I have to confess that at the end of last year I didn't really know Kinabalu or where it was. In mid January I was working in Singapore for two weeks and was keen to do a mtn in the region. The original idea was to shoot off to Indonesia for a weekend and find a volcano. The more I looked though, the less likely it was that I would find somewhere so I decided to take a weeks holiday and e-mailed Darren to see if he could suggest anywhere. He sent back a long list of possible objectives and Kinabalu was the one that topped the list. The fact that it's SE Asia's highest mtn and is only a hike also helped. To get there I flew from Singapore across to Brunei and then took another flight up to Kota Kinabalu (KK).
The adventure started for real in KK. I took a cab from my hotel to the town Bus Park and spent five minutes wandering around trying to find the bus I needed. Once on board and squashed we set off for the Kinabalu National Park. It was a two-hour ride and the bus was full of folk going home for the Chinese New Year. The scenery was pleasant, rolling hills carpeted with lush tropical rain forest. Towering above the hills sat Kinabalu with its long rocky summit ridge. We were lucky that it wasn't in cloud and as I sat there staring at it I thought it doesn't look like a 4000er. As we got nearer the park we rose into the cloud and lost the views. The temperature also dropped to a far more agreeable comfort level.
In the park HQ I reserved myself a bed in one of the huts and after protesting had to hire a guide. With an aussie couple plus guides we took a minibus for about 15mins uphill to where the road goes no further (1866m). From there the guide and I set off for real. Not being happy that I had to have I guide I decided that we'd push it. Two hours later I realised that it wasn't a good idea. We hiked up a steepish track through the forest not taking any time to stop and check out the park's unique flora. We passed a few very tired looking folk who were descending. There weren't any interesting views as we were in the cloud, just the humid forest. After about 2.5 kms we came to a small fork in the track (not a clear one) so I asked the guide about it. I thought that we could take a shorter and steeper route there instead of the gentler normal route. I said we'd take the steeper one. The guide wasn't impressed. It was much steeper and most of it was up ladders. It was also very overgrown, wild and wet. After 15 mins I regretted the decision. It was hard work and I was hot and getting thirsty. We didn't stop and eventually rejoined the normal route.
After about an hour and a half we reached the 4km mark where there was a hut and water tank. I felt tired and thirsty so called a halt. We were at 2700m and I was happy with our progress. I wasn't so happy with the way I felt. I drank some water and ate some dried mango. After five mins we were on the go again, my T-shirt was sopping wet and I felt a little chilled. I knew it was only 600m height gain to the hut and we had plenty of time so we didn't push it. I felt a little lousy and regretted going so hard lower down. I thought about the athletes who do the Kinabalu Mtn Marathon. They go to the top and back down in under 3hrs, a feat that I just don't understand. We kept a steady pace and eventually broke out of the trees and were treated to a clear view of the upper granite slopes of the mtn. From there on the terrain was scrubby with bushes and the odd tree. The gradient got steeper and the steps got higher. On we went and finally pitched up at the Laban Rata hut (3272m) after starting 2hrs 45 mins earlier. I was surprised at how quick we had reached the hut; it was about two o'clock and there was a lot of daylight left.
In the hut the guide gave me a key for my room so I went up and put my dry TAC t-shirt on. Back downstairs I downed two Cokes and ordered a plate of chicken curry. I felt pretty whacked and pleased that I'd finished for the day. After my food I sat outside on a veranda with several other tired people. The sit down turned into a lie down and a short snooze. I then went back inside, up to my room and had another sleep. After I woke up I felt much better and decided to go and check out the route to the top. Wearing my, now dry, Stones T-shirt and armed with my camera I left the hut area, passing the lampposts and headed up in search of the rock. The path was very steep and was back in the trees. Again my thoughts were on the marathon runners. After 15mins I reached the rock faces. On the lower sections there are fixed ropes. I didn't touch them and scrambled and zig zagged across the rock. The gradient was very friendly and there were countless handholds. One section was quite steep but if you fell you weren't going to go very far. After the ropes it flattened out and I crossed the slope in a diagonal line passing a small hut (Sayat Sayat Hut 3668m). I went about 200m past the hut and then stopped to take in the scenery. Above me to the right were the Donkey Ears, two pointy columns of rock and one huge tower. I was on a huge rounded granite slope that fell away down into the rain forest. Up to my left the slope got steeper and I could see another rock tower with a post on the top, which I thought was the actual summit. Below me was a bed of billowing cumulonimbus cloud. It was a strange place. The sun was getting low and I sat staring out across the clouds thinking wow I'm on Kinabalu in Borneo. I took a few photos and then spotted a guide coming down towards me. I asked him how long it would take to get to the top. He said about an hour. I could have got up but I wouldn't have got back down in daylight and I didn't have a torch so binned the idea of going on. I slowly made my way back down. Descending the rock I used the ropes and then bounded down the steep track through the trees back to the hut.
In the hut I ordered another plate of chicken curry and some cokes, then went back outside to eat and watch the sun go down. It was an excellent setting. There was still the bed of billowing cloud. Up on the right were the darkening rounded granite slopes with the Donkey ears. As the sun sank below the cloud it got colder and everyone else went back inside. I stayed out until it got dark and the mtn was just a dark foreboding silhouette. Way off in the distance to my left was a magnetic storm with the lightening lighting up the clouds. It was very quiet. Eventually I went back inside and got talking to a Danish family from KL. I drank several cups of tea and then retired to my room of which I was luckily the sole occupant.
Next morning I got up a 3:15 as they stopped serving food at 3:30. When I got downstairs everyone had gone or was going. I ordered a plate of fried rice and some tea and sat on my own forcing the rice down. I didn't feel too good. I had a headache from the altitude (for the first time) and wasn't particularly hungry. By 3:30 everyone had gone and the hut staff had gone back to bed. Most people finish the climb in the early morning so that they get to the top in time to see the sun rise. To do this they leave from around 3 am. As the sun rose at around 6:15 and it was just under 3km (800m height gain) to the top I knew it wouldn't take 3 hrs. I told the guide we'd leave at 4. At 3:45 we were the only ones sitting in the dining area and felt a bit daft so we left.
Outside it was much warmer than I'd expected so I stayed in shorts and T-shirt only. Armed with a torch plus pack containing warm clothes and water we set off up the steep track under the light of the lampposts! Before long we caught up with the tailenders who really were moving pathetically slowly. On the rock we scrambled up and around many others. We reached the Sayat Sayat hut in 30 mins. We were making good time, in fact it was too good as I didn't want to arrive at the top and then have to wait a long time for the sun to rise. After the hut we followed some white ropes that lay across the rock. I didn't really see the value of them apart from their use in pointing the way. The gradient got steeper. It was uncomfortable on my calves if I walked in a straight line and the rise seemed to go on and on. We marched on still clad in shorts and T-shirt while all those we passed were well wrapped up. My T-shirt was sopping but I thought that I'd save getting dressed until we stopped at the top. The route flattened a little as we crossed a large gently sloping plateau. My balance also started to go and I wasn't walking a very good straight line. My headache had gone and my stomach felt fine so I wasn't too concerned. It was a strange place to be. The sky was clear and a mass of bright stars. There was no moon though and it was dark. In front of me and to my left were tall dark silhouetted rock towers. I knew we were close to the top but the misjudged size of the rock towers gave me some concern. I thought we must be 15 mins from the top but couldn't work out how we'd reach the top of the towers in that time.
The last section was up one of the silhouetted towers. At the bottom was a group of English speaking folk resting. As I passed them one remarked how brave I was as I was still in shorts and T-shirt. I have to say though I was cold and getting very tired. We hadn't stopped for a break and I was more than ready for one. I slowly ascended the rocky ridge to the summit on all fours. The distance to the top was very deceptive in the dark. I soon topped out, stood up on the top and then quickly got fleeced up. I drank a lot of cold water and then lay literally on the top with my arms across my chest and stared up at the star filled night sky. I soon drifted off into my own thoughts, the main one being how lucky I was to be up there under such a super sky. Pleasant thought soon disappeared as I got colder. We had got to the top in about 1 hr 40mins. We had done what I didn't want to do, arrive too early. It was 5:30ish and I was cold despite all the clothes. More people soon arrived and we all talked and shivered together. One of the blokes remarked how he'd done Fuji and thought that this was far better. I kept my thoughts to myself but said I'd also done it both in summer and winter. Another bloke who was Japanese overheard and asked me what else I'd climbed in Japan. He was very impressed when I said I'd done Nishi Hodaka three weeks before.
The sun eventually rose and everyone took loads of photos. As it got lighter we could see what a strange landscape there was below us. Right under the summit is the huge and daunting Low's Gully. It looked very dark and ominous. It was the place where some British soldiers had got lost a couple of years ago while trying to descend it. We could also see the smooth sloping plateau that we'd traversed and the other rounded granite peaks. Some of them looked to be very similar in height to the one that we were on and I wondered if we really were on the true summit as one of them, in my opinion, looked slightly higher, but not such an easy climb. The other towers looked great for rock climbing and it would be an awesome place to put up some new routes. I didn't see any climbers up there though. Off to the northwest I could see KK on the coast, otherwise I couldn't pick out anywhere of interest, there weren't even any other peaks to spot, just cloud and the lush green rolling hills of Borneo.
Once the sun was well up we set off back down to the hut. The gradient on descent was tough on the thighs if you moved fast and I again I thought of the marathon runners. At the Sayat Sayat hut I took off all my extra layers and put back on my wet T-shirt. It was then a very fast descent back to the hut. We took an hour break in the hut to eat breakfast. Inside everyone was tired looking but generally happy. Some people had turned back before reaching the top and sitting eating with everyone who'd done it they didn't seem too pleased with themselves. I caught up with the Danish bloke and his two kids who did it and then headed back outside for the descent. I wasn't looking forward to it. It was steep and I thought it was a long way down. I asked the guide to point out the famous Pitcher plants as well. Feeling tired I thought we'd take it easy but once warmed up we were soon bounding and running. We stopped to look at some Pitcher plants. They are carnivorous and have a large green cup, some as big as a pint glass, with sweet nectar in. Insects fly in to the cup and get caught in the nectar. I didn't see any wildlife except for some squirrels and other hikers on their way up. The nearer to the bottom we got the fresher and happier they looked. Some of them looked totally beat and I thought if only you knew how far you have to go. It took us about an hour to get down to the road.
Once there the guide asked if I wanted to wait for a bus. Remembering that the busride up only took about 10 mins I said we'd walk. We followed the winding tarmaced road down and down. It seemed to go on forever. The heat and humidity were also a far cry from the near zero temperatures we'd experienced at dawn. 50mins later we finally arrived back at the park HQ. I did the usual and downed some Cokes and then had a lie down while I thought about where I'd go next. I lay beside the HQ building staring up into the trees a few metres above me. Now and again mist rolled in through the trees making it feel very strange and dreamy. After half an hour I decided I would take the park minibus to Poring Hot Springs so threw my pack in the bus and headed off on a pleasant drive down to Ranau and on to the Hot Springs.
I arrived at the springs at lunchtime and was disappointed so ate some lunch there before taking a cab all the way back to KK. So that was my Kinabalu adventure. As usual it was all very quick and thoroughly enjoyable. It would be great if I could return one day and do some rock climbing there but I think there's a very slim chance of that ever happening!!