After a few days navigating tropical rivers and jungle paths in search of exotic wildlife, I was really looking forward to ascending Borneo’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu. The excitement started to build the afternoon before with the hunt for last-minute provisions: mainly chocolate for energy and plenty of water for obvious reasons.
After a good night’s sleep we had a hearty breakfast at the hotel (using ‘carbohydrate loading’ as an excuse for extra portions), collected our lunch boxes and headed off to the park headquarters. We were met by a hive of activity as mountain guides, porters and other excited groups prepared for their ascent. We registered, proudly donned our new mountain passes, locked away our luggage and got back on the mini-bus for the short journey to the start of the trek with our mountain guides in tow.
The obligatory group photo at the entrance marked the beginning of the trek and our tour leader warned us not to be fooled by the first 100m downhill stretch – the rest is most definitely up hill!
The route meandered through thick rainforest making its way ever higher. Although the path is well-trodden, I felt a real sense of being deep in the jungle; trees towering above and dense, exotic undergrowth at each side. At the first rest-area the layers started to come off; well prepared for the cold at the top, I was a little overdressed for the heat at lower elevations and rather regretting not wearing my shorts!
Settling in to a steady rhythm we started to relax and enjoy the surroundings. There was an abundance of unusual flora with enormous leaves and outlandish colours, but the undoubted highlight was the occasional carnivorous pitcher plant and the gruesome joy of peering in to see the latest unlucky victim of the plant’s cunning feeding strategy.
At the rest stops we started to make new friends of two varieties: other travellers that shared our growing fatigue and sense of wonder at our environment, and tiny wide-eyed squirrels that had learned the art of manipulating visitors to give up some of their lunch. Over time both the squirrels and the trekkers seems to grow bolder until some trekkers were having a go at hand feeding and some squirrels were sneaking in to open ruck-sack pockets to help themselves.
Soon we started meeting yesterday’s successful climbers on their way down. They’d done the hard bit and invariably gave us words of encouragement: “Keep going”, “it’s worth it”, “it’s easier on the way down”.
These words certainly helped to spur us on, but it wasn’t long before the mountain started to reward us too. As the tree cover began to lessen, we glimpsed the occasional panoramic vista – a wonderful taste of things to come. The climate was also beginning to cool, and the air becoming ever fresher, but also thinner. We passed people taking extra rest stops to let their legs and lungs recover, and added our own encouraging words to those on their way down, only for the favour to be returned a few hundred metres later when seeking our own respite.
Finally, some six hours after setting out we reached base camp. We had covered 6.5 Kilometres, ascended from 1,800m to 3,250m, and couldn’t wait to get our boots off. I was pleasantly surprised at the Laban Rata guesthouse, our base for the evening. For such a remote place it was very well stocked and very well run. Those stocks included beer and a cool one was a tempting reward, but I thought better of it due to the altitude and the next morning’s early start, and settled for a cup of local Sabah tea instead. The subsequent hours were spent quite idly, letting weary limbs recover, replenishing carbohydrate reserves and enjoying the views. Sunset above the clouds was a wonderful treat with the sky turning lovely deep shades of red, orange and magenta.
An early night is a must and encouraged by the guesthouse with a 21.00 light’s out policy. So I set my alarm for 02.00, got my head down and did my best to get some sleep. Thwarted by my body clock, the unusual environment and my excitement, I needn’t have bothered with the alarm. So at the appointed time I forced my weary limbs to do my bidding and climbed down from my bunk. Everyone was feeling the same, but our energy levels started to rise as we pulled on our gear and chatted about the events ahead.
By 02.30 a.m. we were full of Sabah tea and ready to go. Head torches in place and well wrapped up against the cold we set off on the last 2.5 km to the summit. We kept the pace nice and slow out of respect for the altitude, our sleepiness and the need to watch our footing in the dark. Even in daylight this part would have been more challenging than yesterday’s climb. The lower section in particular is quite steep and one member of our group came close to giving up. We spurred her on with a combination of concerned words, three-musketeer type bravado and personal assistance from one of our mountain guides. After a while the path became a rope, sometimes functioning as a marker of the route across expansive granite slopes and at other times as a helping hand up particularly steep sections.
The rope, the mountain guides and the bravado all combined to get the whole group successfully to the summit just before sunrise, our wobbly legs taking us over the last few large boulders to the sign-post that marks the height of 4,095m. After the second obligatory photo with the plaque we settled down in a spot sheltered from the wind and waited for the sun to rise, staying on the summit for just long enough to see the sky go through its dramatic change of colours. We started our descent before we became too cold and stiff and as the sun rose higher and warmed the sky, eerie clouds rolled in around the peaks above and to the side of us creating a beautiful and slightly surreal scene.
We were glad to learn that those we had passed on the day before were right; the way down was much easier and before we knew it we were back in the Laban Rata guesthouse tucking in to our breakfast. Once again we headed off before stiff legs became too much of an issue, passing on our own words of encouragement to the traffic coming the other way. The descent was a much more relaxing affair with plenty of time to stop and enjoy the views. It was almost over too soon and before long we were back at park headquarters collecting our luggage, waving goodbye to our mountain guides and receiving our ‘I’ve climbed Mount Kinabalu’ certificates.
We had seen some wonderful things on the mountain: exotic plant life, stunning views and eerie landscapes, but the indelible memory I will have is of the friendliness and camaraderie of fellow climbers and locals, all urging each other on to meet the challenge of climbing Borneo’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu.
By Glyn Thorneloe