Finally the big day was upon us. We'd been looking forward to this hike with 60/40 excitement and trepidation for months now so it was a relief to finally be getting to it.
We showed up at the National Park at about 8am after spending the night at a nice spot down the road and getting a ride to the park by a really nice local old man. Once arrived we checked in, stored our big bags, got our packed lunch and then arranged our guide. We paired up with a Dutch guy who was solo and looking to split a guide and so with the addition of Fernand, our group was 3 plus plus guide. We got driven a few minutes up the road to the trailhead where we posed for a few pre-climb photos and then at just before 9am we set off up the hill.
The trail to the summit is only 8.7 km which really isn't all that long of a hike. Plus, on that first day we only needed to go 6 km to the Laban Rata hut where we'd stay the night and then get up early to climb to the summit for a sunrise over Borneo. The thing is that while it is under 9 km to the top, the elevation gain is substantial and the trail steep. Topping out at 4,095.2 meters above sea level (13,514 ft), Mt. K is the tallest mountain in SE Asia and is a whopper even by North American or European standards. We'd heard stories of sore legs and short breath from friends who'd been here and scaled the "stair master" that this hike is known as, and so despite feeling confident that we could manage the distance we were aware that we were getting ourselves into something more sinister then your standard 8.7 km hike.
The first 20 minutes went smooth enough, and we were happily chatting away when we felt the first rain drops hit our heads. By the time we'd reached the sign noting we'd ascended 1km it was fully raining. We took a small break at the shelter to get out of the rain and to attempt to cover our day packs with our rain coats.
Despite the weather, we felt pretty good and so on we climbed through the rain passing slower hikers from time to time. It should be noted that we were hiking with only small day packs that couldn't have weighed more than 2 kg each.
Now, the trail is well trodden as a couple hundred people make the trek everyday between the tourists, guides and the porters who haul on their backs, shoulders, and heads all the supplies needed to keep the Laban Rata hut going. These guys (and gals) are absolutely incredible!
While we sat under a shelter catching our breath and having a snack we watched as one such porter came past carrying a huge metal pipe that would have been 15-18 feet long. He had a towel wrapped around the middle as padding and he swapped off between balancing it on each shoulder as he climbed. When he stopped for a breather we asked him how much it weighed...35 kg! (77 lbs.) In all my days of backpacking, I doubt I've ever carried a pack much over 70 lbs. and even if I have, carrying a backpack with padded shoulder straps and a hip belt is a far cry from an awkwardly long metal pipe being perched on one shoulder at a time and climbing up this steep-ass trail.
Later up the trail, we saw 4 porters struggling under a massive load that was lashed to two thick pieces of bamboo. We were told it was a transformer for the power system up at the lodge. God knows how much the damn thing would have weighed, but it certainly did not look light! Many times we were passed by other porters who hauled loads of food and other smaller supplies which were strapped to a wooden board with thin shoulder straps and one thick strap that they ran across their forehead. Our guide told us that these loads routinely weigh up to and sometimes over 40kg (!)(88 lbs.) and that they are paid by the kilogram AND that most of them will take a load up EVERYDAY. Being passed by one of these guys when you are carrying a 2 kg daypack is humbling, to say the least.
As someone who has made a living for 6 years in the production and sale of outdoor apparel and equipment I was even more astonished at the gear all the locals were using. Most of them wore thin foam like shoes, even when struggling under the massive weights I mentioned above. A few of the guides were wearing the equivalent to Haviana flip-flops. Hardly any wore what most westerners would consider to be appropriate hiking footwear. Also, as I mentioned, none of the porters used traditional backpacks. And you can forget Gore-Tex! It's all about garbage bags and ponchos for these dudes! I couldn't help but think that maybe my whole industry was a slight joke and existed only to aid in the comfort of soft Western and North Asian people. Surely, if everyone in the world were as hard as these guys we'd all be without jobs!
Anyway, the hike went well and, although it was wet and steep, we made good time. It really is a gorgeous trail; totally lush and green as you are in a legit 100% grade A primary rain forest. There are some interesting plants along the way including the carnivorous Nepenthes plant aka "Monkey Cup" which traps it's food in a cup-like stem which is filled with poisonous liquid. The small ones take out flies, but apparently the big ones can take out a rat! Wild.
We were pretty well soaked when we arrived at the last shelter before Laban Rata. Just as we sat down, we realized that what we had been experiencing over the last several hours although uncomfortable and wet was not true Borneo rain. Right then the Gods opened the faucet and water started to absolutely pour out of the sky. We were a steep 700 meters shy of our destination for the afternoon. It was cold out and we were feeling it through soaked clothes. We waited a few minutes to see if it would let up and, almost impossibly the opposite happened; it started to rain harder! Finally we said screw it and charged out into the monsoon, not wanting to tempt Borneo turning on the rain even harder.
When we finally slogged into the Laban Rata hut 3 hrs and 45 minutes after we'd set out from the trailhead we must have appeared more like drowned rats then like hikers. We shed wet layers immediately and got to the business of getting warm. Once we had done that we sat eating our lunches and watching the carnage as group after group arrived each more soaked then the previous. The rain continued to pound and eventually a significantly sized waterfall formed just off to the side of the hut as millions of gallons of water funneled off the granite mountains that towered above us.
There really isn't much to do at Laban Rata, so after getting bored of watching miserably wet and cold hikers come cursing through the door we retired to our dorm room for a little rest. At 5:30 we came back down for the famous Laban Rata buffet dinner and saw that many more people had arrived since we laid down, some as recently as 5:00 meaning that these poor souls had spent an additional 4 hours in the elements compared to us. All you can do is shake your head and murmur; "Dude, that sucks!".
After dinner and sitting around chatting about the weather for a little we headed upstairs where we met one of the aforementioned unlucky hikers who was the 4th person in our dorm room. Jason, from Philly by way of Beijing, had somehow indadvertedly been signed up for the long trail which was an extra 2 kilometers longer then ours and, by all accounts, a steeper and more hellish track. He left later then us, but ended up spending over 6 hours climbing through the downpour. Brutal!
Pretty much all of Laban Rata was in bed by 8pm as we had a 2:30am wakeup call in the morning and so we retired into perhaps the least comfortable beds I've ever had the displeasure of (not) sleeping in.
2:30 am couldn't come fast enough as I tossed and turned all night, barely clocking any legitimate sleep. We put on the driest clothes we could find and headed downstairs for a quick bite and slug of coffee before meeting our guide and heading out for a 3am departure. The skies had cleared and the full moon and stars twinkled above. The thermometer read 2 degrees Celsius as we began the final 2.7 km climb to the summit by headlamp.
The first kilometer and a half is slow going as you trudge up a seemingly endless set of uneven stairs. The real problem is that it's a bottleneck and all the slow hikers who left at 2:30 am clogged the way for the faster ones who left later. Eventually, as you clear timber line and come to the granite top section you reach the first rope. Some sections are so steep that without the ropes it'd be real rock climbing. We hoisted ourselves up the steep pitches and hiked up the granite on the less steep bits and as we climbed higher the air and the crowds thinned out substantially. We could definitely feel the altitude and so took several breaks to catch our breath as we made the climb. We were on pace to be there well before the 6am sunrise, so we took our time preferring small breaks along the way to sitting for 45 minutes at the summit in the cold waiting for the sun to rise.
It was totally dark, save for the moonlight and a string of headlamps in front of and behind us. In the distance we could see the twinkling lights from cities on the coast- many miles from the mountain. It was a truly beautiful sight. At one point G said: "I see why people climb mountains!". Indeed.
Finally, we saw the first lights appear on the summit signifying that we too were closing in on the top. We were far above timberline now and hiking totally exposed up massive granite slabs and so the wind and cold whipped across and through us as we lumbered up the final few hundred meters.
It was 5:27am according to the timestamp on our camera when we snapped the first photo in front of the summit sign. We were stoked we'd made it so quickly in spite of our breaks, but soon realized it would have been better to leave a bit later as we still had over 30 minutes to wait for the sun to come up.
Those 30 minutes were long and bitterly cold. It was well below freezing and the wind cut through our layers of clothes like a frozen blade. We watched as the horizon slowly turned from black to blue to purple and into yellows, oranges and reds, but by the time the sun actually popped over the horizon we had turned and headed down to get moving again and to escape the cold. Eventually, the sun came out fully and with it the temperature rose to a more comfortable level making the hike down much more pleasant then the sit at the summit. The views from the top and all the way back down to tree line are spectacular. There was some cloud, but you could easily see the ocean in the distance and for miles in every direction. The top section of the mountain itself is very cool too; there are several dramatic peaks and spires on the summit stretch making for quite a landscape.
We made it down in 2 hours and as we got to Laban Rata we saw the mist overtake the entire top of the mountain. The summit window had closed and we'd been lucky enough to nail it with awesome weather! Sweet!
We packed our stuff and ate a little breakfast before taking a deep breath and rising to face the inevitable...the final 6 km trek down to the base. Anyone who has done any significant hiking knows that while going up is hard and tiring; going down is just sheer pain. G taped her knees and popped a few hundred grams of Ibuprofen in preparation.
By the time we left (9:30am) the mist had turned into clouds and it was beginning to spit rain. Great. Down we went and although it felt like we were moving quickly, for some reason the kilometers just weren't shedding as quickly as it seemed they should have. We settled into a 30 min kilometer pace and stopped at every other shelter to rest for the first 4 km. As we got lower the weather worsened until we were again trekking through straight up soaking rain. With about 2 km to go G's poor knees had had enough and got a bit wobbly. We took it slow and kept our spirits up by trying to talk about anything but the weather, but by the time we got to the sign saying 1 km to go we were both WAY over it. The last kilometer seemed like a hundred. Especially obnoxious was the last 200 meters which, in a demented twist of fate, is actually uphill.
At last we crossed the finish line, more limping than galloping that is for sure. It had taken 3 hours of painful descending through the very aptly named rain forest and we were wet, cold and tired. We posed for a finish photo near where we'd posed for the starting photo the previous day; we looked a whole lot less glamorous.
As if to detract from your accomplishment of successfully climbing and safely descending the mountain, at the base there is a sign noting the round trip time records set by some of the "Mt Kinabalu Challenge" champions. This is a race held every October where people come and literally run up and down the mountain. The winner in the Men's division a few months ago (a Spanish guy) ran up and back in 2 hrs 37 minutes!! And, the story is he only won because the defending champion (an Italian dude) had slipped and injured himself on his run down. Apparently, before he fell he was on pace to beat his own world record of 2 hrs 33 min.
If you tally up our hike which we completed in 4 stages it took us about 11.5 ass kicking hours, and we were actually pretty quick compared to most people. These guys are super human.
We were driven the few minutes back to the park HQ where we had one last buffet lunch (they certainly don't make you go hungry on the trip!!) and then gathered our stuff. As if a terribly cruel joke, the normally full taxi que was deserted and so we were left to hoist our big backpacks and carry them the 500 meters to the D'Villa Ria hostel where we were booked in for the night.
It took a while, but we made it there, met with applause, and got our room without delay where we dropped our bags, traded dry clothes for our wet ones and collapsed into a state of semi-consciousness for several hours.
Mt. Kinabalu; we came, we saw...however, just who conquered who is debatable!!