Climbing Southeast Asia’s highest mountain

By Louise Southerden 1 September 2010
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Escape the dense, humid jungle below while climbing Southeast Asia’s highest peak, Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo.

THE TRACK LEADS STEEPLY uphill all the way, it rains almost constantly, and on reaching the summit you’ll need a down jacket, thermals, a beanie and a head for heights. It’s hard to believe Sabah, tropical Sabah, the northern part of the island of Borneo, could be like this. Until, that is, you’re tackling its main attraction yourself: the 4095-m Mt Kinabalu.

Despite being just two hours from Sabah’s coastal capital Kota Kinabalu, and surrounded by undulating lowlands clothed in dense jungle, Kinabalu is one serious mountain. Its summit plateau is a massive 10 sq. km of sloping granite slabs, often swathed in cloud and chilled by sub-zero temperatures you wouldn’t normally find this close to the equator. Its eastern face is out of bounds to all but the most experienced rock climbers. And the 1800-m deep Low’s Gully, a seemingly bottomless chasm you have to be careful not to fall into when you’re standing on the summit (Low’s Peak), saw its first abseilers only as recently as 1994.

Naturalist Sir Hugh Low led the first expedition, in 1851, and it took him two weeks of jungle-bashing just to reach the base of the mountain. In addition to the His second difficulty being that the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun people who inhabited the lower slopes of the mountain weren’t keen to offer their services as porters or guides. Why? They never climbed Kinabalu themselves, believing it to be the resting place of the dead and, just for good measure, inhabited by dragons. Low eventually managed to persuade some locals to help his team of 42 climb the mountain, but they had to carry charms such as human teeth and stop along the way to perform elaborate spirit-appeasing rituals (which is still done today at certain times of the year).

“Straightforward” climb

When our guide Fabian briefed us for the two-day climb the night before we set off, he said climbing Kinabalu is “pretty straightforward. You don’t need bottled oxygen, a harness, crampons or carabiners, just some warm clothes, a water bottle and a couple of energy bars.” But he didn’t say it would be easy.

The climb starts innocently enough, with a five to six-hour uphill slog to base camp, Laban Rata, on the first day. There’s plenty to see along the way – rainforests draped with vines, rhododendron forests, subalpine woodlands and cloud forests, more than 1000 species of wild orchids, insectivorous pitcher plants that can hold more than three litres of water, and, if the dragon-gods are smiling, the world’s largest flower, the metre-wide rafflesia.

Be prepared to let the porters on the track pass you by and, trust me, they will (no matter how fit you are). Most of them are women who carry basket-loads of assorted supplies balanced on their backs, tump lines tight across their foreheads; sometimes they do the return walk in a single day, and sometimes their kids tag along (just to rub it in).

Another excuse to stop comes in the form of rest shelters, open-sided huts called pondoks. Each has a toilet, some information about the mountain, and a water tank (bring iodine tablets or some other water purification system – everyone in our group got Borneo Belly after the climb). At Pondok Kandis, 1981 m, we learned that Kinabalu is one of the youngest mountains in the world (a “mere” million years old) and that it’s a granite pluton (a hardened mound that has forced its way upwards through the earth’s crust). At Pondok Ubah, 2059 m, mountain tree shrews darted like small squirrels between our hiking boots, searching for muesli bar crumbs.

The summit, Gunung (Mount) Kinabalu. (Photo: BluESky BlUe/Wikicommons)

Stumbling into the guesthouse at Laban Rata, an oasis of comfort after a long day on the trail, was like arriving at a centrally heated ski lodge after a day on the slopes, with one obvious difference (apart from the lack of snow) – everyone had walked there. Beside the lodge, a tumbling roaring waterfall hurled itself down the granite flanks of Kinabalu as fast as gravity would take it. I looked up at the rocks and thought, ‘we’re going up there tomorrow’.

Laban Rata is where the climb starts feeling serious. For one thing, you’re spending the night 3272 m above sea level. For another, everyone is in bed by 7.30pm, to prepare for the 2am start on summit day. My head was too addled by altitude for sleep, but our room was cosy, containing a heated, 10-bed dorm that reeked of deep heat, with wet raincoats, socks, packs and towels curtaining the bunks.

Before I knew it, it was the middle of the night: time to get up. Downstairs, close to 150 people, the maximum number Sabah Parks allows on the mountain at one time, were slurping steaming bowls of noodles, zipping up parkas and setting off in the pre-dawn darkness. No sooner had we joined them out in the star-lit night, however, than we hit a human traffic jam; it was like the Hillary Step on Everest. The only consolations were that everyone seemed friendly, it was a gentle way to warm up tired muscles, and it was pretty; whenever I turned to look behind us, I saw a trail of head-torches coming up the mountain.

When we emerged from the tree line onto open slabs of rock, still in darkness, the pace picked up and the ropes began. Sabah Parks takes climber safety very seriously – it’s easy to get lost when the mist rolls in. People have fallen to their deaths on the mountain – so thick white ropes have been fixed to the rock faces from here to the summit.

Finally, after three solid hours of slow-walking in the ever-thinning air, we clambered on our hands and feet up a jumble of boulders, threw our arms around the “Low’s Peak 4095.2 m” sign and watched the sun rise and shine on Kinabalu. The entire bulk of the mountain, with us on it, seemed to float on a sea of cloud.

Mountaineers like to say that standing on a summit means you’re only halfway through a climb – because you’re not truly “home” until after the descent. On Kinabalu, the locals like to say, “It’s hard to get up Kinabalu and it’s even harder to get down.” Seven knee-shattering hours after standing on the summit we finished the descent – three hours back down to Laban Rata for a late breakfast then four hours to the bottom of the mountain. It was hard to believe we’d only been gone two days, despite being surrounded by tropical rainforest again – maybe because my head was still up in the clouds on top of Mount Kinabalu.