After the excitement of climbing Mount Batur had died down, I got the feeling that I needed to do something slightly more daunting, both physically and mentally. The past couple of months at work had been really hectic as well as monotonous. An adrenaline rush was badly needed. It was during one such day that I googled up the highest peaks in South-East Asia and stumbled across Mount Kinabalu, which stood just above 4000 m. That wasn’t too much, no? I mean it’s only half of Everest for God’s sake! The mountain is located in Sabah, on the island of Borneo, a mere 2 hours by flight from Singapore. I already happened to possess a Malaysian Visa, which of course worked in favour of my sudden whim of choosing this particular mountain to climb.
Further research showed me that the mountain also had a “via ferrata” option during the descent. For those of you who aren’t aware of the term, it refers to a steel cable which runs along the route and is fixed to the rock face at regular intervals. Using a kit, the climbers can secure themselves to the cable, limiting a fall. In addition to this, there are other climbing aids such as iron rungs and pedals attached to the rock face, which the climber can make use of, for both ascent as well as descent. Luckily, I discovered that the Kinabalu ferrata option, graded “French AD” was apt for beginners, who wanted to have a taste of climbing the vertical face of a mountain. This being said, via ferrata is generally considered quite intimidating for those with a fear of heights, to which category I must confess I belong (gulp!).
Well, there were only a few agencies offering climb packages to said mountain, ranging from 2 days to 5 days, the popular ones being Amazing Borneo, Mount Kinabalu packages and Mountain Torq. The prices were all similar and I decided to go with Mountain Torq as they were the official Ferrata organizers. It was quite expensive as compared to the Batur climb, the 2D1N option costing about 710 SGD. I’d already made up my mind on going ahead, irrespective of the cost, as the ferrata option had piqued my curiosity. The next thing on my list was to find a climbing partner and considering the fact that via ferrata was on the cards, the choice had to be a well-thought one. There was only one friend among my group, who I knew would even consider it. K was initially skeptical when I asked him to join me, as he too was surprised about the exorbitant cost. In the end, he capitulated, being the adventurer he is, as the ferrata option charmed him as well, as it had done me. We booked the 2D1N package, as it was the most reasonable of the lot from the point of view of cost. We were looking at a budget of roughly about 1000 SGD including the climb package, the stay in Kota Kinabalu, flight tickets and the necessary gear. “Daylight robbery!”, we told each other. We also booked a room with Hotel Victoria in Kota Kinabalu via Airbnb, as the climb package included both pick up and drop off to any hotel in the city. The mountain is located roughly about 2 hours drive from the city.
Below link would give you a list of things necessary during the trek (the bare minimum), as well as the itinerary sent by Mountain Torq, which I presume is common for all climbers opting for the 2D1N option irrespective of the agency involved.
As far as preparation was concerned, all we had was our daily game of badminton, which in hindsight, was actually quite helpful at least in my case.
We flew down to Kota Kinabalu on the 23rd June, took a cab to our hotel which was located in the city center. We decided to crash early as we would hardly be getting any sleep the next night. We were up and ready at the lobby by 6:30 am and so was our pick up. We then made our way to the Kinabalu park headquarters arriving there about 8:30 am. The registration was both smooth and quick as we had already made the payments online. We were given our tags, a packed lunch and then introduced to our guide Doina, a middle-aged lady who had been climbing the mountain for several years. I couldn’t help but notice the huge calf muscles on all the guides assembled there, including Doina. I almost felt embarrassed, when I looked at my own chicken like legs.
We were then dropped off at Timpohon gate, where we were to begin our climb. We also rented a walking stick each based on the advice of our guide, as it would help remove some of the stress on our knees during the climb. A lot of the day’s climbers had already assembled there and were looking at the maps of the route and were being briefed by their respective guides. We looked expectantly at ours! Well, Doina clearly didn’t think much of these briefings and to our surprise was already on the trail, beckoning at us to get a move on. Well, that was the beginning of the several instances of catching each other’s eye over the course of the trek, for K and me. We followed her like mute lambs to the slaughter, amused at the fact that we were climbing one of the biggest mountains in South-East Asia hardly knowing what to expect.
The climb to the base camp was fairly easy as well as undemanding. It was a set path, and all one needed to do was to stick to it. The initial bit consisted mainly of steps carved onto the path which roughly took us about 4 hours, the final part involved clambering over rocks, which we did in about an hour.
Fortunately for us, the weather was very clear and the temperature was also quite cool. There were many rest shelters along the way. At about 12 pm we reached one of these shelters when Doina cried out the words “layang layang”. We understood that we were to stop here for lunch, we set about opening our packed lunches supplied by Mountain Torq. There was a cheese sandwich, an egg, an orange and a piece of fried chicken all of which were in a state of deep freeze, thanks to the low temperature. We finished our meal chasing away hungry squirrels and then resumed our climb to the base camp. On the way, we ran into a couple of Indian ladies who had flown down from Hong Kong. I was quite impressed by these energetic and adventurous women, both of them mothers. Here they were, climbing the biggest mountain in Malaysia just for the fun of it and making it look so easy at the same time. We introduced ourselves, then made our way together to Pendant hut located at the base camp (approximately 3200 m), arriving there about 2 pm and checked in to our room. It was a dorm, all the four of us i.e. Bhakti, Swati, K and I were assigned the same room along with a few Japanese. Doina headed off informing us that she would meet us at the entrance the next day, for the ascent to the summit.
So the base camp had quite a few buildings, all the people doing Ferrata were assigned to Pendant hut as the training for the same was to be conducted here. The dorm was quite clean and tidy. There were bunk beds with sleeping bags and since we were one of the first few to arrive, we ended up getting our choice selection of them. We were each given a pair of crocs to wear in the room. The toilets and bathrooms were also quite decent, and I managed a quick shower. Since we had a lot of time on our hands, we made coffee, chatted and played Uno. It was good fun talking to Bhakti and Swati. Both of them had travelled extensively, and had a lot of things to narrate about the places they’d visited.
The ferrata trainers arrived by 4:30 pm, and all of us gathered in the lobby for our training. They briefed us on our schedule for the next day, and also showed us how to wear our chastity belts (yes, that’s what they were called!) for the “via ferrata” route, along with the operation of the primary and secondary safety harnesses. It was fairly straightforward and user-friendly. The guy also regaled us with some colorful accounts on the best and worst times on the 2 ferrata routes. We discovered that there were only five climbers who had signed up for the Low’s Peak circuit (LPC), the Japanese trio who were in our dorm, K and yours truly. The LPC route is about 1.2 km long with a vertical height traverse of 365m and holds the Guinness record for the world’s highest via ferrata. The rest of them were doing the Walk the Torq (WTT) route having a much shorter length of about 400m. The trainer also mentioned that both the summit trail as well as the ferrata would be cancelled in case of rain/bad weather. All of us prayed that the weather would hold, as it would be a shame to have come all this way and then head back just because of foul weather. The training lasted for an hour and a half, we then decided to head down to Laban Rata rest house for dinner as we had to wake up early the next day. It was a buffet spread, there were a good variety of dishes including appetizer, main course and dessert. We decided not to stuff ourselves for obvious reasons. The restaurant was located on the side of the hill , and gave us some stunning views of the surrounding landscape. It was getting colder by the minute and my legs were already shaking, thanks to my strutting around in a pair of shorts like a total idiot. We returned to Pendant hut, as it was getting late and we needed to crash early. The trek to the summit would commence at 2:30 am the next morning. I tucked myself into my sleeping bed, hoping for good weather the next day. Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep very well, as I was quite excited about the climb and couldn’t wait to get started. I noticed I was breathing more rapidly than usual, perhaps it was to do with the altitude.
All of us were up about 2 am and gathered at the lobby fully attired, for an early breakfast. There was bread and butter along with some coffee. I didn’t eat much as I was still full from last night’s dinner. We then began the climb along with our respective guides, as we had to be at the peak before sunrise. The initial part again consisted of stairs, carved onto the mountain side like the previous day. The only difference was that this time the gradient was much steeper and the climb more tiring. Luckily, we had railings to hold on to and we made our way at a steady pace. We didn’t take many breaks as it was really cold and we’d start shivering if we stayed at one point for too long. We also had to report on time for the ferrata part after completing the summit trail or they’d start without us. Bhakti, K and I reached the summit checkpoint in about 2 hours where we had to submit our IDs for verification. It was after this point that the trek got quite demanding, as there were some really steep sections. We had to haul ourselves up using a rope for most of the way. Our headlamps came in really handy as it left both our hands free, to hold on to the rope. Since it was dark, we luckily couldn’t pay much attention to how steep it actually was. We were all going in a line and overtaking was out of the question.
There were distance markers every 500 m, and I must admit that I began to doubt their veracity, as it felt like we’d walked 2 km for every half a km the markers claimed. Bhakti, K and I trudged along looking at the lights in the distance. It was at these points that I realized how important it is to have friends along during a climb. K and I were pulling each other’s leg the whole time, wondering if we would ever make it to the bloody peak. Doina, as usual refused to make any comment, giving us vague answers about how far we had to go. It was only then Bhakti realized, that the little lady following us was in fact our guide.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the summit i.e. Low’s Peak around 6 am. It was a clear morning, and we discovered, to our wonder, that we stood way above the clouds. All of us were filled with a strong sense of accomplishment, especially in my case as it was the first time I’d climbed 4000 m and above. The view as on any mountain top was stunning, both serene as well as tranquil. There was a board mentioning the height of the peak, people were queuing up here to take snapshots and selfies. We clicked a few pics, and then gave our tired bodies some badly needed rest.
Swati arrived soon after, with her guide and joined us. I felt drained, and was already beginning to dread the descent. We then had to quickly say our goodbyes, as K and I had to report for the LPC. I parted a little sooner, as I couldn’t take the low temperature and made my way back to the LPC start point. It was still very cold, and I had to keep prancing around to keep my body warm. There was hardly any cover and I wished I’d worn thermals.
The “via Ferrata” guides arrived around 7 am with the equipment and all of us had to gear up. So there were to be two teams- K and me along with a guide and the Japanese trio with theirs. Yours truly was to lead, followed by K, our guide and the other team. Once our safety harnesses were in place, Henry, our guide told me to head on to the steel rope. I had to attach the harness to the rope and then make my way down holding on to it. Once I was done, he then casually asked me to keep moving. I couldn’t see the next clamp and oh dearie me! I realized that the second clamp was on the vertical face of the mountain. My legs had already begun to shake. Well, that was expected wasn’t it! Can’t really blame the damn legs! Bloody heights! I didn’t really have the time to curse myself further, as everyone else was waiting for me to move. It didn’t really feel appropriate to back out then, not when I was captain, leading my motley team! Swearing at myself and my sudden mountain climbing fancies, I made my way down.
There were pedals and steel rungs attached to the rock face, which were supposed to help us move along. The bloody pedals were really small, and once you had a foot on each, it was really difficult to manoeuvre to the next one. At certain key points, there were no pedals, and you had to make use of the rock face, trusting in your shoes not to slip. I heaved a sigh of relief every time I came across rungs, instead of pedals. The first ten minutes were really scary, and I was holding on to the rope for dear life making my way very slowly, almost at right angles to the mountain. I told myself that all I needed to do was keep moving steadily, and I’d make it down without shitting my pants. It was at this point, that I started paying attention to the others and I saw both K and Henry watching me with amused expressions. I also became conscious of the fact that I was in reality, clinging on to the rock like some petrified lizard. I was hardly moving at all! And the logical consequence – “Stifled laughter!” Well, that decided it! I was supposed to be a bloody son of the hills. I would not have these guys laughing at my expense, oh no! Not here, not when climbing the damned mountain was my idea in the first place. I started moving faster and with every step, got a little more comfortable. We picked up our pace , Henry even went on to mention that we were doing good time. I couldn’t help but think back to the briefing, the previous day, when the trainer had mentioned the worst time on the LPC, a whopping 13 hours. And no, I had no intention of competing with that!
Well, all that aside, I have to mention at this point, the views from the cliff face were in fact quite stunning. We could see all the way down to Pendant hut, and for miles across. We could even spot the blue of the sea in the far horizon. Henry told us that he’d been doing this route for the past 7 years, and he loved every moment of it. It was quiet, picturesque and serene. He also mentioned that he could do the whole route in about 30 minutes, tops. I didn’t doubt him, as I had seen him making his way down behind K, whistling away to glory, like he was out on some evening stroll. Soon, we finished the first half of the route and got some rest, munching on the energy bars we had brought along. K and I introduced ourselves to our Japanese counterparts. They were so much older than us and we were quite amazed, that they’d decided to take on something so physically challenging, at their age. One lady had even climbed Mt Fuji the previous week, just as a preparatory trek prior to Kinabalu. And to think we’d thought ourselves crazy!
The next bit involved a quick hike through some dense jungle. I was talking to Henry throughout the trail, and he told me about some of the recent accidents, especially the earthquake in 2015, in which many students from Singapore had died during the climb. It was quite a scary thought, as we had just passed all those spots a few hours ago. We were lucky to be blessed with such good weather, throughout the course of our trek.
The final part of the LPC involved another ascent, again making use of the rope. All of us were physically drained by then,and made very slow progress. We finally completed the LPC in roughly 3 hours, which according to our guides was very good time. I must say that the both of them were quite good at their jobs, very cheerful and supportive throughout the route. We thanked them and then made our way back to Pendant hut for another much-needed breakfast and some rest. It had begun to drizzle and the place was quite deserted when we reached. We found out that only very few had completed the WTT route, and the majority had opted out due to exhaustion. I was quite thrilled and proud about the fact, that none of us from LPC had played truant at the last-minute.
We began our descent along with Doina at about 1:45 pm, and arrived at Timpohon gate by 5 pm. It was getting dark, and we ran most of the way down, as we wanted to arrive at the gate before the office closed. Our pick up was waiting at the park headquarters, and the driver handed us our colorful certificates, one for the summit climb and one for via ferrata. We said our goodbyes to Doina, and settled in our cab exhausted, every muscle in our body aching. My shoes had rubbed off onto the sides of my leg, and I had to take them off for the drive. It was raining for most part of the journey. We arrived at the hotel in a couple of hours, cursing every stair on the way to our room. I jumped into the bathroom, throwing away my stinking, sweat soaked clothes and had a hot shower. When the both of us were done, we walked to the nearest Pizza hut, dragging our legs like a pair of refugees, who’d just walked their way out of a desert. We had ourselves a big meal, returned to our room, switched on the aircon and crashed. I helped myself to a large share of K’s Tiger balm which relieved some of the pain. I went to sleep expecting to be next to incapacitated the next day, but it didn’t turn out to be so bad. Yes, our bodies were aching in all possible locations and yes, we were climbing stairs like a pair of old men, clinging onto the banister, but we could both move and that was what mattered. We returned the same day, on the 26th, and reached Singapore at about 5 pm.
Some afterthoughts and advice!
The trek is a doable one (nothing technical), provided the climber has a reasonable level of fitness. In case you’re interested in ferrata, I would advise going for the WTT option as the LPC gets quite repetitive, after a point of time. It is also quite exhausting to do the summit trail, LPC and the descent to Timpohon gate, all on the same day. The WTT lets you experience the same things, without draining you as much as the LPC does. Also, do not book your flights on the same night, as it gets pretty late by the time you reach Kota Kinabalu. Do carry all the things mentioned on the list for the trip. And most importantly, choose a fun climbing partner, not someone you’d have to lug along. Trust me, a grumbling sack of potatoes isn’t exactly something you’d want with you, especially when you’re climbing a mountain this size!
All in all, it was an exhilarating experience. One, I am sure to keep recounting every now and then. It was great fun trekking with you K! Next stop, Kilimanjaro for sure! hehe 😉 It was also nice meeting you Bhakti and Swati, fellow mountaineers like you mentioned!