Thin Air

Day 457 – 31 May, 2016

I am an athlete, or at least, I fancy myself one. I would like to think that I can take on most physical activities without hesitation as to my fitness level. But I’m also a perfectionist and I don’t like to fail.

Climbing Mt Kinabalu was something I had thought about for years, long before I had ever embarked on an extended travel journey. It was on my bucket list, so to speak. By the time I reached Malaysian Borneo and the mountain was so close I could feel its power radiating over the valley, I felt utterly unprepared. I was meeting people in the hostels that had come to Borneo for their 2 week holiday specifically to climb the mountain; they had trained and shopped for gear and had researched the terrain. I had most recently spent a month in Bali, occasionally running, mostly basking in the sun. My head torch was broken. My gloves were cotton, not waterproof as recommended. I was hoping the combination of a fleece jumper and raincoat would be enough to keep me warm. I was blissfully unaware of the distance or the weather or the terrain. I didn’t even know if Mt Kinabalu was a volcano or a mountain. Does it really matter?

I did know that the daily climbing permits are severely limited since the earthquake one year earlier so I had reserved a climbing package a week in advance and paid the hefty fees to the park services, but would have nowhere to stay the night before we began the climb. Staying within the park boundaries was out of the question. The park office was asking almost $75USD for a dormitory bed, not a room, a bed. And no, there isn’t a gold nugget that comes with that price. The lady at the park desk smugly suggested I walk down the highway about 500m to look for a place that fit my budget.

I did, in fact, find a basic hostel that reminded me a lot of my days walking El Camino. It was equipped with a small store where I was able to scavenge some waterproof gloves and a new head torch. They even said I could leave my excess luggage behind and they would store it free of charge. Things were coming together better than I had hoped. I made several trips back and forth on the highway between the hostel and the park entrance that day, but the fog and clouds were so thick I had yet to see the mountain itself. At the climber briefing that evening, I met Analyn and Trevers from Australia. They were on their honeymoon after just getting married near Kota Kinabalu a few days earlier. It was going to cost me $56USD to hire a guide for the mountain unless I could find some people to share. Before I knew it was their honeymoon, I thought about asking them if we could go up together, but the last thing a honeymoon couple needs is a random tag along, right? Well, to my surprise, they asked me if I wanted to join them. They were also keen to share the expense.

With all the administrative stuff squared away, I was then free to begin worrying about my physical ineptitude. It had been months since I had any type of workout routine, let alone any endurance work like this climb would require. My diet was incredibly inconsistent and it was not entirely unreasonable that I would have Pringles and beer for dinner sometimes when it was easier than seeking out a proper restaurant. I knew I could climb the mountain, but how much would it hurt was the question….

Our first morning, I joined Analyn, Trevers, and our guide, John Wayne (really his name!), for a short drive to the trailhead with our packed lunches and high spirits. The itinerary would take us about 5-6 hours that day to reach Laban Rata, the lodge where we would sort of spend the night. It was to be a constant uphill trail, consisting mostly of either constructed wooden stairs or more often stone stairs built into the mountain itself. And when I say there were stairs, I mean 6km of stairs with only brief interludes of slightly graded uphill. There were rest huts with toilets and benches set at approximately 1km intervals, but otherwise we would be walking uphill all day. Right away, my hamstrings and glutes were firing, but in a good way. I was happily reminded how much I like to feel the burn and how rewarding a good workout can be.  

Thankfully, we had reached an altitude where the temperature was pleasant. It rained a little, only dropping in a modest drizzle from time to time. Of course, this was to be expected as we were walking through cloud forest most of the day. Analyn and Trevers had never climbed a mountain like this and had also never been at such an altitude so it took them some time to adjust to what their bodies were capable of, but they were determined and pushed on. On the way, we met Paula and Brett (also from Australia) with their guide, Ronnie. We were keeping the same pace and chatted with them long enough that the five of us became our own cohesive group, a solid machine going up one step at a time.

It took about 5 1/2 hours to reach Laban Rata – 6 kilometers in 5 1/2 hours. Sheesh! When we saw the first lodging structure, Paula let out a premature “Wahoo!”, only to realize that we still had a few more buildings to bypass before we reached our actual sleeping lodge. Laban Rata was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be an old drafty cold stark halfway house. It was weathered, yes, but overall, it was not so bad. I would even call it pleasant. My dorm room only had 4 beds, with comfortable mattresses, warm clean blankets, and fresh paint on the wall. The bathrooms were equipped with clean western toilets and even though the water was ice cold, there was the option of taking a shower with running water. A buffet was set up for meals and the food was decent and plentiful, mostly Malaysian fare. With my low expectations, everything I saw at Laban Rata had a rose-tinted hue.

Alarm clocks started buzzing throughout the lodge around 1:45am. Most groups would leave at 2:30am for the 2.5km trek to the summit. A light breakfast was served and we too were on our way. Together with Paula and Brett, the 5 of us were wearing some combination of rain gear, fleece jumpers, gloves, hats and the compulsory head torch. Again, we hit the stairs, mostly newly built wooden stairs this time. Almost exactly one year earlier, on 5 June, 2015, a deadly 6.0 magnitude earthquake had struck the mountain in the morning hours while people were descending from the summit, killing 18 people and destroying part of the trail. Subsequently, the mountain was closed and new climbing permits were declined over the next 3 months while a new trail (the one we were walking on) was being built. Both of our guides had been there that day and they seemed to take comfort in talking about the rescue efforts and the colleagues they lost. 

Meanwhile, we were trudging uphill in the dark, staring at the thin line of bobbing head torches in front of us. Once past the sections of stairs, the trail emptied onto an open rock face. A series of ropes were fixed so that we could use them to hoist ourselves further upward; however, only a few of these ropes were really necessary that morning. It was a clear starry night with no wind and no rain. I can imagine if our luck had changed, if a storm had blown in or the previous day’s rain had turned to ice, those ropes would have been a critical component of the path on the exposed rock. But, as it happens, our weather was ideal and most people just walked up, following the rope line so as not to lose the trail. Analyn and Trevers struggled quite a bit with the altitude. The summit reaches an altitude of 4,095m and if you’ve never been up high before, it can be punishing. For me, though, I had been expecting worse. I thought I was going to be too out of shape and too unprepared and I was bracing for a difficult day. It was challenging, no question, but challenging in an enjoyable way. Reaching the summit was validation in what I had always known I could do, but had succumbed to self-doubt nevertheless.

After lots of photos and congratulations, we began trekking back to Laban Rata in earnest around 7:00am. I felt good and strong so I found myself bounding ahead of the others (it was downhill after all). This is when I was thankful there had been so many darn stairs. Going down stairs was easy. Had it been a sloped dirt or rocky path, going down would have been treacherous. We briefly stopped at Laban Rata to gather our other gear and to eat second breakfast, of course. Don’t judge, we earned it!! Analyn and Trevers were absolutely depleted. Even after descending, their altitude symptoms had not ceased. Trevers wasn’t eating because his appetite was gone. Analyn felt physically exhausted from lack of sleep and exertion. I was worried about them for the remaining 6km we still had to go down, but I remembered how I felt the first time I had climbed to such an altitude and I knew that they would be fine after some rest.

I had to catch a local bus back to Kota Kinabalu that afternoon. I desperately wanted to rest, but I wanted to do it in the comfort of an air conditioned dry bed in KK so I was anxious to keep moving so as not to get stiff and just generally to be done with it. Sadly, I had to part ways with my companions and John Wayne so that I could get myself back to KK before dark. With Paula, Brett, and Ronnie, we moved with intent and motivation to see the end. A light rain started to fall that soon turned into a downpour. Each kilometer seemed to take forever, as if we were running in place. With 2km left to go, our movements were becoming more sluggish and clumsy. Going down stairs was no longer easy. Everything hurt. Finally reaching the checkpoint that marked the end of the trail was pure elation. We were too exhausted even for a high five.

I wanted to ignore the fact that my day was not yet done. If I could have magically teleported myself back to KK, I would have happily given it a go. I walked back to my budget hostel down the road to gather my other belongings only to discover that I couldn’t flag down a bus from there. I tried, oh, how I tried… Maybe they were full or maybe they didn’t see me in the curve of the road, but I made the reluctant decision to schlep back to the park entrance. I knew the buses generally stop there, although now I was carrying almost 30kg worth of stuff and I would be walking uphill. The rain had stopped, which brought the humidity and the mosquitos. I stood at the bus stop for an hour, waving at every bus and minibus that I saw, but no one stopped. What am I doing wrong?? In despair, I even asked a taxi how much it would cost, but it was way too much. Just then, a family of six came out of the restaurant where they had been eating. They had been watching me in my failed attempts. The woman approached and offered me a ride in their truck. She apologized that there wasn’t room in the cab, but her 4 children would be crowding in with she and her husband. I would have to ride in the back and it might rain. Without hesitation, I accepted their kind offer.

Back in KK, I spent my last day at yet another beach, which proved to be too crowded with too many “stingers” to be enjoyable, although I didn’t go for the beach this time. I had heard about Coral Flyer’s island to island zip line and that was exactly the way I wanted to celebrate a successful summit of Mt Kinabalu.

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