Thursday, July 09, 2009

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is often described (not entirely accurately, I might add) as a "beginner's mountain".

That's because it doesn't require special technical expertise. Anyone reasonably fit and determined can walk to the summit, the highest in Southeast Asia at 4095 meters. So when our friend Alex invited us on a Kinabalu climb with her sister's friends, we said "Sure!"

However, like any mountain, Kinabalu deserves plenty of respect... starting with a good training plan before you go.

I was a little too taken in by the brochures ("anyone from 7 to 70 can climb!"), busy with work, and perhaps a tad overconfident after having survived our trek in Nepal. So we were lax in training for KK... a few enthusiastic running sessions when we started out, eventually tapering off into a short hike up Bukit Timah (a whopping 165 meters high) every other week.

Moral lesson: when travelling with a group, always check out your tripmates before you go.

I knew I was in trouble when we got to the airport and one of our travelling companions was wearing a Singapore Ironman 70.3 km t-shirt. Not just any Ironman shirt, a FINISHER's shirt.

We spent the night at a lodge in the national park at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. Early the next morning we set off via Timpohon Gate. Naturally the glossy ads failed to mention the pouring rain. It IS a tropical rainforest, after all...

Luckily there were no leeches.

We reached Laban Rata rest house after a 5-hour climb. Grueling for me, an easy jaunt for our fit mountaineer companions. Why is it we always end up on trips with semi-professionals?

We spent the afternoon resting and pondering our crazy itinerary for the following day. Our group originally planned to hike up to the summit first thing in the morning, and then do the Low's Peak Circuit via ferrata and descend by the longer but more scenic Mesilau trail.

One thing we've learned from travelling is that we have limitations. John and I made it up to the summit (slowly) but decided to skip the via ferratas, saving energy for our descent. Alex took the easier Walk the Torq ferrata while her sister Caroline completed Low's Peak Circuit. In the end all of us descended via Timpohon -- after learning that Mesilau goes down into a valley and finishes with a 2 km uphill walk!

Our advice: If you're planning on the Via Ferrata, we recommend planning a more relaxed schedule with two nights on the mountain instead of one. That way you can see sunrise on the summit and then take your time with enjoying the breathtaking views on the Via Ferrata -- instead of rushing back down to safely descend off the mountain before dark. Apparently it's quite common for groups to be over-ambitious and end up scaling back their ferrata plans or dropping them altogether. When the expeditions agent tells you that the ferrata route is strenuous and difficult... believe them.

Even though we didn't do everything we'd planned, it was an exhilarating experience watching the sun rise from Low's Peak. During every step of a trek, we always swear we'll never do this again. But on our ride back to the KK airport -- safely recovered from any vestiges of altitude sickness -- we were already thinking of our next climb.

Tips for climbing Mount Kinabalu:
  • Train properly - cardio and stair-climbing twice a week and a steep 3-hour hike each weekend, starting 2-3 months before you go.
  • Know your limits and go slowly. This also helps reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
  • Book early. Accommodation fills up really fast.
  • Spend two nights on the mountain if you are planning the Via Ferrata.
  • Bring earplugs. Unless you're a sound sleeper who can rest with snorers in the same dorm!

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