New Year’s Expectations

Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and the mountains of New Guinea, is also supposed to be one of the most accessible ways to climb above 12,000 ft. No mountaineering required. All you need is an ability to climb up a few thousand stair steps! It’s also a popular mountain, drawing a couple of hundred tourists from around the world each day. Everyone, from kids to grandmas, has been up it.

So I had fairly low expectations. I anticipated a slow procession to the top, the guide pointing out a pitcher plant or two, and a queue at the summit for those all important Facebook profile pics (people, folks back home really don’t want to see smug photos of you standing by some placard or other). In fact, I was due to climb it across New Years, so the expected anticlimax was befitting!

Well, I was in for a surprise. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding and exciting climbs I’ve done.

For a start, I got a last-minute cancellation on the evening before the climb. I was therefore entirely unprepared, which always makes things more exciting. I had no cold weather clothing: I used some luminous gardening gloves to save my digits, and wore all my t-shirts. This was taking the layering principle to the extreme. When I arrived at HQ (“base camp”), I met people who had been staying there getting acclimatised to the altitude, and going for early morning runs. Hmmmm. How difficult was this mountain? I was also late, as I’d taken a local minivan to the park, rather than being with a tour group. It was one of those buses that needs to fill up before it goes – it being New Year’s Eve, perhaps, it was a slow day. Three hours later, when I eventually got to Kinabalu park HQ, they seemed to have no record of me on their system, apparently because I was a last-minute cancellation. They then explained to me that they had no guides for me and I’d have to climb another day! With the day’s climbing window (up to 11am) fast closing, I eventually persuaded them to let me set off alone and they could assign me a guide at the 1st day’s stopover, at the Laban Rata Hut (~3300m). Phew. I collected my “packed lunch” (hilariously provided in a huge box, and a boutique bag – both ditched) and set off with my rucksack in pursuit of the day’s climbers.   

The climb up to Laban Rata was initially easy-going and I caught up with the bulk of people, but the last 2 km were punishing. It was all the steps that had been nailed into the path. I tried to avoid them where I could, but my thighs needed pushing down on with my hands by the end and cramp set in. It also rained for most of the climb. (Tip number 1: bring an umbrella! This last minute purchase was far better than any rainjacket or poncho.) I eventually got to Laban Rata, having taken just over 3 hours to get up there. Maybe I needn’t have rushed!

I had been assigned the Gunting Lagadan Hut, which, helpfully, is up a massive hill from where you get food (back at Laban Rata). Most people from my hut didn’t bother going to breakfast in the morning because they couldn’t face hiking back up! It was also freezing cold and my bed was wet. No chance I’m having a cold water shower at 3300m. (Tip number 2: bring a waterbottle which can withstand boiling water. Hey presto, you have a hot water bottle. Awesome.) That evening, after debating the merits of oil palm with some Aussies (stangely, I found myself defending it as a development tool), we drunk a Dioralyte toast to the New Year. Despite it being New Year’s Eve, we were all in bed by 9pm. A mischievous tree shrew who had locked himself in the kitchen, and proceeded to rattle around the bin, woke me up a few times, but I otherwise slept soundly until my alarm rudely sounded at 1.30 am.

My newly-assigned guide had arranged to meet me down at Laban Rata at 2am, with the rest of his group. 2.30am: people leaving, still no sign. 3am: lots of people gone, still no sign. OK, screw it, I’m off. I’d heard that the 2nd day’s climb, up to the summit, is treacherous and slippery. Effectively you’re clinging on to ropes drilled into a huge granite slab which slopes up to Kinabalu’s highest peak (“Low’s Peak”). But with porridge in my stomach, I was feeling good this morning, if a little short of breath. Today I had rhythm, and rhythm is key. I ended up over-taking quite a lot of people (much to their chagrin; it had got competitive now we were near the top). Within about 20 minutes there was suddenly a big gap to the next group – I could see feint lights bobbing about in the dark up above me. The ropes started. It was steep now, with water gushing down the face of the rock in places. Steep enough that if you fell…well, you wouldn’t stop. When you grasped onto them, the ropes squeezed out freezing cold water like sponges.

After 20 mins or so, I reached a little man sat half-asleep in a box, with a candle burning beside him. This was the last checkpoint. I set off and looked for the lights; surely I was approaching them now. Wait, where are the lights? Maybe they’re obscured by some bit of cliff I can’t see in the dark. After 10 mins or so, I was suddenly aware that it was deathly quiet. Just the sound of my breathing, the rain spotting onto my jacket and NOTHING. It was completely dark all around me and I suddenly realised I was at the front. I was going first up this mountain!

At times I could see a snake of lights following below me, but mostly it was just me, the mountain and a white rope stretching off into the darkness. Fortunately for me, this was just how I wanted it! I felt like I was getting a rare communion with Gunung Kinabalu. Beyond the Facebook pictures and Lonely Planet descriptions. Sure, I’d have liked the company of a fellow climber, but I didn’t really want to talk. I just wanted to climb. And fully appreciate and awe at the mountain which supported me. I turned off my light and stopped, letting my eyes adjust and begin to make out the feint silhouettes of the huge crown of different peaks which sits atop Kinabalu. I had no idea which one was in store for me – the twisting path of the rope gave no clue.

It took just over an hour and a half and the rope finally disappeared below some big boulders. This was the final scramble to the highest point of the mountain. Upon reaching the top, I wasn’t suddenly rewarded with a view – it was still dark, after all – but it didn’t matter. I was elated to have received a rare insight into this most popular of mountains.

Of course, a cold hour and a half later, I had been joined by scores of people, and we were all treated to the spectacular first dawn of 2011. This time the toast was with Jameson’s!

Happy New Year! Hope it’s a good one for you…

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5 Responses to New Year’s Expectations

  1. Mpw says:

    Just what I figured you would be up to! Good reading nonetheless if a little punctuated by audible gasps!

  2. Sophie Harwood says:

    Wow – those photos are so so amazing! Although I would have taken the mischeivous kitchen shrew with me for the final push – maybe such a view would have calmed down his naughty ways and pursuaded him to live a calmer and more peaceful life…

  3. Charlie says:

    Truly fabulous photographs and not a placard in sight. I will always carry a mental image of you Ollie with your luminous gardening gloves (I didn’t know they existed) and your umbrella. Special.
    Keep writing, you have a real gift for bringing the jungle experience into our central-heated, carpeted and cushy homes!

  4. OllieW says:

    UPDATE: the obliging frog in my slideshow has been id’d by an amphibian expert friend of mine at the National University of Singapore as Ansonia fuliginea. Apparently he’s quite a rarety, and difficult to find. Unfortunately, these days he’s restricted ONLY to the slopes of Kinabalu. He’s found nowhere else in the world.

    This has lead the IUCN to list him as Vulnerable to extinction.

    So it was a privilege to find him, but also a reminder of just what a perilous state Borneo’s wildlife is in.

    • nina says:

      that’s AWESOME. and also, I wish I had a friend like that…
      cute froggy
      endangered froggy
      sleepy ball of slime froggy

      save the frog! (poem adapted from ‘Big Bang Theory’)

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