Friday, January 20, 2017

Adventures of Mel and Alex: Climbing Mount Kinabalu on a Budget

Standing at 4095m, Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo is the highest point between the Himalayas to the West and the Maoke Alps in New Guinea to the East. Billed as an ‘unrelenting’ climb by Lonely Planet, witnessing the sunrise from Low’s Peak was one of the first things I read about when we started to plan our travels.

As you’ll already know if you’ve read Mel’s post, Borneo is home to all manner of beautiful scenery and amazing wildlife, with a seemingly endless array of things to see and experience. Kinabalu is a sterling example, differing only by virtue of the fact that it’s all very much on a slope, which is why you might notice Mel is conspicuous by her absence for the following post!

Before I begin, let me make something clear. I am not a mountain climber, nor am I an extreme fitness nut. I like beer, coffee, watching movies and eating the occasional pizza.

 Nonetheless, I like to think I maintain a passable level of fitness, and so you can consider this an ‘average 20-something’s perspective’.

The two-day trip sees you start at the entrance to Kinabalu Park, where you complete all the necessary admin and get shuttled up to Timpohon Gate to begin your ascent. Day one sees you hike for 6km, ascending through 1400 vertical metres, to an overnight rest stop at Laban Rata. In the very early hours of day two climbers then make for the summit, just over 2.5km and 800 vertical metres away, before descending all the way back to the start point at Kinabalu Park HQ.

Accounts of just how “easy” a climb Mt. Kinabalu is vary, with many claiming it’s a breeze (tour operators make a point of telling you they’ve served people from 3 to 87 years old!), whilst others describe it as tough due to the altitudes involved, unrelenting nature of the trail and the pressing timeframes involved. Ultimately, experiences vary from person to person and I met old, young, big, small, smokers and even a man with a crutch on my way up. That said, I couldn’t tell you how many of them made it all the way.

The Climb

Starting Blocks (1,564m Elev.)

Before you get onto the mountain ‘proper’, first you will need to register at Kinabalu Park entrance and get to Timpohon Gate, where you’ll start your ascent.

If you’re staying with Sutera, first step will be to check in for your evening in Laban Rata at the company’s other lodge inside the gate. Any luggage you don’t wish to take with you can also be left here. Then head to the second building where you’ll pay for your permit, insurance and guide. Don’t forget your passport!

Money handed over, I was introduced to our quiet but excellent guide Joseph, who pointed out where we could pick up the packed lunch provided as part of our overnight package and jump on the shuttle to Timpohon Gate at 1,866m.

Ascent to Laban Rata

Take your first steps through Timpohon Gate and low and behold, you’re headed downhill. ‘This should be a doddle’ I thought to myself. That didn’t last long.

You quickly pass Carson Falls, and from then on the first couple of kilometers of the trail consists primarily of wooden stairs, so don’t be skipping leg day! There are a number of huts all the way up the ascent where you can take 5, read about the geology at your present altitude and check the distance remaining.

Between 2 and 4km distance the weather closed in on us and the heavens opened. Wonderfully cooling, but not helpful in keeping anything for the next day dry, so make sure to pack a waterproof cover for your backpack. Having powered through the rain, at about 4km we broke through the cloud cover and were rewarded with our first views down the hillside to the towns below. At this point the trail becomes more strenuous, with the wooden steps replaced by those cut into the rock at wildly varying intervals.