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In a moment of madness, Kim and I decided to go climb Mt. Kinabalu. I think it was the wiles of Cheng (aka Liz) that got us to take on this first-time-in-our-lives adventure. On hearing that Cheng, Jeannie, and Kim were going, I decided to tag along too, since I had never climbed anything before, save during the army days in Taiwan. Jeannie had decided to go too, since she had heard that we were going. Kim decided to go since she had heard that Jeannie and I were going. ....hmm...so who decided first ? :-P
Well, in any case, I would say that it was an excellent experience. At least we did summit and made it back down safely in one piece. And at our age too, it certainly felt like a real accomplishment.
So here are some photos and my memoirs to log the journey !! It's really long, but hey, it was a long (at least it felt long) journey ! If anyone wants originals, do send me an email. Click on the small photos to see a bigger version, and click the "Back" button on your browser to get back after you're done looking. The photos here have all been scaled down in size so that they load faster (Originals are 3-4MB in size !). You can also click links on the left to see what Kim and Cheng wrote as well.
We departed for Kota Kinabalu on Saturday, 13 March 2004, on MH 638 at 1.25pm. Cheng had all of us meet at the airport at 10am....talk about Kia Su !! :-P Hey, don't forget that I had just arrived back from the USA the night before at 11.30pm, so a few more minutes in bed, or to pack, would have been appreciated !! Anyway, it did ensure we all got there and all checked in with plenty of time to spare to enjoy a plate (or two) of Char Kuay Teow and Chai Tao Kuay! There were 26(is this correct ?) of us altogether, of which only 4 were guys. Janet and Justin were non-climbers, and would be our send-off and welcome-back party, as well as bag-jaggar'ers, at Park HQ. After transiting at Kuching, we finally arrived at Kota Kinabalu at 6.30pm. Quite a tedious flight, but with so many of us occupying about 5 whole rows at the rear of the plane, the time sort of went by relatively quickly. At least the food which they served on the plane, though basic, was pretty yummy. Maybe we were just hungry !
Then it was onto a bus for a ride that took about 2.5 hours sometimes zipping, and sometimes zig-zagging, but ever climbing to Mt. Kinabalu Park HQ at 5000 ft. Boy, were we relieved (and some had to go to be relieved) when we finally reached our destination, only to realize that that was only the reception desk. Haiya, I thot can go sleep already since it was already about 9.30pm. A quick study of the trail map they had hung in the office helped stir the apprehension for the next few days. "Ooh....look at those trails...looks easy lah. We going to enter here at Timpohon gate, go up this trail to Laban Rata rest house, summit, then come back to the rest house, then down here and go back by the Mesilau trail here see..! *whisper, whisper, whisper* Yahlor, this Cheng want to get two certs what...."
Since this was my first ever trip in my life climbing (or at least attempting to climb) a mountain, I really had no clue what I would be in for. So apprehension it was as we trundled back onto the bus, only to roll out again a few minutes later when the bus delivered us to our home for the next few days (2 for the climbers, and 5 for Janet and Justin). Janet, Justin, Kim and I occupied one of the 3 Nepenthes (or as Kim would say, "No-panties") Villas, and the others had the other 2, as well as Raja Lodge. Very nice accommodations - so modern - wood all over, flushing toilet, telephone, kitchen, warm...um......then cold....um....then warm water to shower with, upstairs, downstairs, got fireplace some more...!!
The Sunday was a day of rest, for us to get acclimatized, and probably more to mentally prepare ourselves for the actual climb. Park HQ is actually a very pretty place, if you take the time to look around. Many flowers blooming here and there. Some were so small - less than 0.5 cm in diameter ! Took a macro close up photo of these blue and yellow ones on the right that sort of winked at us from between the grasses....had to stoop down to see what they were.
There were also many critters around. Justin and I were nosing around in some bushes looking at some spider webs with their owners. Then we saw a very pretty "chicken drumstick" grasshopper.....then another,....and another,....and another,....and pretty soon we realized this whole bush was infested(?) with grasshoppers of all shapes and sizes. This bush was of course named thereafter as grasshopper bush. I don't think you'd want to shake the bush, unless you really wanted to re-enact the scene where God was angry at us and sent all these nasty things to fly into our ears....
I must say that one of the most beautiful sights was in the morning, when we walked out of our abode, and looked up the street. There looking down upon us, in all its majestic glory, was the mountain and its many royal peaks. We couldn't see the summit from here, our leader tells us, 'cos it's behind this peak here called South Peak. And you'll always see these "Donkey's Ears" on your right on your climb. Ooh......quick quick....get the camera !! I like the one where Kim appears almost ghostlike with the mountain, while Janet has her breakfast, and Justin lounges.....on the table !
The next day was when all the excitement began. We all gathered at the reception office area and were assigned guides and porters. Our guide was called Mikin (aka "Mai Kin !"), and the porter carrying Kim and my barang-barang was called Ramuna. Costs about RM7.50 per kg to go all the way up to Laban Rata and back ! Pretty hard work it seems ! The whole place seemed like a fish market for a while since it was really bustling with lots of activity as they sorted and weighed all the stuff we were bringing up ! We also got these fancy ID tags which we would have to use to register our movement at certain checkpoints. We were grouped into 5 groups, of which mine was called Vinson, or as our group leader, Linna christened it, Venison (after which this name stuck for good) !
We then had a 30 minute bus ride that brought all of us to Timpohon gate - the official start of the route to the top of the mountain ! After a few photos and having registered and paid for the climbers, we were all set to go. Here's where expectations took a turn, as it was a non-stop uphill climb that never really let up. All the 6 weeks of training on Bukit Timah Hill was nothing compared to this. It was just up up up for a good 5+ hours - we started at about 10am and only arrived at Laban Rata Resthouse after 3pm. Of course the faster fitter younger folks arrived there much earlier, about 1-2pm ? Thank goodness for the many pondoks, or rest stops that were sprinkled along the way (7 in total). They really helped to break up the journey into more manageable segments, and we always had something closer at hand that we could look forward to. Kim and I had two trekking poles each, 'cos our knees are so bad. These poles are real life savers...ummm knee savers - I would have never survived without them. You do expend more energy, but it does spread the load from your legs/knees to your upper body.
The change in vegetation throughout the trek was really interesting to observe (for those who could catch their breath enough). It started off being the very traditional dense rainforest and then became the relatively sparser temperate vegetation. Of particular note was what we called the petrified forest, since all the trees here had bark which seemed ghostly white, with wiry and gnarled arms reaching this way and that. Almost alive. In any case, we did plod on and we finally arrived at the Laban Rata Resthouse at an altitude of 11,000 ft. Whew, it was such a relief to even make it this far. All I wanted to do was to sleep ! Umm....after having some makan of course.
The Resthouse is definitely better than anything I would have expected at this location. It had a full canteen with very good albeit pricey food. Also had rooms with heaters and warm water (the same sort of iffy warm that we were beginning to get accustomed to) for our shower. Luckily brought my own itsy bitsy towel as they didn't provide that (though you could actually rent 'em). Prices here are pretty exhorbitant. It cost me RM8 for a bottle of water, which would cost about RM1-2 down below. Also a plate of fried rice would be about RM15, and cream of chicken soup about RM4. But then again, just thinking of having to carry all this stuff up from below made me sort of understand why it would be so pricey. Alamak! After having bought my water, only then did I find out that you could get drinking water for free from water coolers at the dining area, or have them fill your water bottle with hot water for RM2 only :-( .
Well, the real excitement would begin early the next morning, and I mean really early. The plan was to set off at 2.30am, push forward through the rest of the night so that you arrive at the summit in time to catch the sunrise. At least that was the plan. So after an early dinner, everyone was off to bed trying to catch some shut-eye as much as they could. I was awake by 1.30am, and after washing up and suiting up with thermal underwear and fleece, a simple breakfast of creamy chicken soup, with water mixed with Gatoraid, balaclava mask, head-torch, Mars bars, gloves, windbreaker, and camera in my backpack, we set off in the dark. It was already 3am.
The ascent was even more punishing than the day before's. It started off with hundreds of stairs, each seemingly a sliver thin, that climbed up into the darkness. Then it abruptly ended and was replaced with a climb and scrabble up a boulder-strewn path. When we looked back at the route we came though, a really tremendous sight greeted me. Up here so high, and with no light pollution nor air pollution at all, the night sky was simply majestic and awe-inspiring. I really am into astronomy, and I knew that Kinabalu would be an ideal location for star-gazing. The many personal battles I had with myself, whether to lug my telescope along (which I had decided not to), and my binoculars, and my star-pointer, and my starmaps, and my laptop computer, were long and difficult. Anyway, the view of the stars is simply indescribable, and is worth the whole trip alone. Throughout our nighttime ascent, we were accompanied in the southern sky by Scorpio, Crux (the Southern Cross), Centaurus, and Lupus. Jupiter was also setting in the west, but the moon was only just rising and waning crescent, so the route was not very well lit, and I really felt sorry for some of our co-trekkers who didn't have torches.
We finally reached Sayat-Sayat, which is a checkpoint where they would record who went up and who has come down. The hut here was where the pre-Laban Rata climbers used to stay before their summit ascent a long time ago. The vegetation up to this point was still the sort of scraggly temperate brush.
After Sayat-Sayat begins the ropes, and this is where the terrain becomes totally rock-faced. I was soon to find out that this rope, or at least a whole string of them lined up end to end and securely fastened at points to the rocks, would lead all the way to the summit of Low's Peak. It's actually kind of safe and reassuring to know that it's there, and whenever the climb seemed too steep, it's there to hold on to and haul oneself up. And haul we did, for many sections certainly felt precarious. I say "felt precarious" because even while we were hauling ourselves up at seemingly impossible angles, these guides would come traipsing by, ever so nimbly and assuredly - yes, like mountain goats ! They didn't need ropes, fancy climbing boots, trekking poles, or any fancy equipment. They didn't even seem to need to breath (or pant like the rest of us) at all !
Well, all I can say was that this last push was the most arduous and torturous of them all. I have never felt such pain with every single step. I do remember saying to myself how I would never ever want to bring (or send) anyone on this trip, as there was no way I'd want anyone to ever feel this amount of agony. The whole feeling was so Lord-of-the-Rings-like, and I certainly identified with Frodo as he was carrying the ring that seemed to weigh heavier and heavier around his neck. The air was supposedly a lot thinner (40% less oxygen) than normal, so I was watching for the narcotic effects, dizziness or nausea. Thankfully, it was relatively mild for me. Kim was affected though, and she had a spate of nauseausness. We were at a point where we would have to stop and rest after only 10 steps, which was already a great effort. She was really pooped, and she also had to go poop !! Read her account for more details :-)
We were supposed to reach the summit to await the sun's rising, but there was no way we would make it. While the summit was only a glimpse away, the sky started glowing, and the rocky path much easier to see. Looking to the east, just behind Donkey's Ears, we could see the sky coming ablaze with the iridescent sun's rays. I whipped out my camera and snapped off a few shots to capture the moment. Click the picture to the right to get a feel of the panorama at that time. Looking down on the clouds certainly gave me the magical "on top of the world" feeling.
Well, the last push was the hardest. That last kilometer and a half seemed to take forever. And it was quite demoralizing to meet those who had already summitted, saw the sunrise, and were on the way back down. But trudge on we did, till at last we came to the foot of the gigantic peak. Actually not that gigantic lah, but looking up at that point in time, with all our energy spent, and feet and legs aching, it looked almost too big to climb. But then, as someone put it, it was just impossible to give up there, so close and yet so far. So we clambered and hauled on the rope, picking our way up the rocks, navigating as best we could, till at last we arrived at the summit !! It wasn't like a summit I had expected at all !! Seemed so small. Like a pile of rocks someone (maybe a giant child ?) decided to stack one on top of the other. And there was this one funny slab, like a stone table top that was there. Now I understood why those who had summitted earlier where perched the way they were - pigeon-like, on the rocky face. However, when we arrived, it was literally empty, save for two familiar faces. Kwong Yee and Su Yin had stayed to await us. Kwong Yee to catch on video all those in the group who summitted (and also, so he says, for me and my camera to catch a picture of him - see below), and Su Yin, who was waiting for us and her good friend, and Venison's leader, Linna.
What did I do when I reached the summit ? I simply collapsed and had to take a nap !! Which was wonderful, since the sky was absolutely clear, the sun was shining warmly on my face, the air was crisp and cool, and the wind was not at all as windy as we had heard it could be. Simply put, it was the perfect summitting day. And as I dozed on the rocks, I was lullabied by angels. Hmmm ? Yes ! Kim had amazingly totally recuperated from her huffing and puffing (females do that much better than males I think), and she was leading a choir up there on the mountain top. They were coming up with all the mountain-top type songs they could think off - Top of the World, Climb every Mountain, etc etc. Maybe the thin air was getting to their heads. All I could do was maybe wag my finger to keep time, and worry about where I'd find the energy to get down this huge mountain.
Well, after about 30-45 minutes, I did rouse from my slumber, and decided to take a panorama shot of the view to commemorate the very fact that I was there. So click on the picture below to get a feel of the view from the summit. Warning though, it's a large file (1.3MB - already scaled down from 3MB), so those using modems will need to be patient.
You had to be there to see what for me is one of the greatest sights in the world. Not to mention the once-in-a-lifetime view of Mr. Deltoid, King of the Mountain, who almost bared it all !! To see animated views, click on the pictures to the left !! He's none other than Kwong Yee, who's worked very hard to get into this shape...something we'd all be proud of too if we could ever attain it :-D Oh, one sight that really moved me to tears, was looking down the hill, and I saw Victor(?), one of our guides who couldn't be more than 20 years old, helping someone up to the summit. This was one of those mountain goat type feats I was always amazed at, where we would have been hauling on ropes, and he was just leading Suan Eng by the hand, as though he were dancing a Viennese Waltz with her. But the moving part was when he had delivered her successfully to the top, he then immediately scampered down again in less than 10 seconds, and was then helping the next person up to the summit. For me this was incredible, since I could barely move, and just to imagine the motivation he had to do what he was doing made tears well up in my eyes.
An hour passed much too quickly, and what goes up must come down, so we all finally reluctantly got moving down the hill. It was just as challenging going down, and Kim's knees were really pushed to the limit. I was once again ever so thankful for my dual trekking poles, since they really took the thump off the knees. It was a clear day up till now, and we saw the clouds start to roll in from below us, on their way to cover the peaks as they are wont to do every day. Walking through the clouds was an almost magical experience, with tiny pearl-like droplets of water appearing on our hair, seemingly out of nowhere ! We really took our time coming down. Three of the five guides were with us. We thought they enjoyed our company, but they were probably doing their job getting rid of slowpokes from the peak so that they could finally close the Sayat Sayat gate :-P !
Anyways, we finally got to Laban Rata again, much to the applause of all those who had already returned a long time before. That evening, we had a grand celebration dinner at the canteen, and rounded off with a birthday cake for Mary for her 50th birthday. I will always remember Mary's "disappearing trick" when the birthday cake emerged. Never saw anyone move so quick in my life !! One minute she was there, and the next she was under the table bashfully hiding ! :-D Haha, well, she finally did decide to come up, make her wish, and blow out her candles !
That night after dinner was pretty memorable too, as there were many who were interested in star-gazing. So we all trooped down to a dark area with chair in hand to admire the heavens. I had brought along my star-pointer (like a green laser pointer), which came in really useful to point out where each star/planet/ constellation was. The milky way was easily visible, and this is something that someone who lives in the city never ever sees in their lives because cities have just too much light pollution. Funnily though, most people felt the best part of the whole experience was the way the star-pointer worked !! Like Star Wars light sabre lah !
The next day, we woke up at a relatively decent hour, got our stuff packed and we assembled for a group photo at the clearing just in front of Laban Rata Resthouse. After that, we broke off into our groups and began the long journey back down the mountain. We wouldn't be taking the normal route down back to Timpohon Gate, but instead, we'd be branching off eastward down the Mesilau trail. It would add another 3 kim to our route, and our guide estimated we'd take about 7 hours to get down. It was a long walk, but the trail itself was really much nicer than the normal one. There were sections where we would be walking on ridges with nice scenery on both sides, and there were also parts where there were streams to cross (with bridges lah). As each of us had different downhill paces, we were soon separated, and I spent quite a good portion of the trek alone with no one in sight up and down the trail.
There was a scary moment when a porter comes running by, looking for another porter. I said I hadn't seen him, and he bounds off downhill (which was probably about 45 degrees or steeper, over rocks and all) at an incredible speed. About 5 minutes later, Chiew Guat bounds down as well looking for the porters. She tells me that Kim's knees, which had been really painful ever since the start of the descent, had popped, and she needed the first aid kit which the front porter was carrying. I really didn't know what that meant, so I was torn between waiting for Kim to come down, or to walk back up the path to where they were. Chiew Guat finds the front porter (who was about to remove his shirt to go for a dip in a stream), gets her first aid kit, and sends the porter running back uphill to where Kim was. Eventually, I thought I'd better go check so I dropped my pack and started walking back up. I hadn't gone more than about 100m uphill when more of the group came down and told me that Kim was ok, and on the way down. So I didn't go up any further and went back to my backpack to wait. After about 30 minutes, Kim and her "entourage" finally turns up, and she had had her knee bandaged very tightly to keep her kneecap from dislocating. It's quite clear that with my reconstructed knee, and her dislocatable kneecaps, we are genetically not really suited for mountain trekking, at least not the downhill part :-D
The final stretch getting to the end of the trail had Kim screaming and cursing, since the end never seemed to appear when we really expected it to. Woon Yi, who I'm convinced is superwoman in disguise, had come back up the trail with cans of 100 plus to perk us slowpokes up. She already had had lunch at the restaurant, and had bought all these cans of drink there. I'm still amazed at just how far she had come back up the trail to meet us, as it still seemed like an interminably long walk to get to the end we met her. She is really really fit, and she claims that she comes back up the trail to find us because she needs to train for her Kilimanjaro trip in June. I think she just cares for us and came to make sure we were ok ;-)
Well, eventually we did emerge at the exit gate at Mesilau, and with much fanfare and cheering from the crowd (you know, all those who were waiting there for the past 2 hours, can't go home till the last one finishes), we felt a great accomplishment for having finally completed the trail. We assembled for one last group shot (well actually quite a few group shots), trundled into some vans that were patiently waiting for us, and we were delivered safely back to Park HQ.
That night, we had another (yes another one) celebration dinner at Rajah Lodge. This time it was a grand buffet dinner. The most sumptuous I've ever had ! All that walking and trekking I think lost me about 3kg, so it was time to put it all back ! After that, we gathered in the lodge and got a very nice "pat on the back" message from our leader, Cheng/Liz. We also got our dual certificates, which were presented by none other than Justin ! Well, Cheng got her Mesilau certificate, I got my experience of my lifetime, and we all walked away with a real sense of achievement. There wasn't any more doubt about whether we could make it or not. We had made it. And we came away a lot better for it. Acquaintances became friends, and friends made the difference.
I did remember my thoughts very clearly at the time of the climb, that I never wanted to have anyone go through the agony of the climb. But Justin says he wants to do it. And Cheng has promised to bring him when he turns 15 (in 5 years). So what do I do ? Already memories of the pain has faded more and more, and the sense of achievement, and yes pride at having been able to do it, is what remains. I'll just take it one day at a time. A lesson learnt from the mountain. To get to the summit, you just need to take one step at a time.