I still couldn’t believe these words came out of my mouth. Just before my Iphone battery died out on me, this was the only message I managed to record in my attempt to somehow capture the most difficult moment of my climb to Mount Kinabalu.
I then thought, I should have chosen a better statement that was far from the obvious like-
“Take my body back to the Philippines.”
“Mom, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was going to climb a
“Karen, I won’t forgive myself if you don’t survive this.”
These were still absurd last words, sorry. I guess my brain wasn’t in its best fit condition for something noteworthy or I simply wasn’t ready to end it.
Six months. I had this amount of time to prepare for Mount Kinabalu. Yet, there I was, unsure of what was waiting ahead of me. What have I gotten myself into? I even dragged my best friend along with me. Even though, my Sabahan friend, Alan who went for the climb last year was with us, this didn’t prove to be much help in the preparations. Can I really do this?
It was raining when we arrived at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges at Mesilau. Damn, it was cold. I was most certain the conditions for Day 2 would be challenging. (I really regret that I left the windbreaker a friend lent me the week before.) It had been years since I last went mountain hiking and I was most certain those were on the easy category.
The climb to Mount Kinabalu Low’s Peak was divided in two days. The first day was a 4km climb to Laban Rata, a lodge somewhere on the mountains. The next day was the 2km climb to Low’s Peak.
Let’s get it on! There was no turning back. Our group of six, departed at around 10am. After getting the backpacks weighed (just in case we decide to have a porter carry the bags en route to the top), signed climber forms and got our IDs for the climb, we started the hike via Mesilau trail. (I still wonder why my backpack had 6kg worth of stuff in it.)
First Day – Laban Rata
The first part of the climb was not exactly a walk in the park, but it was relatively easy. There were a lot of downhill portions and the scenery – a lush rainforest kept me distracted from the long journey that awaits.
Karen and I were behind the rest of the people in our group since we took our time to take some photos and rest a bit every kilometer or so. There were huts along the trail, and drinking water was available so it was pretty convenient for not so competent people like us. Alan, told us not to be so happy with the downhill parts, since there were more more uphill tracks ahead. After a few hours of climbing, the tougher portions of the climb came to view. There were wooden and rock staircases that seem to have no end (still don’t know how they were able to do this kind of thing, it’s admirable). Somehow the trips to Macritchie and Southern ridges helped in preparation for this. Nevertheless, it was a lot of effort.
Just when we thought we were getting the hang of it, and got accustomed to the trail, the weather did not seem to cooperate. It began to rain. I didn’t really fancy the plastic ponchos but it helped keep us from getting wet (well, mostly). It was in luck that we found a decent hut to shelter ourselves from the rain. It was only then that I noticed the altitude we were at. I think the expression for that was “the air is thinner.” (Something like that. Ask a professional mountaineer!)
We had to continue moving or else we’ll have to trek in the dark. Apparently, the reason it was very windy in the area we stayed at, was because of the low clouds passing by (Maybe, my eyes were deceiving me when I looked back and it was just the wind?). I have never felt more worried about the weather. Let’s stay away from the rain clouds! Oh no! They’re coming. Well, my thoughts were in this line.
It was more difficult to climb with more layers of clothes on but there wasn’t much of a choice. Two protein bars, one banana and a sandwich after, we made it to the junction. Just a few kilometers to go. The environment was different from then on. The tall tropical trees no longer covered us from the sun. Instead, we were welcomed by short and wide trees usually seen in colder regions. The terrain was that of rock, stone and pebbles and when you look ahead you can already see the granite slopes of Mount Kinabalu.
Although it took longer than we had expected, Karen and I finally reached Laban Rata. The first part of the climb was over.
Doubts came in before we called it a day. Could we really handle the climb on Day 2? It would be tougher, harder and colder. I was worried about Karen. She had some difficulty during the first day, the next would be on a different level.
Second Day – Mount Kinabalu Low’s Peak
With barely enough sleep, we assembled outside of the cottage at 2:00am to reach the peak by sunrise. Headlamps on, we began to walk towards a dark path to start our ascend to Low’s peak. It rained that night. We had to climb wet and slightly slippery staircases built over rocks, the first stage of the 2km climb. I could definitely feel the difficulty in breathing. It was dark, and I couldn’t really see where I was heading. I worried about the weather at the top. I have never experienced winter so I have no idea what 2degrees would feel like. It shouldn’t be that bad, I thought, the three layers of clothes I have on should be enough to keep me warm.
Fear. After several flights of stairs, it was the start of the granite rock surface. Climbers waited for their turn at the white rope to climb up. I could barely see the rock we were supposed to climb. WIll there be enough friction on these Kampong Adidas shoes? Do I have enough energy to carry my weight for that rappel up?
I thought I heard a girl scream. In tears, the girl in front of me was so upset she couldn’t make it. I was scared. If I couldn’t make it to this one, how could I survive the climb to the top? I gave Karen a reassuring nod before I took the rope (I had to be the strong one, although I really wasn’t). I had some experience in rappelling and sports climbing in college, but I wasn’t at ease with this environment.
I guess some skills come in when needed. The rappel up was not that bad. I regained a bit of confidence. Karen managed to do it as well. I thought, I shouldn’t really worry. We can make it. Maybe.
With only the torchlight, I could barely see where I was going. I could only see a small portion of the rocky slope and the white rope that marked the path where I should be headed. Breathing was an effort and the cold wind just seemed to slap you hard on the face.
After what seemed like hours of climbing, the slopes proved to be more difficult for us so the guides offered to give us a hand. I let go of the rope and held on to one of the guides. Karen was with another one. These were experts who literally walked the steep slopes of Mount Kinabalu. The experience was extraordinary. The way up was almost easy.
Tired and exhausted, Karen and I managed to reach the Sayat Sayat check point. We signed some forms to show that we made it up to that part. We didn’t really stay very long to rest. We had to keep moving if we wanted to reach the peak by sunrise.
Only a few steps to go. I continued to convince myself to hold on it’s just a bit more (I wasn’t really sure). I kept my hopes up that I only had to struggle for so long. It wasn’t as dark as when we started, but the fog still hindered my vision. My legs were starting to give up and my hands shivered from the wet gloves I had on. Karen’s guide spoke some English so she managed to tell the guide how cold our hands were and managed to exchange our wet ones for some winter ski gloves the guide wore. (The guide with me didn’t have any gloves on but and he looked perfectly fine without them!) Karen and I took a glove each. At least one hand felt warm and comfortable.
I was cold. I was thirsty, but more than that, I got worried. I realized after a while that I couldn’t see Karen and her guide behind me anymore. Karen and I got separated. I had no way to check if she was still on her way up or if she went back. My guide could barely speak English so he would just stop when I stop for rest and wait with me as I tried to check if Karen was on her way. Seriously, I wasn’t sure.
It was the worst feeling ever. My body was close to giving up. I almost felt like I was close to dying and I have no idea where Karen was. I couldn’t do anything about it. I have to keep moving or my body will fail in the cold weather. I was freezing. I should be close so I had to move on. I hope Karen was alright. I didn’t care if she went back, as long as she was okay.
Thinking of my own survival, I realised I haven’t had a sip of water in hours. I had nothing with me but I had to do something. The sky started to clear up a bit and I saw a group of people taking photos at one side. I walked up to a stranger and asked for a drink. I felt better.
I was right, the peak was only a few meters away and there I was. I finally made it!
I saw Alan and the rest from our group. I told them to look out for Karen on the way back.
I barely saw the sunrise because of the thick fog but the feeling was surreal. The peak. I wished Karen was with me.
I couldn’t stay long because of the cold. On my way down, there she was wrapped in a green cloth (which I later knew to be a sleeping bag from her guide). She’s fine and she made it somehow. Thank God!
I will never forget the experience in Mount Kinabalu Low’s Peak. It was more than just a climb in the mountain. In those tough times, I realized that I have to make the most out of life and cherish the people I care about.
Will I climb Mount Kinabalu again? Maybe not. But I’m looking forward to my next climb and I have a good idea where that will be.
If you are interested in climbing Mount Kinabalu, you can check the Official Mount Kinabalu Climb Booking & Information Centre website.
Have you climbed Mount Kinabalu Low’s Peak? Do you have plans to do this climb? Let us know.