Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, Dec 31 - Jan 4, 2011

Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah state of Borneo (Malaysia) is the highest mountain in South-East Asia with its majestic 4095 meters. Climbers say that it is easy, since it can be scaled without any technical equipment. However, the climb can be quite taxing just because of the altitude and relatively short and steep ascent --- on the first day from 1866m to 3273m in 6 kilometers, and on the second day from 3273m to the summit in 2.7 kilometers.
The ultimate goal of this extended weekend expedition is to climb Mt. Kinabalu. Hence, we do not spend much time in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state. We arrive late from Singapore, and have dinner at Little Italy (as per our friend's recommendation), and then enjoy the New Year countdown in Upperstar Grill&Bar with a bottle of red wine. The staff hands out glittery masks and rattles to patrons just before the midnight. Next morning we wake up early to kids screaming in the next room, then adults yelling, and subsequent kids crying. Selamat Tahun Baru!
Before heading to Taman Negara Kinabalu, we spend quite some time looking for a breakfast place in town (1 City Hotel where we stay does not offer any meals). We end up at the breakfast buffet in Best Western Daya Hotel's Hunter's Pub, Cafe and Karaoke. The buffet is not great, but at least they make decent omelettes.
Once in the Kinabalu park, we handle all the paperwork required for tomorrow's climb and the accommodation in Hill Lodge. We receive a lot of meal vouchers and receipts for paying various things, the mountain guide being one of them. The service in the park headquarters is knowledgeable, friendly, and efficient!

Above Tomi is having chicken lihing soup for lunch at the park's Liwagu restaurant. Lihing is rice wine that gives the soup a strong and distinct flavor. After a couple of spoonfuls we are intoxicated. Whoa!

After packing our climbing gear for the next day, we return to Liwagu for dinner. This time it does not go equally smoothly. They are out of several menu items, for instance green salad. We settle for Tom Yam soup and Chicken noodle soup for starters, and expect the main course (lamb chops) to be served at the same time. And of course it is. We find carrot cake with carrot in the dessert menu, but they don't have it. We order fresh cut fruit instead.

Next morning starts cloudy, but we actually have our first view to Mt. Kinabalu directly from our doorsteps!

Little after 8am. we meet our guide Wilfred and start the climb from Timpohon Gate (elev. 1866 meters). Actually the first 500 meters take us down to Carson Falls. From there on, it is six kilometers of steep stairs or rocky ] trail to Laban Rata, with few flat sections or gentle slopes. Wilfred follows us like a zombie, breathes heavily, but takes a cigarette break whenever we rest.
We take a short break at every shelter or hut along the way: at the 4-K point we enjoy the packed lunch provided by Balsam Cafeteria in Kinabalu Park. At these rest stops we also meet people from all over the world: young couples from Europe, older couples from Europe and Australia, families with kids from Australia, Europe, and North America.
The landscape changes drastically soon after the 4-kilometer mark: we are no more in a rainforest but in brushwood. We are also above the clouds, which means the sun comes out and makes the world pretty warm.
At 1:05pm, after climbing for 4.5 hours, we are at Laban Rata Resthouse at the elevation of 3273 meters. We take a little rest at the main building's cafeteria before heading up some 150 more meters to our accommodation in Gunting Lagadan Hut at 3323 meters. And that is the hardest section today!
We have been warned that there is no warm water in showers because of some problems in the power station. It can't provide enough electricity to all appliances and functions, so heating the bath water is obviously lower in priority than lighting or preparing and storing food. Even beer is kept in room temperature, which is not so bad, since it is somewhat cool up in plus 3200 meters.

We take a quick shower in the icy water, and lie down in front of our hut to warm up in the sun. Another couple joins us. We chat with them, mainly about how she feels about climbing in her Vibram FiveFingersa. We may even briefly fall asleep. It is so calm and quiet and warm.

Super hungry we return to the main building for beers and some salty snacks. The dining room is buzzing, packed with climbers, both exhausted and excited about today's climb. The dinner buffet opens early and soon a long line forms. The rest of the evening is split between visiting the buffet and trying to capture the last rays of the setting sun with the camera.
We share a tiny room with two bunk beds and nothing else in it with an Australian couple. They are already in bed when we get in around 8pm., and are planning to start the morning climb earlier than us. Nothing wrong with the room or the bed, and our roommates (or the neighbors) are not noisy nor snore, but still we have a sleepless night. Brian and Carmel get up and out around 2am., and we don't pretend to be sleeping much longer. Following the example of other climbers, and misled by the cool air last night, we put all our warm clothes on, and hike down to Laban Rata where we meet our guide. We strip the windshell and one basic layer off, but we leave the gloves on.
We start our climb in the dark at 3am. with our head lamps on. First there are stairs. Then we hit the section so steep that we need to pull ourselves up on the rope. The limited view provided by the head lamp give us a strange feeling: we see the steep downward slope on our right, but not really how deep the drop is ... 10 meters, 100 meters or more ...

The slope levels a bit so that we can walk without using the rope. It is then we are hit by the altitude. We take few steps at a time and rest for a second to avoid vertigo. All we can see is a chain of bright light specks winding up to the mountain, and the farthest one seems to be at least two kilometers away. At that point Wilfred confirms that we have just 95 meters to climb to the summit, and another hundred fifty meters or so to walk.

It is still dark when we meet the first group of people coming down. Heavy cloud cover blocks the sunrise view, they tell. Even if there is not much to see of the sun, it is quite a surreal moment when the world lightens up as we reach the crowded summit at 6:05am.
We take the mandatory photos --- of Tei, Tomi, and Ocho --- put on some more clothes for the chilly descent, and head downhill. It takes us two hours to reach Laban Rata.
The descent is easier than the climb; the vertigo poses no problems, but the steep slope is hard for knees. And only now, looking up we realize how steep the slope actually is. Even the steepest section, where we pulled ourselves up on the rope, does not look so bad when going down, but when looking up, it looks unbeatable in daylight. Anyway, it is better to hang on the rope to beat the gravity.
When back in Laban Rata we have a quick breakfast before starting the descent. It takes us three hours to cover the first three kilometers. Mostly rocky trail makes it hard to use the poles --- why is it so much harder to go down with them?
Contrary to our expectations we do not have much opportunities to observe our surroundings, the vegetation or the wildlife, since the trail takes all our attention. But every now and then we stop to rest. It is then we spot a small pitcher plant, but we miss all the big ones.

The weather changes back and forth between warm overcast and breezy drizzle. We get the first real downpour when reaching Timpohon Gate after 4.5 hours.

On our last night at Liwagu restaurant we are smart and have the starter served before ordering the main course. We opt for dishes listed as Malaysian specialties, but they actually sound more like Chinese: chicken with ginger, kai lan with garlic, and tofu hot pot. Lame and rather tasteless. They still don't have carrot cake, or any dessert cakes for that matter.
On our last morning we take a short hike on nearby trails. This time we have ample time to pay attention to the details of our surroundings, on top of being super careful on the muddy and slippery stairs without our hiking poles. But first of all we enjoy clear, clean, and cool mountain air that makes breathing and any physical exercise so easy and comfortable.