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Tackling Malaysia's highest peak

Walking, running or crawling … there is more than one way to reach the summit of Mount Kinabalu, writes Phillippa Stewart

 

IF CLIMBING MOUNT Kinabalu has taught me one thing it is this: there is always somebody better than you.

A few hours into day one of the twoday hike, I sit surveying a giant pitcher plant in the Unesco heritage site Kinabalu Park, tucking into a chocolate-covered muesli bar.

I can’t help but feel a little bit smug that our group has overtaken a few people on the steep ascent that I can only liken to having spent too long on a gym’s step machine. OK, they may have been a group in their later years, and maybe a few children, but it’s a small victory nonetheless.

My smugness is short-lived. There is nothing worse than seeing sprightly locals in flip-flops practically running up to the night’s rest hut, complete with supplies for our evening meal: bags of rice, gallons of water or an enormous gas canister. Suddenly my calorie intake doesn’t seem quite as deserved. My partner, our compulsory guide and myself are aiming for the ironically named Low’s Peak, a cool 4,095 metres above sea level and Malaysia’s highest peak. The hike is touted as tourist-friendly, and naturallooking steps have been built, as have several rest huts with functioning toilets. It’s only 8.7 kilometres from the start, but it’s the gradient that’s the challenge.

Unfortunately we leave rather late on day one, around 11am, and end up getting soaked by the afternoon showers. Laban Rata Resthouse, our home for the evening, is a welcome relief as I squelch about the dorms in my soggy socks.

Despite smelling of a wet dog (I forget to take a change of clothes), we set about making friends with fellow hikers in the dining room, reminiscent of a school canteen. Drinking a vat of hot chocolate and swapping stories with other friendly and exhilarated hikers is certainly a highlight of the trip.

An early bedtime is advisable as most people wake up at around 2am to make it to the summit for sunrise at around 5.30am.

As you struggle to get yourself out of bed, into the cold darkness, with aching muscles from the previous day’s hike, you suddenly understand why people you meet heading down from the peak tell you, rather annoyingly, that reaching the top is “all in the mind”.

But there is a certain amount of physical strength required as you haul yourself up.

Trudging up the final hundred or so metres to the top, along what looks like a grey rock face from outer space, suddenly the early start, hours of climbing, wet pants and bitter cold all seem worth the hassle. Looking down on the clouds and rainforest in the first rays of sunlight, the world opens up. I may not have reached here first, I may not have been the fastest, but I did it.

If you’re looking to push yourself even further, try running the trail. On October 19, elite runners are given the chance to run from the park entrance to the summit and back – a total of 33 kilometres. For the rest of us, there’s a 23-kilometre adventure race on October 20, running halfway up the mountain to Layang-Layang Hut and finishing at Kundasang.

As for me, I’ve got the certificate and feel no compulsion to take on the under-three-hours record. Stick to what you’re good at – I’ll be munching chocolate-covered muesli bars.

48hours@scmp.com

 

Survival tips
• Bring a head torch. This is essential because you set off in the dark on day two, scrambling over wet and slippery rocks, to make it to the top for sunrise.

• Even though it only takes two days for most people to climb, make sure you bring two sets of clothes. Rain in the afternoon is common and walking in damp clothes is not fun.

• Bring warm clothes to sleep in and to wear at the summit - it gets chilly the higher you climb. Waterproof gear (including gloves) and good hiking boots are essential, too.

• Don't expect five-star luxury. You will most likely have to share a no-frills dorm, with a minimum of four people to a room. See it as a way to make friends, and bring earplugs if you are a light sleeper.

• Snacks at base camp are quite expensive so it's worth stocking up on energy food before you start walking.

 

Getting there
Air Asia, Malaysia Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines and Dragonair all fly direct to Kota Kinabalu. Flights take about three hours. The park entrance to the mountain is about a two-hour drive from the airport.

 

Staying there
Contact Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (suteraharbour.com) to stay at Laban Rata Resthouse. We paid 970 ringgit (HK$2,300) per person at the Sutera lodges for three days and two nights for two people, inclusive of food, climbing fees and airport transfers.

 

When to go
You can climb Mount Kinabalu all year round, although March to August is considered the dry season. However, there can be frequent rain. The summit is only closed to climbers in very bad weather. This usually happens around eight times a year according to mountkinabalu.com.

Book well in advance as mountain passes are limited (and compulsory) and you will need overnight accommodation at Laban Rata. The hike can be booked up months ahead.

What many guidebooks don't tell you is that you can technically climb up and down in a day. To do this, turn up on the day and convince the park officials that you are fit enough to do it. However, even if you're super fit, I wouldn't recommend the one-day climb as you miss out on chatting to other climbers and probably won't see much from the summit as clouds tend to gather in the afternoon, obscuring the view. Set off early if you want to avoid the afternoon rain.

 

Join the Climbathon
There are two categories: the summit race on October 19 and adventure race on October 20. Only 110 elite men and 40 elite women can enter the summit race, while the latter is open to all aged 18 and over. The application deadline is October 5. It costs 100 ringgit for veterans (40+ years old for men, 35+ for women) and 150 ringgit for all others (for more details, go to climbathon.my.

 

Before you go …
• Many websites and guidebooks proclaim that you need a "reasonable" level of fitness, but it's a tough climb and you don't want to run into any problems as there is no quick way back down.

• Higher up the mountain, there is a lot of scrambling up ropes. It can be tiring on the legs, so be careful if you have bad knees. Walking poles might come in useful. If in doubt, consult your doctor.

• Watch out for altitude sickness.

• Make sure you cut your toenails before you leave. You don't want them cutting into your shoes and causing you pain on the way down.

 

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