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Home » Kinabalu Solo Travel Part 2

Mount Kinabalu Solo Travel by Leif Pettersen Part 2

The next morning we convened, as ordered, at park headquarters at 7:30AM. With my roommates and a few other people that we absorbed at the last second, we swelled to a group of eight people, the maximum allowable per guide. The per-person fee for the guides go down as the size of the group increases. If you’re alone it’s 60RM (US$16). If you nose into a group of eight, it’s only 15RM (US$4). Seeing as how our “guide,” Ronnie, was totally worthless, I was happy that I only dropped 15RM on this fleecing. Ronnie got us all organized and gave us some last second instructions. It became clear at this point that Ronnie didn’t know a lick of satisfactory English. He had clearly memorized the bare minimum, like his little speech before the bus, and beyond that he could only string together a few semi-nonsensical series of words in his effort to get a point across.

Steps up the mountainThis was not reassuring as we were firmly told at the briefing the night before that we needed to take special care to follow the instructions of our guide. Indeed, it seemed that our safety depended on us hanging on his every move and word. I wasn’t sure how they expected us to abide by with this as I was having trouble following Ronnie through such simple statements as “Hello” and “Let’s go.” If there were to be a true emergency (presumably the main reason why he is there in the first place), effectively communicating the details to him would have been impossible and we’d all die like miserable dogs up there while Ronnie stood around puzzling our pleas for help.

Additionally, now was the time that they decided to present us with a list of ailments that, if we were now or had ever been victim to, we should not do the climb. Call me crazy, but maybe a subject as important as this should be broached the instant you arrive at the park, not after you have been there for 24 hours and dropped over 200RM getting ready for the climb. For the record, the list of aliments included:

So I was screwed, but I had already invested two days and over 200RM into this excursion and I wasn’t going to turn back 30 seconds before setting off.

The Summit TrailOn the subject of prices, Kinabalu is a money pit like no other place in Asia. The prices at Park Headquarters are criminal and it gets even worse up at Laban Rata. The situation at Laban Rata is forgivable because literally everything needs to be carried up by porters. Porters can be seen trudging up and scurrying down the mountain at all hours of the day. From what little we were able to piece together from Ronnie’s halted, Tarzan explanation, apparently these poor porters make the grueling climb from headquarters to Laban Rata five times a week, carrying up to 30 kilos (67 lbs.) each trip. Keep in mind these tiny guys/gals only weigh about 50/55 kilos (110/122 lbs) tops. We saw porters carrying up cases of beer, computers, a toilet and even a flag pole. You really need to see the state of the paths to appreciate the heroic effort that goes into hauling up all this stuff. For comparison, I was only carrying about five kilos when I made the climb and I nearly croaked from the effort, but I digress…

If you come prepared, you should arrive at the park with a pile of snacks (energy bars and candy bars are best) and a reasonable amount of water. Unless you love pain, you couldn’t possibly bring enough water with you to keep you happy for the entire two days (I’d estimate that I went through about five, 1.5 liter bottles of water, but remember, I was sick and dehydrating myself on the toilet as fast as I could re-hydrating myself with water…). Ultimately, at some point you will have to buy their expensive water, but showing up with, say, three 1.5 liter bottles (one and some change for your night at headquarters and the rest for the climb), will help take the sting out of buying more water up at Laban Rata. You need to bring a pile of cash with you as there are no ATMs or exchange places anywhere in the park. I brought what I thought was a generous 400RM (US$105), but after two days of the exorbitant park prices, I barely had enough money left over for bus fare to Sandakan. Accommodations at park headquarters is 17RM per night. A bed in an unheated hut at Laban Rata is 12RM per night. Meals were 20-25RM at headquarters and 25-30RM at Laban Rata. Climbing permit 100RM, insurance 3.50RM, guide 15-60 RM. Water 5/10RM (small/large). Candy bars 5RM. Renting blanket, hat, gloves, flashlight, walking stick… 5-15RM. It adds up fast.

Low's Peak & MeAfter white-lying my way through the Ailments Warning, we were herded onto a waiting bus and driven 20 minutes to Timpohon Gate, the start of the climb. Just so you have full comprehension of the insanity that we were about to embark on; the peak of Mount Kinabalu is at 4,101 meters (13,451 feet) above sea level, half the height of Mount Everest and only slightly less than the height at which I had jumped out of a plane the previous month. Park Headquarters/Timpohon Gate are at approximately the 1,500 meter mark, meaning over the course of the next 22 hours, we were going to climb about 2,500 meters (8,200 feet). Our group was as follows: Me, a Swedish couple, a Danish couple, a Czech couple (the anti-deodorant kind we would soon learn) and a French guy. I had been eyeing the French guy with some concern ever since our group converged. He wasn’t packed light like the rest of us. He had his whole fricking backpack with him. It was only half full, but still this was not how one should pack for a 2,500 meter climb. There’s a sign posted just on the other side of the Gate showing the Mount Kinabalu Climbathon speed records. At the briefing, we had been shown a video of the 2002 Climbathon, part of the High Elevation Race Series, to get us all hyped for the journey and get a glimpse at what we were facing. These people had to race up to the summit and then back down in one go.

Porters of KinabaluI wouldn’t appreciate until the next day how amazing this effort was. The woman record holder did the entire circuit in three hours and six minutes. The man in two hours and 40 minutes. Most normal humans gasp up to the peak in about eight cumulative hours, broken up by a 13 hour break at Laban Rata to acclimate and nap. The tender limp from the summit back down to the gate is usually done in about four hours. In retrospect, these records are stupefying, to say the least. My favorite story of the Climbathon was the year that one of the women porters, Danny, decided to enter the race as a fluke and she f*cking won! The other women competing were professional athletes, with lucrative endorsement deals, who trained year-round and they were shown up by a 4”-11” unprepared porter who, if I had to guess, probably makes about 15 dollars a day. Though, granted, she did have the advantage of knowing every pebble on that mountain, but still, classic!

It was probably my imagination, but just as we were exiting the bus and getting last minute provisions at the most expensive, scrupulously placed convenience shop in all of Asia, I could have sworn that I felt the body aches starting somewhere in my chest, right along the ribs. Before I could dwell on it too much we were off. I was the oldest in the group, by 13 years (when the hell did 34 become so old??) and those whipper-snappers started at a brisk pace. The morning had been cold and we were all dressed pretty warmly, but the climb was strenuous, so after only 30 minutes we were all stripped down to shorts and t-shirts (layers is the biggest secret to conquering Kinabalu). I was feeling very good at the beginning. The two Czechs, perhaps feeling encouraged by the fact that the female Climbathon record holder was their countrywoman, shot ahead, while the French guy carrying what must have felt like a dead body, fell behind along with the never-to-be-seen-again Ronnie.

Laban Rata from aboveThe Swedish and Danish couples were also feeling a surge of energy at the beginning. I got left behind while I was resting and removing two shirts and my pants, but I reeled them in soon after when their early pace finally took its toll. After that, inconceivably, I actually led the way all the way to lunch at the half way point. We caught and dusted the now very stinky and exhausted Czechs at the first rest shelter.

Being at the front and with the humbled Danish and Swedish right behind me, I set an even, but slow pace. Small strides, with a deliberate and unhurried attitude toward the steps. According to Lonely Planet, there’s at least 2,500 steps from the Gate to Laban Rata, so I had no intention of rushing anything.

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