide Bension Bin Sagan, and started the trek. The restaurant near the office provides a nice packed lunch for the hike. I’d liken it to the sort of thing I’d get way back in elementary school.
I had reserved 6 beds a couple weeks in advance at the rest house Laban Rata on the Sutra Sanctuary Lodges website.
We all bought excellent walking sticks from a man at the base of the trail for RM3 each. The first couple hundred meters weren’t bad at all. We were all just so stoked to be on the way, none of us knowing the true extent of the climb ahead. Bension told us to slow the pace to almost a crawl, so we could save energy for when the air became thinner and our muscles needed it. As the meters ticked off, it quickly became evident that Bension had done this a couple times before (probably hundreds and hundreds).
The first stage of the hike was through dense tropical jungle. It was really hot and humid, and the trail was really muddy. Nothing that our trusty RM3 walking sticks couldn’t handle. Every 500m there would be a trail map saying how far along you were and your current elevation. It’s funny to think about it like this but one of the highest mountains on Vancouver’s North Shore is Grouse Mountain, which stands a towering 1230 meters. That means we started our hike about 600 meters above it, and would summit almost 4 times its height.
The entire trail is up an incline, so it is relentless. It was like climbing giant stairs all day in the beating heat. The trail was really well taken care of I’m sure, because it must get some unrelenting rains that would wash away the stairs. We took the opportunity to stop at each of the Pondok’s, which were rest huts spaced pretty evenly along the trail
A fair ways up the trail, we began to see the infamous Pitcher Plants. They were remarkable little things, nowhere near as large as I had imagined, about the size of my fist. They survive by eating insects that fall into it’s pitcher, which happens to be filled with a sticky liquid that is inescapable.
Soon enough we rose above the tropical forest part of the hike. The path turned from dirt to clay, and the trees became more sparse. I’m sure the view would have been amazing, but it was cloudy. A good thing cuz it kept the heat down. The higher you got, the harder it was to breath. I thought I was losing my mind because every 10 steps or so I would have to stop and take a couple big breaths. It makes you feel so weak.
At around an elevation of 2800 meters, we were able to spy the granite top through the clouds. It was surreal because it kinda just stuck out there, like it didn’t belong, all pointy and shit.
At around 3000 meters, we were able to break through the clouds (a really weird experience) and see the clear blue sky. At this point my lungs felt like they were a fraction of the size. I would be hyperventilating if I were breathing that hard down at sea level, but instead I was panting for almost no rewarding air.
Once we hit the 5.5km trail marker (3140 meters elevation), the day’s end was in sight
OH! I forgot! For the entire slow hike up, there were porters carrying supplies up the path. We were having enough trouble carrying our backpacks and walking sticks and trying to not pass out. These porters were carrying the guest house’s supplies up the mountain, because there is no road to the top. These guys were literally running up the mountain, jumping from rock to rock, carrying mattresses and barrels and propane tanks and shit. If you had enough to tip them I’m sure they would be able to piggy back you up the mountain in a 1/10 the time.
We beat the sunset, and were able to witness a really cool view of it as the sun set underneath the clouds while we were scarfing back the buffet dinner. From being at sea level earlier in the day in KK, enjoying the 30 degree weather, we had made it to 3300m and a frigid temperature of around 5 degrees. Just exhausted after the 6 hour hike up the mountain, we all took a hot shower and passed the heck out at like 9pm.
Later on that night, we arose at a respectable 2am, in preparation for the final leg of the hike: the pitch black scaling of the granite top to hopefully catch the sunrise (weather permitting)
Soon enough, we caught up with the rest of the hikers where the trail changed from rocky steps to the granite wall and a rope. Me, Mat and Lionel were really anxious to get ahead of these decked out hikers. They looked like they were professionals with their reflective winter wear, their fancy hiking helmets, and their small suns for headlamps. As soon as it was possible, we clawed our way up the face of the wall to cut a corner and skip ahead of the group of slowpokes. I lost my grip on the wall and almost plummeted down, but was lucky enough to hold on and cut ahead.
It was so dark we really had no idea how many people we had just bypassed or how many people were ahead of us. We assumed there was a big group, because the lineup at the rope was enormous, like 50 people deep. As we followed the rope that marked the trail, the winds picked up and it got colder and colder. That area of the island wasn’t very heavily populated, with most of the people living in KK. This coupled with some fancy winds, had left the sky completely clear and bitterly cold
When we hit the final check-in (a little shack with a list in it, to make sure you paid your park fee), there was about 1.5kms left to the top. We were so worried that we wouldn’t make it to the top in time for sunrise, because we had no sense of how far it was in the pitch black. We made it to this bend in the “trail” (aka rope), and found a small group of hikers huddled together to avoid the wind and stay warm. We had caught up with the earlier risers. We hung out for 15 or 20 minutes, but decided to go for the gold and summit that SOB.
So 50m to 100m up that rock we finally hit the green sign, marking the summit of Lows Peak. We had beaten the sunrise by 45 minutes. The time we spent up at the top of SE Asia was unbelievable. All of a sudden it didn’t seem that cold, because the view was breath taking. We had lucked out and gotten a clear morning, with clouds way off on the horizon. Looking back down the mountain, it was possible to see the headlamps of the hikers that we had passed way back at the beginning. We must have beaten them to the top by an hour. Their headlamps created a little white trail climbing precariously up the pitch black face
As the sun began to rise to the East, It illuminated the far off thunder clouds and hid behind the other peaks across the pit. We were worried that the girls wouldn’t make it, but one my one they peaked their heads over the rocks and looked relieved to finally be there. We were up there for about 30 minutes after sunrise, snapping pictures and resting, before beginning the equally daunting trek back down.
When the sun was up, the view was amazing the entire way down the granite face, because you were looking down on the Borneo jungle from 4kms in the air. We met up at the rest house and grabbed a meal and packed our stuff. The girls were reluctant to leave, but they were just suffering from altitude sickness. It’s strange how just a little bit more air can make you feel better. As we ran back down, hopping from rock to rock, the extra air gave us so much more energy. It was like a shot of adrenaline.
We finally reached the bottom, thanked Bension for this help, had another big buffet meal, then hopped in a van of one of Bension’s friends and bombed it over to Poring Hot Springs just in time for sunset.
The entire hike was amazing. It is by far the coolest thing I have ever done in my life so far. The next couple days we paid the price because our legs turned to jello, making it very hard to get around. If you’re in the area, do yourself a favor and treat yourself to this experience.
To tha HOT SPRINGS!