Mount Kinabalu – We did it!

Posted: 31st March 2013 by Jacky Yong in Silly me

Mount Kinabalu is one of the toughest mountains to scale, I am not going to deny that. It involves a lot of preparations, both physically and mentally. I know, because 7 years ago, I attempted to scale this very mountain. I still remember because that was when Kit Yan was just 3 months old. And I failed to climb it then. But there was a lot of mistakes that I learnt from that experience that I can now apply. And so on the morning of 26th March 2013, I have successfully climbed Mount Kinabalu!

The view from Kinabalu Park on a fine clear morning

The view from Kinabalu Park on the fine clear morning that we were supposed to climb to Laban Rata

A Brief History

I need to tell you the brief history before you can appreciate what inspired me to make this trip. As I mentioned, I attempted unsuccessfully to climb the mountain 7 years ago. I was 29 years old, I felt I was good enough. I swam weekly, sometimes twice a week. My stamina was good actually, but I was training the wrong muscle group. The timing was also bad. A quick search on Google says that the best time to climb Mt Kinabalu is February and March of the year. I went there in October! It rained all the way up to Laban Rata! You can see how rainy it is in the graph below:

precipitation for the entire year in Mt Kinabalu

Image courtesy of http://mount-kinabalu-borneo.com shows the precipitation for the entire year in Mt Kinabalu

The group of people that you go with is also a very important deciding factor. 7 years ago I went with a largely untrained group of people. If the group were a bunch of hiking nerds, I am sure that I would have made it to the top.

So what made me go up there again after 7 long years? Well for one thing, I have always had the urge to complete my unfinished task ever since. I know that I can’t go with the same group of people again, I have already asked. Two of them have given up and one is pregnant. So I quietly asked around my friends if anyone of them are interested. I also would like to be on top of a mountain with the one that I love, so I asked my wife. So now there were only Kamarul and my wife. These two may not be the most physically fit people to go up Kinabalu, but they have the strongest mental will, especially my wife.

I also realize that I am not getting any younger. My knees are getting weaker. If I don’t go now, I may not have the strength to carry myself there anymore. And so with the cheap flights by AirAsia, I booked tickets for three to Kota Kinabalu late in 2012. It’s Mt Kinabalu or bust!

The Preparations – Physical trainings

One can’t argue with a good set of training regime. That is a must, unless you are a fit 20-year-old. But even then, light trainings are always advised. There are two things that you must focus on: strength trainings for your legs and stamina. I went to the gym and use the stepper machine and the treadmill. For the treadmill, I put the inclination at the maximum at walking speed. No runnings, because running uses a totally different muscle group. I did this for at least 35 minutes, then followed by 10 minutes of the stepper machine. Gym is not enough, we also went to climb Batu Caves with a bottle of water strapped to our back. We do it almost every week, 10 rounds each time. To be honest we should have started training at least 2 months before, but we only started after Chinese New Year, which is only a month before the climb! We had a really tight schedule ahead of us! And each time I completed 10 rounds, I updated in Facebook to challenge Kamarul to do the same!

What to bring

A good set of clothing is a must. The weather can get really cold, so wear enough of warm clothing. This is what I had :

what i wear

I wear the one on the right first : long johns from Uniqlo and short pants. The the one of the left, thick wollen long johns from China, and waterproof NorthFace long pants

Top it all off with good set of windbreakers that I bought from Nepal, balaclava, inner and outer gloves, and thick socks

shoes that i used

Prefer to use hiking boots actually. The important thing is to protect your feet from getting wet, not from the cold. Or you can buy the rubber boots that they sell in the shops there. The porters there use them. The open-toe shoes on the right is used for climbing down. Otherwise you might hurt your toes really bad.

 

headlights

Headlight is a must. 7 years ago we use torchlights that we handle with our hands, another big mistake. This China-brand one is very heavy, get a lighter one if you can find one.

Fuji X-E1

I have a full frame Canon DSLR, but I know that will kill me before I reach the top. So I got me one of these baby, a mirrorless camera that rivals or exceeds the quality of a proper DSLR easily. The point is simple : travel as light as you can

You might also want to bring :

  1. raincoats (I had my waterproof jacket, so I didn’t really need those)
  2. medicines (Panadol is a must, you will most definitely get slight fever once you reach Laban Rata. Bring diarrhea, vomiting and painkiller pills as well)
  3. hiking sticks. Never underestimate them, they saved my ass (actually my knees) when I was going downhill. You can also buy them once you reach Kinabalu Park. They cost RM5 7 years ago. This time it cost me RM8 each!
  4. knee guards. Again I can never over stress the importance of knee guards. My knees would have been busted if I not had these lifesavers! Me and my wife had a pair each for all our knees.
  5. one 1.5 litre water bottle on the way to Laban Rata, one 500 ml water bottle on the way to Low’s Peak. There are plenty of refill points along the way up.
  6. chocolates, buns or energy bars. They supply light refreshments too on the way to Laban Rata, but they were definitely not enough for me!
  7. lots of plastic bags and rubber bands. They weight next to nothing, and they can help you organize your stuffs inside your bag.

We did not make any ground arrangements other than booking of Laban Rata and Kinabalu Park. FYI we booked two nights in Laban Rata instead of the usual one night. There are several reasons for this : having two nights will give us more time to recover our legs if we are injured in any way. Also if it rained on the first night we are due to climb to the top, we can always try again on the second night.

Day 1

We flew on the first flight to KK from LCCT. We hoped to catch the noon bus from KK to Kinabalu Park. We took a cheap “teksi bandar” from the airport to town. The more expensive airport taxi cost RM30 per head, this “teksi bandar” only cost us RM30 for us all three of us! We went to Padang Merdeka. That’s where we planned to catch the bus that should cost us around RM18 per person to go to Kinabalu Park. But we found a taxi who is willing to take us there for RM20 per head. That is quite a good price, considering that a normal taxi should cost about RM150 – RM200 to go to the same destination! I still have the taxi driver’s number, do you want it?

Kinabalu Park

We have arrived in Kinabalu Park!

It was not a good sign, the receptionist there told us that it rained so heavily in the morning, nobody managed to climb up to the top! We were getting worried. Nothing much we can do. We had a good rest, took our dinner, and went early to bed.

Day 2

We woke up at 6 am to reach the Balsam Restaurant by 6:30 am. Mind you the 6:30 am in Sabah looks like 8 am back in KL. The mountain gods must be kind to us that morning, it was crisp and clear, a good day for a climb!

Gorgeous sunray hitting the mountain

Gorgeous sunray hitting the mountain

The guide for our climb was Noordin. He looks kinda old to be a guide IMHO, but his leg muscles are humongous! To our surprise, he is also our porter! I have no objections to that, but we were just worried if he is up to the task. But we were proven wrong, he is a good guide and a strong porter too.

We had to pay extra for the trip to Mesilau trail. 7 years ago I took the Mesilau trail because of its beauty. I will still choose this trail now because of the things we can see there. Because when you climb down the mountains, believe me, you don’t want to stop to take anymore pictures!

The Mesilau trail is really quite scenic!

The Mesilau trail is really quite scenic!

Note that the trail is cutting through the mist with deep valleys on both left and right. One of the most remarkable scenes that you get in Mesilau

Note that the trail is cutting through the mist with deep valleys on both left and right. One of the most remarkable scenes that you get in Mesilau

 

Stairs and more stairs

Stairs and more stairs

Plenty of these little guys here

Plenty of these little guys here

And these pitcher plants too

And these pitcher plants too

Looks like a page from Lord of the Rings doesn’t it?

 

Into the clouds

Into the clouds

I reached Layang-Layang, the meeting point between Timpohon and Mesilau trail, at about 1:05 pm. By that time, both Kamarul and my wife were not within sight.

Layang Layang point

The Layang-Layang point, the meeting point between Timpohon and Mesilau trail

I waited for them both for about 15 minutes when a mountain guide saw me. He told me that I should just go ahead instead of wasting my time waiting for them. So I just moved on alone.

By that time we have entered a different zone. You can tell by the different type of vegetations that grows there.

A tree that grows in the middle of the trail

The rocky road ahead

rocks

Rocks as steps

At long last, I reached Laban Rata at 3:02 pm, much better than the last time I did 7 years ago, when I reached there at almost 7:30 pm!

Laban Rata, what a relief to finally see you again!

While waiting for Kamarul and my wife, I snapped a few pictures here and there. Nothing much to do here beyond that. Took a realy quick shower. Did I mention that there is no heater here on the shower and the rooms? You really have to make a quick splash, quickly dress up and wrap yourself into your bed! Had a quick dinner, and popped two pills of Panadols each, even though we had no fever. Then we went off to bed. It was hard to get ourselves to sleep, I tossed and turned, and in the end I only slept for like 3 hours only.

 Day 3

This is it, the day we planned to go up to the top. This is what we’ve been training for, and we have got to make it to the top, no matter what. We all woke up at 12:45 am to get ready. I applied some Yoko-yoko around my knee, put on my full gear, and went downstairs at 1 am to get our quick breakfast. I couldn’t quite eat a lot, it’s still too early, but I forced myself to eat anyway, because I know I will get hungry if I don’t. We wasted a bit of time waiting for Noordin, but we managed to start out journey at 2:48 am.

One last photo before the final climb

One last photo before the final climb. All of us in our full gear.

Actually the earlier the better, because we encountered a massive human traffic jam on the way up. It’s not a bad thing really, because it offered us plenty of time to stop and get some rest. The climb was tough, much tougher than the day 2 climb to Laban Rata. Maybe it’s the additional weigh of the clothing. Maybe it’s the balaclava that always blocked my view. Or maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks on me: “What if I did not make it? What if I did not even make it pass the point that I climbed 7 years ago? What if the weather was bad and it rained?” Well thank god it did not rain at all. The air was very still too, in fact it was so still and hot that I almost died of heatstroke wearing all that heavy clothings! I was sweating, not because of the tiredness, but because of the heat!

Our spirits were high and we were confident of completing the journey. At least I was very confident. I really wanted to reach the top, and that was all in my mind. Nothing else matters anymore. My muscles were aching all over, including my hands because we had to use ropes to pull ourselves up in certain places. Finally we reached Sayap-Sayap, the place where I failed last time. Good, the time is still good, the night is still dark. We might just make it to see the sunrise! I quickly refilled my small bottle and continued on.

Sayap-Sayap was a fearful place for me, that was when I stopped and did not go on 7 years ago. Seeing that place again gives me the creeps. But I was determined not to let that happen again. So I continued, with or without my team. By that time I was already alone. Kamarul was just slightly behind me, my wife was nowhere to be seen. I moved on without talking. The steps were becoming harder, the cliff were getting steeper, and the air was getting thinner and a lot more colder. It was then that I finally begin to appreciate the extra clothings that I wore.

I passed the South Peak, the iconic peak that can be found on our Malaysian 1 Ringgit note.

Note the iconic Mount Kinabalu peak behind our 1 ringgit note? Image courtesy of paperbanknotes.blogspot.com

I didn’t stop for any pictures, it was only a few more hundreds of metres away to the peak, I can’t afford to waste anymore time. By the time I reached the base of Low’s Peak, the sun was already lighting up the sky. The sunrise has come.

The first sunrise that we saw, overlooking the Ugly Sister Peak and the Donkey Ear Peak on the left

The first sunrise that we saw, overlooking the Ugly Sister Peak and the Donkey Ear Peak on the left

 

Panoramic - shadow crossing in the horizon on the dark side of Low's Peak

Panoramic – shadow crossing in the horizon on the dark side of Low’s Peak

After a few snaps, I continued on. They were right, the last 200 metres to the top of Low’s Peak is the worst! The steps are uneven, jagged rocks are everywhere. There were no ropes, we had to bend down on all fours to climb up. If this was located at sea level, I would have scaled this small hill anytime. But here in Low’s Peak, everything you trained for, all the preparations for the last month, all these hangs in the balance. If I do not reach the peak, all these will be wasted. Technically you would already have got the coloured certificate once you reach the base of Low’s Peak. But come on lar, you have already climbed almost 4000 metres, don’t tell me you don’t wanna go all the way up right? So slowly we pushed on. Kamarul reach there first. He was there to welcome me. He was obviously more ecstatic that I was. He extended his hands to welcome me, to the top of Malaysia!

Here I am on top of Malaysia!

We did it bro!

We enjoyed the scenery a bit more, then we went down. My wife was nowhere to be seen. She must have given up, we thought. How very wrong we were! As soon as we were climbing down Low’s Peak, there we saw Noordin, and with him, my wife! Kamarul and I cried excitedly, “Hey, you are here! Quick, go and climb up!” My wife was already crying that she don’t want to climb anymore. But we insisted again that she went on. And so she did. She was already fumbling all along the way up. She took her own sweet time, but slowly but surely she got to the top. Guess what, that also meant that I had to climb Low’s Peak TWICE!

If I were alone at the top, it would be meaningless. I wanted to be there with the woman I love

By then Kamarul has already descended down. So it was time to start the next league of the battle, the climbing down part. Climbing down is entirely different from climbing up; your muscle group, the shoes that you use, they are all different.

Along the way down to Laban Rata, there was no way to change our shoes, so we made do with whatever shoes that we had on when we climbed up. That’s not a very good idea actually, your toes are grinding against the tip of your shoes. In worst case scenarios, your toenails can get bruised and damaged. Therefore it is a good idea to clip your toenails before the climb. The hiking stick helps a lot too, it absorbs a lot of the impact when your legs hit the ground. We took our sweet time, enjoying the grand scenery as we go along.

When the sun is up and you can finally see far, you will be scared shitless at just how tall you have climbed in the dark!

Amazing blue skies

Tunku Abdul Rahman Peak, the place we turned back to Laban Rata 7 years ago without completing the climb

My legs were already wobbling once we reached Laban Rata. I slipped my footings a couple of times, my legs were very very tired by that time. All I wished for was a nice warm bath, but since we were still in Laban Rata, we still have a 6 km trek downhill! Thinking about that really killed our spirit.

Anyway there were still some good news. Since we have already achieved the climb, there was no need to stay another night in Laban Rata. So we quickly made a call to Sutera Harbour, confirmed the room availability there, and swapped the rooms there! We are staying in a n exclusive 5-star Pacific Sutera Resort that night! But first we have to endure the climb down first.

We changed to a set of drier cloths (we did not bath, still too cold). We had a quick breakfast. I tell you, you have no desire to eat anything at all after that strenuous climb! We then quickly packed everything into bags (even my camera), and gave it to Noordin. So unfortunately there are no pictures on the way down. There was nothing interesting to take anyway, since we are going through Timpohon. And besides, we were too tired to stop and take pictures.

We used the pair of open-toes sandals, socks, some sunscreen, light clothings, jackets, knee guards, water bottles, some chocolates, and of course our trusty hiking sticks. Kamarul busted his knees on his way down, so he was practically limping all the way. But he was obviously in high spirit, as we all were! We slowly made our journey downhill. My wife and I reached Timpohon gate at approximately 3:30 pm, after nearly walking for 4 and a half hours! We took a bus back to Kinabalu Park. By the time we reached there, we checked out, took our valuable coloured certificates, ate a little, and helped Kamarul to pack his meal. Kamarul reached almost an hour later. By that time we have already booked another taxi to Kota Kinabalu. A different taxi from the taxi on the first day, only RM100 for the entire van which can easily fit 8 people. (Comment below with your email if you want his contact)

We quickly checked into Pacific Sutera, had a nice warm bath and quickly went to bed.

Day 4

We woke up for breakfast in the hotel. I have never seen such a luxurious breakfast set in a hotel before! We totally enjoyed ourselves, a little gift for us after the long arduous journey I suppose. At noon we checked out, then we went out to KK for lunch in Centrepoint. Went to buy souvenir in the market, then Kamarul went for a foot massage. My wife and I went for an early seafood dinner in Kampung Air. Then off we went back to KL.

Lesson learnt

All of us agreed that climbing the mountain is a lot like what we do in real life. We have a set target, and we prepare ourselves towards it. There are definitely things that you cannot predict that will happen along the way, but at least by preparing yourselves, you have a less likely chance of getting surprised. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Preparation is king – Nothing beats proper research and preparation. Ask around, get advise. Be humble to take the advise, especially from the people who have been there and done that.
  2. Physical training – If you are not fit enough to go, nobody can take you there, not even if you pay a helicopter to air-drop you to the top. Take strength trainings (specifically climbing or walking  steep incline) and stamina.
  3. Write down a list of to-do and to-bring list.
  4. The people you go with are important as well ; make sure that they will not drag you down. That was why I prefer to travel in a very small group.
  5. It’s all in the mind ; tell your mind that your legs does not hurt, your lungs are not drowning, and you MUST go on. All these equals to nothing if you do not believe that you can do it!

In the meantime, enjoy the entire pictures gallery here.