The night before we stayed in a hostel around 100m outside the National Park. This meant it was about 1/4 the price of staying inside the park. Despite our best efforts I wouldn’t say that either of us were particularly well rested when we headed over to find ourselves a guide. It had been pouring with rain since we had arrived until around 6am, and I was starting to worry about what I’d dragged Liam into…
On the first day you hike 6km. This doesn’t sound far but when you are climbing from 1,866m to 3,921.5m, it is. You then spend the evening at Laban Rata before leaving around 2.30am to ascend to the summit. This is done over 2.72km, in the dark. You enjoy a sunrise at the top, weather permitting, before heading back to Laban Rata for breakfast. Afterwards you continue your descent to the park entrance, with a sense of accomplishment spurring you on.
After being assigned our guide, Kasree, we started hiking around 9am. The descriptions weren’t wrong. Kinabalu is so hard because it is 99% not flat. You are always either climbing or descending. And the majority is definitely up.
As you ascend the landscape changes. You start in the rainforest not being able to see much but trees. Then after the second kilometre or so the vegetation becomes sparser and you are treated to glimpses of the surrounding area. After four kilometres the ground is clay like and in our case a little slippy from the night before’s downpour. You also begin to find yourself above low lying clouds. Five to six is the killer. The ground becomes grey rock, the steps are uneven, and you are tired, knowing a rest is just around the corner. Eventually you find yourself at Laban Rata where you will spend the night. Just after we arrived the heavens opened.
Last time I trekked in Thailand I suffered with altitude sickness (mixed with dehydration and excess sun). This time I’d been very careful to avoid becoming too ill to attempt the summit, so we had stopped at every hut on the way for varying amounts of time. Despite this we reached Laban Rata just after 2.00pm which was a good time, considering we’d not done any real exercise for about two months. Kasree told us that we could leave at 3.00am in the morning, seeing as we had a good pace.
Being a little bit of an excel geek I spent some time working out the incline of each half kilometre as there had been altitude markers on the way up. Inclines varied from 13% from 0-0.5km to 35% from 3-3.5km.
Around 6.00pm we were joined by an Aussie guy called Adam. We’d actually seen him at the first hut just after 9am. Adam was hiking alone and had managed to reach Laban Rata by 11.45am, blowing our time out of the water. He’d then chosen to ascend the summit the same day. He’d just reached it when the rain started, cue him taking a very quick photo and heading back down. We didn’t understand the exposure until twelve hours later, either way we decided he was a little crazy.
3am arrived and we headed out again ourselves. I’d read the key to Kinabalu was layers. I’d added Primani’s finest base layers under my shorts and vest, and packed out my bag with extras for the top. I had quickly stripped off my hat, gloves, and coat as we got moving. We soon reached the climbers who had left at 2.30am and Kasree guided us past them.
Then we hit kilometre seven.
I later worked out that 7-7.5km is a 45% incline.
You could tell.
At kilometre seven you hit a rock face, which you skirt around holding onto a rope. What you can’t see in the dark is that off to your right by a metre (maximum) there is a huge drop. Probably best you can’t see. After pulling yourself up and along on the rope, you pass the last checkpoint, and ascend rock face. It’s a tough climb, with people passing each other over and over as you paused for a break. At one point I caught a second wind and went flying past Liam. This was quite short lived.
Kasree told us that sunrise was around 6am, so we worked to this, not wanting to end up exposed at the top waiting for too long. After the rain of the last few days we didn’t even know whether there would be a sunrise. The sky looked clear (with even hints of the Milky Way), but the weather was changeable. The temperature was also dropping quite swiftly, the air was thinner, and I was getting fatigued quicker.
Despite this, as I passed the 8km marker the sky was starting to lighten. I had timed it right, and after the final, difficult scramble to Low’s Peak I arrived in time for sunrise. And it was beautiful. Perfect. I was so happy I’d finally made it. The pictures do not do it justice. I threw on my fleece, easys, dry gloves and hat, and marvelled at the view. We could see the lights of KK, the various lower peaks, the sun rising, other climbers still ascending, and the clouds starting to set in.
One minute Liam was there, the next he’d gone. I didn’t see him again til Laban Rata, I guess he got cold. Either way I did most of the descent alone. Scrambling quickly over the rock face, watching the scenery go from clear to fog and back again in a matter of seconds. By this point there were a lot of familiar faces of other climbers, but no body was going at a comparable pace.
Approaching the check point I fell a few times, and from there onwards Kasree was never far away. I angered an old ankle injury just after the sheer rock face, but made it for breakfast by 8am. Definitely not a time to be disappointed with.
The six kilometre descent was a different kettle of fish. I’m a firm believer that once you reach 25 your knees are f***ed. My toe nails also seemed to be hurting from the downward angle I was constantly maintaining. We both were thanking our lucky stars that we had hired walking sticks, and trying to seem more positive for the people ascending. Things got particularly tedious after the third kilometre, and after 4.5km I was the one to go on ahead, just wanting it to be over.
We finally completed the challenge at 1.15pm. It took 3.5 hours to descend, having been awake since 2am and already climbed the summit.
Liam has said he wouldn’t climb Mount Kinabalu again. I would. But next time I’d do the Mesilau trail. It is slightly longer, but less walked. This means that there is more wildlife to see, and also that the descent is kinder to your knees!!