Mt Kinabalu

Sabah, Malaysia

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Mount Kinabalu is a young place, a huge, sheer dome of granite which forced its way up through the earth's surface a few million years ago. It now stands, at 13,500 ft. /4,095 m, in magnificent isolation above the noisily slumbering Borneo jungle. Its covering of softer rock has been torn away to form its lower slopes, leaving a vast platform from which jagged peaks and pinnacles soar. Its upper slopes consist of several thousand feet of smooth precipice.

While this is a remarkable mountain, I have to admit that it is not my favourite walk; unlike the others, while I am delighted to have done it, I will definitely not be up there again, thank you very much.

The climb starts at around 1,500m (5,130ft) above the National Park's pretty headquarters. Here, hostels and restaurants compete with the offices and quarters of park staff and scientists for any near-level scraps of ground amid lovingly tended gardens, with the riotous jungle crowding around, ready to assume control if the chance arises. The air has a delightful tea plantation freshness after the stifling foothills on our way up.

The mountain is dangerous and the local economy is poor, so all climbers must hire a guide. After the briefest of interviews to check our ability to communicate, we hired Rowdi as a guide/porter, and in a fit of disinterested charity, The Youth as an additional porter. Never has a name been as inappropriate as the laconic Rowdi's: our interview transpired to be our longest conversation, although he was a perfectly polite, and was dutifully solicitous for our legs and happiness.

We began our walk as the mid-morning clouds gathered. The mountain, which had stood proud and clear as we drove up towards it, quickly disappeared as shreds and then a thick blanket drifted up from the east.

The path winds, for the first kilometre, pleasantly around the hillside through thick [oak?] forest and past the pretty Carson Waterfall, until it reaches a bench on a spur, thoughtfully placed at the bottom of the start of the real climb, the Stairway to Hell, which disappears ominously into the trees far above.

From here it is several hours of dreary, painful slog to the Laban Rata hut, where a short night will be spent before the pre-dawn assault on the peak. It would be intolerable for the unfit. I was thankful for the 15-floor climbs I had made to the Hong Kong apartment we had just stayed in.

The trail follows long ridges up through a succession of very different vegetation zones. The mountain is a World Heritage Site, partly because of its magnificent botanical diversity. It is estimated to harbour up to 6,000 plant species (excluding mosses and liverworts), which is said to be more than Europe and North America combined. It has over 800 species of orchid, over 600 species of ferns, of which 50 are endemic, and has the world's richest selection of insectivorous pitcher plants. Lets be truthful, though: as you puff, head down, up the rough, steep trail, your mind increasingly closing to anything except getting through to the next rest, you don't take much of it in. The thinning air does not help. Even so, as we trudged through cloud forests of moss-covered trees, past pink-flowering rhododendrons, we recognised that we should be enjoying the fine, straight trunked, parasite-infested trees, ferns and azaleas in the drifting mists. Large carnivorous pitcher plants awaited their prey, lids gaping open. Gradually, the soil turned redder and shrub-heather took over.

The rests, at least, were fun; shelter-pagodas have been built every half kilometre or so, and here we swigged our water and chatted with the others there, an eclectic mixture: a retired lecturer and Malaysian army reserve colonel on his seventh climb of the mountain (madman), southern Frenchmen of unspecified, but impliedly groovy occupations, Canadians teaching in Hong Kong and a Japanese Office Lady, unusually on her own, who questioned us in careful, precise English.

We eventually struggled up to Laban Rata hut at 2:30 p.m., exhausted but elated. It is remarkably pleasant, considering it feeds and sleeps so many people and sits on an inaccessible ledge at 3,300m (just under 11,000 ft). A large hall was strewn with tables at which people played cards, discussed their exploits over a beer and a plate of noodles or sat in glazed exhaustion. In a parody of Englishness, we summoned pots of tea and played two plodding games of altitude-impaired Scrabble; I have never had so many scores under 10. The cloud was beginning to clear, and tantalising glimpses began to appear of the Borneo jungle 8,000 feet below, steaming in what down there would be boiling afternoon sun. In the distance, the blue ridges of the Crocker Range marched away into the haze. On the hillside beside us, stunted, moss-festooned trees clung to the thin soil. Without warning, the cloud broke above us, revealing a 600m (nearly 2,000 ft.) face of steeply sloping granite, smooth and seamless at this distance. Far above, the jagged peaks tore at the empty sky.

Our little hut felt very insignificant, as it clung to the highest layer of washed-down detritus to find a resting place.

We ate a huge early supper: chicken, fried rice and noodles washed down by beer, and had our lights out at 9 in the cosy if bare room we had reserved ahead. We had a bad night; crashing and shouting in the passage outside, the thin air, alcohol and in my case a nasty attack of Borneo Bottom (and therefore no breakfast) combining to leave me weak and light headed when we emerged with Rowdi at 2:45 a.m. for the pre-dawn assault on the peak.

The 750 plus metres (2,500 ft.) up from the hut to the plateau at the top is fairly miserable, a very steep, tough slog, the altitude and yesterday's exertions making every step an effort. This region of giant heathers would be scrubbily thrilling if you could see them, before the plant line abruptly finishes where the exposed granite begins. Some steep scrambles up ropes on near-vertical rock give a degree of light relief. Finally, though, we reached the great cracked dome, and things got a lot better. Silhouetted against a sky now showing hints of pre-dawn colour, we could see the great peaks and pinnacles we had read about, including the (well, ear-like) Donkey's Ears.

We still had a long trudge over rough, sloping rock to the rim of the infamous Low's Gully, just below the final Low's Peak, named after Sir Hugh Low, a 19th century colonial officer and the first recorded climber of the mountain, who described the climb as “the most tiresome walk I have ever experienced.” He really had it tough, trekking the 60 km from the coast through thick jungle before he even began the climb, but even so I felt I knew exactly what he meant.

Below me, the fearsome chasm – “gully” could only have been British understatement - dropped thousands of sheer feet into thick gloom. A British-led army team had come to famous grief here in 1994, attempting the first descent of the Gully -the story behind the film The Place of The Dead. On the other side of the ridge, a poor English teenager got separated in the early 2000s from her group in thick cloud and died of exposure only a hundred metres from the path. It is that sort of place.

I felt a pang of alarm when my knee “locked”, as it occasionally does, rendering me unable to straighten my leg. It took more than increasingly tense 20 minutes to manipulate it back, by which time I had missed sunrise at Low's Peak.

The first rays of the sun turned the very top of Low's Peak pink; the ridge on the far side of the “gully” was jagged black against the lightening sky. It was stupendous.

After a final, panting scramble, the western view opened up from Low's Peak. Far below, the shadow of the mountain visibly retreated back towards us across the clouds as the sun came up. All around us were the sharp, eroded pinnacles of the lesser peaks, the misty jungle lowlands slumbering far, far below. Despite all the pain, it was worth it.

It was time for the return journey. But first, while still on the summit, we made a detour across the great, bare, eroded platform to another view down Low's Gully from just below the Donkey's Ears. We were now in bright 8 a.m. sunshine, as yet cloudless, but we could not see the bottom of the gulf as it disappeared into what looked like eternal night.

The guidebooks say that the descent, 2,500m (8,000 plus feet) to get down in one go, is worse than the ascent, with screaming joints and agonised muscles by the end. Neither of us found it so, but that could have been the strong anti-inflammatories we had taken. It wasn't much fun, though, much of it a long, cautious clamber down rough, irregular steps, in my case suppressing urgent cries from my bowels.

The steep slopes of bare rock we had pulled ourselves up in the darkness were now enjoyable semi-abseils, although not great for the vertigially challenged as we could now see only too well what had previously been hidden.

After a break at Laban Rata to pack, we reunited ourselves with The Youth and dropped down into the cloud. There is not much to say about this nearly 6,000 ft. descent, except that we did it in 3 hours and had our heads down all the way, as one wrong step could have had dire consequences. Rowdi and The Youth skipped down as if they did this every day - which, of course, they do.

The rests were, again, the fun bit, a chance to examine our surroundings as well as flex out legs. The best moment was reaching that bench, the Ecstatic Chair, at the bottom of the Stairway to Hell, when we knew we had effectively finished. We leant back and surveyed those terrible steps with glazed equanimity.

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