Mt Kinabalu, can’t keep my eyes off of you

Posted: May 27, 2011 in Malaysia
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As it turns out, perhaps I should have. I booked the bro and myself on a 3-day adventure trip after a leisurely first day soaking up the sun on a small island off the shore of Kota Kinabalu. The plan was to relax before indulging in some man v nature stuff. The relaxing part worked like a dream, with a chilled day spent sunbathing and snorkeling. However, we did have some sunshine bus material as we boarded the wrong boat back to shore and ended up in a plush resort outside of town. We opted to walk the 3km back until Si realised he had left his fins on the boat. We rushed back but soon realised we had no idea which company or boat we had arrived on. Queue some perplexed locals wondering what the hell we were asking. After much ado about nothing we had to head to town and face up to a cash penalty of MR50 for losing fins. Special kids.

We hit the sack early after sampling the culinary delights at the night market on the waterfront. The market is a wonderful place to experience Malay culture as the nightly throngs weave amongst the fresh food stalls. You can sit at outdoor camping tables and choose from the fresh fish and vegetables for some cheap, healthy eating.

To the rapids, and don’t spare the horses

The break us in to the adventure sports gently, Day 1 was white water rafting at Kiulu River, about a 1hr drive southeast of Kota Kinabalu. The weather was average as we listened almost intently to our very brief safety briefing from Jeremy, an exceptionally amusing Malay chap with an infectious laugh.

Kiulu rapids are graded I-II (which means for pussies) and after 5mins it became abundantly clear why. They’re more like a gentle current with the occasional rapid thrown in to maintain your enthusiasm. Jeremy asked us why we hadn’t plumped for something more challenging and the answer was simple; we didn’t want to mame ourselves before embracing the mountain. Sense precluded adrenalin junkie status. Although the trip was rather calm, the river still managed to deposit bro in the churning water and capsize another boat full of Koreans, much to the delight of Jeremy.

Bro senior struggling with the harsh rapids of Kiulu

We had a surprisingly good buffet lunch before being driven to the Kinabalu National Park to register for the climb. Our driver then told us of a change of plan. Instead of Mountain Lodge, we would now be staying in the hostel near the park HQ. It sounded ok until we discovered they intended us to stay in a dorm despite having booked a private twin room. As we wanted peace and quiet before a big climb, I demanded they sort it out, politely though. Fortunately a private room was available and after politely declining to pay the ‘upgrade fee’ we checked in to a small but well furnished room.

Later that evening we had a perfect clear view of the summit of Mt Kinabalu, an imposing wall of rock in the distance. It was a beautiful sight to behold.

Into the lap of the gods

A sleepless night was gifted us by some irritatingly noisy Koreans. So a pair of weary brother checked in at 07.45 and hooked up with a guide called Cornelius. Without so much of a word of advice or briefing, we were escorted to the starting gate and set off just after 08.00.

Day 1 involves a climb up to Laban Rata base camp at 3,270m. You can see the camp in the distance from HQ and it looks tantalisingly close. But in the mountains even something close is oh so far. The climb is quite brutal; from the off you hit a steep wall of mud and rock. It’s a 6km winding path snaking up the crest of the mountain and there is no respite. Each 0.5km has a wooden plaque to remind you how slow your progress is.

We both struggled with early morning fatigue and sweat was running off us like a misty river of acrid odour. Our legs were heavy and as we pushed past the 2,000m altitude mark, you could feel the lungs tighten a little. Despite my Kili success at 5,985m I could still feel the altitude. Eventually, after 3hrs of almost constant climbing, we reached the base camp and found it empty. We were the first climbers there, the only other visitor that morning a mountain goat chap who had already climbed the summit and was heading down to finish the trek in 1 day. We made the most of the early arrival, taking a refreshing freezing cold shower and drying the clothes in the sun. We retired to our hut; an agonizing additional 5min climb, and hit the sack to rest.

We rose around 4pm to enjoy the views of the now clear mountain and valleys. It’s a wonderful experience to be sat at 3,300m, breathing fresh air and staring vacantly at rolling mountains that stretch to the coastline on the horizon. At night you can see the city lights of Kota Kinabalu blazing in the distance.

Bro senior at foot of Mt Kinabalu summit

We climbed down to the Laban Rata huts for dinner at 6pm and hooked up with an English couple and a solo female traveler who we had met briefly at HQ. After an entertaining dinner of sarcasm and abuse, we all strolled back up to the lodge to get some much needed rest ahead of the planned early summit attempt. Due to our quicker speed, we were scheduled to leave at 03.00 whilst most others were heading off between 02.00 and 02.30.

As expected I didn’t really sleep. We lucked in with our own room but still the mountain climate killed me sleep. Perhaps it was the cold, perhaps the nervous excitement ahead of the climb; either way, it was annoying. I must have drifted off eventually as awoke to the 02.00 alarm and it was then it all unraveled. I leant over the top bunk to see my bro throwing up in the bin. I did a double take as I didn’t want to believe it. He told me he had been up since 11pm being ill and had bad stomach cramps and a mild headache. It didn’t take a genius to realise it was altitude sickness and that meant no chance of making the summit. At altitude you have to go for safety first, altitude sickness can be incredibly dangerous and set-in rapidly. It can be life threatening if not dealt with sensibly. After consulting Cornelius, we agreed to let Si sleep until 06.00 then look at making a gentle descent.

The 06.00 alarm came and I gently coaxed the bro from his slumber. I felt sorry for him because being ill is bad enough but being stuck in a tiny cold room, at 3,300m where you have to climb for 3hrs to get any relief, is mental and physical torture. Remarkably he rose to the challenge without any moaning and told me he wanted to set off immediately and not mess around.

With tender steps we made the 6km descent back to HQ. With no sleep, an empty stomach, cramps and a headache, it’s a demanding path down. Si clearly struggled but did well to make it down without any long stops. Shortly after 10am we arrived at HQ, picked up clean clothes and took a much needed hot shower. Luckily the mountain was not visible, hidden by a solid wall of cloud. To have seen the summit would have been a bitter reminder of our bad luck.

A challenge yet to be conquered

And so it was with mixed emotions that we left Kinabalu National Park. As a climber, it’s hard to accept you haven’t reached the summit. It’s happened to me before in the UK on Snowdon due to weather and time but this was different. The freak of nature that is altitude sickness threw a spanner in the work. It was so near yet so far. I was ready. We both were. We were both fit and have sufficient climbing experience over 4,000m. Yet at 3,300m for some reason it nailed my bro in the middle of the night like a shadowy thief. Shit happens but we would both like to come back and try again, if only to beat Madden’s time (yet to be validated by another living soul!).

Love jamer & bro senior

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Comments
  1. Muneeza says:

    Reminds me so much of when we climbed kili. The cold cambins, the lack of sleep and the horrible headaches. Glad ur bro is better but such a shame you didnt make it to the top. Nevermind there will def be a next time.
    lots of love xx

  2. duncs says:

    stuart hood!! reviews editor at fhm can verify my times and i have photos of me at the summit. he too succumbed to altitude sickness in the misleading safety of the laban rata but i left him to it and pushed on rather than selflessly sacrifice my experience! haha.

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