A trip to one of southeast Asia's tallest mountains
06.09.2012 - 09.09.2012
It's been a while since I've updated the blog an I'm definitely behind on my entries. With Theresa back in the states, I decided to take a trip over to the island of Borneo. Borneo is an amazing island divided between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei and is the third largest island in the world. The sole purpose of heading to Borneo was to climb Mount Kinabalu and complete the Via Ferrata course on the mountain which happens to be the first Via Ferrata in Asia and the highest course in the world at 3,776 meters. (Mount Kenya supposedly launched a higher Via Ferrata in July that has yet to be verified as the designation Via Ferrata has been thrown around loosely lately). I booked my trip through Amazing Borneo after some online research. This outfitter seamed to be the most legit and had good reviews online and I wanted to play it safe. I flew into Kota Kinabalu direct from Singapore on Air Asia on Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning I was picked up at the Best Western Kinabalu Daya hotel on Thursday morning by the guys from Amazing Borneo. We then headed for a 1 1/2 hour bus ride to the park headquarters. This was the third UNESCO world heritage site I've been to and you can always immediately see the reason why each of these sites are designated with such importance. Standing there at the HQ staring up out the mountain was very intimidating with its multiple peaks extending up above the clouds.
Soon after I was introduced to my mountain guide Ronne. Each "group" is required to have an individual mountain guide per park regulations. Since I was alone, I was assigned my own guide which was good, since I could continue up the mountain at my own pace. We were then escorted to the starting point where the grueling hike up the mountain began. Our goal that day was to reach Pendant Hut for our Via Ferrata briefing which was located around 6.2 km from the starting point. We set out from the starting gate at around 8:55am. The beginning of the trail was not too bad, there was a gradual incline and some steps carved into the mountain, but we were able to reach the 2 km mark at 9:35 am. There are markers all along the trail to mark your progress and some resting huts about every kilometer or so. After passing the first few checkpoints the trail starting getting noticeably steeper. Imagine walking up a never ending staircase carved out of the side of the mountain. You start to feel your thighs burning from the endless stair master exercise you are doing. We reached the 3 km mark at 10:01 am which signify the midpoint of our day's hike.
Continuing on we reached the 4 km mark at 10:33 am. Here we stopped for lunch at the rest hut. I sat and enjoyed a lunch packed by the Amazing Borneo team that consisted of a cheese sandwich, a piece of fried chicken, and an apple. It wasn't too bad, but not too fulfilling when you're burning this many calories. At this time a dense fog covered the area, which is widely considered the cloud forest region of the indigenous rain forest. A slight mist also covered the area as we began to see trekkers coming down the mountain from their ascent that morning. It was around this area that we also spotted an endemic carnivorous pitcher plant that is not found anywhere else in the world.
We continued on our journey leaving the rest stop at 11:00 am and arriving at the 5 km mark at 11:32 am. At the point I was starting to feel the toll of walking up the mountain as my legs were starting to feel like jello. Pressing on, finally reached Pendant Hut at 12:31 pm. I was definitely relieved to finally be able to sit down and relax. My guide Ronne was also happy because we had reached the hut fairly early and his day was done until the morning, so he had the rest of the day to nap and relax as well. I was one of the first ones to arrive at the hut, as there were 11 Via Ferrata participants in total. Once I got to the hut there was some light snacks (primarily toast) and hot coffee and tea. I hung out in the hut and a few of the other climbers began to trickle in. Also some of the climbers from the previous day were just exiting the Via Ferrata course (which I thought was quite late in the day). Once the rest of the climbers arrived at the hut, we had our orientation with the Mountain Torq trainer showing us the basics of climbing the Via Ferrata route and how to put on the safety harness, how to "clip in" with the carabiners, and how to use the rope as a safety line. After the briefing we headed down to a nearby lodge for a buffet dinner around 4:30. The buffet was not too bad for a remote location on the side of a mountain. Once dinner was done it was back to the lodge for an early nights sleep. Accommodations were very simple.....one big room full of bunk beds with sleeping bags on top (I hope they washed the liners). here was no heat in the lodge, but it wasn't too uncomfortable in the sleeping bag. There were some showers in the wash room downstairs, but the hot water was spotter and I opted for sanitary wipes instead. Unfortunately for me I had the 65 year old Japanese guy in the bunk directly above me who snored all night long. I may have gotten a few hours of sleep before the 1:30 am wake up.
Day 2: The Summit
After waking up with a breakfast consisting of some toast (which was a little disappointing), we embarked towards the summit leaving the lodge at around 2:45 am. The climb up the summit was definitely the scariest part of the entire trip. The first part is not too terrible, however there is a large jam as around 100 people are all leaving for the summit around the same time from each of the lodges on the mountainside. You can't go at your own pace and must follow the flow of traffic up the mountain. Eventually we came to a checkpoint where the climbing permits are checked by the park staff. After this the traffic cleared and I was free to head up the summit at my own pace. Once you reach this point, there is a long rope that extends down from the mountain top with various anchor points along with way. At one point, you have to walk along a crack in the mountain holding onto this rope wit a nearly 90 degree cliff face right at the edge of your feet. There can be a dozen people holding onto this section of rope and I can't imagine what would happen if the anchor point were to give way. Keep in mind it is pitch black with only headlamps to see your footing. Continuing on up the mountain, you are walking along a nearly 45 degree slope along this rope to guide the way. You have the option of holding onto the rope that is strung along the ground, which I attempted to do initially, but it becomes very heavy after a while as it is soaked from the water running off of the mountain (tip: bring water proof gloves). The path can be very slick as well, as the moisture in the air and slight rainfall creates running paths of water down the mountain. This is why the summit closes during rainfall, as these paths of water quickly turn into waterfalls (as I found out on the way down). I continued up with path straddling the rope, just in case I was to lose my footing. It is amazing to me that supposedly 20,000 - 40,000 people climb this mountain every year and there are relatively no fatalities. I asked the guide about this and he mentioned that accidents were fairly common, most resulting in broken bones after falling a portion down the mountain. He mentioned that he's had to help carry down people in a stretcher before (not sure how much truth there was to this, but I believe him). Eventually we made it up to Lowe's Peak, the highest of the peaks on the mountain around 5:30 am. We waited for the sun to rise on the peak, which was around 40 degrees fahrenheit. I rented an extra jacket at the lodge for 10 ringgit and it was definitely worth it as the win was brutal. As the sun rose over the mountains, the incredible views we were expecting were somewhat obstructed by the cloud cover. Nonetheless the panoramic view from the top of the mountain was still amazing. It was peaceful being on top of the mountain and above the clouds looking at the villages down below. After the sunrise, it was time to venture down to the Via Ferrata starting point.
The start of the Via Ferrata was a few hundred yards from the summit and was currently still classified as the highest in the world. We met our Mountain Torq trainer and soon we were off down the side of the mountain around 7:30 am. Almost immediately we were rappelling down a vertical cliff face using the wire strung along the mountain. This was not something I was expecting but was awesome, as I have never done anything like it before. We were going down the mountain in groups of four including the trainer and soon passed a slower group in front of us. Here the course turned into essentially steps of rebar in the side of the mountain, allowing an easy path down. We continued on around a horizontal section, relying on cracks, some pegs, and somethings nothing for footing. The key was to lean backwards while holding onto the wire for some balance. You soon develop into a pattern of switching your safety rope over the anchor point and transferring your carabiners around, ensuring at least one is latched to the wire at all times. A good set of gloves is essential as your are holding onto this wire for a good portion of the course.
After the first section we came to a suspension bridge. This was one of the coolest sections of the course, as you cross over and are looking at the ravine below you. It also provides a good opportunity for some photos We continued around and came to another bridge. This one only contained a wire strung across another ravine with the safety cable on top. You must cross walking on the wire with the cable behind your head. It sounds harder than it actually is. After crossing the bridges we came to another horizontal path along the cliff face, which proved not too difficult. At the end of the section we disconnected from the cable and came to the end of Section 2. At this point, we did some jungle trekking through the mountain for around 15 - 20 minutes until we came to the final section of the Via Ferrata. Here we came to another horizontal path along with some vertical descents on the course, soon reaching the end point at around 10:45. Altogether I thought the course was awesome and definitely worth it. It provides a unique opportunity to see some views from the mountain you otherwise would not get to experience. As far as difficulty, I do not think it was difficult at all once you get used to the pattern of transferring your harness over the anchor points. I'm no rock climber (or mountain climber) but the Via Ferrata provides a unique opportunity to traverse the mountain that experienced climbers otherwise would not have the chance to experience.
After conclusion of the course, it was back to the lodge for an "american breakfast" which was some toast, mashed potatoes, beans, and hot dogs. We ended up at the lodge around 11:00, and after eating, I met up with my guide and we began our descent around 12:00. We made it about 0.5 km before it began raining heavily. On the way up we encountered sporadic showers, so I assumed this would be the case as well and it would stop in a minute or two. But as we kept descending, the rain never relented. It rained during the entire descent down the mountain, which took about 3 hours in the conditions. The trail turned into a mini-waterfall of rainwater. We sloshed through the trail for all 6 km. I had a pair of gore-tex hiking boots, but that was useless in these conditions as my feet were drenched. It definitely helps to have a waterproof outer shell and some quick wicking pants. I'm just glad this happened on the way down and not the way up. There were several hikers we passed heading up the mountain. (This is why it is difficult to attempt single day ascents because late morning and afternoon rain is very common) Once we finally got to the trailhead we took the Amazing Borneo shuttle van to park headquarters where I had breakfast at the restaurant. I then picked up my certificates for climbing Kinabalu and completing the Via Ferrata which was pretty cool. It was then back in the van for the 2 hour drive to Kota Kinabalu. Altogether this was a great trip and I would definitely do it again.