Summit Fever: The Ascent of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo
BORNEO, INDONESIA- My vision is starting to go a bit blurry. I find myself short of breath, but not short of breath in the sense that I’m not physically fit enough for the activity I’m engaged in. We all know the feeling when we just exercised and take a deep, deep breath, filling our lungs with oxygen. It’s the lifeblood of the human experience, right? Well I’m suddenly finding myself short of breath in the sense that I take that deep pull, filling my lungs with as much air as I can, but I don’t seem to be getting as much oxygen as I’m used to. I’m young, relatively fit, and blessed with a functional body in the top half of endurance athletics for my age group.
I’ve also just passed the 4.0 kilometer mark on Mount Kinabalu’s summit trail, 2,745 meters (9,005 feet) above sea level. I had read that altitude sickness was a possibility when attempting the summit, but I brushed it off as something only the old and weak succumb to. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case, and even though I’m not “sick” per se, I can certainly see that my original intention to reach the summit and descend in the same day was a far-fetched fantasy I had cooked up as a way to save money on the mountainside accommodation.
Arriving at the visitor center at 9:45 on Monday morning, I had planned to obtain a permit to reach the summit in a single day. All of the posted information online indicated that the 2-day trip, booked for a single person, would be in excess of $600. No, thank you. I figured I would see if I could get the one day permit, and if that failed, c’est la vie. Unfortunately, as the young man behind the counter informs me, the park ceased distributing single-day permits in August. Fortunately, there is a new hostel ¾ of the way up the mountain, and the nightly rate is 100 ringgit, or about $30. This, this I can do. He also asks if I want to start the climb today. After a moment’s thought, I decide that this is also something I can do.
“You have to be ready to go at 10:30”, the clerk informs me.
“10:30 here, or 10:30 at the starting gate?” I ask, already knowing what the answer is.
By this point I have approximately 20 minutes to change into appropriate climbing gear, pack my climbing bag, store my luggage, and acquire the appropriate supplies for my journey, namely water and 2 Snickers bars. I’m under the impression that I executed these actions swiftly and efficiently until a few minutes into the trek when I realize that I forgot my dry-fit warm undershirt, my headlamp, my gloves, the waterproof cover for my bag, and a number of other small knickknacks that I conveniently had already packed inside a small drawstring intended for this hike, ready to go at a moment’s notice…so much for swift efficiency. I guess I’ll just have to make do.
The one awesome part about just showing up and climbing the same day is that I end up with my own personal guide, Lasius. Lasius is a pretty chill local guy with the physique of a hard-drinking line cook, whose last time climbing the mountain was…yesterday. This is his job after all. The summit trail begins fromTimpohon Gate, shortly after which is a set of stairs and path that slopes downward before the real climb begins. I lightheartedly comment to Lasius that this is the only mountain I’ve ever climbed where you go down instead of up, and he responds in earnest that I should not worry, we will be going upwards soon. This could be a long hike.
200 meters into the trek, we come across the only waterfall we’ll see. I had told Lasius that I was excited to see waterfalls, and he made sure I didn’t miss this one. What a guy! Like the overexcited gringo that I am, I push ahead at a steady pace, making sure to take the time to touch all of the moss growing on the sides of the rocks. Lasius tells me that my pace is too fast for him, which momentarily gives me pause to wonder if I ended up with a chain-smoking backup, called in at the last moment on a special assignment to guide yours truly up the mountain. But I take this as an opportunity to put aside my machismo, and remember that slow and steady wins the race.
By 2.0 kilometers, we are almost completely covered in fog…fog, or clouds? I can’t really tell, but the only thing I know is that I can’t see as single thing at any of the scenic viewpoints. Apparently during the dry season the views are spectacular, but I decided to hike this peak in the middle of November, the month with the highest average rainfall and least hours of sunlight. My saving grace is that at least the peak will be above the clouds, and I’ll be able to see something.
By 2.5 kilometers, it is pouring rain. I rue the fact that I left my rain-cover back at base-camp, and that my rain-jacket is a shitty second-hand pick-up that I nabbed in a moment of opportune grace from the free shelf at Nomad’s in Cairns. Luckily, Lasius is prepared for such unprepared climbers as myself, and whips out a poncho which I can wear to cover both myself and my bag. Lucky me! The perks of a 1:1 guide to climber ratio. Lasius himself carries a large golf umbrella and doesn’t seem to have a speck of water on him. Lasius is not to be underestimated.
THE MOST STRIKING thing about the trail is that it’s essentially a single, ungodly long staircase. Sure, there are a few straight paths and upward inclines, but 95% of the ground we’ve covered so far have consisted of either wooden steps or rocks laid out in position to be, quite literally, stepping stones. It’s a known fact that there is little in the world that man has yet to conquer, but it really does make you think twice when you fancy yourself a rogue badass by committing to a summit trek with only 30 minutes to prepare, only to find out that the route you will be following has been laid out for you, step by step.
Suddenly, I feel myself getting a bit weaker. I’m used to physical exhaustion. I’m not in the best shape, and I oftentimes put myself in positions which require better physical fitness than I actually possess, but I expected some sort of aggressive letdown by this point. Usually when engaging in a strenuous physical activity such as hiking, climbing, surfing, or the like, the first 5-10 minutes are tough to get used to. Your blood starts flowing, your heart starts pounding, and your body needs time to adjust. But after 5-10 minutes, you get in the groove. You adjust to the new norm, and you roll with it, that is, unless you keep pushing yourself hard enough that your body needs to get used to a new norm.
Yet this feeling I have is not physical exhaustion. It’s something else. Suddenly, it clicks- the altitude is getting to me. I've passed the 4.0km mark, and at 2,745 meters (9,005 feet), I don’t think I’ve ever really been much higher than I have at this point. I’ve scaled Mt. Tallac with Dan and Savoca, and I can’t remember how high that was (I’ve since researched it, and Kinabalu is 1000m higher, so Tallac doesn’t count). I’ve been to Colorado, but that’s the mile-high city, isn’t it, and that would make it 5,280 feet high. Hell, people talk about how hard it is to go jogging in Colorado all the time. Airplanes don’t quite count, since you’re inside a pressurized cabin. So maybe, it occurs to me, this is a possibility. It's the highest I've ever been. Altitude sickness. Hm. All I can remember about altitude sickness is to keep yourself hydrated, stay away from blood thinners, and take it slow and steady. So that’s what I do, for the next 2.0 kilometers. I don’t look up, I look down. I don’t focus on how far I have to go, I concentrate on the stops I need to take right now. One-foot, two-foot. In & out, in & out. 1, 2, 3, 4,. These are my mantras as I slowly plod up the mountain, one foot at a time.
Fortunately, Lasius is actually a pretty good guy, and doesn’t give me any shit for my slow pace, especially after my overeager beginning. He’s all about caution being first, and probably has some personal safety record to worry about (or maybe mot, this is Malaysia after all…) He’s cool with taking it as slowly as we need to, since there’s no rush to get to Laban Rate (the overnight stop, 2.7km from the summit) with any haste. I feel my body aching, top to bottom, inside and out, the onset of physical exhaustion near. Yet even though I write about it now, I did this for no one but myself. I specifically declined to do other things to go off on my own and climb this mountain, solo, so who’s accountable for getting me to the top? And who cares whether I do it or not, in the end? Me. Just me. I was doing this only for myself, because I love the feeling of standing on top of a mountain, saying I crushed that. It’s a powerful motivator to not turn around or give up when you are doing something only for yourself.
The final hour is an excruciating crawl until I see, in the distance, some sort of guest house. I ask Lasius if this is where we stop, and he says no, just a bit more to go. Just a bit more. Finally, like the gates of heaven opening up before us, I see the Laban Rate guesthouse. Lasius points me towards my room, but not before making me promise that I will meet him in the common area at 2:30 the next morning for the summit trek. I quickly acquiesce, since the only thing on my mind right now is making it to my room and lying prostrate on the first bottom bunk I lay my eyes on for hours on end, possibly until 2:30 the next morning.
Stumbling into my room, I claim a bottom bunk in the corner and immediately collapse. There are a number of other people in the room and we get to chatting, but I really don’t care what I’m doing as long as it does not consist of climbing a mountain. I ask someone what the time is, and apparently it’s 3pm. That means it took me 4.5 hours to get to Laban Rata. Per the old guidelines, you needed to make it there by 10:30am to be allowed to have a go at the summit in a single day... that means I would have had to begin at 6am, a start-time which I hardly see myself having planned. It’s one of a number of signs that I would have been absolutely crazy to attempt this hike in a single day. The rest of the evening is passed bullshitting in the dorm room, eating dinner, and taking pictures of the tops of clouds. Before I know it, it’s 6:45pm, and time for communal lights out.
I don’t know if I’ve ever slept as poorly as I did that night. I expected to fall into a deep, deep slumber and be pissed when the 2am alarm went off, but that was hardly the case at all. Even with three comforters and two pillows commandeered from empty beds, I was up every hour, tossing and turning. Lasius warned me that I might not sleep well due to the altitude, but I guess I didn’t have enough respect for 3,272 meters. Soon enough, Jack Johnson is cooing me out of my slumber with a pleasant rendition of Break Down, and I’m up and getting dressed: my trusty double layered t-shirts and Hurley sweatshirt made for a post-surf warm-up. My rain jacket is a casualty of yesterday’s downpour, and my dry-fit shirt is, as previously mentioned, down at Base Camp. Along with the gloves I purchased expressly for this occasion. Fortunately, it’s not that cold outside, but making my way to the dining hall proves difficult as I’ve also left my flashlight at the bottom. Thankfully, Lasius bails me out again with a headlamp. Whew, this guy is good.
We get somewhat of a late start (2:42am, to be precise) since I need to have a coffee (my bad), and end up behind a long train of mid-to-late teenagers on some sort of school trip. It’s a good thing that Lasius guns for it though, since we quickly pass them in the first 500 meters, hoofing it up the steps to get by them. I woke up feeling like absolute shit. Headache, kind of dehydrated, small upset stomach. An absolute pain in the ass, but something I figured I would just have to ignore, to observe equanimously…though for whatever reason, as soon as we get moving, I’m fine. I’m in the zone, and I’m ready to smash the Lhotse Face. As we pull away from the rest of the pack, the terrain begins to change. No more rainforest trees, no more vegetation, no more dirt…from here on out, it’s granite rock. Steep granite rock.
There are ropes that have been bolted into the rock face which we use to ascend the next few hundred meters; the terrain is far too steep to consider just climbing. I take a quick glance behind me; the clouds are well below us and above us are the stars. The moon isn’t full, but almost so, and it casts an eerie glow upon the rock face we are climbing. Climbing with ropes has always been my thing, so we’re able to make some real progress here. It’s also quite a welcome change to work another part of my body aside from my quads, which are killing me by this point.
We reach a checkpoint where an attendant logs our climbing numbers, presumably so someone can come looking for us if we don’t check back in after some undisclosed period of time. We take a quick break after the checkpoint, but I don’t really like breaks at this point…breaks give the sweat on my back time to chill over, which is a terrible feeling when you are under-clothed. We have about two hours to make it to the summit before sunrise, which we can easily do since we’re an hour’s climb away.
We set off again, Lasius leading the way. The granite has evened out a bit, giving us the chance to walk without using the ropes. Suddenly, my self-diagnosed altitude sickness hits again. I think I acclimatized overnight to 3,272 meters, but the additional 500m gain in elevation in an hour has taken it’s toll on me. It’s the same strategy as before: head down, and shuffle along. One foot in front of the other, and do not think, even for a second, about stopping. It’s excruciating, but there is a comforting feeling in knowing that with every step you take you are that much closer to the summit. The wind whips up a little, which almost sends me into a tailspin. I am generally a huge hater of wind, but it is my worst nightmare when I’m thousands of feet above the clouds and dressed in two t-shirts and a sweatshirt. Fortunately, the Gods shine down upon me and there is no further wind for the day. I am the luckiest guy in the world...how many mountain tops literally have no wind?
By this point, the summit peak is in sight. It curves sharply upward, protruding from the smooth granite rock face leading up to it like a breaking wave. It’s a beautiful sight to see, and makes for an inspiring goal when you’re bucking up the will to smash this thing. A glace off in the distance reveals a faint trace of light; the morning sun beginning to peak through. Sunrise isn’t for another hour, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make itself known before then.
BEFORE I KNOW it, we’re ascending the peak, off to the side from the rest of the climbers in a mad dash conventionally dubbed “Summit Fever”. It’s that feeling when nothing else really matters other than getting to the top of that em-effing mountain; rain, hail, sleet, wind- whatever, you can taste victory, and you will achieve it at all costs. The rocks are large now, large slabs of granite which require you to use both your legs and hands to get up. The sides are steeper now, and the stakes are higher if you fall- but the view becomes more and more magnificent. And just like that, I’m at the top. I won’t even try to describe the view from up there, and I will post a few pictures, but even they do not have the ability to describe the magnificence of the sight from the summit of Mount Kinabalu. Even Lasius said that this was a particularly good morning, and had his phone out to take pictures of it.
We spent about an hour on the summit, taking pictures and marveling in the wonder of the moment. I opened a bar of Chok-Chok, my favorite Balinese chocolate. I saw Howard, my friend from the shuttle ride to the starting point, a nurse in LA who happens to know Danielle Godino (who I went to college with). But more than anything, I wanted to revel in the beauty of the moment. Anyone who actually enjoys the act of climbing a mountain is lying. It’s absolutely torturous, especially this one (for me). Each step was a struggle, and going down was no better. It poured rain for the second half of the descent, I’m talking Borneo, wet-season poured rain, and I was absolutely drenched and chilled to the bone by the time I was finished. But that hour of being on top of the world made it all worth it. Hard work? Of course. But what’s worth achieving if you haven’t worked hard to get it?