Pre-mortem of the excursion
I had my eye set on the Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian part of Borneo from the very first weeks I had arrived to Singapore back in 2012. It is by far the highest mountain in the neighbouring region and when openly admitting to be hooked on mountain hiking it made an obvious choice of destination to be conquered while stationed in Singapore. To be fair, I did consider also picturesque Mount Rinjani on the island of Lombok for quite some time. However, I ended up booking a trip to Kinabalu on few days notice. The two year work assignment was coming to an end eventually, so I had to make some drastic moves especially after a plan to go diving had to be discarded (*shaking first angrily at MILF-guerillas (yes, seriously :) and/or Abu Sayyaf organization, whoever it is the reason for the unrest around Sipadan national park).
I have to admit feeling pretty stupid (there is no proper English translation for daiju is there?) to be procuring warm clothes and new hiking paraphernalia at the probably most expensive place on Singapore's Orchard Road, while I would have had plenty of equipment stashed back in Finland. I seriously did not expect that I would be needing any thermal underwear while living on equator. I tried to make a justified compromise on the amount and quality of the clothing and equipment. Just for comparison sake, walking poles started from 250 SGD upwards. I decided that I really didn't need a pole that much.
I packed my stuff and hopped on a 2,5 hour flight to Kota Kinabalu directly after work on Thursday evening. The flight time was long enough to watch one episode of True Detective (warm recommendation). How convenient is that? I stayed in an excuse of a hotel right next to the airport and aimed to get some Zs as early as possible...
Day 1 - Ever upwards
...because the wake up call was at 5 am. I picked up some Mee Goreng to go and met with David the chauffeur. It takes couple of hours from the city of Kota Kinabalu to drive to the Mount Kinabalu National Park. I got first glimpses of the Kinabalu massif already far away. I could not help to think how amazing it is that a small human being with the help of two insignificant feet (Come of feet, cruise for me!) can find his way up a massive mountain all the way the very top. I had this discussion with few fellow trekkers, family of father and a son from Singapore. They made the accurate observation that there has been plenty of small human beings preparing a proper paths and even mountain huts for us to do our little controlled adventure. A fair point.
|So near, so far|
Thus we arrived at Mount Kinabalu headquarters. Beautiful sunny morning provided unobstructed views all the way to the top of the mountain. Very often mountains are covered in clouds, so it was specifically nice to see the end goal so very clearly ahead of me. David kindly offered to borrow his personal walking pole (I believe it to be the very same Black Diamond pole that I was eyeing in that Outdoor sports store back in Singapore).
|The route ahead of me|
|Is this a jungle or a rain forest?|
The very start of the route is relatively easy, but pretty fast starts the climb of endless set of stairs (either man made or natural) but all this happened under nice weather. I kept on counting percentages completed with the help of way markers in every 0,5 kilometer intervals. Also I was trying to optimize the water supply so that I would avoid feeling particularly dummy with having carried for example 1 extra kilo of weight of water if I had not drunk it all.
I hastily consumed my packed lunch at Layang Layang hut after hiking first 4 kilometers. Hastily due to mischievous squirrels licking their lips at the bountiful treasure soon theirs. I kept on getting some extra energy from nuts and chocolate along the way. After this hut the vegetation starts changing gradually. There started to be more and more conifer trees and bushes rather than ferns and jungly trees.
There were number of porters who overtook me on my way up carrying very bulky packages and often using their heads as a support. One guy was huffing and puffing up the hill in his flip flops. Once again the tourist with his gore tex hiking boots was made to look plain funny. The porters are dragging all the food supplies to the Laban Rata hut every single day to feed the hikers.
Finally as joy for sore eyes (and especially for sore legs, but do legs see?) the Laban Rata hut appeared hovering not so far distance away. Ascending the final set of stairs to Pedant hut (at 3289 meters), where I was to lay my aching bones, seemed amazingly hard. I reached the hut around 1 PM. Pendant hut is pretty basic mountain hut accommodation, but absolutely serves it's purpose. I had planned to take a quick shower, but the freezing cold water in a hut which has no heating didn't feel as such an inviting option. The outside temperature was around 10 degrees. I ended up washing my face and adding one extra layer of clothing.
|Pendant hut in the clouds and that awful final staircase|
I started having a terrible headache pretty soon after having reached the hut and kicked back my legs for a while. I started popping panadol to keep brewing Acute Mountain Sickness at bay. I have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro before and while I had some minor discomfort at 4k, the real symptoms started to be a bother only at 5k and finally at the summit I was officially dizzy. Since then I have snickered arrogantly on people complaining about "mountain sickness" and thin air when hiking in the Alps at 2k. I apparently had to learn the lesson the hard way that AMS is mainly dependent on pace of the ascent. I had left Kota Kinabalu, effectively at sea level, at 6 AM and by mid day I had reached 3k. Understanding the severeness of the disease, I was contemplating that if I still have the headache in the morning I need to tell my guide and ask for advice whether it is safe to continue the journey.
With this dull headache pounding my temples I participated in the mandatory via ferrata training. Pendant hut is catering exclusively for the people who have opted to perform the extra curriculum activity of traveling part of the journey being hooked on metal cables in the vertical rock face. Who in their right mind would want to up the ante at this point? A buffet style dinner was served at heated Laban Rata. I kept on sipping little more of that Sabah tea mainly to keep myself warm.
Lights went out at wee hours known as 8 PM. I tried hard to get some sleep at this awkwardly early time of the evening. I came prepared with noise cancelling headphones to fight the potential snorers in the dormitory, but luckily there was no need. The physical exercise apparently helped so that some of the "night" hours did disappear while in half slumber, but not unfortunately all. I found myself constantly running to bathroom. I never ever go to bathroom during night time. Well technically this was not yet night time for me, but I blame that damn Sabah tea and its effect on my metabolism. Hopefully the others had their ANC headphones turned on to avoid getting disturbed by my constant nature calls.
Day 2 - Summiting
And then the lights went back on at 1.50 AM. Nice. I put all remaining layers of clothing on and dragged my behind to have a bit of a bite as a very early breakfast. A cup of coffee (no more Sabah tea for me!) and few toasts. No sign of headache. None whatsoever. I placed only few things like a water bottle into my backpack and left the rest of my belongings on the bunk bed.
Jiro (with not much more clothes than the day before) met me at the front porch and off into the darkness and back into the thin air we went. I had been hoping for clear skies to be blown away by the clarity of overhanging stars and being able to see Milky Way unobstructed. However there was enough shrouds of clouds to show only a glimpse of the moon above us.
|There aren't many decent pictures |
from this leg of the hike
for obvious reasons
Yet another set of stairs. My legs were actually doing pretty OK after having rested for a while. The only thing was that I continued to get exhausted quickly. There were few people who overtook me and and few people whose pit stop tactics worked to their disadvantage. Meaning that I overtook them.
After the stairs started the so called danger zone (Kinabalu equivalent of Khumbu icefall :), which I had been warned about during the briefing in previous evening. There is no overtaking anyone during this part of the climb. Attached to the rock face there is a white nylon rope, which can and need to be used as an additional help on ascending upwards. I started thinking that it is probably a good thing that we were doing this in the total darkness. The few meters of coverage my head torch revealed, gave me enough evidence (along with the obvious steep incline) that I don't probably want to let go of the rope at any point in time. I remember hoping that the rope part ends soon and already then a little bit concerned on how much fun this will be going downwards.
Before long however I had reached the final shelter before the summit where I actually had to show my badge to a park official going in and coming out. This is actually a job for someone to make the excruciating journey each day to come up here to ensure that the tourists are properly badged. There is also a toilet (pretty much a hole in the ground), which is considered to be the highest located toilet in all of South-East Asia. There were number of people resting at this stop, but I felt like pushing forward.
The journey got considerably easier in terms of steepness of the climb, but the mixture of fatigue, exhaustion and thin air started catching on me. I started taking even shorter steps and needed to have a breather ever more frequently. Probably a pause at every 30-40 steps. The rockface was completely barren at this point. There was no more any vegetation to be seen in that small arc of light.
Eventually I spotted a cone of the summit against the slightly lighter night sky. I recognized that as Low's Peak, my ultimate destination. Seeing the end goal in front of me gave me much needed boost and also injected additional confidence that I can indeed pull this off. I was counting about 10-20 light sources on its way to the summit ahead of me. Thus that would mean that there were some 130-140 climbers behind me. I seemed to be well on time on reaching the summit before the scheduled sunrise.
Final summit is probably one final 100 meters upwards but significantly steeper uphill than what I had been slowly dragging myself through for the past few hours. I started to hear the chatter of people who had already reached the summit and I knew that the distance was definitely doable by now.
|A pic and it did happen!|
I had met British guy named Nick at the Pendant hut. He had been optimizing the timing to reach the peak at ideal time without having to freeze while waiting there for too long. He apparently left much later than I did but he actually overtook me on the final ascent to the summit. So at the end he had to suffer the cold weather for longer than I! Ha!
|Good morning sunshine|
|Traffic jam at the summit (Ruuhkahuippu in Finnish)|
The whole journey across the solid rock face felt pretty comfortable even if the length of the step was getting ever shorter and shorter. The granite slab even when wet was surprisingly not slippery. I didn't have much of an advise to people still climbing up hill, but felt good that gravity was now on my side dragging me into the correct direction. This was actually my first summiting performed alone. Walking down I realized how limited chuckles can be conjured from various penile rock formations when not traveling with my standard fellowship of likeminded friends. While I still prefer to travel with friends, there are some benefits of hiking alone: Primarily I get to set my own pace. Not too slow, not too fast. I have all the time in the world for some self exploration and contemplation of various things in life. I have the opportunity of winding down in a hut and being anti-social by reading a book if and when I choose to do so.
Day 2 - Via ferrata & journey down
When I reached again the highest toilet in this corner of the world (at about 3800 meters), I decided to pay a visit just to tick that particular box away from my ultimate things-to-do-during-this-life-time list. Toilet is located next to a meeting place for the people to whom this amount of excitement and exercise is not clearly enough, but they insist on torturing themselves with additional fun. Thus I find myself putting on climbing harness with carabiniers, orange helmet (daiju as well!) and sunglasses and diverting from the path into the bushes following a via ferrata guide.
|Taking a short cut|
|Look mom, no hands! Well maybe just one.|
I probably would not have minded stretching my legs for a little bit longer, but there was Jiro again prompting me to get my stuff together and finish the final stretch. I started the voyage with Japanese guy and Swiss girl, but pretty soon realized that my both of my knees started giving me so hard time that my pace was getting way too slow for any company on the way down. The walking pole was my true saviour especially on the way down. I was able to prevent the worst impacts on my knees by leaning heavily on the pole.
|Wet rock (märkä Kallio in Finnish)|
For a longish while I did feel quite miserable inching each step and grinding teeth with pain in my soaked knees. One of my Singaporean colleagues had asked prior to my trip, that why would I be taking one day of my vacation to intentionally put myself through pain and stress and ending up paying a hefty sum of money for that. During those lonely wet steps downhill this question came to my mind. I could have added life threatening risks to that list as well. I am not sure if I was able to come up with a proper answer to the fair enough question. I tried to relive the endorphin rush when reaching my goal at the summit, but I was not sure if that was the ultimate answer either. At least I was not as miserable as the folks treading uphill in the downpour.
With one final kilometer to go the rain finally ceased and the path ahead was not as steep anymore. The pace was still ridiculously slow at this point whenever descending a step. Both knees were hurting pretty bad, but I knew that I would be able to finish this. I reached Timphon gate again at around 1.30 PM. Almost 11 hours since I had started my journey. Sitting down, waiting for the van to take me away, I realized that I had not stopped to drink so often on the way down and thus I had ended up carrying all that extra weight eventually.
Post-mortem of the excursion
Finally couple of additional random afterthoughts:
I had set Sports Tracker app to measure my progress for the full hike. It is possible to set the GPS tracking to be operational only at a certain pace (thus eliminating breaks and pauses along the way and measuring only the true travel time). The lowest setting is 1.2 km/h. I considered using that option, but I am glad I didn't. There are not many stretches along the whole voyage when I would have progressed faster than that. Whether up or downhill apparently. The going is not apparently very fast when there is even a bit of an inclination either way. But the stats of the whole trip were: ~18 kilometers of walking, about 15 hours, 2229 meters upwards and the same amount downwards.
There was once again a reminder for me how very different countries Singapore and Malaysia are, even if Singapore has it's roots in Malaysia. In Kota Kinabalu there was very limited respect for traffic lights, whether for pedestrians or cars. It felt pretty chaotic after the law-abiding order of Singapore. Also have to give minus points for the fact that there was no toilet paper in a smelly, non air conditioned public bathrooms at the airport. I understand that I had to carry personal tissues while hiking in the wilderness, but come on. Perhaps I had just forgotten how the real Asia works.
I opted for foot reflexology and body massage for a nominal fee on Saturday evening once I was back in Kota Kinabalu. Easily one of the best massages I have ever had even if I was whining and screaming (in a low manly voice of course) throughout the both procedures. It was pretty funny to see the town filled with fellow hiking tourists, who were all walking the streets at the dashing pace of senior citizens.
I wrote the original blog post 6 days after the hike and some of the so called leg muscles (my left calf and right thigh remaining) were still a bit sore from past weekends activities. Walking was finally OK, but for a good part of the week I preferred to avoid any set of stairs into either direction. My colleagues gave me kindly a head start when we had to go to the next meeting. I had been running on a regular basis before the hiking trip, but I realized that for the past 2 years I hadn't really climbed so much as a hill. Singapore is very flat country to begin with and the area where I used to live is practically reclaimed from the sea.
Now coming back to the question on why did I do this. Why did I want to spend my limited vacation days putting myself through pain and misery? I probably need to explore that question and possible answers more in another blog entry, but now that I am re-reading my original blog post, I am truly grateful that I did this trip -- and that I took the time to document my feelings afterwards. These are truly the types of experiences which remind us being alive while we are often so busy just living (rephrasing a quote from Neil Gaiman's wonderful graphic novel Death: The Time of your Life).
|Good evening sunshine|