Our swansong in Borneo before we move on to Hong Kong is to climb Mount Kinabalu.
We get up at 6am to make it to starting point, meet our guide Wilfred and start climbing at 8.30am. The trail is very well marked and maintained – it’s mostly steps the whole way. You feel like you could turn a corner and come across a Starbucks at any moment. We start at around 1,800m altitude and after 5k of trail we are at 3,000m. At the 3,000m point it’s like someone has flicked a switch in my body. Up to that point I was pootling up the mountain fairly happily, but after 3,000m I had to stop every 50m or so to catch my breath and let the nausea subside. I don’t remember ever feeling the effects of the altitude while climbing Mt Fuji, but our hut on Fuji was at 3,000m so I had the chance to acclimatise before going higher.
Eventually we make it to our hut at 3,300m. It’s a nice place – separate bunk beds so there’s going to be no repeat of the 8-in-a-bed scenario from Mt Fuji. Plus the buffet dinner at the nearby restaurant is amazing – there’s more fresh fruit and veg up here than in most sea-level Bornean restaurants. On the way up we were passed by many porters virtually jogging up the mountain with crates strapped to their backs. The effort is worthwhile; there are few things in life better than a good buffet when you know that you are not just allowed, but actually required to consume as much as you can.
We go to bed at 7.30pm for a 2am start the next day. There’s a massive thunder storm and the lightning looks really impressive since we are above the clouds, so we go to sleep hoping that the rain stops before we have to set off in the morning.
We’d met some people in Mulu who had stayed in the same hut as us and they warned us that the breakfast was paltry; two bits of dry toast to sustain you for ten hours hiking. So we’d brought a small jar of nutella up the mountain with us. Dry toast + nutella = breakfast of champions!
Wilfred comes to collect us at 2.45am and we set off. It isn’t raining when we start, but it starts to rain heavily after about half an hour. Wilfred warns us that the route to the summit may be closed if the weather stays bad, but when we reach the final checkpoint it is still open. I am surprised as the weather seems really dangerous to me. The rain is very heavy and is pouring down the granite rock in sheets. We have to walk through many small waterfalls. Waterproof shoes are no good if the water is over ankle depth. Our feet are soaking wet, and so are our hands from holding onto the guide rope. There’s lightning all around us.
With wet feet and hands the cold sets in and we are absolutely miserable. After an initial steep and precarious section, the final 1,500m or so is actually quite a gentle slope, but the cold and wet is making me want to quit. At one point I call to Wilfred and am going to say that I’ve had enough. But before I can, he tells me that we only have another thirty minutes to go. So I decide to knuckle down and push on for the last half an hour. At least the altitude doesn’t seem to be effecting me. Either a night’s acclimatisation at 3,300m has done the trick, or I just have too many other things to worry about to notice the altitude.
The final 200m is a steep climbing section and then we are at the summit. I understand that the summit is usually quite crowded with climbers, but there are only about ten people up here with us. Stopping moving is a very bad idea and I quickly go from simply “cold, wet and miserable” to “shivering uncontrollably and in tears” almost instantly. In fact, everyone at the summit seems to be feeling grim, with a couple of people looking even worse off than me. Everyone, that is, apart from the guides, who seem to be taking it all in their stride and are chatting and smoking as usual. If you work on the mountain, it seems that no amount of cigarettes can make a dent in your lung capacity.
We quickly get our photo taken at the summit sign, for which I try to muster a smile. Then we hunker down in a sheltered spot for a little rest. We blow on our fingers for about ten minutes until they are sufficiently mobile to work a zip and get a couple of chocolate bars out of our bag. Mr Beet eats his, but I feel too sick. We have reached the summit at 5.15am, so we are about 45 minutes early for sunrise. We decide it is better not to wait, but to get moving again as soon as possible. So at about 5.30am we set off back down the mountain. I feel much better now we are moving and soon the sky is light enough for us to see our surroundings and the view, which makes things a bit jollier. We later find out that the checkpoint gate was shut after we went through due to the bad weather and only 25 people made it to the summit that day. The Canadian couple who were sharing our room had to turn back with only 200m to go (an agonisingly close 23m below the summit altitude) because they were too cold and wet.
Mr Beet and I had signed up to do a via ferrata on the way back. We are meant to meet the instructor at the start point at 7.30am, but because we didn’t hang around for sunrise on the summit we are an hour early. We wait for a little while, hoping that he may arrive early, but he doesn’t and we are simply too cold to hang around on the exposed rock. We start to descend and after a while we meet the instructor on the way up. He advises that the course will be very wet and, since we are already cold and wet, he suggests we do the shorter route instead. We are torn, because we really want to do the full version, which is the highest via ferrata in the world. But the clincher is that for the long version, we have to wait on the mountain for an hour, whereas if we do the short version we can wait in a hut, where there will be hot drinks and they may be able to rustle up some dry gloves for us.
A via ferrata is basically a route down the mountain face where you are carabinered on to a fixed metal cable; a safe and easy version of mountain climbing. The shorter route that we take is lots of fun and we get some great views. After a miserable time on the summit climb, this makes our trip worthwhile. It even stops raining.
After a couple of hours on the via ferrata we head back to our hut to change into dry clothes, eat a second breakfast, stretch and exchange horror stories of the summit climb. We then set off back down the mountain, which is 6k and a 1,500m descent. Walking down steps for four hours is no fun, but we entertain ourselves by telling everyone on their way up how horrible the summit climb was.
Pictures of the climb and the via ferrata are on Mr Beet’s flickr page.