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November 19, 2011

Challenges of scaling Mt Kinabalu


More than stamina and endurance, the journey up Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is a test of mental strength.

With the mid-morning sun on our backs, we departed from the Kinabalu National Park entrance on the southern boundary of the 4,095m mountain and began our hike in the tropical woodland.

I had never planned on climbing the mountain due to a fear of heights but I didn’t resist either when a Mount Kinabalu charity expedition came up. It was organised by McMillan Woods, a company that provides audit, tax and financial consultation.

The president – and charity underwriter – Datuk Raymond Liew had gathered 50 participants from the company’s international network as well as business affiliates such as Pathlab, ACCA and Chermaine Poo Productions. The initiative raised RM100,000 for charitable organisations such as the Sabah Charity Organisation, Kechara Soup Kitchen Society and the Malaysian Association of Help for the Poor and Terminally Ill.

“What we’re doing here goes beyond charity,” Liew, a trim 54-year-old, had remarked as he watched the team gear up earlier that morning.

“This is a practical exercise where we learn to serve others. In fact, our event spokesperson, Chermaine Poo, is with us despite two slipped discs in her spine. I find that inspiring,” he explained. 

Mt Kinabalu, towards Laban Rata
Hanging tough:  Climbers abseiling down a steep incline towards Laban Rata after passing through the Sayat Sayat checkpoint. — Photos by Cheryl Poo

It would be a 6km hike to Laban Rata for a brief night’s rest, and then we would continue our ascent to Low’s Peak, a further 2.7km from the lodge. I had been cautioned on the effects of thinning air and advised that slow, deep breaths and keeping to a steady pace could help fight off nausea, drowsiness, fatigue and other symptoms of altitude sickness.

After the second kilometre, we started to feel our chests heaving as we traversed the mossy forest floor and hiked up uneven wooden planks, often without supporting rails. We took pit stops and chatted with the European and Australian tourists who were descending the mountain that morning. Ever since Sir Hugo Low, a British colonial officer, climbed Mount Kinabalu in 1851, thousands of tourists from around the world have followed suit.

The thinning air was getting to us, and by Km4, we were pausing for breath every few steps. The porters, though, had no problems, easily overtaking us despite the burden on their backs. We paid them a rate of RM8 per kg to carry our backpacks, which were bound into giant haversacks over their shoulders. Men and women alike were incredibly strong. Currently, 160 of these Bornean natives, between the ages of 20 and 55, earn their living from the mountain.

“You do this every day?” I asked incredulously.

“About once a week,” one of them replied.

They were a friendly folk, strong as horses and sure-footed as mountain goats. More than once my guide Joseph pulled me to safety when I slipped on the steeper tracks the next day.

The last kilometre to Laban Rata was difficult. The air had become so thin that we had to stop to catch our breath every few steps. My watch read 4pm when we staggered into the three-storey Laban Rata lodge that evening. The fitter participants had arrived an hour before us, including Liew, who raced up despite leg cramps.

At 3,273m, the air here was uncomfortably thin. Amidst the excited chatter in the cafeteria, I sank glumly into a plastic chair and tried to recall my reason for participating. I only cheered up when a sumptuous buffet dinner was served an hour later; everyone dug in like hungry wolves.

Over the next three hours, the remaining participants trickled in, including an exhilarated but feverish Poo, who was wan from the long day. After washing up in the freezing water, we hit the sack by nightfall. (The water heater at Laban Rata is indefinitely broken.)

At twilight, we were up to prepare for the remaining leg. I pulled on five layers of clothing to insulate from the biting cold. Save for the beams from our head torch, it was pitch black outside.

As we climbed higher, the flights of “stairs”, flanked by thick wooden “banisters” and coarse ropes, opened into a larger, steeper landing. Here, we had to climb using a loose piece of nylon rope, held to the ground by metal rungs, that stretched all the way to the summit.

“When you get up there, don’t look down,” a friend had warned me before the trip.

Despite a raging fever and two slipped discs, Chermaine Poo (left) managed to reach Low’s Peak.
Ignoring her advice, I became acutely aware that two fears accompanied me that morning: the fear of God, and the fear of falling off Mount Kinabalu. But truth be told, a beautiful sight opened up before me, too. Dawn was breaking and the morning mist was just beginning to lift. I could see white, fluffy clouds cascading over the horizon, over the bright city lights below. It was also terrifying – we weren’t harnessed in!

“Ahh ... kalau jatuh tu tak ada harapan,” one of the guides told me in heavily accented Malay. Slip, and that’s it. Gulp.

We passed the Sayat Sayat checkpoint, past which climbers are entitled to the famous “Mount Kinabalu certificate of completion”.

I learned from the guides that there had been mishaps before – hikers falling off the cliff or going missing for days, only to be found frozen. They were reluctant to say more beyond that, explaining that it would be bad luck to talk about such things.

It was particularly chilly that morning; one participant had a vial of liquid ointment in her pocket turning into ice. Having made the 8km mark, I was content to stay put as others passed me to climb a further 700m to the summit. The downpour the previous night had left the skies cloudy. We could see layers of cloud beneath us and the very sharp precipice we stood on. With the wind swirling in our ears, we snapped a few photos and then made our way down the same path.

As we descended, the morning mist cleared and gave us a better view of the valley below.

We arrived at Laban Rata for breakfast, then continued our way down. Going downhill was not taxing but it was tough on the knees so I moved at a leisurely pace, helping myself to the tanks of untreated mountain water at the rest stops. My legs were quivering by the time I arrived at the park exit gate in the afternoon.

“It was extremely cold. It was hard to move, and with every step, I wanted to turn back! But once I reached the rocky landing, I was able to savour the breathtaking view. I was scared and relieved!” Poo told me later that evening.

Participant William Arul, 55, remarked, “Scaling Mount Kinabalu in the darkness was helpful; the thick mist ensured that my focus was limited to what my eyes could see, which wasn’t far. And that made the journey (to the peak) achievable.

“It was a fantastic team effort by everyone,” said Liew. “It was an exercise that challenged our limits and ultimately, we did it in the name of charity.”




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