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June 1995

I took a four day trip to Sabah, East Malaysia to climb Mount Kinabalu, with two friends from the Canadian Dragon Boat Team.

Mount Kinabalu is 4,101 meters high (13,328 feet) and is one of the highest mountains in South East Asia.  By comparison, Mt. Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, is 3,954 meters high.

After flying direct from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu (KK), we were driven in a four-wheel drive pickup to Tambatuon River Lodge to spend the first night.  The lodge was a little over an hour and a half drive from KK.  From sea level at KK, a good two lane highway quickly rose into the mountains which were thick with jungle and only occasionally brokour_fist_glimse_of_kinabaluen by kampongs or farmers' fields.  We left the highway and turned on to a very rough road which was primarily used by gravel trucks and finally on to a gravel/dirt trail which was not much wider, in many spots, than the truck.  The drive was quite spectacular as there were often good views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.  It was, however, bone-jarringly rough.  The lodge was situated in a valley at the edge of a small kampong which overlooked a river and faced Mount Kinabalu.  To pass the afternoon, we took a hike around the area which included crossing the river on an unstable suspension bridge and continued through rice paddies and jungle.

The following morning we drove back out to the highway and to Kinabalu Park, where ourin_the_clouds tour guide registered us with the park headquarters and arranged for a mountain guide/porter.  The start of the climb was at the power station which was at about 6,800 feet.  The lower trail wound through thick jungle and always went up.  At about 9,000 feet (after a number of rest stops), we stopped for lunch and then continued to the overnight lodge at Laban Rata (11,000 feet).  The first day's climb took us about four hours, with the weather changing from sunny, hot and humid to cool and foggy, as we came level with the clouds.  When in the clouds, the jungle air got quite cool and the fog added a mysterious appearance to everything.

The jungle was extremely dense in most places with lots of insect noise.  There was an amazing variety of plants and we saw many types of orchids, rhododendrons, ferns, and a few pitcher plants.  Laban Rata was well above the cloud level and only slightly below the tree line.  We spent the balance of the afternoon relaxing on the sun deck and watching the stragglers arriving.

There is a main lodge (Laban Rata) with dormitory rooms, a restaurant, a hostel (Gunting Lagadan) and two smaller huts, all of which were quite adequate but on the rustic side.  Total accommodation is probably around 100 people and it was fully booked for the weekend which meant there were lots of hikers on the trail (both going up and down).  Everything at the lodge must be carried up by porters who must make the two way trip once a day.

the_trail_upWe started the climb to the summit at 2:30 a.m. in order to be there before the sunrise.  Many people had started earlier than us and the first stretch was dead slow as it consisted of a steady climb of steep steps and ladders.  Many people appeared to be tired and sore from the previous day's climb, or were having trouble in the dark because of poor torches, or were having trouble breathing because of the thin air.  The narrowness of the trail made it very difficult to pass people and we spent a lot of time standing and waiting for those ahead to start moving.  As we got closer to the tree line, the path opened up and it became possible to pass, however, at that altitude I started having difficulty breathing and had to pace myself very carefully.  The others in my group went ahead and I went the rest of the way with the porter.  Once we left the trees, the trail was marked by ropes and in quite a number of areas it was necessary to use these for climbing up or over the rocks.  Even though I was setting an extremely slow pace, I was quite surprised to find I was passing others rather than being passed.

There was a full moon in a very clear sky and it was possible to climb without a torch, even when in the trees.  Once we were beyond the trees, the visibility created by the moonlight was amazing.  There was a very thick layer of cloud below us and the moon's reflection off them contributed to the amount of light.  Scattered throughout the cloud cover were a number of thunderheads and it was quite spectacular to see the occasional flash of lightning and be reassured to know that we were well above it.  There was a constant strong cold wind blowing and as we had been warned that it often rained at the top, I had a second reason to be pleased that we were above the clouds.  The rain coupled with the wind would have made the climb extremely difficult, if not impossible.

The top of the mountain consisted of a fairly flat area with several separate peaks.  The highest peak is named Low's Peak, after the first European, Hugh Low, to climb it in 1851.  This is the one we climbed.  Less than two dozen of the 100+ who started for the peak had made it to the top for the sunrise.  Many were still climbing as we descended about one hour after sunrise and we met a number on the decent to Laban Rata who had given up and were not going to make it.  We stopped at Laban Rata to pick up our gear and have breakfast before heading for the bottom.

I found the climb down to be harder on my legs than the climb up and I could hardly walk by the time we reached the park headquarters because of leg cramps.  The rest on the drive back to KK and a hot bath cured most of the aches and pains.  I was able to do a walking tour of KK the following day with no problems.