A Short But Intense Walk Up Mount Kinabalu

This article first appeared in the July-August edition of The Correspondent, the in-house magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong.

Some 18 months after a successful Mount Kilimanjaro climb, FCC member Andrew Davison put the team back together to take on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.

In August 2014 a group of Hong Kong and UK-based friends went to the roof of Africa, braving the cold and dark, the altitude sickness, and six days of trekking, to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro at 5,895m. Eighteen months later, in March 2016, and the same Hong Kong contingent, supplemented by three more climbers, set off to scale Mount Kinabalu.

Most of us returned from Kilimanjaro enthused by the whole experience, and immediately made alcohol-infused plans for further ventures – none of which came off. Kilimanjaro wasn’t a life-changing experience. That karmic moment we weren’t seeking didn’t happen. But what it did do was open our eyes to the fact that these adventures can be done, if you can just get off your backside.

Kinabalu is on our doorstep and it’s the most accessible mountain in South East Asia. All we needed was a window which was duly presented by Easter 2016 – a four-day weekend.

Gunung Kinabalu, as it is known locally, is part of Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage Site, and the highest peak in Borneo’s Crocker Range. It was thought to be 4,101m in height, but in 1997, it shrunk. It didn’t really, it was just re-surveyed using satellite technology and found to be 4,096m, Mind you, it is apparently still growing half a centimeter every year so in another 1,000 years it will have reached it’s original reported height.

In 1994 the mountain achieved a degree of notoriety when a British Army expedition attempting a first-ever descent of Low’s Gully, the sheer 2,000ft canyon below Low’s Peak, went disastrously wrong, ending in an eleventh-hour rescue operation, with worldwide media coverage, and a very lucky escape from death. Not to mention three books and one movie.

The local Kadazan and Dusun communities have long held the mountain as a sacred place, and the resting place of their ancestors. They believe that their loved ones must be buried facing the mountain when they die so their spirits can see the mountain as they start their journey to the afterlife. Their imperfect souls rest on the peak of Kinabalu and await emancipation, before continuing their journey towards their creator in the sky.

In June 2015 the mountain and surrounding area were shaken by an earthquake which killed 18 people, including hikers and mountain guides, and the hiking routes were closed for a while afterwards, reopening in December 2015.

Six days before the earthquake, a group of western backpackers summited, then stripped naked and posted the pictures on social media. This naturally outraged the locals who believe their disrespect angered the spirit of the sacred place, resulting in the earthquake. Whether you believe that or not, it’s their land, their mountain and their customs, and you have to respect that.

In comparison with Kilimanjaro, getting the climbing kit together for Kinabalu was a lot more straightforward. Besides the usual good pair of trekking boots and tick socks we also had – just in case – waterproof trousers and a set of thermals.

A reasonable degree of fitness is of course sensible. So instead I broke my collarbone before departure. Once the pain of that had subsided we got ourselves out and about on Hong Kong’s wonderful walking trails every Sunday for six weeks or so, heading off to places such as Lantau Peak, Needle Hill, Sharp Peak, Castle Peak and the glorious Pat Sin Leng range.

The gateway to the mountain is Kota Kinabalu, a three hour direct flight from Hong Kong. Developed primarily by the British in the late 18th century as a trading post, Kota Kinabalu was subsequently razed by the same British during their retreat from the Japanese in the Second World War, and then subject to further Allied bombing. Apparently the Atkinson Clock Tower, built by Mary Edith Atkinson in 1905 in memory of her son, Francis George Atkinson, is one of only three pre-World War II buildings to survive the war. The city – or what was left of it – was then handed over to Malaysia during independence in 1963. So it’s all rather new, and not very historic.

Cormac Thompson, Toby Cooper, Kevin Galloway and myself somewhere on Mount Kinabalu

Cormac Thompson, Toby Cooper, Kevin Galloway and myself somewhere on Mount Kinabalu

On the morning of the ascent we first went to Kinabalu Park Headquarters for registration – and our for first close-up look at the mountain with it’s jagged peaks looming large above us. From there we headed to the Timpohon Gate (1,866m), at about 10am for what is described as a 4-5 hour walk ahead of us.

One web-based account had described Mount Kinabalu as involving a lot of steps, and they were not wrong. Rough, uneven steps, which put an immediate strain on your thighs and calves. We pass the Carson Falls, which was dry due to the drought. There are a number of shelters on the way which afford a little rest and respite and the opportunity to have your lunch stolen by the unabashed squirrels.

Many of the trails we do in Hong Kong are characterized by short periods of ascent followed by flatter areas, however the ascent on Kinabalu is relentlessly up…and up.

The weather forecast, which we’d been following anxiously for the past few days, predicted rain which has thankfully not come about, but the air is thick with cloud and mist. Which is actually a blessing as the cloud kept the temperature down. The forest becomes thicker and mossier the higher we go and the trees are draped in the spooky ‘old man’s beard’ lichen. At around 2,700m the vegetation changes, becoming shorter and much more open. This is also apparently the zone of insect-eating pitcher plants for which Kinabalu is famous, although didn’t see any.

People on their way down take delight in offering encouragement, and saying you don’t have far to go, some of whom were clearly deluded. We seemed to still be going long after we were told it wasn’t far. But the accommodation complex of Laban Rata, at 3,272m, finally comes into view and the day’s hiking is over. It has taken us just three hours to complete this first section – rather than five – probably the result of proving our masculinity by keeping up with each other.

Our party of eight is accommodated in a single dorm room in the hut, which is particularly nice for the one lady in our party, but she bears it stoically. A buffet dinner is to be had at Laban Rata restaurant, which is remarkably passable given the location. They even have beer for sale which – remarkably – we ignore. Within nothing much else to do we’re in bed by 8pm.

The guide rouses us at 2am which meant a rather chilly start. During last night’s briefing we were told that there would be no climbing if it was raining too hard. Fortunately the chill means there is no cloud cover and so no rain. From Laban Rata, the climb to the summit is 2.7km, a vertical ascent of 800m – the first 700m of which is all steep steps. It’s a clear night, the stars are visible and looking back the way we came there’s a mesmerising view down the mountain of the lights of the villages in the foothills and valleys. Also twinkling away in a snake up the mountainside are the headlights of the 135 people climbing Kinabalu this morning.

At some stage the steps disappear, smooth rock faces emerge, and guide ropes are required to both mark the way and haul yourself up. Then the terrain flattens out even further and there’s a 2km walk across weathered granite.

We’re still in darkness as we do a short scramble up some rocks to the peak. Once again, we’ve made very good time and are among the first to summit, so we get the photos done before the hordes arrive. The downside of making such good time is the sunrise is at least an hour away and it is really cold – we have to huddle together for warmth.

Sunrise at the summit

Before long the sun begins to poke its head over the horizon, showering us in a gorgeous orange glow, and illuminating the ethereal landscape of the mountain, with the ‘donkey-ears’ peaks, the smooth, weathered plateau, and the enormous gulley beside us.

And then it’s time to go but our return does not involve the standard walk down the mountain. The only packages available when we booked included the “via ferrata”, or “iron road” in Italian – which also happens to be the world’s via ferrata at 3,800m. It is a protected mountain pathway consisting of a series of rungs, rails, cables and bridges embracing the rock face. We then quite literally walk off the side of the mountain. When we’re back in Pendant Hut a few hours later we’ll look back and trace the route the via ferrata takes. And it’s a good job we only did it afterwards. Had I seen it from down below before we went, there is no way I would have stepped over that cliff face.

As it is, for the next three hours, we clamber around the rungs, cables and rope-bridges attached to the rock face, all the time marveling at the gobsmacking views as the sun gets higher and the day brighter. The views would be magnificent under any circumstances but when you’re hanging off a rock face over 3,700m in the air, you kinda feel you’ve earned this.

There’s a lengthy period of descent, sometimes going straight down and at others negotiating bluffs and crevices in the rock face, including traversing deep chasms by way of wobbly rope bridges; followed by a trek through the jungle. Then comes a point at which we’re forced to go back up rather than continue downwards due to damage from last year’s earthquake.

Although the route should take 4-6 hours, we manage it in under three. And despite the views it’s a relief that it’s over – climbing Kinabalu is a significant undertaking in itself without adding on an extra physically and mentally demanding three or four hours. The final walk down is tough going on the uneven steps. At this stage we’ve been on the go for over 12 hours and are completely knackered.

A friend had told me he preferred Kinabalu to Kilimanjaro, even though the latter is far more of a feather in one’s cap. And I think I can understand his point. The walking on Kinabalu is more intense, more demanding, and you know you’ve done something significant. And there’s a beauty about the mountain – from the thick lowland forest to the sparse granite of the peak, the unique shapes nature has wrought from the rock, the majestic views, the legends, and of course the history.

And we all kept our clothes on.


Leave a Reply