Saturday, 23 January 2016

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Intense and awe inspiring, Mount Kinabalu is the 20th most prominent mountain in the world and the most exciting, challenging, and humbling experience I have ever had. 

Day One

Nailed it. Bag is 50% clothing, 50% snacks. All over this.

More likely to lose a foot to diabetes than hypothermia on this one
Just about to leave my hostel when the head chef calls me back and asks where I'm going. In his soft, old grandpa voice he speaks slowly:
"Ooooh. The mountain... You know people died in June? ... Nobody saw the quake coming... 7am, just after the sunrise... Schoolchildren, you know? ... No warning... Nature can be cruel..." And then, with a Professor Trelawney type snap of voice he said:
"Do not leave your guide, Miss Kirsten. Never leave your guide. Stick to him, and don't leave him."

My van horn beeped outside and I bid Hostel Grandpa adieu, thanking him for his advice and simultaneously trying to shake it off.

Made it to the Kinabalu National Park without adventure and was met by my guide, Joe. This made me instantly happy as he had the same sense of humour as a Joe from home, albeit with a goatee, which made for a good team straight away! 

View from the registration office!

My climbing God, Joe

Time to get cracking. We quickly went through the chat of families, work, sports, and travelling, and then got down to the funsies of learning about the nature which surrounded us. The hike itself goes through 7 separate ecological strata, each clearly defined with completely different animals, insects, plants, trees, and ground! 

Lara Croft vs Eliza Thornberry
Adventure time!

First up was rainforest, and my gosh it was spectacular. Jurassic Park Extended Edition crossed with Tarzan, then HD it all and times it by 7. Just incredible! Next up was jungle, much thicker and denser and a rougher ground surface. Steps upon steps, we kept climbing and climbing, taking quick rests at the shelter points every half KM or so for some water. 

The best thing was how deserted the trail was. We tag teamed at the rest stops with a Finnish guy who introduced himself as having done Kilimanjaro last year so "this will be very simple I think".

The first 2.5km went by on adrenaline and happiness, chatting away with Joe and kicking up a fair pace as he answered my endless questions about plants and climbing and trees and so on. Reaching 3k was a struggle, though, as my thighs and calves figured out this wasn't going to stop for a very long time yet and that they were not prepared for this! Still, we powered through the sandstone layers, the limestone layers, and the red clay type layers, taking in the astounding beauty of the whole park and occasionally running to an edge to look into the abyss of vine covered landslides, as Joe pointed out where the old trails used to be.

Dense as a properly made scone

Sandstone layer

Snazzing up the mountain 

Lunch. HAAAAAALLELUJAH praise the sweet baby Jesus and the makers of roast chicken sandwiches. 

Next up: metamorphic rock and the mother of all step sections, so I took full advantage of a carb-load session.  

Met up with Kilimanjaro at the shelter point and offered him half my Nature Valley as he looked so roughed up. We sat on a boulder watching the clouds roll over our first real view of the mountainside in all its glory, sipping on our water and munching away.

I could sit and watch the clouds roll over forever here!

"This is nothing like Kili, man. Y'know, Kili you go slow, 6 days, moving slow and taking each change in the landscape slow. This is like, crazy! There's no stop! It's 7 strata! Right there! Crazy, man..." 

We munched away in silence after that, sizing up the boulders on the section ahead. 



Huffing and puffing the wise words of my fitness guru, Fat Amy, it was time to start the last leg of climbing for the day. I took off over the boulders with a left butt cheek in spasm and a face I'm not sure even my mother would love, unintentionally twerking my way through the silvery trees and gradually having fewer and fewer mountain squirrels for company

6km and Laban Rata
I emerged from a dense tunnel of trees and boulders to look up and see the shining block of Laban Rata standing in front of me - a glorious sight! I was loving the climbing and being surrounded by the nature wholeheartedly, but as soon as I locked eyes on that hut of glory all I could think of was a steaming mug of Sabah tea. I thought I would be in the Pendant Hut, an unheated dormitory with sleeping bags and an outside toilet, but as it was low season I had been bumped up to the luxuries of Laban Rata itself! Full bed, showers, heating, the lot! Joe even changed my dorm from me and a team of 10 climbers to having a dorm with just one other person - divine.

Preach it 
Face rounder than a beach ball, but soul happier than a cat with a box

I had dinner, watched the sunset from the balcony, and mentally stabbed the Leeds Personal Trainer behind me who was on his soapbox to complain about how "piss easy" the climb had been and that he really didn't get the "hype". You'll hear more about him later.

Sunset with a chipmunk at Laban Rata

Sunset at Laban Rata

I think my body and brain were both in shock that evening. The jump from loads of exercise and healthy eating before Christmas to no exercise and eating fried Thai goodies and a lot of Chang for a month of travelling to outright challenge suddenly hit me as I laid down in my bed at 6.30pm. Being alone provides way more thinking time than I'm comfortable with, but a few things are important.

This challenge was very personal for me on a full range from token meaning to a very big mental click. On the token side it's a humongous "mwuhahaha" to the asthma and consequent steroids which changed my bone density and damaged my ankles. It's also a "thank you" to the doctor and my parents who lifted the roadblocks between what I wanted to do and what my body could take one by one. It's a personal memory to share with my Dad, who climbed the same mountain 30 years ago and got hypothermia because he gave his jacket to a girl in a worse position than him. And it's also just really, really, really fun! I love being outdoors and just finding what I can do and throwing myself into it. 

I usually end up throwing myself into things. I've fractured my heel in Klute because I was doing Gangnam Style too enthusiastically, I bought a clip-in race bike and took it out on one of the most hill-filled routes in Durham without really knowing how to clip-out properly and ended up cuddling the Tarmac more than riding it, and I decided that my first solo travelling would be a 6 month trip on the other side of the world. That's how I like to work. I set a goal and I make it, because I like having ambition and determination. So I had a great time in Klute despite hobbling to breakfast for a week, I got much better on my bike, and I'm backpacking! Until this point, though, I've always taken it for granted that when I've said I'll do something like this, I'll do it. That's it. That's normal, right? You make an important promise and you keep it. I'd give that respect to a promise I'd make to someone else so it's right to do it for myself. But this was a whole new level of being alone, because I was the only one who would benefit from me doing it - no charities, no deals, nobody else to think about. That realisation of doing something from start to finish just for me and me alone was simultaneously the most lonely and satisfyingly selfish moment. 

Anyway, as I say, thinking too much is bad. So back to the climb!

Day Two

I woke up with my alarm at 1.40am, adrenaline fighting tiredness, and was pleased to feel my legs were OK. Cramming in breakfast was a struggle for the first time in my existence but, 3 pancakes and an energy gel later, Joe and I were back on the adventure trail. I had been worried about the cold and so put almost all my layers on before leaving, and within 2 meters I called for Joe to stop so I could strip them all off again! 

In the pitch black and dead silence, Joe and I started on the first section: hundreds and hundreds of steps, each of which had been carried up by a mountain porter as individual planks of wood. I had to stop several times and crouch down to get my breath back - this was so much harder than yesterday! The air was so thin and my legs were getting heavy, there was only one thing for it. Out came the emergency Mars bar. 

And then came the harsh tones of Leeds Personal Trainer, shattering the peace with his roid-amplified voice: "Mate, mate! Can't I just climb the rock here? I don't want no pissy steps!" 

A) shut up, 
B) take the British past time and do not boast when others are struggling and, 
C) climb the goddamn mountain as the goddamn mountain is goddamn presented.

I was fuming. I didn't hold back at all. It was coming, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.
I tutted. Audibly. And glared.

It was either that or the simple "No" from his guide which put him back in his box. I'd like to think it was the tut.

With oxygen in my lungs and choccywok in my tummy, Joe and I set off again. More steps. More climbing. More steps. Then a sudden stop, as I looked up and just stayed still, transfixed by the stars above me. I've never seen a sky like that before. A complete, velvety blackness just glittering with the clearest, most defined, wonderfully sparkling balls of light. Joe put his hand over my head torch and I counted 3 shooting stars in quick succession, beautiful in the purest sense in the stark silence and darkness of the mountainside. Of everything I saw on the climb, that's the image I'd want emblazoned on my eyelids forever. 

The next section was an absolute beast. Climbing the sheer and smooth granite rockface was the first real exposure to the wind and, as I took hold of the rope and began to haul myself up, I was amazingly grateful for my huge hiking boots with their sturdy grip. Finally at the top of the section I let go of the rope with arms burning, and was instantly knocked sideways by a gust of wind, landing flat on the rockface next to a pile of small rocks. Joe spun around and helped me back up, brushing me down and giving me a nudge to go ahead of him. We walked, climbed, bouldered and hauled ourselves up more sheer faces in perfect silence - the only sound the gusting of the wind, and the only light the stars above and the small dotted trail of head torches ahead. It's so simple in that moment to understand why this mountain is known for being both sacred and haunted.

We hit the penultimate marker and the way panned out, everyone walking in a trance with hands clasped behind backs, heads down against the wind, and one foot in front of the other. The gusts were reaching 80mph now and nearly all our layers were on. Joe motioned me over to a small circle of rocks and we moved inside, huddling inside out coats as he explained we were moving too fast and had to take a break otherwise we'd hit the summit too early and could get hypothermia waiting for the sunrise. In my usual ain't-nobody-got-time-for-that manner, I whacked out a jumbo box of raisins and happily worked my way through.  

Then it was time for the final ascent. Smooth rock gave way to jagged, rough piles of beautiful but harsh granite, white scars from the earthquake 8 months ago visible even in the pre-dawn darkness. Joe pointed at Low's Peak and we were there, 20 steps, 10, and BOOM! A huge gust of wind knocked me straight backwards into a wedge between two lumps of rock! Once again, Joe fished me out and I waddled up to the peak with him behind me. We had nailed it! Joe and I high fived with such force it clapped around the mountain, and clambered our way behind the sign for our photos. Then it was time to huddle behind a big windbreaker rock whilst Joe lit up a cigarette with his guide buddies, and wait for the sunrise. There couldn't have been more than 30 of us at the summit, and I felt like I was completely and serenely alone.

Before I took to the mountain I had been so worried about clouds. I would be so, so disappointed with a cloudy morning after all that hard work! So much effort and not even to get a clear sunrise?! It's -5, 80mph gusts of wind, and I'm 4,095 meters up, come on!

When the sun did come, it barely peaked through a thick blanket of doughy white. 
And it was perfect.

Sunrise from just below Low's Peak

Every ache left my body. I couldn't feel the cold, the wind, I didn't even think to get out my camera. I just watched as the sky melted from darkness into peachy pinks, soft yellows, bright oranges, electric blues, and it just kept developing, more and more beautiful by the second. I didn't care that it wasn't crisp and I didn't even mind it wasn't clear, because it was my sunrise on top of the mountain I'd climbed, and that sunrise was lush. 

Then came the stabbing. A huge wave of nausea and a thwack of lightheadedness and I was flat on my butt again, breathing deeply and trying to stay conscious. In 10 seconds flat I had gone through every stage of altitude sickness and finished, with only the stabbing in my fingers to remind me of the cold. A few quick snaps of the sunrise and it was time to head back down the mountain!

This is St John's Peak, and it has a face of an orangutan on the right hand side!
Not clear here, but will be when I get my camera photos up!

Joe and I took the descent at a quick trot: Joe trying to preserve the cartilage in his knees, and me trying to get some warmth in my fingers and air back in my lungs! On the way down I could finally appreciate the scale of the climb that morning - the steepness of those rock faces was just insane, and we fully abseiled down them on the return journey! Joe pointed out exactly where I had been blown over for the first time. I went over to the pile of rocks I'd fallen into and saw, with my heart plummeting, that just inches over and I would have been headed down a sheer drop. I backed away quickly before tempting fate, and only then realised just how dangerous this climb could be!

Regaining feeling in my fingers

Cue Beyonce: I WAS HEEEERE

We abseiled, jumped, teetered and bouldered our way back down to Laban Rata and I took full advantage to take in every aspect of the beautiful beast. Up close, the rockface looks like a conceptual oil painting: strokes here, blotches there, and so many gorgeously defined shades of silvery grey. The white scars of 8 months ago are still fresh. Many guides make a small bow at the huge chunks of pearlescent granite which fell, as so many of them were involved in the search and rescue missions to recover their fellow guides and climbers from the mountain. Joe speaks about it softly and changes the topic quickly, too fresh and too real for discussion.

Having my Breakfast Club moment in 8 layers

Hitting Laban Rata was divine, and I headed straight for the vat of Sabah tea. After an hour's rest (including watching Leeds Personal Trainer stagger in after me massaging his quad and complaining loudly about the descent) the dream team was back on the trail to descend the mountain. I loved the descent because even though my muscles were sore and my legs were heavy, I was getting a second chance to fall in love with every level of this beautiful mountain. The rocks, the trees, the pitcher plants, the flowers, the rolling clouds, the berries, the boulders - every second was a new picture I just wanted to remember perfectly forever!

Laban Rata, aka the holy teapot of English climbers

We made it to the bottom and emerged through the cloud and the vines back at the gate of the trail, high-fiving and so, so happy. Apparently our time put our climb in the "very fit" category which made us both giggle as I emptied my backpack of the empty sugary goods wrappers into the nearest bin...! I said goodbye and thank you to Joe, grabbed some lunch and sat in the truck as we prepared to roll back to Kota Kinabalu, already asleep before the doors slammed shut. 

Dream Team


It's been 2 days since I summited Kinabalu and I still have a waddle to my step! Steps are being taken sideways and any unnecessary calf movement is avoided at all costs. Still, it makes me so happy to see a picture of the mountain and remind myself that I was there and that's why I can't move, and it is all so perfectly worth it!

I love that beautiful mountain for so many reasons, and I am so grateful to have been able to climb it. It's so special to share with my Dad, but it's also my own snapshot of personal happiness, especially the starry sky at 3am. 

It'll be with me forever and I hope to climb it again one day! 

I'll give it a few years though, for the sake of my calves...

Coming your way in 3-5 months

1 comment:

  1. This is amazing Kirstie!! Funny but so amazing :) I'm so in awe of you and insanely jealous at the same time - well done xxx Tammy