Up and Down Again or Pain and Suffering
Mount Kinabalu Travel Blog› entry 12 of 23 › view all entries
A short while (and an amusing Malay radio station playing Malay covers of metal anthems) later we reached the foothills of the mountain. I'd never been near a mountain before, and so I can imagine I managed a pretty good impression of a goldfish as my jaw gaped as I gazed up, and up at the slopes shrouded in mist like a modest lady stepping out of the shower in a soft downy towel. Still, poetic images of craggy naked chicks were pushed from my mind as the bullet train of realisation crashed into the station that is my brain with one terrifying thought: you've gotta climb that fat boy.
A note, now, on my physical condition or lack there of. I am alive, and fulfill most of the basic functions that denote life and sentience, and for the vast majority of my time cluttering up this planet that has sufficed for me nicely.
Still, the mountain was a pleasing site. It dominates the landscape, and exudes that natural power of overwhelming significance that only giant slabs of rock can. Nestled on the slopes were small communities (and many, many Catholic churches showing a persistence to be admired), and little craft villages. We stopped at one of these for a tea, pee and to stretch out tired legs. Behind us the mountain rose ominously into the late afternoon - a stark reminder of nature and its real permanence, not like our feeble attempts at building.
That night we stayed at the Strawberry Cafe. The room was serviceable, all four of us managed to fit in, although we did have to share our space with a couple of lizards and a cockroach or many. But we weren't there to enjoy ourselves, rest was the order of the day, readying ourselves for what lay in store on the morrow. One good thing about being so near to the mountain was the drop in temperature and humidity. For the first night since I'd arrived I slept without the aid of air conditioning. And considering my pensive state of mind I slept well and deeply.
We had to climb just over six kilometres to reach Labanrata, a base camp two thirds of the way up the mountain and Low's Peak. This, our Iban guide Hadi assured us would be easy. "Not too steep," he said, "be there by lunchtime, plenty of time to rest." We nodded sagely, each of us I'm sure weighing up this information, timeline and our own chances of making it. Well, I say all of us, I kept having to drown out the perpetual cries of "shit, shit, SHIT" running through my head, and stop angling my body for a blubbering flight back to the safety of a car.
We got a taxi to the Timpohon Gate located 1,800 metres up. "Great!" I thought, "most of it'll be done for me!" Again, the folly of an ill-prepared idiot.
The scenery is awesome, if you're able to lift your head and look at it. The path is often rocky or slippery, and I spent more of my time looking at my feet than around. That is the handy part of having an unfit git like me around, rest stops, and plenty of 'em. This allows you to get a look at the impressive vistas that surround you, and they're worth looking at. Initially you're surrounded by trees, which allow you to see birds, small squirrels and insects.
We continued to climb. One of my companions, (an irritatingly fit soul), skipped on ahead. He revealed to me later that at one stage he stopped to wait for me and the others to catch up. As he did so, he heard some muffled cursing, (which turned out to be my mauling of the Queen's English), and one clear phrase stood out: "This is hell. Why am I doing this to myself?" He laughed as he told me, for he said it made him think how long had that been going through my head before I vocalised it.
Suddenly, there it was. Well, I say suddenly, after much climbing, physical and mental agony and a rather heavy rainstorm (that made your footing all the more treacherous) there it was. I had never seen a more welcome sight in my life, it was like the Holy Grail, the Mona Lisa or Maggie Gyllenhaal all rolled into one.
The climb to Labanrata was tiring, but my muscles stopped aching after an hour or so and a lay down. We ate (and ate well as it was a buffet), and made plans for an early night so that we could be up at two to set off for the peak and see the dawn at the top.
The first problem was that the room was too hot - odd considered the height of the mountain and the drop in temperature to a very chilling 4-5 degrees Celsius outside. The heater came on automatically, and we couldn't change the setting or turn it off. In a small dorm with a tiny window, all six of us slowly started to melt. More blankets were kicked off, more layers lost. More time passed, and soon there was no getting around the fact we had to get up, ready or not.
We assembled outside, dressed for the cold and started to climb. The mountain was much steeper here, and in pitch darkness, with only a hand held torch (in my case), much less forgiving. I started to get hot, too hot. I removed layers. Soon I was only in a tee shirt. I reached six and a half kilometers. My legs were wobbling, I was breathing very hard, and my heart was beating a staccato rhythm in my chest so hard and loud I thought that it might burst. The cavalcade of climbers went on. I had to sit down.
As soon as I sat, I knew, deep down, that this was the end of my mountain adventure. I felt woozy, I couldn't focus properly, I felt sick and retched several times. Another climber diagnosed altitude sickness. I don't know if he was right, I didn't care then - I felt terrible, both physically and mentally.
Alone, in the darkness, wobbling mightily I started my descent. I slipped and slid over rocks. I bounced down steps on my arse. At one memorable moment I fell off the path, sliding down a slope before grabbing a tree. My heroic cry of "Oh shiiiiiit!" attracted the attention of some Japanese tourists who rescued me (I hope I remain a pub story for them forever more, and that they know I'm eternally grateful). Eventually, I reached Labanrata again, and collapsed inside.
By dawn, I had recovered, and I began looking to the summit, thinking of my companions and hoping that they had made it to the top ok.
When my companions arrived and had rested (which involved me running around fetching tea, toast and towels), we began the climb down. Initially, we started quickly, and whole kilometers elapsed before we rested. To begin with our legs were (relatively) fresh, and the pain wasn't there, but after a few kilometers our calves burned, and our footing grew less sure. I relied more and more on Sticky, and felt less and less like Gandalf as we meandered slowly down the side.
Finally, we were at the bottom. As already mentioned, the steps to Timpohon Gate nearly killed me. We were there. They had done it. I had failed to climb the easiest mountain in the world. Right then I didn't care. I was alive, and I never had to do this again, that was consolation enough. Looking back now, the mountain was a mixed blessing. The scenery was brilliant, and worth the climb for that alone. It also convinced me to do something about my rather poor physical state. It's just a pity I did it at the wrong time to really make the most of the opportunity.
One final word about the experience of Kinabalu is to mention the guides.