May 14, 2017

A visit to highest toilet in South East Asia - Reprise of Mount Kinabalu hike in Borneo

Do I hear the crowd asking for an encore? At least one avid reader was missing a recount of my visit to the highest toilet in South East Asia. This particular blog post was originally featured in my other blog - Frosty the Lion - which captures expatriate experience of living in Singapore. As the only hiking related entry in that particular blog, it is appropriate to be duplicated on this hiking blog as well. The text has been slightly edited to fit this purpose and there are few new pictures even for old readers. Without further ado here is the reprise of my trek to Mount Kinabalu due to overwhelming public demand.

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?
After a short mini van trip to the Timphon gate (at 1866 meters), the walk actually started with my guide, Jiro. He is a young Malaysian lad of few words from the village next door (Kundusang, I believe). He was equipped with T-shirt, shorts, very light white sneakers and exposed ankles. And then there was me fully equipped in technical gear. Kinda sad sight really. Journey started in a rain forest (or a jungle - what's the difference really?) with a properly constructed foot path through the vegetation.

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
Water started pouring almost right after I had reached the hut. And then it poured very heavily. There were some thoroughly miserable looking, fully soaked individuals limping those final set of stairs to the hut. Me and the other folks in dry clothes enjoying our warm cuppas of Sabah tea at the hut considered ourselves pretty lucky with the weather we had had.

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
My headlight lit the way. I had bought a midrange head torch, but it guided my steps beautifully. It was actually pretty nice to see the small lights from other hikers as little glow worms inching higher both above and below me. I was told that there were as many as around 150 people attempting the summit this very day. That seems to be the maximum number of daily climbing permits that they are allowing.

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!
Then there I was at 4095 meters. Standing at the highest point of South East Asia (if you conveniently exclude Myanmar from that geographical area) with 10+ minutes to spare before the time for sunrise. The rush of accomplishment is truly overwhelming. This is the sole reason why I would want to put myself through this type of a grind. Jiro kindly offered to take the mandatory photo in front of the sign. As there were only limited number of people at the summit still at that time, I took the liberty of sitting on top of the piece of rock that was seemingly even little bit higher than all the other rocks and started gnawing on an energy bar without much of an appetite and waiting for the sun to come up. I congratulated myself on exactly appropriate level of layered clothing. I was not cold, I was not hot while sitting there. For the record there is no vending machine selling beer and warm cup noodles on the summit of Mount Kinabalu like there is one on top of Mount Fuji.

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
More and more exhausted people started dragging themselves towards the summit as the first streaks of sun light through the clouds in the horizon started to paint the world blue. The views East are truly magnificent from the summit. The other hues started to increase with every passing moment. I smiled looking at distant lights of Kota Kinabalu, from where I had been eyeballing the same peak on the morning before. After enjoying the scenery for a while I thought that now that I had been there & done that, it was time for me to give room to others still climbing up and initiate my journey downwards. The total time I spent on the summit was probably 20 minutes or so.

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
I was able to see Laban Rata hut directly below us and apparently we had decided to take the most direct route to get there. There are two via ferrata options at Mount Kinabalu. Longer Low's Peak Circuit and the shorter Walk the Torq, which was my selection. And man I was glad I chose exactly that option. Hanging on near vertical rock wall while moving the rope and fixing the carabiniers one at the time on the metal cable my legs started shaking not so much from vertigo but overall exhaustion. At this point in time I had been going through pretty hard exercise for about 6 hours straight with very limited sleep time. The views were magnificent though. The weather was great and visibility far away into foothills of Kinabalu was absolutely excellent. Just seeing some small fluffs of clouds rolling below me is a sight in itself.

Look mom, no hands! Well maybe just one.
Rope. First carabinier. Second carabinier. Ten, fifteen steps either directly downwards or traversing same distance sideways. Rinse and repeat. For couple of hours. I do have a sensible fear of heights, but for some reason I did not really have any issues with that while walking the torq. Perhaps I have a blind fate on advances of modern science and being hooked by 4 different cables (one cable being my muscular arm) into the via ferrata itself, I didn't really have any worries about falling off. I am definitely glad I did the via ferrata option with the rope bridges and all, but by the time I saw the end point around the next corner and my companions already removing their harnesses, I have to say I was relieved. Shakily I walked one more time back to the Pendant hut for well earned second breakfast (those Hobbits may be on to something!).

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)
One hour into the descend it started raining. A little, pathetic trickle at the beginning but it started getting heavier all the time. Eventually the tropical rain forest started living up to it's title (now I know why this is not called a jungle) and there was as much water coming out of the sky as is naturally possible. There is a saying in Finnish which refers to amount of rain and some unknown lady named Esther. I leave that explanation and etymology to some other blogger. My technical gear started to be not so technical any more. The pants I had bought were not even supposed to be waterproof, but of some magical textile that supposedly dries fast, which did not console me much at the time. The jacket was some kind application of Dry-Max technology which was neither Dry nor Max. My faithful goretex boots stayed dry enough for a surprisingly long time, until they also failed. Once the water was inside the shoe the goretex magic started to work again and the water did not come out, but moved back and forth inside the shoe with every step. I was specifically worried about the excuse of a rain cover over my backpack. I had stashed my phone and book into yet another watertight bag, but all my potential change clothing was there.

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


  1. This trip took place five years ago to date. Fun fact: I was reading Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson while there. I just spotted half of the book cover in the background in one photo from this hike.

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