To this day I question what part of my brain thought that climbing Kinabulu would be a good idea. I must have seen it somewhere and somehow been inspired. Wherever it was that I saw, it somehow managed to have enough of an effect on me to make me want to fly all the way to Borneo to put myself through it. I therefore made it my mission to pin point this light bulb moment in my life, so that in the future I would steer clear of falling victim to such cruel acts of spontaneity. Having scoured through my emails, I recently came across an optimistic, yet unknowingly fateful email written from me dating the 17th of July 2012 that reads “Climbing Kinabalu is supposed to be easy and looks proper cool”. There it was. The moment the seed was planted. The awful, awful seed. That being said, as tough as it was, there were a couple of good points. So, here’s what happens when a girl who doesn’t exercise and has a hideously weak stomach takes on a 4,095m climb in the Malaysian humidity, having done no training nor preparation. Oh sorry- wait, I did pack chocolate. Never forget the chocolate. This is Climbing Kinabulu.
The story begins having just spent a fantastic week on the beaches of Redang Island off the east coast of Malaysia (read about my trip here). Paradise is the only way to describe it, therefore, it’s fair to say that we did things the wrong way round. In the same way that a walk in the UK should always have a pub at the end of it, a two day hike up an absolutely massive mountain should always end with time spent on a beach sipping cocktails and snorkelling in crystal clear waters. If you think I’m whining, the photos bellow illustrate the juxtaposition.
We went from this…
Although I had done no physical preparation for the hike, I’d done lots of reading on the must-have equipment for the trip. A few weeks prior to our trip out, I found myself buying almost the entirety of Mountain Warehouse’s stock, just in case. I bought a bag cover in case it rained, a thermal neck snood for the icy summit, a head torch for the night climb, decent hiking gloves, hiking trousers (which I split), a million pairs of socks, walking poles, chlorine tablets, diarrhoea tablets (the ones that re-hydrate you, not the ones that stop the flow- this will come in to play later) and some decent hiking shoes. I’ll tell you one thing that slipped the net, which was perhaps the most integral of all; a new rucksack. I planned on just crossing my fingers.
To climb Kinabulu you need to hire a registered guide. Without it, you can’t climb. I don’t mind this, as I’m no whiz with a compass and a map, but £250 seemed a little steep for a two day climb with an overnight stay in what was effectively a giant, cold, bunker above ground. Not only this, but Malaysia is very cheap, so it seemed a little off, but a necessary evil. I’d spent weeks trying to book the trip, as through a language barrier and several companies trying to either rip me off, or saying they were full despite me knowing full well there was availability, I struggled. Every email sent was met with a reply of “sorry, dates are not available, please advise of a different date”. This was frustrating as we had booked the trip specifically to climb, and we had a very small window in which to do it. I managed to book eventually, having had my chosen dates rejected in the morning, to which I told them I would look elsewhere, I received an email in the afternoon that read something along the lines of “very lucky Mr Butcher, there has been cancellation!” Very convenient. Cha-ching, £250 please.
We flew into Kota Kinabulu, which to put it bluntly was a bit of a dive, so we were happy to be heading out of the city. When we arrived at the national park in late afternoon, as others went to check in, I mingled with the bags. It was at this point I realised I had made a bit of an error. As I stood there, I saw at least 4 or 5 spiders around the size of a small baby goat hanging in the leaves and branches around me. If you know me well, you’ll know all about my irrational fear of spiders. A fear so crippling that if I see a spider, I won’t sleep. I’ll tape up the doors to stop it entering. I’ll full on cry like a child should I cast eyes upon one in my zone. I knew I was in for a rough night’s sleep. We wandered off to find our accommodation. We strolled past the good looking, spider free buildings, we even headed past the average looking, spider free buildings. We arrived at ours, which was on paper deemed a ‘hostel’. That was generous. At this point I wished I hadn’t been so tight when booking this- still on a student budget, I had little choice. We slung our bags down, my face unimpressed. It was basic. The kind of basic with no air con and windows with huge non-closable slits for the humidity to weave in and out of the room, as well as the bugs. This sign referencing death also worried me.
We thought we’d head out to the foot hills to have a bit of a warm up hike- nothing too strenuous. It was pleasant enough, but incredibly muggy. In the company of thousands of flies, we hiked for around 45 minutes or so before the heavens opened. Monsoon season is a bit of a pain sometimes. The rains always strike when you’re unprepared. We briskly headed back down towards our room and it was on route that we caught our first glimpse of the beast.
I can’t lie, even with the might of an extraordinary amount of Mountain Warehouse gear behind me, I felt intimidated. The restaurant where we ate that evening was actually very nice. It wasn’t the typical Malay affair. There were fresh fruits, soups and a selection of meat dishes that were all bone free and edible, not the Malaysia I had grown to know and love. The only downside being, it felt a bit like the last supper. I tried to eat as much as possible to make sure I had all the energy I needed for the hike, little did I know this would turn out to be a terrible idea.
Fast forward to 9am the next day, after a relatively sleepless night spent shining my phone’s torch around the room in search of spiders, the time to climb had arrived. We dropped our suitcases off at reception and with just a small rucksack each and lots of water in hand, we were ready to go. An excitable man came running up to us to let us know that our guide, Albert, who we had paid £250 for the privilege of having with us, couldn’t make it. Instead, he offered us the company of a man named David. Now, not to be rude to David, but he knew us much English as a brick. But what he lacked in English capabilities, he more than made up for in the ability to carry my stuff. David’s company turned out to be such a burden, an awkward, awkward burden. A burden that followed us all the way up and had no idea what we were saying at any point. Turns out he wasn’t even a guide- he was a Sherpa (which explains why he was so good at carrying my things). Anyway, we went through a checkpoint to enter the trail. I think they like to do this so that they keep an eye on who went up and who doesn’t come down-there’s been a few blunders here in the past.
The first 20 minutes of the climb were a breeze. It wasn’t steep, or challenging and we both adjusted very quickly to the changing altitude. The temperature was around 32 degrees at the bottom, so we immediately became sweaty messes, but sadly I knew I’d be begging for warmth in the hours to come. The first part of the climb is amongst the tree line, so there was very little to see. The nature seemed to be hiding, except for this odd bug-consuming, evil plant with teeth.
That was all the nature Kinabulu had for us. A couple of hours into the trek, I began to get a little bit too hot. I decided to attempt to stuff my absolutely massive water-resistant jacket into my already bursting bag. It ripped open. This resulted in me climbing for the next five hours in an incredibly awkward state where I angled my body in such a way that I didn’t lose my possessions out of my open bag, nor did I fall over. Queue me asking every passer by for the entire first day of climbing “do you have a sewing kit?” Thankfully, on around the 50th time of asking, we bumped into a couple who were willing to let me have theirs. They were an odd couple. They’d just done 10 days on Everest for their honeymoon. I couldn’t sew though, so I took it and figured I could sort it out when we arrived at the half house. I knew I should have bought a new rucksack…
A few hours in, I started to feel a little iffy. I’d hydrated, I’d eaten, what was going on? Now I have two theories here. Theory A being; I ate some fruit in the restaurant the night before. Whenever I am in Asia I am very wary of eating fruit, as often it’s washed in dirty water ( as I learnt in Bali recently, when it blessed me with an intestinal infection). There was also theory B; I’d drank some bad water from one of the sources on the mountain and the tablets we bought weren’t doing their job. I wouldn’t have known either way as I was adding sachets of orange flavouring to it. Soon, it became clear that my body was rejecting Kinabulu. It was rejecting it from all orifices. Not to go into too many details, but I could only walk about 50 steps before I needed to bop in a bush, or take refuge in the tin shacks/toilets with holes in the ground. They weren’t sound proof either…
This resulted in it taking an extra hour or so for us to reach the half way house. A horribly unpleasant experience when you are already exhausted, half way up a mountain, with no means to make the problem stop. We packed everything except the right medicine. Start, stop, start stop, we weren’t really getting anywhere. I’d reached the point of wanting to give up and head back down, my body was destroyed. We had an Australian on our tails and as we passed an ascending group he asked “hey mates, is there anywhere for me to run at the Labal Rata”. Absolutely insane. I wanted to punch the him. In true Dory fashion, I just kept swimming. David had to wait for me a lot, as well as endure a lot of my (well justified) complaining, but I knew that the half way house was only an hour or so away. It wasn’t until about two hours after I had started feeling rough that our later day saint, David, perked up and in his best English said “okay?” I shook my head. At this point I decided it was best that I acted out the motion of diarrhoea. He understood. We speak two different languages, but this was universal. He held out 2 black spherical tablets that looked like the balls Mary Berry uses for blind baking. I was desperate, so I ate them. They could have been anything. I don’t know what they were, but they worked quickly enough for me to be able to take on the last hour of walking to the Laban Rata. Finally David had a use.
We arrived at the Laban Rata late afternoon/early evening and I was so incredibly relieved to see the rough looking, world war II type building through the thickness of the fog. We were just above the tree line now, but it was still uninspiring. Normally emerging from the tree-line is best part of the hike, when the clouds finally part and the birds start to sing, as your are met with sweeping landscape views. Not here. We saw nothing.
The Laban Rata was cold, damp, not heated and there was certainly no hot water. It didn’t matter at this point as we were exhausted and happy to just sit down. Dinner was uninspiring as expected. Noodles and chewy beef. I needed to replenish everything I had lost but I just couldn’t keep anything down. We skipped off to bed relatively early (8pm) as we needed to be up at 2am to begin the hike to the summit. We were bunking with a woman from the states named Mora. Luckily for me, she turned out to be a vet and thankfully stitches on animals work just as well on bags. She saved my bag’s life. Most of the evening was spent in and out of the toilets retching. I laid in bed wondering, how exactly will I do what I am about to do?
The alarm clock went off at 2am. With no shower and just a splash of water to the face, it was hard to feel awake, but we headed down to breakfast. I felt a new level of rough. College hangovers of the past seemed like nothing and days spent hurling whilst off school watching Disney Channel seemed preferable. I tried my best to eat, but noodles at 2am wasn’t what the doctor ordered. We congregated with our fellow hikers in the lobby. I was hoping that David had fallen off somewhere, alas, he appeared. We waited for the majority of people to head off as I have a thing about people on my tail when I am hiking. I had countless layers on as I knew it would be cold, but I hadn’t accounted for the serious amount of body heat I would generate on the lower part of the climb. Within minutes I was ripping off the thermal neck snood and the extra fleece. It was pitch black. Everyone was wearing head torches to guide them. As I cast my eyes forward I could see nothing but a line of lights weaving up into the distance, like an army of ants, one by one, they disappeared into the horizon. I’d only ever hiked in the daytime, but night time hiking was an entirely different ball game that I was completely unprepared for.
The first 30 minutes were so, so tough. Adjusting to the altitude sickness, along with feeling sick from lack of sleep and lack of sustenance was a real fight. They say it’s not the hike that gets you, it’s the altitude. The Laban Rata is high enough to feel it and a lot of people did, but surprisingly, on this occasion I didn’t. But a few hundred more metres made all the difference. Only being able to see 1-2 metres in front of you is the most bizarre experience. You can never think too far ahead and you’re always on your toes. Every step you take needs to be positioned correctly, as you never know what lies just ahead. When you’re tired, it can be dangerous. After we navigated a few hundred- thousand steps, we came to a tricky part. In the darkness of the night, we were required to summon all our strength to pull ourselves up a sheer rock face, using nothing but a thick, white rope.
This went on for over two hours. I heaved myself up an unforgiving rock face, exhausted, weak, legs shaking. With each step I took, it became more and more difficult. There was no room for conversation and jovial spirit, it was a slog with no end in sight and no visual reward. One of the things I do like about hiking is how scenery changes. I love turning a corner to see rolling green hills, to then turn the next corner and face a snow capped mountain with bright blue water flowing beneath. Kinabulu doesn’t deliver on this front. I suppose what it lacks in scenery, it makes up for in adventure. That being said, I think we caught the weather at a bad time.
Soon we came to a check point. I should point out that at this point, even at our speed, we passed the ridiculous Australian who wanted to go running the previous day- a small victory. As we passed through, I made what I consider to be a logical assumption; that there wasn’t far to go. Wrong. So very wrong. It would be a couple more hours yet before we reached the summit. I remember at one point, I stood on an open mountain face, completely exposed to the wind, being absolutely battered by it. I was moving at a rate of around 2 steps every 5 seconds. I was literally crawling, I felt so weak. I stopped for a brunch bar on the rock face, I needed a bit of a break and something to spur me on. Mentally it’s the hardest thing I have ever done. My soul was on the floor, being dragged behind me. That’s the power Kinabulu has my friends!
With each corner, it began to get lighter. Every time we turned a corner thinking we were at the summit, another several-hundred metre-high slope appeared in the distance. There was fog everywhere and we were way up in the clouds. Low’s Peak, the iconic image of Kinabulu emerged from behind the mist, soon to be covered again by the blustering wind-driven clouds. This was a defining moment. It was the image we’d seen on the internet, on brochures, in the guides and on TV. It suddenly all felt worth it. It all felt very real. I was on the other side of the world, 4000ft in the sky. I love the thrill of being so far away from home. It gave me the push I needed to keep going. I heaved myself up the rope for over an hour more before we even came close to the summit.
The climb up until now had been mostly on two legs, but the summit involved a little bit of scrambling on our hands and knees. It was so windy and exposed up there that you wouldn’t have wanted to navigate it standing up anyway. Reaching the summit brought such an incredible overwhelming bag of mixed feelings. Despite my dire journey, I’d reached the top, I was above the clouds and I felt on top of the world. Except, there was nothing to see. Obligatory photo taken and five minutes spent at the top of what felt like the coldest, windiest place in the world at the time, the moment was over and it was time to descend. Seriously though, the wind was truly violent and the temperatures were at the fingers-falling-off end of freezing.
The descent was actually incredible for a handful of reasons. Now that it was daylight, we were able to see exactly what we had hiked across and let me tell you; had I have been able to see what I was hiking across, I wouldn’t have done it. Simple. It was so dangerous in places, as we retraced our footsteps, I struggled to navigate along the cliff edges, with sheer drops, clinging onto a rope. I think it was through fear. In the dark, I was fearless, I didn’t know what lied beneath me, so what did I have to worry about- I just kept walking. Light changes everything. It makes us aware of everything around us and gives us perspective. More importantly, it brought back my inhibitions.
The wide-open rock faces were incredible. This was one of my favourite parts. The wind had died down ever so slightly and we could enjoy some of the scenery. Being up this high was immense. I never tire of this view.
I’d got some kind of energy back, purely through the adrenaline (and maybe the brunch bar). There were opportunities for photography now. Only, the clouds wouldn’t stay still for long enough to really make the moment count. Every time I took my gloves off to take a picture, I moved one step closer to frost bite. David was getting impatient and scurrying off ahead. I’d paid him £250, the least he could do was let me have my moment!
Once we’d navigated the rocky landscape for a second time, we arrived back at the Laban Rata for a second breakfast. This time I was hungry. Never in my life had I been so happy to see a pancake. Were they the best pancakes I’ve ever had? No. But at that moment, they were some kind of godly creation, divine enough to give me the drive and energy I needed to make it back down. We chatted with others over breakfast about the difficulties of the hike. These people struck fear within me. “The descent is the worst part”. I didn’t want to know that. I didn’t want to believe it. It soon became apparent that they were right. With stiff, swollen ankles, every footstep was agony. I could barely walk. Thankfully, a twelve hour climb, is only equal to a 4-5 hour decent. I was so grateful of this fact. We started walking down with our new American friend Mora, however, she couldn’t quite keep up with my need for speed and we arranged to meet her in the restaurant at the bottom, as we had been booked in for an afternoon tea. I made sure to instil fear within every person we passed on the way down. I informed them that the weather was horrific, the view was terrible and that the Laban Rata is indeed cold and far away. I felt good about this.
The last few hundred metres were a real trial- yet David still looked annoyingly sprightly. He felt no pain, he was smiling, he was energetically quick and he still had my stuff around his neck (he insisted on carrying stuff around his neck for some reason). He probably couldn’t believe his luck. £250 to spend. That’ll buy you a small island in Malaysia (okay not quite, but you get the point). Arriving back at the park entrance was such an overwhelming relief. A mini bus was supposed to be waiting for us, but, unsurprsingly it wasn’t. We waited for 45 minutes before we were eventually taken back to the park’s head quarters to gather our belongings and head back to Kota Kinabulu. Upon arriving back, we were told “don’t forget your certificate of completion!” I was lying on a bench, my stomach cramping and churning, unable to move. I didn’t care how sick I was or how impending my death may have been. I wanted that certificate. I wanted something to symbolise this horrible journey. Something other than my broken spirit. To this day, I wonder how long Mora waited for us in the park’s restaurant, before accepting that we had either got lost, or been eaten by mountain plants with teeth, before eventually dining on afternoon tea alone. We picked up our certificates and I stumbled to our driver who was waiting. Our drivers no speaky the English, so once again, my outstanding acting skills were required. I mimed me being sick everywhere. She got it. She returned with a stripy red and white bag like you pick up from a market. Five minutes into the journey, it was full. Only 2 hours to go on those lovely straight, non-bumpy roads… not.
Climbing Kinabulu broke me. I couldn’t get out of bed for the next few days without feeling excruciating pain. We headed to the coast and enjoyed a few days at a beach resort to try and heal our bodies-it’s fair to say that it was well received. Do I regret it? No. Would I do it again? Yes. Now, I know that sounds insane, as I have done nothing but slag it off, but Kinabulu strangely charmed me. It was the mountain that continued to throw challenges at me, yet it didn’t defeat me. I’ll always remember it as the mountain I truly conquered. Kinabulu, I think we’ll meet again one day.
17th April 2020 at 5:35 am
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