Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Stunning Mt. Kinabalu

I had a few ambitious goals while I was in Kota Kinabalu. Climbing Mt. Kinabalu was at the top of that list. I also wanted to do a bit of diving, explore the city and get over to Labuan Island. It was here that Japanese forces surrendered Borneo to the Australians. Little did I know that once this climb was done all my plans were quietly put away for another time. I needed four days to get back to somewhat normal.

I did my research and we would start at 1866 meters and reach the summit of 4095 meters the next morning, after a good night's sleep. Most of the reviews talked about how surprisingly difficult this trek was and all the unexpected surprises along the way. I have climbed higher and have had much longer treks. How hard could this really be? I make a rookie mistake and ignored all the warnings.

A few years ago you could do this trip without a guide. That has since changed, and for the better. I booked with Borneo Trails as they seemed like the most popular tour group in the area. It was a solid choice. There were four of us in our initial group. An American girl who fit, eager and ready to go. She talked about running up the mountain. There were two young guys from Singapore, Lucas, and Chew Zi Yi. They turned out to be great young guys.

We waited for our permits along with many other small groups and we geared up and woke up. Normally there would be hundreds of people on any given trip, mainly Chinese, but the media-driven scare tactic that is the Coronavirus has kept most of them away. There would be two guides for the four of us. We got our briefing, took our photos and headed up. The American Girl was looking for some prize for the first place because she was immediately gone. 

The Borneo Trails Posted Itinerary.
Departure: Daily


(06:30 hours) Pick-up from your hotel lobby and depart on a 2 hrs journey to Kinabalu Park Headquarter. Collect your packed lunch. Proceed to the Park HQ to register for the climb, meet your assigned mountain guide and apply for your ID TAG. Remember to wear your ID TAG at all times. You'll then be transferred to starting point – Timpohon Gate – where your journey and quest to the summit of Borneo’s highest mountain begins! The climb will take approximately 4-5 hours. The trek will pass by different vegetation zones from Oak and Chestnut to mossy and eventually to alpine type of vegetation. Arrive and check into one of the assorted Laban Rata huts @3272m (non-heated dormitory beds) in the late afternoon. Buffet Dinner at Laban Rata restaurant and overnight.


(0200 hours) Wake up for early supper and depart for the continuation of the journey towards the summit of Mount Kinabalu. The journey up to the Low's peak @ 4,095m will test your fitness and determination. Depending on the speed of trekking, you might be able to experience the glorious sunrise over the majestic Mt. Kinabalu if weather permits.

(0700 hours) Descend back to Laban Rata for late breakfast and check out. Trek down to Timpohon Gate for transfer back to the Kinabalu Park Headquarters. Congratulations, you can now collect your Certificate of Achievement! Buffet Lunch will be served at the Balsam restaurant in Kinabalu Park.

(1400 hours) Transfer back to Kota Kinabalu City. The journey takes approx. 2 hrs

My happy weird little world appears when I get out on the trail. Everything seems brighter and more colorful. Shapes have deep definition and all the various sounds create a symphony for me.  It is my weird little world after all and I think we all have one. It can be easily discovered. It is embracing it without fear that is the daunting task.

The start leads to immediate anticipation of the summit. Every step strengthens me. I am serious. I honestly feel stronger the more I climb. Don't get me wrong, I am not a billy goat contrary to what some people believe. I will get winded along the way and my legs will get sore but for whatever reason, I have developed this internal desire, a drive if you will, that all treks are to be completed with as much strength as I possibly have.

It is during moments of lethargy and as if on cue, Shawn T from the Insanity Workouts starts creeping into my head and battles the other voices for control. (Like I said, my weird little world). I have completed his workouts more than once. I know the routine of going hard for 3 minutes and rest for one. I know how to push one more step, one more meter, on more hour, one more anything "Just Keep Going". In the end, it works and I feel fantastic. Not once do I ever feel the need to stop because "I am so tired", or "this is too hard". I smile, I laugh and I walk. This is my happy place because I challenge myself, push myself, and exalt at my achievements while surrounded by the most beautiful of natural settings.

We were told to expect our climb today to be four to five hours but magically it took about Six. There were about 200 people on the trail and everyone, except the "typical chosen Olympic athletes" took their time. There were views to absorb, photos to click and friends to make. With each step, the views became more of a picture postcard. That might sound obvious but it is not always the case. Sometimes the brass ring is at the apex because the trail is shrouded in a forest or blocked by rock face. This climb was different with every step. At 3000 I embraced the views of being above the clouds. Then the romance of it turned to reality as you looked up at the jagged crags of Lows Peak. That was for tomorrow. Today it was just about being in it.

We reached Laban Rata by mid-afternoon. Sunset was to be around 5:45 and it would not be missed. We sat down for dinner and two Aussie lads joined us. They were friendly and chatty and added a good mix to our expanding group. We devoured our calories like wolverines and chatted about various trips we had taken. It was then my age first made an appearance. It did not disrupt anything but you could see the wheels turning in their young brains.

Sunset was the expected classical painting. It was followed by a random game of volleyball. Random awesomeness. I went to bed at 7:30 PM hoping to try and sleep since wake up was 2:00 AM. That was a waste of time. Our room had 4 bunk beds and two Swedes joined us. We laughed at being in a dorm on bunk beds like Gap year teens. Our biggest concern was cold. The room was not headed and we were all prepared. Once everyone filed in by 10:00 PM cold would not be an issue. The room was warm enough that I slept in shorts and a Tshirt. Slept, I am not sure I sure use that word but there were short spells of unconsciousness, but sleep eluded me.

At 2:00 AM, six different phone alarms went off within seconds of each other. With zombie-like movements, everyone knew what had to be done and nobody was going to do if for you. Get up, get dressed and get downstairs for coffee. There was no need for any pleasantries. It was 2 AM for FU** sake. The thought of what actually was to come did not register with me and I suspect it did not register with anyone. We were up and the coffee felt fantastic. It was during the mid-second cup when the slow realization started to appear over the previous glazed looks. We have work to do.

We headed out in a group of fifteen people. Three guides, the four of us, the two Swedes and six couples who we had basically hiked with on the way up. Good people, funny and friendly. Four were from Holland and two were from Singapore, via Germany. The Aussies were with another group that headed out at 2:30. Staggard starting, well done Borneo Trails. We grouped up and were briefed by our guides on what to expect and the timeline to the summit. It was 3 AM and nobody was actually listening. We headed out of the building, climbed a few stairs and had a final check of our headlamps and gear at what was not the trail, up. The average age of our group of 12 was about 35 and with that, you get lots of support and effort. We all smiled and at that moment someone said: "Is he really 58? He better not beat me up there". It was one of the guys from Holland who was funny as shit and we had some good conversations on the trail the previous day. Everyone looked at me and laughed. I got a few hugs from the girls and off we went. Our merry band of troopers headed out. Another guide from a different group, who we had been chatting with the previous day, came up behind me and gave me a soft pat on the back. "Strongest guy your age I have ever seen on this trail. See you at the top". Now I am thinking I was going to be some type of human sacrifice with all this positive energy.

The difficulty with this summit was not so much the height or distance, or even the fact it was in the middle of the night. It was about an hour into the hike that the actual trail/stairs disappeared. Now we had to contend with a sloping rock face that would last the rest of the way. At times there were sturdy ropes that ran hundreds of meters for support in some of the steeper areas and trust me they came in handy. I was very glad it was dark but buried deep in the back of my mind I knew I had to face this coming down during daylight hours. It was tough going but I found my pace and started passing people along the way. Shaun T found his way into my head and was yelling "go, go, one more, don't stop, you can do it!  I had wished the other voices that live in my head would have told him to shut the fu** up and that they were trying to sleep. Leave Ken alone just this once. It was not to be.

"Hey has anyone seen Ken?"
 "Hey, holy shit he is getting his picture taken. Dude, you made it! Holy shit we thought we would never see you". So it goes when you are the oldest in the group on a challenging trek. There were young and energetic Aussies and had made the summit with the first group out, about 30 minutes before us.  As I sat beside them on the peak and looked at their happy and a bit shocked expressions they told me that they had been asking about me most of the night. It was really out of the concern and with the hope that I made it for sunrise. As I caught my breath after my photo they said that they heard I was far behind and would probably miss the sunrise. When they settled down at the summit waiting for the sun they saw me and that I had made it. It was a nice moment.

I also got high fives from various other guides and people that I had gotten to know along the trail. They knew my age and were a bit shocked that I did not lag as was their experience with my age group. I was right there with the main group. These people had no idea who they were dealing with dammit! I have to admit, I was crushed when I plopped down on the summit. I put in a huge effort to climb the last bit of the craggy rocks to get to the plaque. Now I wanted a long rest and I would take in what turned out to be probably the greatest sunrise I have ever witnessed. I do not have the wordsmith skills to clearly describe the beauty of watching the sunrise above the clouds while sitting on a craggy and windy peak at over 4000 meters. The greatest I have ever witnessed. Let's leave it at that.

Age and ageism. It is a funny thing. It compartmentalizes people quickly and easily. The expectations for that number are usually limiting and if something happens that is "out of the norm" it becomes "he did amazing for someone such and such an age". No, we all did amazing together as a team, but I thank you and love all of you for the support. It was needed and helpful.

The sun was up and as majestic the moment, I could now clearly see the way down. *Gulg* It was time for all the voices to go back to sleep. This was one steep ass rocky slope that had to be navigated. It required focus and a sure step. I greedily hung onto the guide ropes when they were available. I was walking with one of the guides and the Swedes and my steps down became more confident with the casual conversation.

** There are rotating mountain rescue teams that roam up and down the mountain day and night. I passed 4 different groups of 8 during my trip. They were all as fit as you can imagine and yes some were older dudes. Most were ex-military and were adept at a rescue. Yes is the answer you are looking for. Have people ever needed to be rescued on this mountain?.  Every single trip was the answer I was told. The pictures at trailhead rescue house, which thankfully I did not see before we left, proved it. It was good to know we were not alone.

Finally, on our way down our guide pointed to the rockslides that killed 18 people as a result of the 2015 Sabah earthquake. We were standing where he was when he watched the rocks come crashing down on the hikers, maybe 1000 meters away. You could see the rockslide and we would have to pass it to get to the rest stop. We were not in any immediate danger but since the Earthquake, everyone is still very aware of what can happen when the earth does its thing.

In the end, yes this was the most difficult climb I have ever done. If only because the trail is an assortment of man-made and natural stairs and there was very little path to give your knees and legs a short rest. The long sloping rock face was new for me, as I think for most people. It was steeper than most pictures will show you but manageable. The happy views of day one become the grunts and groans of day two. As many of you know, climbing is hard but the real challenge is coming down. This is where Mt. Kinabula owned me and I was humbled in every way possible.

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