Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Life in Words: Borneo - Part 2 (The Climb)


In my last post I said that I didn't know where the idea to come to Borneo came from.  While that's true, it was the prospect of climbing Mt Kinabalu which motivated me to act on the idea. Although I've never done anything like this before, the idea of doing something out of the ordinary while on holiday was appealing to me.

At 4095m, Mt Kinabalu is the highest peak in South East Asia and falls in the top 20 in the world.  Similar to Kilimanjaro, it is one of the few top 20 mountains that don't require mountaineering experience to summit (which is good, because I have none!).  Going into the climb, I was told the biggest obstacle would be the altitude, due to the fact that you ascend quite quickly.

The route to the top is direct and steep and takes just 2 days.

The route to the top is just 8.7km long, which at first glance doesn't seem like much.  However when you factor in the fact that the peak is 4.1km high, you can see that the gradient is quite extreme.  While you don't start right at sea level, the average grade is still 25-50% for the entire 8.7k.

The general pattern followed by most climbers is 6km on day one, followed by a very early start on day 2 to finish the final (steep) 2.7k before sun rise.  It's then a slow and tedious decent all the way down to finish in the afternoon.  This is the approach we took.

There was 10 people on my tour climbing plus two mountain guides, Mr Sopingey and his son Billy.  Mr. Sopingey is quite a remarkable man. At 55 years old, he is the most experienced guide on the mountain, having climbed it more than 1000 times.  His first ascent was when he was 10, as a porter, which he did until he became a guide at 18. Since then he makes the trek twice a week, every week. While I didn't need assistance, a few people in my group struggled with certain aspects (bad knees on the descent, altitude sickness, etc) and he was the most patient friendly guide they could have asked for.  Despite being just 5'3" and 130lbs (at best), he would gladly carry the heavy backpack of a sick person up the entire mountain (in addition to his own) if so required.

Day 1 started at 9am, and the path is steep right from the get go.  The first few kilometers went by fairly painlessly, as we all had fresh legs and were super eager.  The biggest inconvenience was our backpacks.  Because of the extreme altitude change, you need a wide variety of clothing, plus lots of water.  Close to sea level the weather was quite humid and wearing just shorts and a tshirt resulted in excessive sweating.  However on the early morning climb to the summit, the temp drops to below zero, plus windchill.  Which means that on day 1, all of us were carrying packs full of warm clothes. Add 3-4liters of water and the bags got quite heavy.

We couldn't complain too much though, as numerous times though out the day we were passed by porters.  All the food and supplies at the rest house (at the 6k mark) have to be carried up.  So, attached to a board which is attached to their backs and heads, these porters lug all the supplies up 6k.  Apparently they get $100 ringget ($30) for the first 10kg and then 10 ringget for each 10kg above that.  On the way down, they carry garbage, which they also get paid for.  Regardless of how much stuff they were carrying and whether they were a 5'2" guy or a young girl smaller than myself, they always moved faster then everyone else walking up.  I think that is pretty decent money in this area, so I can see why lots of people do it.

The first 6k was a mix of stairs and rock steps.  Things started to get more challenging as we hit 4k, as the steps started to become quite big (higher than my knee in some cases).  Each kilometer or so, there is a hut to stop at with basic amenities so we stopped quite frequently to help pace ourselves. I was feeling quite good, so I split off from the group (which had already split into two) and did the last 2k on my own.  I had to force myself to slow down, as I wasn't sure how the altitude would effect me and I didn't want to make myself sick.

At 6k (3,200m) there is a rest house where everyone stops for the 'night'. They served a big dinner at 4:30pm and then we all went to bed around 6:30pm in preparation of the next day's climb. 'Breakfast' is served at 2am and most people leave around 2:30am to make sure they summit in time for the sunrise at 6:00am.

My group split into two, with us in the faster group leaving later. While there were some stairs to start, about 500m in, we hit a rope section, where we needed to pull ourselves up with rope and scramble up rocks. This was quite challenging at altitude, in the dark, on very little sleep, but I enjoyed it.  After the rope section, we came to a rock face which just went up on an incline for what seemed like ages.

There was a rope there for support in the steeper sections.  I found this the toughest part of the whole trip.  We were completely exposed on the rock face, so it got windy and really cold, so you couldn't really stop.  The altitude started kicking in as well and it was noticeably harder to breathe.  The trick was to just go slow and steady - to keep moving but not too fast.

Continue reading at: My Life in Words: Borneo - Part 2 (The Climb)

Also Read: My Life in Words: Borneo - Part 1
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