Friday, April 17, 2015

‘If hell were a mountain, it would look like Mount Kinabalu': a Hong Kong hiker’s Borneo blues

I’ve been an avid hiker for years, but I’ve never climbed anything as high as Mount Kinabalu in East Malaysia. Calling it “difficult” would be an understatement. If hell were a mountain, I think it would look a bit like Mount Kinabalu.

Nearly a month after the trek, I still couldn’t squat, cross my legs or do lunges without wincing in pain. It hurt to wear heels, and I still had moments where I couldn’t feel my toes.

I don’t know what possessed me to do the hike. It was the New Year; I happened to be in region at the time and thought, what better way to kick off 2015 than to climb a famous mountain? Mount Kinabalu is the highest point in Malaysia at 4,095 metres and also a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In the weeks leading up to the climb, I stepped up my workout routine and checked out other climbers’ experiences online. From what I read it didn’t sound too bad, so I didn’t think I had anything to be worried about.

Besides, according to all the marketing material I’d read, Mount Kinabalu was ideal for anybody of reasonable fitness – for novice hikers, in fact. So really, how tough could the climb be?

Day one

My ride to the mountain began at 6am. It took us a couple of hours to get to the Kinabalu Park headquarters, where we received our identification tags and met our mountain guide. Because I was a solo traveller, I was assigned my own guide, a local Kadazan-Dusun tribesman called Safrey. From here, it was a short drive to Timpohon Gate (at 1,866 metres elevation), the starting point of the trail.

I’d signed up for the two-day/one-night climb. My plan was to arrive at the Laban Rata Resthouse (at 3,272 metres) by 4pm on the first day, so that I could go to bed early and wake up at 1.30am on Day Two to begin the summit climb.

Entering Timpohon Gate at about 9am, I thought, “this should be a piece of cake”. After all, it was only a 6km hike to the rest house. But not even 500 metres into the climb, I wanted to turn back.

My legs were fine; I just hadn’t anticipated any breathing difficulties. At that altitude – we were about 1,900 metres above sea level – my lungs were struggling to function. I thought the tight feeling in my chest would go away as the hike went on, but it didn’t, so I had no choice but to stop every 10 minutes to catch my breath.

The trail was merciless, to say the least. It’s insanely steep, and rocky and slippery to boot. I knew that my frequent stops would slow me down but I didn’t care. I was more concerned about bursting a lung.