Conquering the mighty Kinabalu

The dangerous hike was only revealed after the sun came up.

Beautiful things don’t ask for attention

The Gayo Ngaran, Nulu Nabalu (in Dusun) or as commonly known as the mighty Mount Kinabalu is a goliath that is worthwhile to hike. Located within the Kinabalu National Park — a World Heritage Site according to UNESCO — the majestic mountain stands at 4,100 metres and is the highest mountain in all of Borneo.

THE five-day media expedition to Mount Kinabalu in Sabah was first announced by the Kuching Division Journalist Association (KDJA) about three months ago.

Three months later, I was standing with 14 other pressmen from different companies at Timpohon’s entrance.Most of us were in awe of the forest and, of course, the majestic Mount Kinabalu, which towered over us. Others were mentally preparing themselves while others were goofing around.

Our tour guide, Shukri, gave us a short safety briefing and informed us that we should get to the Panalaban checkpoint before 4.30 pm because that was when dinner was served and it might end before 7 pm.

The first four kilometres to Panalaban

There were many groups from various nations gathered at Timpohon Gate, and the air smelled faintly of yoko-yoko ache relief, indicating the readiness of each hiker.

I signed in at Timpohon Gate, and soon, the group was prepared to hike the first 6 km to the Panalaban checkpoint. The Timpohon stairway dropped into the forest gradually.

I was taking my time and moving slowly because I had learned from previous hikes that moving too quickly was harmful and could cause avoidable injuries. I was also taking in the lush surroundings.

The trails up were covered with a mixture of soil, rocks and wooden steps that were difficult to navigate but the tall trees were magnificent to behold.

As I approached the four-kilometre checkpoint, I decided to take a break and stop for lunch with three other group members. We chatted and agreed that the air was getting thinner and dryer at that point because we were all gradually losing our breath.

We eventually came across a hiker being carried down on a stretcher by Sabah’s search and rescue team because she was unable to continue on foot. At this point, I began to doubt my ability to hike but brushed it off and continued on with a positive attitude.

The last two kilometeres to Panalaban

The final two kilometres of the ascent to Panalaban offered me a different perspective because there were no longer any wooden steps in place; instead, there were enormous boulders and sharp rocks that could have cut me.
I realised that the air was thinner and that the stone steps were slowly wearing me out. I finished my last step and continued for the final kilometre until I reached the large Panalaban sign.
At this point, I was both thrilled to have made it in time for an early dinner and horrified that the remaining 2.75 kilometres up to Low’s Peak would be unlike anything else.
As it was about nine degrees Celsius up here, I ate my early dinner and decided against taking a shower. Instead, the group and I talked about our experiences up here before calling it a night.

The wee hours of morning

My bunk bed companion, Ronnie Teo, who was sleeping below me, woke me up. Since it was so cold and we weren’t used to sleeping this early, we were all, in all honesty, barely sleeping at all.
Breakfast was served early because we had to leave for the summit at two in the morning due to the large number of hikers who would like to reach it sooner. Breakfast consisted of a lot of coffee to keep me awake and was the same as dinner — packed with proteins.
While I waited, I also took advantage of the opportunity to go out onto the verandah to take in the clear skies filled with stars and the Milky Way, both of which were visible to the unaided eye, and to look back at the cafe to observe people rushing inside for a quick breakfast before we started our ascent.
In the dead of night and bitter cold, we set out on our journey after receiving another briefing from our guide. We were told it was a 2.75km hike and that we needed to arrive at the Sayat-sayat checkpoint before 4.30 am.
To be honest, the first kilometre of the hike to Sayat-sayat was a breeze because I was used to the low air pressure and the chilly air. I then decided to stop for ten minutes before continuing the final mile.

The inbetweeners

I realised what I had signed up for when I was about 7 kilometres up, 3800 metres above sea level, and 1.72 kilometres away from Mount Kinabalu’s summit. I cursed under my breath about how thin the air was and blamed myself for years of mistreating my lungs.
I questioned my sanity as I sat, catching my breath at a nearly 75 degree angled wall, where one slip could have been catastrophic, thinking, “Seng, you could’ve been enjoying the warm, humid weather of Kuching with a nice cup of iced-lemon tea, but nope, you chose a hell hike up this monstrous air depleting goliath.”
While hiking in complete darkness with only a white rope and a headlamp as my guides, the oxygen was becoming thinner than before, and the cold air was unquestionably cutting into my throat, dryer than ever.
The only thing that made me smile and forget how tedious this was was when someone behind me asked if we were there yet. I responded with the standard hiker response of “five more minutes,” and continued my way.

Low’s Peak

One of the hikers failed to complete the hike down, maybe due to exhaustion.

After four hours of hiking and arriving at Low’s Peak at around 6.30 in the morning, I had no choice but to sit down and take a break because there were so many people taking photos at the summit.
At this point, I’d preferred to use the remaining 30 minutes to rest rather than wander around taking pictures because, according to our guide, we needed to leave by seven, and the descent would not be simple.
As the sun rose and it was almost time to return home, I quoted a line from the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” for Mount Kinabalu.
We took some photos with the KDJA group for the album and decided to head back down.

The descent

After checking out and refuelling at Laban Rata, we headed back to Timpohon Gate because hiking down clearly hurt more than hiking up.
At some point during the descent, I was certain that I was dozing off intermittently from exhaustion and that the trail seemed to go on forever.
My knees were starting to give out at this point, and after about three hours of hiking down, I found myself yelling at the Timpohon Gate with excitement while also choking back tears due to the steep staircases and the downpour.
I gave myself at least a minute for each stairway, taking it slowly and checking myself out at the gate once more in the end.
I took my last step and boarded a shuttle that was going back to Sabah National Park.

The aftermath

I wouldn’t mind attempting Mount Kinabalu once more, but not any time soon, and most likely after doing proper training and giving up the cancer stick.
Although Mount Kinabalu was undoubtedly not a hike that should be undertaken lightly, it was unquestionably a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Even though I had to deal with days of headaches, weak knees, and sore thighs, I had no regrets about it.

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