Climbing Mount Kinabalu in ONE DAY – A story from a friend…

This post is originally from the comment for climbing Kinabalu in ONE DAY post previously. I highlighted his comment for all of us to share.

Here is my account of climbing Kinabalu in a day

Mount Kinabalu

The morning was crisp and fresh with a chill to its tail that would make me rethink the shorts-and-T-shirt decision. As I trudged from the hostel to Park HQ there was an eerie silence in the air. Few people had stirred from their slumber at such a time as 06:30. The mountain reared up in front of me, the freshly risen sun casting a golden luminesce over the peak; beckoning.

I’d arrived the previous day around 12:00 and had set about organising the one-day climb. I was met with blank faces at Park reception when I siad that I wanted to climb Kinabalu in a day. The woman there referred me to another woman who sent me to a man that sent me in search of a Mr. Daikin – The Head Park Ranger. This took me 100 meters up a steep incline to another building where, after being relayed through 2 further people, I found Mr. Daikin. I believe the hunt for the elusive Mr. Daikin and the trek up the hill were cunning testers to see if you were up to both the mental and physical challenge of summiting Mount Kinabalu in a day. Having finally found Mr. Daikin I left 2 minutes later with his blessing – all he had needed was to see me and judging by his approval I guess he must have been happy with what he saw.

The breakfast buffet was only just opening when I crossed the threshold. The look I received from the half dormant staff seemed to question why (out of choice) I would be active at such an hour as this as they feigned smiles and distractedly accepted my crumpled breakfast coupon. The spread that lay before me was a welcome sight after the endless sea of nasi goreng and fried noodles that had flooded my digestive system every breakfast, lunch and dinner for the past month.

After quickly polishing off my first portion of scrabbled eggs, potato wedges, baked beans, chicken sausages and turkey bacon (alas pork is as hard to come by in Malaysia as sunshine is in England and is met with similar shock) I stole a glance at my watch; 06:45, just enough time for a second helping. With limited food supplies in my bag and with the knowledge there was no 7-Eleven halfway up the mountain I decided to pack as much in as possible, to which end I must apologise profusely to my guide who was behind me the whole way up and down that mountain. I’m sorry for the consumption of such quantities of beans and the extra eggs didn’t make the situation any better. However it should be noted that I too fell foul of my own flatulency – hot air rises and on that mountain I must admit I was at times traveling at a speed less than that of mine own wind. At moments such as these I assured myself that my fart couldn’t have possibly overtaken me and that the smell must solely be down to the sulphuric composition particular to volcanic mountains. Subsequent research coupled with observations along the climb revealed the truth that Kinabalu was no more volcanic than the molehills that erupt in our garden with concentrated invasiveness, like acne on an adolescent face.

By the time I reached Park HQ, paid for my guide, permit and transport to the base of the trail it was getting on for 07:15 and I was already regretting the decision to stock my stomach to the gunnels. Developing a stich as I walked the 20 meters from the minibus to the base of the trail did not do my confidence a world of good – if I felt like that after an 18 second amble how would I feel after an 18 kilometer climb? Would I even make it?

At 07:30 the gate to the summit trail was unlocked and I was the first person to set foot on the base that day, little did I know I would also be one of the last off it many hours later.

The first kilometer sailed by, the green marker sign restoring the hope in my heart that I might actually be able to make it; 1km down and 7.7km to the summit. I naively only counted the distance up, neglecting the prospect of the descent and thus not including it in my calculations. In hindsight this would actually turn out to be an invaluable motivator for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. Had I counted the distance back down as well it is likely that at some point along the way I would have given up – the daunting prospect of an 8.7km descent too much for me to bare both mentally and physically. Once I made it to the summit then I would worry about getting back down, but once at the summit there was no giving up – giving up would mean perishing on the mountain, there was only one way down.

Each half kilometer was marked by a small green sign telling you how far you’d come and what altitude you were at. Comparing ascent to descent I must say it is a far better feeling seeing how far you’ve come rather than how far you’ve left to go in a sort of glass-half-full, glass-half-empty way. My glass was brimming on the way up and was definitely half full by the summit. On the descent it went from half empty to being completely dry.

I’m surprised I missed the first green sign that would have read ‘0.5km’. After my sighting of the ‘1km’ sign I eagerly anticipated each subsequent one. I was told that in order to complete the climb in one day I must be at the 6km mark by 10:30. This was where 99% of people stopped for the night and spent the night before proceeding to the summit the following day. Most arrived at the 6km mark by early afternoon.

To avoid any distraction and in a vain effort to keep my morale high I removed my watch. The last glimpse I got of it as it disappeared into my pocket told me it was about 08:30. Without the temptation there the time passed by quickly as too did the meters, both horizontally and vertically. The white strip of skin on my wrist was forever taunting me, the tan line left by my watch being its only visible presence, but I remained adamant that the contraption would stay in my pocket – until the first check point at least.

I rewarded myself with short breaks after each section that was particularly grueling or vertical, some lasted longer than others – the sections that is. The breaks never lasted more than a couple of minutes, my guide was very insistent that we keep moving. Later I would discover that his quick pace did not concern me making the check points at the required times, just that he did not want to miss the last bus home and have to pay for a taxi.

I refused to let myself rest halfway up any tricky incline knowing full well that after I rested setting off again would be very difficult. Better to rest at the start of a flat section (I use ‘flat’ in the loosest and steepest sense of the word) thereby easing myself back into it when I set off 2 minutes later. My guide seemed perplexed by my irregular stops. He had either never climbed with someone who took rests or (more likely) hadn’t encountered someone who planned quite to the extent I did. In fact I’m sure I was behaving completely counter to the way most people did. Later during my descent I would observe people stopping at the foot of a great vertical incline, preparing themselves for the ever-looming lactic acid that was poised, ready to build itself up in their calves by the milligram, or milliliter – I’m not sure in what units one measures lactic acid. Just to clarify – when I say ‘calves’ I mean the lower leg muscles, no one was attempting the ascent on baby-cow-back.

En route to the 6km marker – that of the Laban Rata Guesthouse – I saw few climbers, only a handful of guides and the one other guy that was also attempting the one-day climb whom I played leap frog with (in the metaphorical sense. Literal leap frog is not to be advised when mountaineering, though truth be told I have never heard of casualty nor fatality from it, my instinct merely suggests it’s not such a good idea.)
The reason I frequent the use of the word ‘attempt’ when referring to the climb is for purely statistical reasons. When signing the disclaimer form it is explicit that you must make specific checkpoints, you must obey your guide and if conditions decree that you cannot continue then you must admit defeat – if you are willing to oblige by the above then you may ‘attempt’ the (non-refundable-in-case-of-failure-don’t-sue-us-if-you-die) climb. Statistically speaking something like 50 people ‘attempt’ the one-day climb every month and of that only 15 succeed. Being a student of mathematics it’s not difficult to compute the 30% success rate. The Park Ranger said that the conditions on an average day gave 50-50 odds of making it to the summit. As well as being a student of mathematics I also consider myself a student of logic. This made the disparity between the 30% success statistic and the 50% prediction by the Park Ranger easy to explain: 50% of failure is attributed to adverse weather conditions, therefore through impeccable logic the remaining 20% of failure must be down to exhaustion or failing to meet the other stipulated requirements.
So it is with that in mind that I can proudly say when I got to the ‘6km’ marker and pulled out my watch from my pocket it read 10:20. The checkpoint came at a welcome time and it appeared as if my guide might afford me more than the customary 2-minute rest – may be the buses were running late that night. I had enough time to purchase a much needed bar of Cadbury’s finest fruit and nut chocolate. The void it filled in my stomach being approximately equal to the one it left in my wallet. 8 ringgits was a price I was willing to pay for that small bit of sugary goodness – I had also not encountered Cadbury’s very often during my travels.

If I thought I would have time to savour the six tiny chunks of chocolate (as sparsely interspersed with raisins and hazelnuts as pork in Malaysia) then I was grossly deluded. No sooner had I sat down and peeled off the wrapper with all the care of Charlie fondling his first Wonka bar when my guide caught my eye from across the room. The look on his face said “we should be heading off soon” coupled with “and give me a bit of that chocolate bar” followed by a softening of the eyes that seemed to add a “please”. When he turned for the toilet I consumed the entire sweet before the second hand on my watch had time to move. I then readied my small backpack containing camera, water, track-suit bottoms, a long sleeve shirt incase it got cold and a large bar of Malaysian Maryland Milk Chocolate which I had bought in a moment of forgetfulness – not remembering how Asian chocolate has the tendency to turn to dust the moment you sink your teeth into it – some extra compound they add to it to prevent it melting in the hear. It does the trick but the resultant product can no longer be defined as chocolate, it’s enough to make the Frys turn in their graves – in fact for all I know they are buried in the stuff for it bares as much resemblance to soil as one of Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas towers does to its twin.

It is with shame I must confess that I offloaded much of this chalk-let bar on unsuspecting climbers whose opinion of me must have changed rapidly – form one of fondness at being offered a large chunk of chocolate to one of distain when they realised my kindness was in fact a selfish ploy to offload some unwanted weight.

Upon returning from the toilet my guide readily accepted my offering of chocolate – taking more than would normally be socially acceptable in such a situation but I wasn’t about to complain. He had a gimlet look in his eye that suggested he knew full well I had substituted Cadbury’s for Crap. Disclaimer: I am willing to change my review of Maryland Milk Chocolate but only if a sufficient sweetener comes my way, so to speak. I’d settle just for a refund of that chocolate bar in all honesty.

We exchanged few words as we left the guesthouse; no more than 10 minutes after arriving. The first 6km had taken its toll on me but not quite in the ways I had expected. Sure enough my thighs, calves and ankles were aching a lot but I had also been anticipating a shortness of breath. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the climb had little effect on me aerobically; it was anaerobically that it really got me. I discovered muscles I never knew I had and discovered the limits to the muscles I was aware of.

Nevertheless – 6km down (or rather ‘up’), 2.7km to go, I had got this far without too much trial or tribulation, the notion of not summiting was now banished from my conscience, my watch was back on my wrist and I was aware the next checkpoint was the summit which must be made by 13:00.

There were 5 more little green marker signs to pass, each separated by 500m. I can run 500m in under 2 minutes. 500m on flat, solid ground is preferable to 50m of the mountainous terrain and takes less time. From the guesthouse to the 7km point the trail was at its steepest with steps, ladders and ropes to haul yourself up – relieving some weight from your legs and passing it on to your arms. The ‘7km’ marker marked a noticeable change in the terrain as the overgrowth and trees cleared leaving a baron, sparse, rocky expanse. Although desolate looking some of the meters gained here were amongst the kindest; where inclines were sometimes as low as 25%. However my stops became more and more frequent, lasting longer and longer, the relief they brought lasted less and less until it was no longer possible to gain any extra energy from a break.

Time was slowly but surely running down and the summit was still not in sight. I yearned to see the peak, to have a tangible goal that I could rest my eyes upon, if not my feet. My guide said that you could see the summit from the 8km marker but that we had to be there by 12:30 at the latest to have any hope of getting to the summit by 13:00 (and for him to have any hope of getting the last bus home). The 8km marker was a tangible goal – a white cross atop a false peak and as I headed for it I refused to allow myself another rest before I reached it. On the way I passed the other guy (a German named Manuel) flat out on his back, arms and legs splayed out in a star formation. I resisted the temptation to join him there and told him I wasn’t stopping until I had reached the 8km marker and saw the summit.

I adopted a similar star position upon reaching the marker. I raised my head slightly and looked back down the mountain. I was amazed at how long it took to cover short distances and yet the German guy was a veritable ant in the landscape.

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