Climbing Mt Kinabalu 4095m

Not long after I came back from Malaysia, I was chatting with a friend, saying that I loved the country and would return soon, perhaps to climb Mt Kinabalu. He proceeded to tell me that his friend was organising to climb this very mountain, and if I wanted to join, I would have to decide that day. Always the opportunist, I said yes immediately and committed myself to the trip.

Fast forward 9 months, we stepped off the plane in Kota Kinabalu to meet the rest of the group. They extended their friendships readily and we bonded over food. While registering our climb at the office, we saw people hobbling off the bus with expressions of pain on their faces. Thinking this may be what we would look like in 2 days' time filled us with trepidation.

Mt Kinabalu (4095m) is the highest mountain in South East Asia. There are 2 routes to the summit - Timpohon or Mesilau; we chose the Mesilau trail which is longer but more scenic going through luscious rainforest and waterfalls. It is 8.2km to Laban Rata (3272m) on the first day, then 2.8km climb up to the summit the next day. The trail started off into a climb which set the pace for the day. The stairs were unrelenting, but glimpses of our destination pushed us onwards.

Our destination in the background
At our lunch stop

As we got closer to Laban Rata, the air was getting thinner and rest stops became more frequent. Someone who had climbed the route before told us of a big rock just around the corner from the rest hut. I'm not sure how many big rocks we passed, every one would lift our spirits and inject us with a new burst of energy, before disappointment descended as the end was still nowhere in sight.

Finally we reached the right "big rock" and saw the hut, just in time for the start of the buffet dinner. Starving, everyone went back for a few servings. I crawled into bed seeking refuge in the warm blanket, not the least interested in the apparently very beautiful sunset or a freezing cold shower.

Dinner and rest finally in sight

2am came too quickly. I woke with a headache and another girl had nausea and headache, all early signs of altitude sickness. Luckily paracetamol and ibuprofen proved effective. We layered up, ready to tackle the summit.

Our hearts sank to see more stairs to start our climb. We made slow and steady progress and very soon were out of the tree line. Without the trees for protection it was very windy and cold. We kept going, not daring to stop, only pausing for a few breaths every twenty steps or so. The sky was becoming lighter, and after a final scramble, we were at the top! It was humbling, inspiring and exhilarating (and cold) all at once. Soon the sun peeked through the clouds on the horizon; celebrating our new achievement.

Mt Kinabalu summit 4095.2m
Sunrise on Mt Kinabalu

As we made our way down it became apparent how steep some sections were. Somehow climbing while in the cloak of darkness was a blessing; not seeing the steep drop offs on either side of us made us concentrate on following the white rope and putting one foot in front of the other. Coming down was another story though. The guides were more than happy to give me a helping hand, which was how I earned the nickname 'Huang tai hou' meaning 'empress dowager' who was known to walk with her hand supported at all times. 

Walking down from Laban Rata was much harder as there were no more carrots at the end of the stick. Our 'third leg' or walking stick was a life saver for our knees. 500 metres felt like 1000 especially when it started raining. Finally we reached the finish line! At the end of the trail we came across a sign with Mt Kinabalu climbathon record times - just over 2 1/2 hours it took for someone to run up and down the mountain! It did not douse our joy one bit though, we knew we had challenged ourselves and achieved something big. Sharing such an experience bonded all of us for life - and we're ready for our next adventure in Nepal later in the year!

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