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Kinabalu’s a tough mountain, but still safe

By MENG YEW CHOONG

THE death of a 17-year old British girl, Ellie James, near the summit of Mount Kinabalu last month shocked many, especially those who regularly hike to the 4,095.2m boulder, which is the highest mountain in South-East Asia.

Of course, those familiar with Kinabalu still hold that it is one of the safest mountains in the world to climb, and James’ death should be viewed as an isolated event that took place in extremely bad weather (Ellie and her brother Henry lost their way under very misty conditions).

Climbing it for the very first time just a day before James went missing, I can agree with the above assessment. Mt Kinabalu is very accessible, though there are some pre-conditions one has to fulfil before thinking of making it all the way to the highest peak, popularly known as Low’s Peak (after Sir Hugh Low).

Firstly, walk at your own pace (especially if not so fit), and do not attempt to keep up with the 'speedsters' so that your body can slowly acclimatise to the altitude.

Most people will have no problems reaching the Laban Rata Resthouse (3,352m), which is a 6km walk from the Timpohon Gate (1,830m), the most common starting point for tourists.

The well-used and well-marked trail is perfect for walking, and for this reason, serious mountaineers consider reaching the Kinabalu summit as a 'hike', and not a 'climb' as no special equipment is needed. All you need to do is just to keep on walking.

It is the final 2km assault to Low’s Peak from Laban Rata that may pose some difficulties for the unfit. Still, if the weather is fine, there should be no reason why they cannot make it (the only difference is how fast). After all, men as old as 70 have succeeded, and so did a four-a-nd-a-half-year- old Malaysian girl, Wong Pik Yuet, in 1989.

The tough part is getting up to Low’s Peak under inclement weather. The joke about Mt Kinabalu is that there are two kinds of weather: wet and extremely wet. Personally, it was the cold that got to me.

At Laban Rata, the daily temperature can fluctuate between two to 10 degrees Celsius (for the week when James was lost, the temperature at the rest house hovered around six degrees). An educated guess is that the temperature near the peak (743m higher than Laban Rata) should be zero, if not sub-zero.

The cold weather around the peak was made worse by extremely strong winds at that time. When I was there, the wind easily exceeded 90kph, and at times, was strong enough to blow a man down the mountain.

One of my climbing mates was almost blown over the cliff when he tripped on his way down from the Sayat-Sayat hut (thankfully, he managed to hold on to the rope). Even seasoned mountain guides were not spared, as one of them almost dashed his face against the rock when strong winds caused him to lose his balance.

That led some people to question why Sabah Parks (which administers all the parks in the state) did not issue clear warnings for first-time climbers on the hostile situation up the mountain during that week.

To their credit, the guides (since the dead girl’s incident) have started to exercise their judgement by actually calling off a climb when they feel it would be dangerous to carry on, no matter how near the party is to Low’s Peak.

My attempt to reach the summit failed, even though I stayed for two days at Laban Rata. On the first day when I attempted to begin the final ascent at 6am, I experienced a shortness of breath. The problem was that I did not walk according to my own (slower) pace as I did not want to be left behind by my climbing mates.

And so, I turned back to Laban Rata alone, and consoled myself by saying that I would make it the following day. Nevertheless, the rest of the team also failed to make it as they were forced to turn back after one member developed cramps just before reaching the Sayat-Sayat hut, which is just 1km away from the summit.

When I woke up the next day at 2am, I sensed the wind was even stronger than the previous day, and decided it wasn’t worth the gamble, and promptly went back to bed. After all, I’m not super fit, and I did not wish to expend my energy for a walk to the peak only to experience numbing coldness and see nothing but mist.

However, my friends from the Awana Kijal Resort of Terengganu had wanted to unfurl the longest Jalur Gemilang on Low’s Peak to commemorate National Day, and I guess they were under some kind of 'pressure' to reach the top. So they trekked into the darkness at 2.30am with the aim of seeing the sunrise, but were eventually thwarted by strong winds.

In the wake of the James incident, some quarters have criticised Sabah Parks for failing to warn climbers, especially the inexperienced, of the potentially dangerous conditions up Mt Kinabalu. The criticism is not without merit, for all that they did was merely to post a small notice at the Kinabalu Park HQ telling climbers to 'exercise caution' due to the inclement weather.

It did not specifically warn climbers of the risks that they could face when attempting to ascend the summit under those conditions. Critics contend that the park (as well as the guides and porters) have no incentive to 'discourage' people from climbing as it represents a source of income to them.

Hopefully, more sense would prevail when the weather turns nasty.

That said, it is still important to reaffirm that Mt Kinabalu remains a very safe mountain to climb. “You just need to follow the instructions of your guides,’’ said Dr Wong Sai Hou of the Association of Backpackers Malaysia (ABM).

“The walk up is just like walking up a staircase, and it is unfortunate that someone died,’’ said Dr Wong, who had ascended the peak twice.

If you stay by the white rope (not necessary to hold it all the time) that starts from Sayat-Sayat, you will not have any problems finding your way up or down Low’s Peak, no matter what the visibility is like. Stray away from the rope, and you will face problems if things turn misty, which can be pretty quick at the peak.

After having reached Laban Rata with no injuries or ailments, I can affirm that being super fit is not a requirement to climb Mt Kinabalu (or at least, to reach Laban Rata). Most of the hike is like walking up a 6km long stairway inclined at 45 degrees; perfectly suited for a slow walk, which took my wife and I six and a half hours to finish. Of course, we did hire a porter to carry 13kg of our stuff, at a rate of RM3 per kg per day.

The walk up is pretty interesting, with lots of beautiful sights and sounds to keep you occupied. Nearer to Laban Rata (and beyond), where the vegetation starts to thin, there are no trees to shield you from strong winds, and I had to pull out my windbreaker.

Of course, most people, especially from temperate countries, climb up to Laban Rata in just T-shirts and shorts. Personally, that is fine if there are no strong winds, but I feel that one should have a sweater ready just in case it gets too cold.

If you can’t stand the cold, it is advisable to spend a bit more to stay at the Laban Rata resthouse, which has heated rooms, rather than at cheaper huts with thinner walls nearby.

I spent my first night at the more basic Gunting Lagadan hut, and I was really chilled to my bones. If you plan to stay at the huts, do bring your own sleeping bag. My experience with the sleeping bags provided in the Gunting Lagadan huts is that most of them come with broken zippers, and as a consequence, the bags function more like a blanket, which is of no help when the temperature is about six degrees.

The other benefit of hiring a porter is that you can afford to bring more clothing, which helps you stay warm. After my experience, I do not believe in travelling light if my destination is Mt Kinabalu.

At the Laban Rata resthouse, I ran into a couple from Italy who decided that it was too cold for them to make the final assault to the peak. This was no surprise considering how unprepared they were: they did not bring any sweater or other warm clothing.

The point is: tropical chill can be fatal, and the trouble with those coming from colder climates is that they don’t think of packing enough warm clothing when heading for tropical countries (with the intention of travelling light, of course).

Reaching the summit is always possible for every one, but there are times when it is just not wise to push it. Do not endeavour to trek to the summit at all costs, for you don’t know what the mountain has in store for the unprepared.

If you wake up at Laban Rata to the sound of roaring winds accompanied by swirling mist, it would be preferable to stay put and attempt the final ascent some other time. After all, it would be miserable to reach the top and find it blanketed by mist.

And do bring a good book to read (another advice against travelling light, I guess) at Laban Rata, for boredom can kill you just as well as the cold. There is nothing really when it gets dark or rainy outside, though there is a television set with Astro at the resthouse.

If you’ve never climbed Mt Kinabalu, do make the effort to pore over all the information in the many excellent websites (make sure you read more than one in order to get a fair view) before embarking on your trip.

Remember: do not ever take Mt Kinabalu, or any other mountain for the matter, lightly. Always exercise your judgement, and follow the instructions of the guides, who are more familiar with the mountain than anyone else. As for me, I will definitely be back.

In the late 70s, a 14-year-old boy from Sabah, Ng Chong, went missing in the Laban Rata area, and was never found. In 1991, two Sarawakians disappeared without a trace near the summit. Subsequently, there were a few other cases of people losing their way on the mountain, but they were all rescued.

Source: The Star

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