Tuesday, July 20, 2010

5 Sloths and 1 Big Ol' Mountain

This post is rather lengthy, but there are just so many aspects to share about the Mt. Kinabalu experience, and hopefully by enduring this lengthy read, it will either a) help you in being better prepared if you have stumbled upon this post whilst researching for the summit yourself, or b) bring some laughs to you as you read about our (mis)adventure.  If you do have some other sort of reaction after reading my post, do feel free to share them with me, I'd be most interested to hear how you felt! ;)


How The Trip Came To Be
Being in the I.T. profession, I spend most of the work day seated in an enclosed office space infront of a computer.  The work hours are long, and the only time I usually get to see the sun is during lunch hour (it's usually dark out by the time we leave the office).  Not one who enjoys being trapped in the office-cubicle environment, I yearned to be in the great outdoors, to be one with nature and to feel the heat of the sun warming up my skin.  Now, if only I could do something adventurous and challenging like climbing a mountain at the same time!  With four other like-minded colleagues, we finally set out to do what had only been the occasional lunchtime-banter for the past couple of years.

Planning For The Climb
There are several ways one can go about planning for a trip in general, the easiest one being to go with a tour operator.  But even then, there would be several operators to choose from, both locally as well as in the destination country itself.  For this trip, we chose to book the main part, the Mt. K climb, with a local tour operator specializing in adventure tours.

After some consideration, we decided to go with X-Trekkers for convenience's sake, as their storefront was located near our workplace.  We experienced some minor hiccups during the booking process which I felt was attributed mostly to a lack of consistency in the staff handling our booking.  We were ping-ponged between two different staff in the short span of about a month without being pre-empted of their absences, which eventually led to miscommunications in details and payments - and disputes in payments is never a pretty thing.  But being the adventure-lovin' and pragmatic folk that we are, we assumed that X-Trekkers was probably founded and staffed by adventure-lovin' folk who went the extra mile to setup this company to help other adventure seeking minions looking for an easy way out to reach their dream adventure trip, we tossed our grievances aside and carried on with our booking.  It also helped that they stepped up to clear up the miscommunications politely, but it would have been extra nice if we had been offered something to make amends.

With our booked package covering airport transfers, registration fees and paperwork for the climb, sleeping arrangements for the nights before/during/after the climb, and an extra rafting trip, all we had left to settle on our own were the flight and hotel accomodations for our extended stay post-climb.  With budget airlines like JetStar and AirAsia flying straight into Kota Kinabalu, the flights were a no-brainer.  As for hotel accoms, sites like TripAdvisor, Asiarooms, and Agoda made it relatively easy to select and book suitable hotels.

Preparing For The Climb
This being my virgin mountain climbing experience, I eagerly dived into the vast ocean of websites containing background information about Mt. K, and stalking blogs which had posts bearing accounts of other people's personal encounters with Mt. K.  One blog which stood out in particular, was Wilfrid Wong's.  I may be biased because we share the same last name, and he had set foot in Singapore before, but frivolities aside, his blog stood out because it had a mini-section dedicated to Mt. K.  In it, you will find posts relating to tips and suggestions for climbing gear needed, picturesque photos from each climbing day, as well as individual journals from his trekking mates and himself.  After going through those as well as some other bloggers' posts, the accounts all seemed pretty similar, and my mates and I thought we were amply prepared for what lay ahead of us.  Notice I used the past tense, 'thought', because boy oh boy, were we ever so wrong.

As aforementioned, we are office drones with long working hours, so this also means we are sloths on weekdays as well as most weekends.  Knowing our physical fitness levels were not up to par, we began our training regime about 2 to 3 months before the trip date.  The plan was to either jog or climb up and down the 27 flights of stairs in our building twice a week, and then to make a longer trek on weekends.  For the treks, we headed to MacRitchie's Treetop Walk for distance training, and to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve for stamina and step-climbing training.  On the last training session before the trip, we hit the Bukit Timah trails, and somewhere along Route 4 which branched off to Dairy Farm Loop / Seraya Loop, we were accosted with a long flight of rocky steps/staircase which we coined 'The Mother of all Staircases' because it was the hardest series of steps we had encountered so far throughout our training.  Compared to Mt. K, this should now be re-coined as 'The Foetus of all Staircases', because it is NOTHING compared to what you can expect to encounter on Mt. K.  Especially if it rains on you there.  And chilling winds come hurtling at you at over 100kmph.

My group was the slowest to ascend, as well as to descend, and I do not think that we were that physically unfit, so you can be sure that I am not exaggerating when I say that you must be extremely physically conditioned in order to enjoy this climb, even under bad weather conditions.  If you are dead certain that it is going to be gloriously sunny and lovely weather when you make your summit, then perhaps you can ignore my suggested training regime for the average office-sloth-type and make do with just being 'physically fit'.  Else, if you are an office-sloth like us, you may want to consider the following in order to get yourself fit, like I-am-KingKong-scaling-the-Empire-State-Building kind of fit:
  • Start training at least 3 months before the climb.  Even earlier if you foresee yourself not being able to stick to your training plan diligently.  Each time you skip training, you increase the amount of pain you may potentially feel.
  • Cardio exercise (jog, swim) for at least 30 mins, 2-3 times a week.
  • Stair climbing - 50 flights at one go, at least, once a week.
  • Trekking at Bukit Timah Hill (if you're in Singapore) on the longest and hardest route possible. Especially hit the trails with lots of rocky steps (not the nicely erected wooden staircases, there are few of those on Mt. K, and wooden staircases are for wusses, anyway).
  • Train, even (or especially) if it rains.  This will give you an idea what to expect if it does rain on the mountain, and also lets you put your wet-weather gear to the test.

The last suggestion above comes from a very personal experience.  My group chose to shun the rain on our weekend treks (typical human reaction to duck indoors when it rains, plus I suppose somehow we all assumed it would be all sunshine and butterflies on our trip), so we were duly punished with 2 days of torrential rain on the mountain which arrived punctually between 3 to 4 P.M. daily.  And that was not all - during the last bit of summit which started out at 2 A.M. in the morning, we were surrounded by a heavy fog, drizzles of rain, and howling winds so strong I had difficulty standing up straight, even with a small pack on my back.

It's the climb, here we go...

Day Zero - Settling In
Kinabalu National Park, in which Mt. K lies, is a good 2 to 3-hours' drive away from the KK city centre.  Since the average climber will take about 4-5 hours to make the ascent from the Park gates to the base camp (about a 7km trek but I have serious doubts about the accuracy of their measurements), most climbers begin their journey between 8-9 A.M.  If you do not want to endure the long drive right before your trek, it is a good idea to get yourself checked-in to a hotel in the vicinity of the Park the day before your actual trek.  This gives you 1 night of proper rest which is so, so vital since your next long rest is about 48 hours away.

Our tour package had us checked-in at Strawberry Garden Hotel, which is a short 15-min drive away from the Park.  After the gruelling 3-hour drive up in wet conditions (does it rain on all mountains everyday?) on narrow winding roads around what I think is the very base of Mt. K but I could be wrong here, it was sweet relief to be able to just lie flat on the soft bed in the very homely hotel.  Actually, it felt more like a chalet or bed & breakfast to me, but hey, in that vicinity, it probably has the right to be called a hotel.  Clean sheets, clean towels and hot water - that's a 5-star hotel to me when you're in the mountains!

We seemed to be the only guests at the hotel that day, so it felt pretty exclusive, haha!  It did feel a bit pressurizing during dinner that night
though, because it seemed the kitchen staff were waiting for us to finish our meal before they could leave as well. >_<"  The next morning, they were also overly generous with the breakfast portions, and I felt really bad that we wasted so much food, but we really could not stomach too heavy a breakfast before the trek ahead either.

Rainy Journey, Hotel Signage, Dinner Highlight, Breakfast Spread

Overall, the stay at Strawberry Garden was a pleasant one.  If you're travelling in a small group though, check if there is an option to stay on the 2nd floor instead of the ground floor.  Our party of 5 were put in the 'family room' on the ground floor, and it got a bit noisy at night - footsteps were easily heard overhead on the wooden floorboards.  Else, be sure to bring some earplugs, or an iPod, if you are a light sleeper - also helps to block out snoring travel buddies (don't worry guys, I didn't mention names! LOL).

Beautiful morning at Strawberry Garden Hotel

Day 1 - Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata
Our ride arrived at about 8.15 A.M. to transfer us from Strawberry Garden to the National Park.  Once at the Park HQ, while our tour's guide helped to clear the necessary registration and paperwork (yes, you need paperwork, you can't just waltz into the Park and climb the mountain unauthorized so give about 10-15 mins' allowance to clear these), we purchased our walking sticks (read: nicely fashioned poles out of thick tree branches) from peddlars at RM3 each, and proceeded to wrap our tennis grips onto them.  This was from a good tip from Ziqi of X-Trekkers, it definitely made gripping the walking sticks more comfortable and blister-less.  The tennis/badminton grips are relatively inexpensive, and is a small price to pay to better the tree-branch-of-a-walking-stick if you do not want to splurge on a proper trekking pole.  If you do have the budget though, it is highly advisable for amateur trekkers to get a proper lightweight trekking pole.  If you're a seasoned trekker, you'll probably be able to wing it without any walking aids like the numerous pros we saw pass us by.

Park HQ, Park Entrance, Tongkats with grips

The trek began harmlessly enough with a short descent down a wooden staircase, followed by a nice flat terrain.  The weather was also sunny with a cool wind, the nice sort of weather perfect for a nature walk.  Then came some rocky steps, but we were unfazed then, since we were all still fresh and bursting with energy and excitement.  Those blissful moments lasted all but a couple hours.  After the rocky steps never seemed to be ending and with one of my team members hit by a very bad bout of altitude sickness, our journey up-hill went, well, downhill.  We took several breaks along the way, either for the healthy to catch their breath, or for the sick to take a puke.  Each half-kilometre route marker seemed further away than the previous, until we arrived at the 5.5 KM marker, and gained newfound motivation to make a quick push for the last 1.5 KM.  A steaming hot buffet dinner awaited there, and that's brilliant incentive after a 9 hour trek.  Not to mention the alluring presence of a bed/sleeping bag/whatever-as-long-as-there's-flat-surface-to-lie-on.  This was one mountain we seriously underestimated, and Mother Nature was not helping AT ALL.

Timpohon Gate, Mt. K History, Route Marker, Trunko's sole appearance

At about 6.15 PM, 3272 metres above sea level, we arrived at the dinner hall on Laban Rata, only to find there were no seats available.  Since we were very late already, we went straight to the dinner hall without putting down our packs at Pendant Hut first.  Despite looking like we were ready to collapse in the doorway of the dinner hall, no one seemed to be willing to relinquish their tables to us, despite the fact that they had obviously finished their toasty meals and were merely sipping the remains of their coffees and teas which did not even look hot anymore.  I have this belief that nature-lovers and adventure seekers are born of a good heart, and so far my encounters with others have affirmed this belief.  But standing there in the crowded dining hall on almost trembling legs, those people shook my belief for a moment.  One Chinese or Taiwanese lady whose table we were standing nearby even chose to ask my team mate where he had gotten his sturdy-looking poncho from instead of offering us her table. *Jaw drop*  Her group was obviously done with dinner, could they not see we were on the brink of collapse and parched for some hot food to warm ourselves up?????   It was just so insensitive, it ires me to just think of it.  I would have smothered her with the poncho if I had the energy to, bah.

A good few minutes later, we finally acquired ourselves a table right at the back of the hall, sharing with a lone English guy who was friendly enough to make some small talk while we tucked into our piping hot meals.  Steaming white rice and hot teh-o had never tasted so good.  It takes experiences like these to make you appreciate the simple things in life, really.

Not to break the momentum of being arriving last everywhere, we were also the last to check-in to our refuge for the night at Pendant Hut.  The rooms contained about 10 double bunk beds each, so the 5 of us occupied one-half of a room.  By the time we washed up, had our briefing for the summit climb, it was already lights-out for our room so we had to creep into the room, in the dark.  Stupid me did not have a torchlight with me as I climbed into bed, so it took a good 10 minutes of fumbling around trying to figure out what the hell I was sleeping in.  I knew the outer layer was a sleeping bag, but there was supposed to be an inner layer too which would keep us warm (Pendant Hut is unheated), so I wanted to be sure I had this layer around me.  But since I could not see, I had to settle for fumbling whilst trying not to make too much noise, and eventually, Praise God, I got myself tucked in both layers.  Did I even have a pillow under my head?  Didn't know, didn't care... I knew I had to get that precious 4 hours of sleep before the next part of the climb.

Day 2 - Laban Rata to Summit
Somewhere in between the intimidating howling of the strong winds outside and the snoring orchestra in the room, I managed to lull myself to sleep and was even one of the first to awaken at 1.30 A.M. that morning.  I couldn't help but to have second thoughts about continuing with the ascent after hearing the winds outside, and quickly realized that I did not have warm enough clothing to survive those winds.  My team mate with the altitude sickness was still feeling unwell and had decided he would stay behind at the hut, as would another weary team mate, so after discussion with team mate #3, I decided to loan team mate #1's bomberjacket and balaclava to keep me warm.  BEST-DECISION-EVER... Without those items, I would have have probably been teeth-chattering cold and forced to u-turn back to the hut in no time. 
So I was, and am very grateful that my friend was able to loan me his stuff, even if it was not under the best of circumstances that he was able to.  But it was also with this thought in mind that I was able to force myself to eventually claw my way to the summit in the cold, amongst the fog, amongst the insane winds... so that I could bring his jacket to the peak, and a part of him would be in that photo with the signboard showing our victory, even if he could not be there personally..  THANK YOU, S! You saved my life, now go back and take revenge on that mountain! ;)

A journey shrouded in fog (Photo by K. Tan)

The trek between Laban Rata and the peak involved a via ferreta, and was definitely the steepest and most challenging part of the whole climb.  The trip up was in darkness, our paths lit only by our headlights, so the danger and incline was not as apparent as when daylight hits and you begin to become fully aware of your surroundings.  But going down is always easier, and I have to admit that although I was already mentally and physically exhausted by then, I quite enjoyed this part of the descent, and wished we could rappel all the way down back to ground level.  I'd take rappelling over navigating rocky steps any day. 

Views from Low's Peak, 2 for 5 at the Peak!, a via ferreta descent

Day 2 - Descent from Laban Rata to Park Gates
Once again, our trio were the last group to arrive back at Pendant Hut at about 9-ish A.M.  According to our team mates who stayed behind, the first batch of climbers to return to the hut came in as early as 7+ A.M.  Us, on the other hand, had reached the peak only at 6+ A.M. and were in the beginning stages of our descent at this time.  But it wasn't a competition, and I'm very proud we perservered and completed the ascent and made it back down unharmed.  Once back at the hut, the only race we had to compete in was the one with time - the park gates close at 5 PM so we had to get our butts out of the mountain by then, else we would incur a monetary penalty per person per hour.  I'm not too sure how much that penalty is, but we did not get slapped with the penalty in the end - perhaps they took pity on us looking at our sorry state, dead exhausted and soaked to the skin.  At least that was how I arrived at the gate. :P  Why?  The rain, of course.  It wasn't just a gentle rain today.  It was a good rainstorm, and it made the mountain seem absolutely gloomy and dreary.  The rocky steps now posed an additional challenge by becoming slippery and muddy as well.  Goodbye knees. (Photo by K. Tan)

Team mates are an essential element of any challenging adventure, and without my friends, I would not have made it out of the mountain.  I *heart* you guys!!!

We.Are.Spartaaaaaaaaa!! (Photo by K. Tan)

Between 5.45 P.M. and 6.30 P.M. on the 5th of July, 2010, 5 sloths and 1 Spartan of a guide found their way out of Mt. K in twos.  This sloth is truly humbled by the whole experience, and somehow life is never the same again.

Would I do it again?  Maybe.  The next time, we'll definitely be better prepared, and hopefully, not the slowest. :)
Posted by dawn.wong on 7/20/2010 08:46:00 AM in , , , , , , , ,