Although it was a long time ago now, I’ve decided to add this trip report because it was the first time I’d climbed a “real mountain” outside the UK, and it was part of a trip that instilled in me the desire to learn to climb technically rather than just walk up tourist routes. I summited Kinabalu as part of my honeymoon. Since then my husband has left me. The love of the mountains, however, stays with me to this day.
The following report is taken more or less word for word from the journal I wrote at the time (the fact I was not at all hill-fit, and it was my first mountain, goes some way to explain the style of writing):
19th September 2002: Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
By 7am we had left the hostel we’d stayed at for the previous night, leaving Lucy, the owner, guarding some of our suitcases. We lugged our rucksacks down to the bus station where we had bought cheap tickets the day before. Unfortunately, these tickets were not valid, we’d been ripped off, and had to purchase new ones. Not a real problem since they were so cheap anyway!
The bus journey took about 2 hours and the fare included a bottle of cold water and a cake. These cakes were rather strange, like sandwiches of sweetened bread. Mine was at least recognisable, the filling was like a mixture of chocolate and jam. Dave’s was a different matter, it was emerald green! We though it best not to ask!
The journey passed without incident, and we arrived at the park headquarters just after 9am. We had to register to climb, pay the permit fees, and hire our guide, Rapilin, as well as leaving our details such as passport numbers, address and next of kin! We were then issued with ID tags on day-glo neck cords. The previous year, an English girl had got lost in fog and died on the mountain, and it seemed that the idea was that if you got lost or fell, the day-glo cords would help find you, and the ID tags would identify the body. I’m not sure if this was reassuring or not!
We took a shuttle bus to the Timpohon Gate, the official starting point of the climb, which saved a 3km walk. After five minutes of walking we were already exhausted, and it was quite a while before we passed a trail marker to indicate we had gone 0.5km. Rapilin explained that there was a marker every half kilometre, and the total distance to the summit was 8.7km, with approx 2.2km of ascent. We would be staying in the Laban Rata hut that evening, 6km along the trail and at an altitude of 3272m.
The high altitude (remember, we’d started that morning from sea level) and heavy bags didn’t help things, and I don’t think a 6km walk has ever seemed so far. We started in blistering heat, passed through cold rain showers, and by the 3km point there was no going back. The previous day’s climbers passed us on their way down, staggering with aching knees. They all wished us luck, rather than just offering a simple greeting, which seemed rather ominous. For the last couple of kilometres to the hut, we kept overtaking, and being overtaken by, another English couple who also seemed to be suffering. The last kilometre was sheer hell. I think it took us over an hour, and it was only bloody-minded determination that got us up. The sight of the hut, at about 3.30pm, was probably one of the most welcome ever! We checked in, and it was nice to discover that while we’d expected large dorms, we had in fact been allocated a 4 person room with the couple we’d met earlier on the trail. The man, Phil, was suffering from bad altitude sickness and so they decided to descend as soon as possible the next day without summiting.
Laban Rata hut had one large open plan room on the ground floor which was a basic restaurant, socialising area, and reception all in one. There was also a small kiosk shop where, after hearing other peoples’ experiences, we bought spare gloves and chocolate. We dined on rice and soup (quite what the soup was, I have no idea, but I was too tired to care) then went out onto the freezing cold balcony to watch a spectacular sunset. We were in bed by 8pm since we needed to set off at 2.30am the next morning at the latest. The idea was to reach the summit in time to watch the sunrise. I don’t think anyone slept much that night – the room was too hot, and knowing we had to get up so early made it hard to relax.
20th September 2002: Laban Rata Hut, Kinabalu National Park
By 1.45am the corridors were a hive of activity. Everyone was getting dressed, showering, stomping around in heavy boots, and buzzing with adrenaline. Whereas normal people would pack bikinis and sarongs for a honeymoon in Malaysia, we were donning thermals, fleeces, heavy boots and waterproofs!
After a quick breakfast, we left at 2.30am as scheduled, taking the bare minimum of kit, just water, chocolate and torches. Leaving the hut, four or five lamp-posts lit the way for the first few hundred metres, which was rather surreal – you wouldn’t expect street lights ¾ of the way up a mountain! There was nearly a full moon, so we could see pretty well without torches. The track started off in much the same way as the previous day’s climb: a mixture of rocks and makeshift steps. Getting higher, the lush vegetation gave way to gnarled “sayat-sayat” trees, some of which were apparently hundreds of years old, and are the only plants which can survive the howling winds and bitter cold. At this point, Dave was suffering a bit with altitude, but I was still OK and was coping far better than the day before, when Dave had had to more or less drag me the last few metres. After an hour we arrived at the Sayat-Sayat hut. Although it is possible to stay here overnight, there is no heat or electricity, and it’s used mainly as a mountain rescue and checkpoint hut. Rapilin told us to rest here for 15 minutes – I didn’t feel I needed to, but had I known what lay ahead I’d have been grateful for the advice. As we set off after the break for the final ascent, I was feeling extremely sick with the altitude. We followed a guide rope over the rocks, at times using it to haul ourselves up the steeper sections. The steepness, and the clear skies, gave the illusion that we were walking directly up to the stars. At the 8.5km marker there were only 200m to go, but this took over half an hour. As dawn broke, we scrambled over the last section, and just before sunrise we stood on the summit of Low’s Peak. It was far too cold to stop at the top, so after a couple of photos we headed down. The sunrise over the surrounding crags and peaks was truly spectacular, however, my sickness was getting worse, and before long, on the descent, I was leaving my own kilometre markers on the slopes! Sea level to 4100m in 24hrs wasn’t the best idea, but it’s the easiest, and most usual approach to this mountain. After collecting the rest of our gear at Laban Rata, we went straight back down to the park headquarters, which took about 4-5hrs. To take my mind off how I was feeling, Rapilin showed me the rare orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants, and finally we were back at the Timpohon Gate for 3.30pm.