Go Tell It on the Mountain
Air Magazine, December 2010
There is a signboard at the start of the track up Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in southeast Asia, bearing the names and times of the winners of the latest annual race up and down the Borneo peak. Two hours, 40 minutes and 41 seconds was the best 2009 performance.
When you get back down from Mount Kinabalu, bruised and exhausted, perhaps drenched from a tropical downpour and with knees that no longer obey rational instruction, that signboard appears a cruel joke. Your own odyssey will have taken two or three days, never mind two or three hours. But the board reflects not only local fitness but local connection with the mountain, and you see it everywhere: my guide, a 44-year-old father of five called Yamin, has a personal best of three and a half hours up and down and reckons he can beat it next year. He’s reached the summit more than 100 times.
To see this article as it ran, click here: qp1210_Mt Kinabalu (2)
There are few peaks so tightly embedded into their surrounding society as Kinabalu. The nearby state capital of Kota Kinabalu takes its name from the mountain. The distinctive profile of the peaks appears on the state flag of Sabah, the Malaysian territory within which the mountain sits. Sabahans take pride not only in the beauty of the mountain and the exhilaration of the climb, but the extraordinary biological diversity of the mountain and its surrounding national park: between 5000 and 6000 plant species, over 300 types of bird, and animals including the (rarely sighted here) orang-utan. More pragmatically, they value it as a source of work for guides and porters.
Foreigners feel the attraction too. Malaysia has rightly made Mount Kinabalu one of its most heavily promoted tourist drawcards. But it has perhaps been guilty in the past of misrepresenting what climbing Kinabalu involves.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu involves almost nine kilometres of relentlessly uphill hiking, summiting at just under 4,100 metres (13,450 feet) – plenty high enough to cause altitude sickness. It involves getting up in the middle of the night and climbing up an exposed granite face, hanging on to steel cables bolted into the mountain, in complete darkness. It doesn’t require specialist climbing skills but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a stroll. None of which is a reason not to do it: many consider it a lifetime high point. Just be ready for the challenge.
These days the park authorities make sure walkers comprehend the difficulty, and insist that everyone who goes up must be accompanied by a registered guide. The numbers of people who can climb at any one time are limited by the accommodation at which people spend the night on the mountain, at a place called Laban Rata, six kilometres in to the climb. Here, a guesthouse can accommodate 146 climbers, while another 48 can stay in other accommodation nearby, meaning on any given day about 200 people plus their support staff of guides and porters will be heading up the mountain, and the same number heading down. That feels like capacity, especially on the summit, and is a sensible limitation – though it does make one of the biggest challenges of Kinabalu the logistical effort of finding a date with free accommodation in the first place.
Some are disappointed by the first day. It is relentlessly, stubbornly upward, with few views since the path cuts through deep forest, though the tame local squirrels and flora like the distinctive pitcher plant provide diversion. Most of the track is built with wooden stairs, and there’s no need for technical ability, just plodding, dogged stamina. It is recommended to allow five to seven hours for this part of the ascent. Most greet the Laban Rata guesthouse – comfortable, heated at night, with hot water at some times of day and a surprisingly good range of food – with relief.
But climbing Kinabalu is all about the second day. The routine is to rise early – very, very early – in order to reach the top by sunrise; most are underway by 2 a.m. For many, the first stretch out of Laban Rata is the hardest part of the trek: you come out, probably without having slept well, at 11,000 feet, and start climbing up over slippery, uneven, endlessly uphill boulders. The 6.5km marker, just 500 metres out of Laban Rata, is greeted with disbelief from climbers certain they’ve done three times that distance since leaving the guesthouse.
It’s followed by the fixed cable section: probably the most dangerous part of the ascent. In the dark, on slippery granite, it combines open rock with a lot of traffic, including many climbers who are unfamiliar with using rope. It’s probably just as well you can’t see the exposure on some of these faces until you descend again in daylight. Eventually, climbers reach the Sayang Sayang checkpoint – where your climbing pass will be checked – and then you really are on the face of the mountain, hand over hand, step by step, pushing on.
But by now, everything’s different. Since you’re exposed, you can see the sky, Orion and a host of other constellations vivid against the darkness. With a greater sense of where you are, you gain inspiration. Every step now is painful, vertical gain as much as distance, hand over hand on the wire. But as the first hints of light begin to appear, you realise you are among peaks: Short Peak, Gorilla Peak, Donkey Ears Peak. With every moment of additional light the desolate glory of the surroundings, a granite plateau that is beautiful all the more for its lunar starkness, becomes more clear, and Low’s Peak – the true summit – comes in to view, a gruelling final 200 metres to the top.
You won’t have the summit to yourself: hundreds share it every dawn. But it’s worth the effort. Sometimes the first sight of the sun is greeted with applause. And as it rises, and the peaks are bathed in their first sunshine of the day, the whole place takes on a different texture. In one direction you look out to the ocean, the shadow of the mountain cast dozens of miles over the water in the shallow angle of the sunlight; in another is the famous Low’s Gully, an 1800 metre deep monument to the scouring power of glaciation. Usually, dawn is clear on the peak, though you may be looking down on cloud beneath you. The clarity doesn’t last long: that’s why everyone tries to be there by dawn, before the summit hides for the rest of the day.
Getting down has got a whole lot more interesting since the opening of a Via Ferrata, a system of fixed cables and ladders and bridges – the first in Asia, and the highest in the world, at 3,800 metres. The idea of a Via Ferrata is to give the feeling of mountaineering without the danger: you are permanently connected to the cable by two caribiners, and also to a guide by rope, meaning that if you follow instruction it’s impossible to fall more than a few feet. Commonplace in Europe, where they date back more than a century in the Alps, they are far rarer in Asia.
The Via Ferrata on Kinabalu is done properly, and everything about it impresses. There is a briefing near the Laban Rata guesthouse the afternoon before you climb, without which climbers may not attempt it; the equipment is good and the guides clear and calm; and two alternatives are offered – a short, beginner’s version with limited exposure, and a much bigger version including a descent down a large part of the granite rock face (and an irksome stretch of slippery jungle). Both can only be done in descent, and both conclude near to the Laban Rata guesthouse. Naturally you can also get down the same way you came up, by simply following the trail back down.
For those who have the energy, the full version is strongly recommended. Starting a short distance down from the summit, it is usually attempted at around seven in the morning: the sun is rising, the sky still brilliant blue before the clouds roll in, and the feeling of being on the edge of a rugged mountain face – yet actually being perfectly safe – is a vibrant sensation of being alive. It is hard work, though, and combining this with a full descent off the mountain in the same day is asking a great deal of your body.
Which brings us to the worst part of the whole endeavour: the descent from Laban Rata. Slippery, often in rain or mist, and without the inspiration of the pending summit to drive you on, you just want to snap your fingers and let it be over. Many are surprised to find themselves in more discomfort on the way down than the way up, but the pounding on the knees is endless, and it is not uncommon to find people needing to be assisted down, even carried. If you’ve ever been tempted to walk with knee supports, this is the moment to try it.
And so, finally, back to the start line, and that signboard of the fastest ever climbers, their feats rendered not so much impressive as Biblical by your own experience. Even if their speed is incomprehensible, it doesn’t dim the sense of relieved achievement at having taken on the roof of Borneo and succeeded.