“If you disrespect the mountain, nature will disrespect you” warns our worried-looking guide, Felix. The earthquake on Mount Kinabalu that killed 19 people two-years ago, was attributed to the disrespectful actions of hikers two weeks before. Deeply superstitious, the local people blamed the tourists, who stripped naked for photos at the summit. for the subsequent seismic movement.
So, following a lengthy briefing on respecting the mountain, what to do in an earthquake, danger zones (after which I couldn’t get the soundtrack from Top Gun out of my head), slippy rocks and AMS (really?), we set off to climb Mt. Kinabalu.
The trail is just 8km long from the mountain park gate but has 2,000m ascent to the 4095m summit.
We weave our way up through the rainforest passing waterfalls, trees dripping with moss and ferns, clambering over rocks and climbing up steps. Thousands of steps. It is humid. Really humid. By 1km we are dripping with sweat.
I look at the porters quietly carrying their loads up the mountain. Apparently the regulation weight for porter loads is 10kg and they must be at least 16. They look too young to me. The Bornean porters bear similar massive loads to the porters on Kilimanjaro but they are much better equipped. I ask a group of porters if I can try to lift a load. I don’t get it off the ground. It is definitely heavier than 10kg! The porters laugh at my feebleness. I am in awe of them.
We pass a couple of giggling Korean girls on the trail and then spot their bight yellow suitcases on the back of a young lad. Each member of our team carries everything we need for the two days ourselves. It’s only two days – you don’t need that suitcase!!
A shelter every km gives everyone a minute’s breather while the native black squirrels boldly weave between our feet looking for dropped crumbs and discarded food.
Missing the obligatory afternoon storm, we reach the Pendant Hut at 1:45pm in time for our via ferrata safety briefing. Mt Kinabalu boasts the world’s highest via ferrata. We will give it a go after the summit.
After a few hour’s kip, trying to ignore the snores of my fellow-hikers, we leave the hut at 2:30am. The Milky Way spans the night sky and the distant lights of Kota Kinabalu twinkle on the coast.
We join the slow procession of head torches shuffling up the mountain. I am surprised at how busy it is. The park limits permits and you cannot climb the mountain without a permit and a guide. It takes a long time for the congestion to thin out. More steps. Fat ropes help us pull up over rocky steps on the vast summit slab.
The deep black sky slowly turns to grey, followed by pinks and blues and we reach the summit at 6am for the sunrise. Cloud hangs in the valleys and we see the shadow of the mountain on the clouds below.
On the ascent we learn more about our mountain guide, Pingi. This tiny, kind, ever-cheerful man lost his youngest son on the mountain in the earthquake. He warns us to avoid the “rude, pushy” Koreans on the summit. He is not wrong. We take our summit photos in time before the highest point is crawling with a large group of them literally pushing everyone else aside.
Ticking off the simple but entertaining via ferrata on the way, we start our long descent. Black clouds start building up below and it isn’t long before the first fat drops fall.
I have to say I am a complete poncho convert! I packed my clear plastic poncho (that I got for free when volunteering at the London Marathon Water station – thank you Watford Joggers!) almost as an afterthoughtt. It is perfect for Borneo’s tropical climate where, even during heavy rain, it is hot and humid.
We arrive, dripping and slightly weary, at the entrance gate for 3pm. No-one was struck with AMS, hit by rocks in the danger zone or slipped. We respected the mountain and came back down safe and sound. Phew!