Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

7 11 2011

Summary – Hard climb, early wake-up, beautiful sunrise, awesome/scary via ferrata, painful descent, I’m getting old(er), pics below

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia at ~4000m, is one of the iconic Borneo experiences. Unfortunately that also makes it very popular and as accommodation is limited, advance booking of 3-6 mos (!) is recommended. We tried to book directly 6 weeks before arriving in Borneo and there were no spots available, but we later heard that tourist agencies are often able to get you in last minute. So with 2 weeks notice, I sent some emails without much hope but lo and behold, there was availability! This is apparently fairly common through SE Asia, where tour agencies book entire blocks of rooms at popular spots so you have to go through them instead (grrr!). Since Whitney’s asthma had gotten worse in China, she decided to just hang out in the nearby city of Kota Kinabalu instead, but encouraged me to enjoy/kill myself 🙂

The climb to the top is normally done in 2 days – the first day is a 6km climb from ~1800m elevation up to ~3200m. This takes on average 5-6 hours, but only took me 4 hours with rest stops. That’s not to say it was “easy”, but it wasn’t too difficult. From my experience on similar steep climbs like the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, I knew the way down would be worse. It did get progressively steeper and rougher in the last hour so I was sucking wind when we stopped, but then I had the rest of the day to relax and recover. Sadly, due to electrical problems and low water levels, there was no hot water available for showers. That kind of sucks after you spend 4 hours climbing, during which I had to change my sweat-soaked shirt as it got colder at higher elevations! You know what also sucks? Getting up at 1:30am so you can make it to the summit in time for sunrise. I tried to go to bed around 8pm but didn’t fall asleep for over an hour due to some loud guys in the dorm room next door (thankfully the 2 people in my dorm room were sacked out before 8 and didn’t snore).

Now some people might think all this is challenging enough, but I thought “Hey, how can I make this harder!?” Turns out an enterprising soul created the world’s highest Via Ferrata on Mt. Kinabalu a few years ago. A via ferrata (Italian for “road of iron”) is a mountain route which is equipped with fixed cables, stemples, ladders, and bridges (click to open Wikipedia page). I went on one in West Virginia several years ago and it was awesome (and scary) so I decided to see if I could get on this one, last-minute style. Luckily there was space available on both their routes, a 1-2 hour short path and a 4-5 hour long path. The price difference was negligible, so of course I took the long path. Oh and you start the via ferrata AFTER you reach the summit and descend a little bit. Screw you legs!

The night climb to the summit (2.7km, climbing from 3200m to 4000m) was pretty neat, with headlamps to illuminate the steps and slopes and ropes in place to help pull ourselves up the especially steep parts. Many people are not able to complete the climb, or don’t get there until after the sunrise, but I made it up in about 3.5 hours. Luckily there was no rain or wind along the way or at the top because even so, it was fairly chilly at the top before the sun came up. After the obligatory pictures and contemplation of the awesomeness of being above the clouds (not to mention the feeling of accomplishing a strenuous ascent WELL before I even think about waking up normally!), I had to start down to get to the rendezvous point for the via ferrata.

After suiting up in my harness and helmet, we began our descent down the side of the mountain. And when I say down, I mean basically straight f’ing down. My guide said “you can go forward (facing down) or backwards if that makes you more comfortable.” Cuz yeah, why wouldn’t you walk forward down a ladder of iron rungs looking straight down a mountain cliff-face? Needless to say, I started off looking up. For the first 2/3 of the route, my body was in a constant state of excitement/fear. Excited to be doing something so adventurous and out of the ordinary, but unable to shake the innate fear of plummeting to my death. After a couple hours, I was much more comfortable with putting my entire weight on the harness (attached to the guide wire by carabiners) and leaning full away from the mountain, especially on horizontal traverses. Even taking my time, it was a quick 3 hours to the end, at which point I joined back up with the normal up/down route.

As I said before, I knew going down would be tougher and I was right. The constant descent down rocks and stairs is killer on the knees and pretty much from the beginning my right knee would flare up in pain with every step down. I tried to compensate by using my left leg more, which slowed me down a bit. After two and a half hours and with another 2km to go, the rainforest lived up to its name and it started POURING cats and dogs (or should that be monkeys and lizards?)  Thankfully I had waterproof boots and an emergency poncho that covered my backpack, but it still made for a fairly unpleasant and slippery rest of the descent. I ended up being pretty sore/pained for the next 3 days, which is probably the longest it’s ever taken me to recover physically from something. Thinking back to my easy time on the Inca Trail 8 years ago made me recognize the passage of time in a way I’m not accustomed to. I normally don’t feel I’ve physically changed much since then, but it’s obvious I’m “not as young as I used to be”. Yes I can hear all of my more … mature readers playing the world’s smallest violin since I haven’t even hit 35 yet (which sounded ancient when I was 20!), but I think this will definitely motivate me to get in better shape and start exercising again when we get back.

Please enjoy this photo essay of my trip (click on each picture for a bigger version):

The Path to Laban Rata

The path gets tougher


Success! The highest peak in Southeast Asia.

Sunrise can’t come soon enough, despite the smile it’s cold up here!

Panoramic view of sunrise

Panoramic view, looking down the mountainside

Ready for Via Ferrata (with saucy hip pose)

This is looking almost STRAIGHT DOWN the mountain!

I got tired of just smiling for every picture

Standing on a single cable bridge

Look Ma, no hands!

I’m the king of the world!

Jazz hands, cause only a real man can rock them hanging off a mountainside

A single cable bridge with two guide cables is too easy, now try one guide cable!

Map of the route from Timpohon gate to the summit (8.5km distance, ~2.2km elevation change, each way)




7 responses

7 11 2011

Those are some crazy photos – I get nervous just looking at them!

7 11 2011

that is awesome! a 4000m peak, and steel traverse! I would have TOTALLY done that with you, but well not attached to you.. cause, you are never up that early 🙂

7 11 2011
Ernesto Gluecksmann (@eglue)

I remember via ferratta in WV we went to. Was this one much longer? With the single cable bridges, sounds like this was more challenging. So cool dude! Wish I could be there with you guys.

@wrene …let’s go! what are we doing sitting around part of the world for? 😀


30 11 2011

I think this via ferrata was comparable to Nelson Rock’s in WV in length, though it was all descent / horizontal, while we had more up/down in WV. They asked me how high the via ferrata I did before was and I was like “Well it wasn’t on a mountainside, but it was high enough that you’d die if you fell so at that point it’s basically the same fear factor!”

8 11 2011

BEAST! Totally want to do this one day.. somehow.. : )

8 11 2011

Wow!! go Phil, looks incredible:)

8 11 2011
Gabriel L. Epstein

Dear Philip,
Fantastic pictures. As I told Valerie, my knees and legs are aching in sympathy and remembrance of our Machu Picchu trip. I’m glad I wasn’t there. My heart is in my mouth enough as I look at the pictures of you on the via ferrata. Your picture “The path gets tougher” looks very much like the path that my friends and I took in Bhutan; it seemed to me to go on forever—up and down, up and down, up and down. Love, Dad

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