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Mount Kinabalu Day 1: Slow and Steady Up Steep Slopes

April 29, 2014
Mount Kinabalu National Park

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”
—    Anais Nin

This post is about growth and finding myself. It’s about a mountain, but it is also about realising I am so much more than I thought I was. I am capable of tonnes more than I know.

They say in loneliness and in hardship, you find yourself. I dare say I found myself when I was delirious from severe altitude sickness, near tears from the pain in my thighs and knees and all ready to give up altogether from the mental war in my head against the coldest winds, roughest terrains and steepest slopes I have ever encountered.

Kinabalu National Park

When we first signed up for the hike, I really had no idea what the ordeal was going to be like. I had hiked a few hills to date — Penang Hill, Broga Hill to name a few — but they were really small-scale feats when you compare them to a full-fledged mountain like Kinabalu. This trip was going to be one that would change me in so many ways and I didn’t even know it at the time.

Mt Kinabalu hiker's tags

A little background info here to put things into perspective.

Mount Kinabalu is 4095m high, making it the highest peak in all of Borneo. It is protected as Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage Site. Kinabalu is the highest peak in Borneo’s Crocker Range and is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago. Mount Kinabalu is also the 20th most prominent mountain in the world by topographic prominence.

We thought it would be fun to hike it.

Hiking Mount Kinabalu

Ahhh look at us, all naive and still blissfully unaware of the battle that awaited us ahead once we walked through those gates lol. Enjoy this now because these are probably the last real smiles we mustered from here and on.

From Kota Kinabalu, we took a 2 hour drive to Kundasang where the gate that would lead us up the mountain is located in the heart of Kinabalu National Park. There were 6 of us in our group — Marisa, Yuh Ting, Ross, Patsy, the Ninja Rabbit and me — all ready to take on this mountain for reasons known only to ourselves.

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We came prepared. We had everything they said we needed — warm clothes, hiking sticks, headlamps, woolen socks — but nothing could prepare us for the mountain herself, who really pushed us to the brink of our physical limits and mental capacities.

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We were only at the foot of the hill but the air was already chilly. If you stood still long enough, goosebumps sprouted across your skin. I didn’t dare imagine what it must be like at the peak where you would need thick winter jackets and  waterproof gloves to keep from turning blue.

Mt Kinabalu

At 9.30am, we took our first steps into the green forests, starting our hike up the slopes.

The first kilometre was as pleasant as hikes go. Lush vegetation greeted us everywhere we looked and the occasional friendly forest inhabitant even popped by to say hi as we trudged by their home.

Squirrel

Squirrels and other small animals were easily sighted. They were so different from their city cousins too. Our city squirrels are skinny with almost non-existent tails; these were fat, fluffy and have the bushiest tails I’ve seen on squirrels! What amazed me more was how they were so unafraid of humans. The Ninja Rabbit offered it some nuts and it plopped right into his hand for a snack!

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If I could bring one home with me, I would! So many times a squirrel had darted right up to me, as if searching me for food. They promptly scamper back away when they see I have nothing in my hands heheheh.

Carson Waterfall, Mt Kinabalu

The forest in the first 2km was pretty common by Malaysian standards. Thick shrubbery filled in the gaps where the tall trees left and everything was mossy and covered in fungi from the ample rain and humidity we get in these parts. Breathing was still relatively easy, but it was a luxury we soon regret taking for granted.

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Hardly 30 minutes in, we began to breathe a lot heavier than normal. We could hear the blood rushing in our ears and feel our hearts beating almost painfully against our ribcage. It didn’t strike me that it was the thinning air at first, but it soon sank in that this whole altitude sickness deal was not something to be taken lightly. Fit, strong atheletes have simply blacked out from it. Our guide wasn’t kidding when he said to take things slow and enjoy the view as much as we can because that will be the only thing keeping us going.

Mt Kinabalu porter

Our guide was amazing. He said to call him Dragon so we did, and he was also our porter who helped us carry ALL our bags up the mountain. We were already panting a short 30 minutes in and had to sit down and catch of our breaths following every few miserable steps, but he just trudged on unwaveringly with that mountain of bags on top of him. He could still tell us without a hitch in his breath how to best overcome the altitude and thin air and how to best move uphill fastest. The next day he would be the very same person to save my life too (literally!) but we’ll get to that later.

Mt Kinabalu

The landscape soon began to change the higher up the mountain we scaled. Thick green leafy bushes slowly gave way to more colourful and reedy plants. The air got colder and thinner but the view that greeted us with every metre we put behind us also got more and more scenic. It was like nature knew to reward us with something else for every luxury it took away.

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The hike up was only a few hours but it honestly felt like days. The temperature rose and dipped fickle-mindedly, our vision blurred and cleared with the passing fog and even sunlight messed with our brains, confusing us completely as to what time it was. Sometimes it would be bright and sunny like it was 1pm and everything is painted the most vivid green and yellow and blue. Other times, thick mist and cloud would sweep by making it look like it was nearer to sunset at 7pm and we would look around and feel like we were trapped in a horror movie.

Now I know what the dwarves in Lord of the Ring felt when trudging through the forest on their way to Durin hahahaha. It was exactly like in the set of that movie. Through the mist and the mud, through the rocks and foliage, you can’t help but fear that at any moment, a giant spider would jump right onto our path and chase us down for dinner.

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The further we hiked, the harder it became to breathe as well. At first we thought it was just us tiring out, but it soon became clear nature was at play. We can take only all of 3 steps and need to stop to gulp in air. I have ran and completed a full marathon but I have never experienced anything like this. A few steps and you need a break because otherwise, you start to feel faint and you get this horribly spearing headache like a clamp was being tightened around your temples.

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About 4 hours in, you begin to wonder if it will ever end. The hike to Laban Rata is supposedly only 6km long but it sure feels at least double that. By then, you are tired and thirsty and your thighs feel ready to explode. I remember feeling hot and cold at the same time – I was sweating tonnes till my shirt was soaked through and my face feels like a furnace radiating heat, but my hands and ears were freezing from the cold air up there. What sorcery is this!

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It doesn’t help either that every bend you make, you see only another flight of stairs or another slope of rocks and you groan inwardly wondering when it will end. 5 hours in, everything stopped being enjoyable, even the view. Right about then I began to wonder what made me even think this was a good idea. The Ninja Rabbit never said it but I’m sure he was cursing at me too for roping him into this hahahaha.

Mt Kinabalu

But we were lucky. The weather was fair and the rain didn’t fall until we were already safe and sound in Laban Rata. Had the rain decided to fall earlier, things would have been much worse because every rock, stone and step would become slippery with mud. We were blessed with good weather and that was all we could ask for.

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At 5km, the trees began to really thin and a completely different landscape greeted us. Bonsai-like plants with purple and pink leaves became the staple, making it a very pleasant breath of fresh air.

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Mount Kinabalu
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Whatever pain we were experiencing, we forgot temporarily at the view that greeted us. By now we were something like 6 hours into the hike already. We were tired beyond words and were running on purely delirium result of our fatigue but the view — man, the view was truly our one saving grace.

Mount Kinabalu 2
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In the last hundred metres, we were muttering nonsense and grunting insensibly to one another to keep each other going. I remember getting angry at a rock because it was in my way. This damn boulder that was covered in grotesque moss and icky fungus, just sitting there as if it owned the path. It may sound funny now but it was far from funny at the time.

Imagine every single muscle in your body aching like it was on fire but all your skin felt was icy cold winds. Your brain doesn’t even know how to process that so you’re just lumbering ahead blindly, unthinkingly. You become a robot, a slave to the mountain that never seems to end.

Laban Rate, Mt Kinabalu

It took us 7 hours but finally, the trees and rocks and mists slowly parted to reveal the yellow lodge that is Laban Rata, the halfway mark where we will be spending the night before we continue on to the peak the next day. I have never felt so emotional at seeing a man-made infrastructure. I almost cried tears of joy at the sight of its yellow tin roof. When its matching yellow walls and fitted wooden window frames came into view, it really felt like I had died and gone to heaven.

We had finally arrived. It was only a temporary sanctuary, but a sanctuary nonetheless.

Laban Rata

I vividly remember the thumping sound my shoes made against the wooden platform that led to the door as I walked into the lodge. The smell of roast lamb and hot coffee greeted us, the inviting embrace of warm air injecting life back into our bones the moment we left the cold outside. A buffet dinner was the prize for all who made it and my stomach twisted almost painfully at the whiff of food in the air. I have never been so ravenous. We cleaned off something like 3 platefuls each hahahahahaa.

Laban Rata

The rest had arrived long before us so we had our own welcome party when we reached the top. Yuh Ting was the first to come hug me and I swear, I had never felt such joy at seeing a familiar face. Oh man, just looking at this photo reminds me of the pure joy that was coursing through my veins at arriving at the lodge in one piece and reuniting with the group. Food and friends and functioning facilities so I can forget for a bit the horror of the rocks and slopes outside. Nothing is ever going to come close to that feeling of relief.

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Little did we know, as we filled our tummies with barbecue lamb and fluffy buttered buns,  the last 7 hours was only a warm-up for what waited us in a few hours’ time. The next 2.5km to the peak was going to be a whole lot tougher, not to mention more dangerous.

But for that one moment, we made it and that was all that mattered. Tomorrow’s journey was exactly that — a worry for another day — and we relished in every drop of hot coffee and every spoonful of creamy sago and barley soup while we basked in the warmth of one another’s company.

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A trip outside to the balcony made everything worthwhile. We were only halfway there but already the view was breathtaking. It melted away whatever fear we had for tomorrow because we knew it would be even more beautiful than this.

From where we sat, the peak of the mountain could barely be seen through the mist, so for that few hours, we focused on what we had already overcome instead of what awaits.

Right now, it was time to rest and prepare for the second leg of the climb up to the top tomorrow.

(Click here to read Part 2!)

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