Do: Gung-ho about Mt Kinabalu challenge

Via ferrata is a new craze when climbing Mount Kinabalu, and ZALINA MOHD SOM gets a dose of timing to Walk the Torq and reach Low’s Peak

IT’s all about timing. Fitness, stamina and even weather – all these affect timing. “We are very strict with our timings and you have to follow them to enable you to do the via ferrata activity,” wrote Mountain Torq Sdn Bhd sales and marketing director Quek I-Gek in her first email about this activity, which involves walking precariously on the rock face of Mount Kinabalu, mere metres away from the peak of Southeast Asia’s highest mountain.

In her next email, Quek attached a standard two-day/one-night Mount Kinabalu Via Ferrata itinerary in which she underlined and highlighted: “… if you fail to reach (Laban Rata) before 4pm, your via ferrata activity for the following day will be cancelled.”

That set my heart aflutter. I remember my first climb to Mount Kinabalu years ago. It took me then almost 10 hours to reach the guest house at Laban Rata from the mountain base at Mesilau Gate. I had reached Laban Rata just before sunset at 6pm.

Climbers generally begin their climb at 8am and the fit ones often can reach Laban Rata, which is about half way to the peak, within eight hours, about 4pm.

I have little confidence that I could even reach Laban Rata in time for the mandatory via ferrata pre-activity briefing at 4pm. Yet, I tell myself that I must make it and I must also get myself photographed at the peak this time.

And, I must also do this via ferrata thing, a craze which started with Walk The Torq in 2007.

Taking up the challenge

So, what exactly is via ferrata that requires such strict timing?

Via ferrata is Italian for “iron road” which refers to a route made by a series of steel rungs, rails and wire cables set along a mountain face.

Mount Kinabalu via ferrata is set at the Panar Laban rock face, from a height of 3,411 metres above sea level and ends at 3,776m, short of 325m from the mountain’s highest peak at 4,101m.

The pressure is now on. To meet the specified timing, I need to be fast; and to be fast, I have to have an excellent level of stamina and fitness. And that means a lot of hard work!

Again, in her final email a few days before our departure to Kota Kinabalu, the launch pad to the mountain, Quek gave a final reminder on the strict timing policy. The deadline for us to reach Laban Rata is in fact 3.30pm, half an hour earlier than the scheduled briefing.

This time, I am all ready, stamina and all.

Reminded, yet again

Physically and mentally prepared, photographer Roslin Mat Tahir and I are rather gung-ho as we step inside Mountain Torq office at Kinabalu Park headquarters, a two-hour bus ride from the capital city.

A sweet baju-kurung clad girl welcomes us with a smile — a picture that contrasts greatly with the striking photographs of rugged climbers against the vertical face of Mount Kinabalu.

Just as we are about to leave, the girl in her soft voice reminds us of the 3.30pm deadline in the same breath she wishes us luck. Urgh, not again!

Meeting the 3.30pm deadline

Set for the tight mission, Roslin and I leave Timpohon Gate with a climbing strategy — a five-minute break after every 30 to 40 minutes of hiking.
Soon, we are ahead of most of the 25 members of the New Straits Times Press (NSTP) Mount Kinabalu Expedition team.

I am not sure whether it’s a case of overestimating the rugged Timpohon Trail or underestimating our own capabilities, but we manage to reach the Laban Rata guest house way before 2pm!

Although Timpohon Trail is shorter by 2km than the more popular, and beautiful, Mesilau Trail, it is tougher since it is jagged all the way with bumpy steps.

Reaching earlier gives us ample time to freshen up and warm ourselves with hot coffee and the leftovers from our boxed lunch, prepared by Sutera Sanctuary Lodge Kinabalu Park, our stopover point before the expedition.

Ten minutes to the deadline, our guide Ginik Lunsin takes us to Pendant Hut for the via ferrata mandatory briefing. Located at 3,270m, Pendant Hut is Mountain Torq’s mountain-top sales office which also houses its dormitory-style rooms for via ferrata participants.

We are met by our trainer Jay Mithun who gives us a comprehensive briefing on Mountain Torq via ferrata — its routes, background, equipment and safety measures and a short try-out of the equipment.

Friendly Jay turns serious every time he reminds us to be at Sayat-Sayat Hut Station, the starting point for our Walk The Torq route, no later than 8am tomorrow or else our via ferrata activity will be called off.

“But I am confident that you will be able to make it based on your record today,” assures Jay.

Looking at our dazed look, he continues: “Just be among the first to reach the Low’s Peak and after your ‘triumph poses’ at the signpost, quickly make your way back down to Sayat-Sayat.”

Well, all those who reach Low’s Peak — the highest point — must have their picture taken at the peak’s signpost to show off their triumph, otherwise they have no proof.

Meeting the 8am deadline

We stick to the schedule given by both our mountain guide, Ginik, and Mountain Torq guide Jay. At 2.30am sharp, all our team members are ready to go.

Personally, this is the toughest part of the climb. Groggy, dark, cold, in discomfort (from wearing the thick, heavy winter clothing), a steep incline, cruel rock face — these and more pose a great challenge.

Aided by the bright LED light from our headlamp, we follow the thick white rope that serves as a guide for climbers.

Somehow, after the Sayat-Sayat Hut Station, Roslin and I are separated. He is far ahead of me and I am left to follow the white rope alone. However, the picture of me at the peak’s signpost keeps me going, slowly but surely.

Ten minutes before 6am, I finally set foot at the tip of Low’s Peak and Roslin, who has been there for almost an hour already, is waiting to capture my first picture at the peak. Oh, what a feeling!

Thinking that I didn’t get to strike such a pose during my first climb makes it even a sweeter reward. On that first climb, I was quickly brought down to a lower plane by my guide since I had breathing difficulties.

I am tempted to linger at the peak, but I can’t as I still have the “date” with the via ferrata.

Roslin and I walk slowly back to Sayat-Sayat Hut while making a few photo stops along the route.

The sight of Sayat-Sayat Hut excites us and we are ahead of schedule. But not wanting to take it for granted, we maintain our pace and finally reach the station at a quarter past seven.
“Wow, you’re fast!” exclaims Jay. Yay!

Walk the Torq

Decked with securely fastened equipment — a helmet and a pair of harness that comes with two karabiners, we leave Sayat-Sayat Hut to the starting point of our Walk The Torq route.

It is actually the same route we walked up early this morning. Going down this steep rock face in broad daylight is more intimidating than the climb in the dark.

From the bottom of this steep rock wall, we walk through bonsai trees to a barren rock edge from where the Laban Rata guest house looks so small, way far below on one side and the majestic sheer rock face on the other. It is a view to behold.

“Walk The Torq circuit starts here,” announces Jay as his finger points to a ring embedded on the rock floor.

Walking closer to it, we see a line of rings connected to each other by a steel cable set parallel by a ladder of steel bars and foot holds.

“We are going to walk down this route for about 200m, followed by a 230-metre horizontal walk,” he explains. And mind you, it is not the normal kind of walk we make on flat land.

Like a human chain, all the three of us are tied together to a rope with a gap of two to three metres apart. Roslin leads the way as Jay has to be the anchor in case anything unforeseen happens. I stand in the middle.

The rope is securely wrapped around Jay’s shoulder that “will jerk when anyone of you falls,” he says.

It is not the sheer height that bothers me the most but the pressure of doing it right so as not to risk anyone of us (myself especially!).

I chant his instruction — rope, karabiner and karabiner — like a powerful mantra each time I reach a ring. The rope holds us to the ring while the karabiners secure us to the via ferrata cable.

Still looking for the right body position, I hold on dearly to the cable and do it so uncomfortably. Going down on all fours with my legs stretched gives me an unbearable back ache.

Yes, Jay did tell us earlier that we can walk comfortably with our back straight just by pulling the cable up but I just don’t have the confidence looking at its thin size even though the cable can withstand a maximum weight of 16 metric tons!

Knowing that it’s still a long way to go, I give it a try. It does make a difference — I can move easier and much faster. It is like a one-step-at-a-time abseiling as we descend and like walking sideways when we reach the horizontal cable.

At certain points, Jay asks us to stretch our lanyards — the tiny cords that hold our karabiners, put our weight on the harness and let our hands go. Though skeptical, we try it, and the result is fantastic — shots of us standing precariously against the gravity!

Though longer, the horizontal walk across the Panar Laban rock face is much easier compared to the first leg. Nonetheless, the route is made more exciting by a two-wire bridge, called Monkey Bridge, which makes us walk on a tight cable across a gap.

As soon as we get to the other side of the gap, Jay announces that we are almost half way through our horizontal walk. Soon enough, we reach the end of our via ferrata Walk The Torq circuit in just 90 minutes.

“You guys are really fast. This route normally takes two to three hours to finish,” says Jay.

Well, I guess, we are just riding on yesterday’s momentum!

About Mountain Torq’s via ferrata

Managed by Mountain Torq, Mount Kinabalu via ferrata routes hold the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s highest and Asia’s first.

Its Walk The Torq Circuit is the region’s first via ferrata while its Low’s Peak Circuit starting at the 3,776-metre point is the world’s highest, beating the 3,343-metre Italian via ferrata at the Marmolada West Ridge.

There are about 500 via ferratas in the world, predominantly in Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Spain and a few places in the US and Canada.

Interestingly, this mountaineering sport had its roots during World War 1. The first via ferrata was constructed and used by the Italian military to move men and equipment in the Italian Dolomite across to Austria.

The total length of Mountain Torq’s via ferrata is about 1.2km comprising routes of varying difficulties.

The Walk The Torq circuit is graded French PD (not very hard, suitable for beginners) while the Low’s Peak circuit is French AD (fairly hard, suitable for accompanied beginners).

Mountain Torq conforms with international safety standard and strictly follows the regulations made by the Kinabalu Park authority. Hence, the strict timing policy.

In fact, its well-trained trainers regularly communicate to its base at Pendant Hut, as well as with the Kinabalu Park rangers and Sabah Park headquarters via VHF radio when they are on the via ferrata.

Its activity-only packages are priced at RM550 for the Low’s Peak Circuit and RM400 for Walk The Torq Circuit. However, those taking the full package inclusive of lodging and meals at Pendant Hut will enjoy some huge savings.

Details, call 088-268 126 and 088-251 730/703 or visit

Intensive training for the climb

A TWO-month intensive training to scale Mount Kinabalu paid off when all 25 members of the NSTP-Mount Kinabalu Expedition returned to the base at Timpohon Gate safely in one piece.

Led by chief executive officer Datuk Anthony Bujang, the expedition braved the arduous climb to the region’s highest peak, Low’s Peak of Mount Kinabalu amid bad weather reports last July.

Heavy rain on the first day of the expedition did not affect the team spirit as the last member of the expedition checked in to the Laban Rata guesthouse at 4.30pm.

While only one member stayed on at the guesthouse due to health reasons, the rest braved the cold, wet morning for the second leg of the climb to the peak.
Though separated into a few groups, the team spirit was high — all had the one aim of reaching the peak.

The first group reached Low’s Peak at 5am, way ahead of the expected time of being there for the spectacular sunrise.

Back from the peak, the team started to make its descend as early as 11.30am with the last group reaching Timpohon Gate at dusk.

For the expedition, members had to go through a intensive training programme designed by NST gymnasium trainers with the help of the Malaysian Climbing Association.

As part of their training, the team regularly walked up the 272 steps of Batu Caves and tested their fear of heights at Bukit Batu Tabur, both in Selangor.
The expedition was the first activity for the newly founded NST Extreme Club, a branch of NST Sports Club. It received sponsorships from Universal Fitness & Leisure Sdn Bhd, Bosland Corporation Sdn Bhd and World of Outdoor.

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