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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Reviews: Mt Kinabalu Climb with Amazing Borneo

No one believes when this Wanderlass said she'd not wander... we'll they're right.
the South Peak

A few weeks ago, I randomly bumped into a post on instagram depicting a sea of clouds at the peak of Mt Kinabalu.  Googled a bit and learned that the best climbing season is going to end in a month.  I've always thought of climbing Mt Kinabalu since 2010 when I bumped into a bunch of Malaysian tourists enroute water rafting in Padas River who boasted to me their pictures at the summit.  We formed a group of four and book a tour with Amazing Borneo.  

Yes it happens just like that. We had two weeks left to train.  I walked on the treadmill, danced zumba, hopped on the cross trainer and stairmaster for a few sessions, unfortunately I catched colds, I had to rest.


Day 1.  We took the flight out from Manila to Kota Kinabalu via Air Asia.  We were picked up at the airport by Amazing Borneo.  On board a big bus, (joined by two other guests), we head straight towards Mt Kinabalu Park.  

I've always been impressed by the infrastructure of Kota Kinabalu.  The roads are paved, long and wide.  Five years later, more skyscrapper is rising in the city.

Some twenty minutes away from the park entrance, we stopped in a market to buy water (2 ringgit for a liter) and some fruits (bananas, 4 ringgit for a kilo).

While on the bus, our guide briefed us of our needs and itinerary in the coming days.  Our guide warned us that water inside the park is expensive.  500ml bottled water is sold at 7 ringgit, while a 1.5L bottled water at Laban Rata Resthouse is sold at 15 ringgit.  Other than hot water, potable water is not available at Laban Rata Resthouse since the earthquake.

The guide forwarned that the ascent is some 40 to 70 degrees angle.  We looked into each other in silence.  Trekking poles will be helpful (one is enough) while trail food is necessary.
glamping at Hill Lodge

We arrived and checked-in at the Hill Lodge of Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (the sole operator of the lodges inside Mt Kinabalu National Park) at around 2pm.  The Hill Lodge is at the far end of the park, bungalow type rooms with 2 single beds and an en-suite bathroom providing heated-showers, it's non aircon. Free shuttle service is provided within the park hence the distance isn't a problem.  With an elevation of 1,500 ASL we stayed here the night before the climb to acclimatize to high altitude.

dinner at Balsam Cafe

Day 2.  After breakfast, we were set to meet with our private guide at 8am at the Mt. Kinabalu Park HQ. 
our porter Johnny was also a mountain guide. Amazing how they can carry that much load. They do get tired too. He was frequently taking meals, we had to share some of our food to him.

We hired a porter for 13 ringgit/kg. My backpack weighed 6kgs and had:
  • 1 down jacket
  • 1 fleece
  • 1 heat tech
  • 2 shirts
  • 1 pants
  • 2 socks
  • A pair of gloves
  • 2 ponchos
  • 1 set of undies
  • 2.5L water, 1L powerade
  • face towel
  • toiletries
  • trail food (banana chips, chocolates, dried mangoes, brownies, fit bar)
  • first aid

From the HQ, we took the shuttle to Timpohon Gate and started the climb around 830am and reached Laban Rata at around 2pm.  The first 4km climb was manageable, with terrain of countless wooden stairs, boulders, rip rap stairways and very occasional rolling hills.  Our goal was a kilometer for every hour.  It is crucial to hike at a constant and slow pace to avoid altitude sickness which normally can start after 3KM/2400M ASL.  It was particularly draining for me, I suffered diarrhea during the first 3KM hike.  I was afraid, I had to drink medicine and hydrate as often as possible.  It spoiled and drained my energy.  Luckily, there was a decent toilet in almost every pitstop (one in every kilometer) equipped with a working flush and bidet (but no toilet paper).  

Out of the 6KM climb to Laban Rata Resthouse, the last 2KM was the most difficult. Starting at 3,000M ASL, I can feel my breath panting, my heart pounding through my head, I had to stop every few steps to manage it.  It's elevation/slope was gruesome, the gap of the boulders are wider as well. If going up was hard, what more going down.

This blog has a more detailed account of the terrain.
packed lunch + 500 ml water was provided (except the bananas)

We reached Laban Rata past 2 in the afternoon.  It was cold, the place was all fogged up.  We checked-in to our shared dormitory.  Luckily, there was an unoccupied dormitory of six, our guide arranged to have it exclusively just for the four of us.  Towels and toilet papers were provided, bathrooms and toilets are shared, good thing the solar heating panel was working, the shower had hot water, otherwise, we had to bathe in ice cold water.  It is ideal to shower in cold water after the hike to treat inflamed joints and muscles.  Although exhausted, we took a shower first while there was no one in line.

Dinner was served between 4pm and 7pm.  Even before the sun sets, our group were in bed trying to catch sleep while the rest of the climbers seem to be chilling out at the dinning area.  One of my companions was nauseous, one had a headache.  I tried to get some sleep but couldn't.  By 9pm the resthouse was quiet.  The room had a small window, it was getting warm under the sheets, the blankets too thick, the air thin - I barely slept.  (I was physically tired but mentally awake, I forgot to take a photo of our bunk beds!)

Day 3.  We were up by 2am, ready for supper and dressed for the summit climb before going to bed.  At around 230am we started our ascent.  With our headlights on, we had to endure the first kilometer with mostly wooden stairs.  A lady behind me caught my attention as she was too energetic at 2am, I had to tell her "I love your energy"  and she replied "I just ate 8 toasts with peanut butter, sugar rush!"  It made me think... oops, I think I didn't eat enough carbohydrates.  True enough, after 3KM, I felt my empty stomach hurting.  The summit climb was about a 70 degrees angle, you had to pull yourself up with a rope...  at the back of my mind, how possibly can we go down in this terrain?

Indeed twas a test of fitness and determination.  With just two weeks to train, I fall short of that fitness test.  Upon reaching the summit, I refused to continue my trek to Low's Peak.  The sun started to rise at that time and it would be another kilometer walk up Low's Peak.  At that point, everything was aching...  my legs, my knees, my stomach and my feet were freezing in the cold.  I was too hungry to continue and thought of saving energy for the 9KM trek down hill after that. I opted to rest and waited for them at the summit while they continue to Low's Peak.   The guide threatened by telling me I wouldn't get a certificate, at that point a piece of paper would be the last thing I'd care for.  I already see the sea of clouds at the South Peak, I was content with that.  

By 7am, almost all climbers left to descent back to the resthouse while my companions were nowhere in sight. It took them an hour to go up and down the peak.  No regrets, I thought.  They said it was too steep and the view wasn't that awesome, the sea of clouds was way too far at the bottom. 

Low's Peak on the right

It was around 730am or was it 8 already when we started our 3KM descent from the summit back to Laban Rata Resthouse.   We have to make it not later than 1030am otherwise I'd miss the breakfast. If it was difficult going up, it would be doubly difficult going down.  We had to hold on to the rope and walk backwards to save our knees at some point.  I leisurely walked down the countless stairs while in awe of the clouds and the fog that surrounds me.  Looking back, it was absolutely unimaginable how we managed to climb to the summit at dawn.  

I arrived at the resthouse just in time before the buffet closed.  Just to make sure I won't experience the same hunger I had at dawn, I had to force feed myself with two plate full of carbohydrates:  rice, noodles and a pancake w/ syrup. 

stairs, stairs, stairs... headed back to Laban Rata
I had to rush to our room and found all my stuff packed by my roommate.  It was way past check-out time, we had to beg the cleaner to give us half an hour so we can rest and finish packing since we've just arrived.  A typical Filipino gesture of paki-usap that works wonders.  

I had to change pants, socks, placed my knee support and took arcoxia before starting our descent at 11am.  As expected, the first two kilometers down was very taxing on the knees and quads.  My legs were trembling, my knees hurting.  I had to walk and step real slow on each boulder or rip rap stairway.  At the rate I'm going, lucky if I could finish 1km every hour. 
carbo loading for breakfast

During our ascent the previous day, we engage in small talk with climbers heading down.  When we ask them "how was it?"  their usual response was "it's absolutely worth it."  Those words kept us going.  Now, it's our turn to say that but I cannot seem to say those words, almost every climber I see, I'd wish them (unsolicitedly) "good luck" (laughs).

Two hours into the descent, the medicine had worn off, I had to take another dose of ibuprofen (alaxan forte).  I was starting to get blisters and pain few pressure points on the ball of the foot.  At this point, one's disposition was very crucial.  It was a work day, my phone was ringing non stop, I refused to read sms and take calls.  I didn't want to lose focus.  Inspite of the pain, I was exceptionally chatty that day towards random climbers, a born introvert, it was probably my coping mechanism to feel less tired and less pain.   

Half way down, I befriended this Malaysian-Muslim lady in pain, taking it step by step down the stairs.  We seemed to be pacing with each other, just like me, her knees were painful.  With 2KM left, I had to take another dose of ibuprofen (advil). I pitied her, I offered her one and she immediately accepted them.  After taking it, she sped off.  My guide and I were dumbfounded.  It's a miracle drug, my guide quipped.  She was slower than me, now I lost track of her!  My guide jokingly remarked why the medicine wasn't working with me, I should have not given her and took two doses instead. (laughs)  I seriously felt her pain, it felt good to help someone.

I finished at 430pm, the last one in our group.  I fall short by a few minutes after one of my companion, one finished an hour earlier, the other 30 minutes ahead. 

Do not underestimate a Mt Kinabalu Climb, training is a must.  Thanks Amazing Borneo, they took care of everything. 👍🏻👍🏻👍🏻

Post trip accounting: (1ringgit:12.2 pesos)
P5414 ticket from Manila to Kota Kinabalu
P1620 travel tax
1880 Ringgit package tour
10 ringgit luggage storage at HQ
90 ringgit porter's fee to/fr timpohon to Laban Rata (13/kg)
13 ringgit porter's fee to summit
20 ringgit tip

P1150 Grandis Hotel (KK city hotel P4600/4pax)
30 ringgit KK hotel to airport


Day 4-5.  I could barely stand up or sit down without leaning on something. A Good cupping massage was helpful.
Day 6-7. I can now sit and stand without leaning on anything, but twas still painful going up and down the stairs.  Another round of massage.
Day 8. Finally hands free on the stairs with a bit pain. Legs get tired easily on the stairs, on the road to full recovery.

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