We set off at 08.30 after a breakfast of rice and vegetables, carrying water bottles and snacks such as dried bananas to eat on the way. The younger members of our party rushed off determined to arrive at the rest house at Laban Rata in record time. They were less interested in comparing the changes in flora and fauna on the trail, than overtaking other walkers who had set off before us. At the Timpahon Gate, the entrance to Mount Kinabalu, is a board detailing the times taken by the fastest runners up to the summit and down again. Some have realised unbelievably short times, which spurred Ellie and Kit to climb even faster.
Bruce and I took our places at the back of the group. I had hurt my heel at the beginning of the holiday and hiking in heavy boots had not given it the chance to heal. Every step was painful, but like Ellie, I never complain and was determined to reach Laban Rata at least. Bruce stopped to purchase new batteries for the camera from the kiosk at the Timpahon Gate, as he was afraid they might just give out at the summit and we would miss the opportunity to photograph the amazing sunrise we were bound to see.
We were about fifteen minutes behind the rest of our party and Henry, our guide, walked several paces behind us. He was very professional in his manner. He stepped forward to tell us about the plants we could not identify and explained how to make infusions for stomach cramps from long, feathery lichen. Each time we paused for a drink of water or to rest at the shelters positioned welcomingly at the top of a particularly steep stretch of trail, Henry would also stop and wait discreetly until we were ready to proceed.
We took exactly five hours to complete the ascent to Laban Rata. Admittedly, Henry took us off the path several times to look at pitcher plants growing secretly away from the trail where only those walking with a guide would ever see. They were stupendous! Huge jugs filled with a sticky liquid and so well camouflaged amongst the grass and leaves. I had imagined that they would be dangling from high branches and be much easier to spot. Bruce and I felt very privileged to have been shown these treasures.
It was bitterly cold in the rest house. We changed into our warm clothing, ordered a hot drink and waited for Ellie and Henry to appear. Ellie had been the first to arrive at Laban Rata that morning, much to the surprise of the restaurant staff who were still cleaning after the departure of the previous night’s guests. Ellie had taken only two hours and forty minutes to complete the six and a half kilometre climb. It does not sound far, but at times the steps cut into the trail are very steep and widely spaced. We could see why there were few young children attempting the climb.
On arrival, Ellie had put on her warm clothes and sat on her bunk to play cards with the other younger group members. They came down to the restaurant at about 17.30 and all twelve of us enjoyed a delicious meal together. It is incredible how the rest house can provide such a varied menu as every gas bottle, sack of rice, can of cola etc has to be carried up by porters. These are often tiny women, hardly bigger than the wicker baskets strapped to their backs. It made us feel very humble.
Ellie was the first to go to bed. Bruce and I would be called at 02.00 as we were staying in a hut adjacent to the rest house. Ellie, Henry and the rest of our party were sleeping in a hut a little farther up the mountain, so would join us at 03.00. It was extremely busy on the mountain that night as there was a party of about eighty Taiwanese tourists and about forty members of a Malaysian hiking club who had booked early and reserved most of the accommodation. The restaurant staff served everyone in record time. I wondered how they could be so cheerful. Ellie kissed us goodnight and as usual, told us how much she loved us. That was to be the last moment I spent with my darling daughter. Henry, our son, kissed us and followed.
I hardly slept during the night as my foot was painful. I lay in bed listening to the wind blowing through the slatted windows and across the corrugated roof. Henry and Sugarah, our guides, said that we would not be able to climb to the summit if it rained overnight. It had not, so we were called to join the procession with our torches, warm clothes and water bottles. I did not go with them as I felt that my injured foot, in the dark, on a mountain might constitute a liability. I made a cup of tea, waited until the first pink light of dawn appeared and then went outside the hut. I had no idea how much windier it would be 800 metres higher up the mountain. It was not excessively cold where I stood and the sky was still clear. As it happened, I had a better view of the sunrise than those who had reached the summit. I briefly saw the villages below bathed in a pink/orange light, but the wind was becoming disconcertingly loud. The cloud thickened and the wind started to blow more strongly up on top, making Low’s Peak an unpleasant place to be, I was glad that I had made the decision to stay behind.
The Travelbag climbers were more than adequately clothed for a normal morning on Mount Kinabalu. It was about 5°C with a clear sky and the wind had dropped considerably. Setting off at 03.00, Ellie was sad to discover that I was not with Bruce and began to cry, saying, ‘It’s not fair, Mum has come all this way and she loves mountains so much and now she will never see the summit.’ Bruce gave her the camera, just in case he found the going too tough and failed to reach the top. She was keen to get up as quickly as possible and get down to tell me all about it. That is why she was so anxious to overtake the large party from Taiwan, festooned with imaginatively arranged bin bags, as protection against the elements. They were somewhat less prepared for the harsh conditions than our group. She and Henry managed to pass most of them when the trail flattened and widened a little.
The trail beyond Laban Rata begins with more steps cut into the rock and climbs very steeply up through the forest. Above the tree line the way is marked by a white rope. This can be used by climbers to pull themselves up the steeper sections, but generally serves as a marker defining the trail itself. At this stage the path becomes much less steep and starts to level out as the terrain becomes fairly smooth granite. Climbers use torches on the ascent and so tend to follow the light in front. The rope is more useful on the descent. Guides are distributed throughout the procession. Some people employ their own individual guides, but the accepted ratio for a larger group is one guide to eight tourists. With two guides, Sugarah at the front and Henry at the back, our group of eleven was well within safety limits.
Feeling cold, despite four layers of clothing including a ski jacket and two hats, Ellie overtook Sugarah and followed the guide leading several Taiwanese climbers, Henry walked close behind. They reached Low’s Peak without suffering the effects of altitude, but were disappointed to see nothing but cloud. Ellie and Henry took photographs of each other standing by the sign at the summit, but it was too misty and windy for good pictures. Ellie shouted at Henry to remove his gloves as his fingers were covering the lens. He shouted back that he could not or his hands would freeze. These joking exchanges were misconstrued as ‘the argument’ that took place on top of Mount Kinabalu. This was complete fiction and caused considerable distress to Henry, as he most certainly did not run off and hide from Ellie.
To be continued to Part 3…