I am not quite clear on why Mount Kinabalu is called Southeast Asia's highest mountain. Burma, which is next to Thailand has a peak that is significantly higher but while the country is considered a part of Southeast Asia, the mountain that lies within it apparently didn't make the cut. The only thing I can guess is that so few travelers actually enter Burma, everyone just acts as if it does not exist. Therefore, Mount Kinabalu within the boundaries of the Malaysian portion of Borneo wins the title.
After floating around in the tropics for so long, I have been anxious to get my feet back on the slopes of a mountain again and give my neglected legs a bit of refreshing exercise. While I was looking into Borneo, I read about the grueling ascent on Mt. Kinabalu and was intrigued by the description of the tough climb through the rain forest followed by a strenuous final assault on it's granite peak. With an elevation change of over 2,600 meters (8,500 feet) in just eight and a half kilometers, it sounded like a challenging adventure that I was not going to miss out on.
With the rain pouring down as I sat waiting under the shelter of a decrepit looking bus stop on the side of the road, I began to wonder if the bus I had booked was going to actually show up. Several had already passed by around the time that I was supposed to be picked up and here I was passing the time by flicking the ants off of my backpack as they tried to discover what was inside. Wondering if my bus was going to show up I kept telling myself that this is Borneo and you are in the middle of the rain forest, it will show up. An hour late and just when I was about to stick my thumb out and try and get a ride for the five hour journey to the edge of Mt. Kinabalu National Park, the bus finally showed up.
When we arrived at the park, the rain was still coming down and now in the mountains the temperature had dropped significantly compared to the tropical heat I had left behind. Not knowing where exactly to go and not wanting my bags to be further soaked by the downpour, I dashed across the road to a small cafe just outside the park's entrance and took a moment to relax with a delicious dish of sweet and sour chicken along with a bowl of warm chicken soup.
Now I had read multiple times that I needed to book my accommodations on the mountain far ahead of time but I had decided to neglect the information provided in my handy dandy guide book and try to find a better price upon arrival. While space was not an issue, I did managed to discover that everything was manipulated by the park so the heavily inflated cost of the unheated dorm beds on the mountain was unavoidable. Frustrated by the cost of two nights on the mountain costing me more than a week's worth of stays anywhere else in Southeast Asia, I pulled out my wad of brightly colored money and apprehensively handed over the cash.
Curling up for a good nights sleep before the journey that lie ahead, I was happy to have a four bed dorm to myself. I turned off the lights and wrapped up in my sleeping bag keeping the fuzzy warm hat I picked up earlier in the day upon my head. Just as my eyes were closing, the door nob slowly turned followed by a flick of the light switch and in entered three Muslim men from Khota Baru on the Malaysian mainland. I said hello and accepted the fact that I would have roommates for the night but could never have expected the restless night that awaited me.
While the three men began shuffling through their bags, one pulled out some kind of portable radio and began playing music. Considering I was lying in bed trying to sleep and this should have been quite obvious to the three men, it was strange that they would have the nerve to turn on a radio and create even more noise as if they didn't want there to be any chance at all of allowing me to sleep. Frustrated, I rolled over and gave the one closest to the radio an evil look and without any words, I was successful in conveying the fact that they should turn the radio off, shut their mouths, and go to sleep.
Several hours later I was awoken by what sounded like an angry orangutan breathing and snarling in the corner of our room. Seeing that the door was still closed and knowing that I had left the Orangutans behind in Sepilok, I realized that the noise was coming from the man sleeping on the bottom of the other bunk bed. Snoring is a common problem with sleeping in dorms while traveling. Sometimes it is just slight and you can sleep right through it while other times it is down right outrageous. Still, I can usually grab my Ipod, turn on something soft and fall right to sleep. After confirming the source of the loud noises that had invaded my room I pulled my ipod out and turned the volume up as loud as I could bare as I attempted to drown out the snoring. With Van Morrison loudly singing and my ear drums ready to burst, I could still hear the horrible growling noises as if one of Mr. Morrison's backup singers had fallen asleep during the recording session. As the ipod wasn't helping this called for extreme measures which I have only had to resolve to using once before. I reached on the floor, picked up my headlamp and walked over to the bed of the man who was disrupting my sleep. Unresponsive to voices I grabbed him by the shoulder and gave him a good shaking. With a gasp and a terrified look, he awoke staring at me in fear. I apologized and told the man to roll over as he was keeping myself and all of the animals living nearby on the mountain awake. Although the man didn't completely understand my English, it was apparent that he knew what the problem was and quietly rolled over onto his side.
After making my way back to my bunk, I put my headlamp away, zipped up my sleeping bag and just as I closed my eyes I heard the snoring begin, this time even louder than before. Defeated and extremely tired I picked up my pillow and sleeping bag and made my way into the sitting area in a completely different building where I had seen a couch earlier in the day. With no one around, the only thing I had to do was turn out the lights, rearrange a few cushions and I was able to fall fast asleep.
The next morning I paid the ridiculously high park fee, the required insurance fee, and found a couple to split the cost of the unnecessary guide with me. At the checkpoint near the beginning of the trail, I told the couple that I was going to go on ahead as they were a bit older and had informed me that they would be pretty slow. Leaving the guide and the older couple behind, I began my assault on the mountain. The first days hike was supposed to be pretty strenuous with the elevation changing almost 1,900 meters (6,400 feet) in only six kilometers. According to the guides and the guide books it should take about six hours to reach the huts. As I marched through the rain up the muddy and rocky trail I could feel the strain begin. Ten minutes into the journey and I was feeling quite good about myself as I breezed past the first kilometer marker. Another fifteen minutes and there was marker number two. Not to bad to cover a third of what was to be a six hour journey in under a half hour or at least so I thought!
The third kilometer of my journey seemed to last a lot longer than the first two. I admit that I had definitely fallen off my initial pace due to the altitude making my breath so much lighter but I would have never guessed that it would have ended up taking me the same amount of time to travel the third kilometer as the first two combined. I accepted defeat and decided I was still making good time and marched on. With my steps gradually getting smaller and smaller and my heart beating faster and faster, I began to wonder where the fourth kilometer marker was. Maybe they forgot to install it? Even now as I write this, I am convinced that they did not space the markers out evenly as it had now been forty minutes since the last marker and I still had not marked another kilometer off my journey.
The fourth marker finally came around and the fifth one came up just as slowly as the fourth. I was feeling extremely tired but at just over two hours into the journey, I was only one kilometer away from the hut where I would spend the night! As I struggled to pull myself up over each rock and tree limb, I felt my legs burning beneath me. Walking at the pace of a ninety year old woman, I finally got a glimpse of the first of the huts on the mountain. Trying to find more information about where I would be staying and where the restaurant was, I began making my way up to the hut. I could see some people in the window and out came a man to greet me. He seemed to be smiling at me as if he knew me and when I pulled the hood off from my raincoat, he gave me a strange look.
Thinking I was his friend, a porter who was coming up that morning, he had come down to say hello. He asked me where I came from and I said that I had just come from the bottom of the mountain. The man didn't believe me when I told him that I left just after eight and here I was already up at 11:00 in the morning! He asked where my guide was and I informed him that I hadn't seen my guide since passing through the gate at the bottom of the trail. He laughed at me and after a short discussion about the hike, he pointed me to the main building where I could register for my bed and find something to eat. I slowly trudged across the path to the nearby building where I found the remainder of the people who had summited the mountain earlier that morning still finishing their breakfast before making the decent back to the bottom.
With no sign of my guide, my group or much less anyone else whom I had passed on my journey up the mountain, I tore into a pack of instant coffee I had carried up the mountain with me and gladly paid my one ringett for a cup of hot water. Now I could very easily have paid for a meal plan that the park was pushing but it would have cost me about fifty U.S. Dollars! Having already donated enough cash to support a Malaysian family for a month to the park, they were not about to get more money from me. I wouldn't pay fifty dollars back home for three meals at pretty decent restaurants so there was no way in hell I would be dishing that out for some rice, noodles and a few cups of instant coffee. At the bottom of the mountain I managed to secure several packs of instant noodles, a couple of cans of curry beef, three packs of instant coffee, several packs of peanuts as well as a couple of candy bars for just under about ten dollars. Not a bad savings I am quite proud to say!
As the rain continued to come down I finished my lunch and sat back in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs to enjoy the pleasure of reading a few pages in a book I had been given a couple of days before. A few chapters later and over two hours gone by and the first of the people I had passed on my way up the mountain began stumbling in. Drenched in rain and extremely tired, most people looked as if they might collapse on the floor before making it to one of the tables in the restaurant. The room was gradually filling with people and there was still no sign of my guide or the couple that I had begun my journey with. I began to wonder if the they had run into problems or decided to turn back when at 3:00 in the afternoon, they finally walked in. I said hello and although I don't think he understood my humor, I thanked my guide for doing such a wonderful job of showing me the path up the mountain. He told us that we would all need to be awake at 2:30 so we could begin the journey to the summit in order to arrive in time for sunrise. Having read that this was pretty standard on the mountain, I didn't bother to argue that I would probably be able to reach the top without such an early start and I figured it would be quite nice to sit on the top in the pitch black of the night while waiting on the sun to emerge.
At about 2:00 in the morning the unheated hut I was sleeping in sprang to life. Gathering up their belongings, brushing their teeth and making cups of coffee and tea, everyone began gearing up for the final push to the summit. Around 2:30, the guides began showing up and taking off up the hill with their respective groups of travelers. With three o'clock fast approaching, there was still no sign of my guide nor the older couple who were staying in the comfort and warmth of a heated room at the lodge down below. As I stood staring off the porch into the freezing cold darkness with no one left in my frigid hut, my guide finally emerged from around the corner with the older couple at his side. I said hello and that I would see them at the top and began the final assault on Mt. Kinabalu.
Not surprisingly, it didn't take long before I came upon the mass of people who were only able to move up the mountain as fast as the slowest person up ahead. Like a human traffic jamb, everyone was virtually standing still, taking a few steps every now and then as people somewhere up higher took a break from their series of rests to take a few more steps up the mountain. Frustrated, I began stepping around and off the trail to pass by the mass of people who were doing more resting than climbing. After a twenty minute climb stepping over more people than rocks, I finally emerged from the pack and got into the rhythm of a smooth and steady pace up the mountain. Walking under complete darkness I could look back at the line of headlamps making their way up the mountain and it looked as if a giant glow worm was following behind me. By now the vegetation on the mountain had disappeared and all I could see was the slippery and wet granite surface along with the rope that I was to use to pull myself up the steepest parts of the climbs. Without any trees to block my view, far up ahead, there was still the occasional flicker of a few torches shining around and I was determined to be the first one up the mountain giving me just a few minutes to enjoy the summit on my own.
With my pace moving as slow as humanly possible, I somehow seemed to be gaining on the lights ahead. After passing the first couple of groups while they had taken a break for a rest, I could see that I only had one more group to go. With one and a half kilometers left, I came over a ridge and found the last group of climbers resting on a rock and eating a couple of snickers bars. I said hello and pressed on into the darkness. Beneath a starless sky I could barely make out the shapes of the jagged peaks that were now all around me. The only thing in sight was the face of the mountain I was hanging onto and the rope I was pulling myself up with extending as far as my light would shine into the complete black of the night.
Alone and in complete darkness hanging onto the face of the mountain I found myself thinking that this moment and this experience is exactly what I love about traveling and being in the outdoors. It is a feeling that I can't explain to anyone who has never been in a similar situation but if you have been there, you understand exactly what I mean. Looking up into the darkness at the face of the mountain ahead I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to be there, said a short prayer and slowly pulled myself up the remaining portion of the mountain.
Finding myself with nowhere left to go in any direction but down, I realized that I finally had arrived at the top. As I stood there catching my breath and was about to let out a primal scream of accomplishment to break the silence all around, I heard a quiet cough from nearby. Shining my torch in the direction of the cough, I found a Malaysian man wearing an id tag and nearby a couple huddled together trying to warm themselves from the chill of the biting cold and wind that surrounded us. Puzzled, I looked over at them and could only ask “What time did you leave to get up here???” They responded with a weary “Way too early.” I remembered waking up confused around 1:00 in the morning to people walking around and doors shutting and I asked if that was them and they confirmed my suspicion. After a slow ascent the previous day, the couple feared they would not make it to the top in time for sunrise and requested to their guide that they leave early. With me still lying in bed and a full two hours before I set foot on the trail, they had already begun climbing. The whole journey up only took me two hours as it was now five o'clock in the morning and these guys had a two hour head start! My hopes of having a few minutes to enjoy the summit alone were spoiled. Looking out into the darkness however, the couple disappeared and with only the sound of the wind filling my ears, it felt incredible to be standing there on the tip of the jagged and narrow peak, the highest point for thousands of miles in every direction.