Jungle ascent a peak experience

The West Australian ©

As the first morning light creeps up the jagged peaks, the sky changes from black to icy blue and the stunning beauty of the landscape plummeting below me is revealed.

The cold biting at my fingers and face is forgotten as I marvel at the steep granite slope we have just climbed, then at the deep green lowlands and beyond.

When the Carpenters were warbling about being on top of the world, were they thinking about the peak of Mt Kinabalu?

Our adventure to “the top of the world” started two weeks before.

Upon arrival in Malaysian Borneo, we explored the enormous caves and vibrant jungle of Sarawak before soaking up the sun on the tropical island beaches in Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park off Kota Kinabalu, the bustling capital of Sabah.

Now my partner James Hutson and I felt ready to tackle the next challenge – and what better way to finish a holiday than by climbing a mountain? With its highest point (the formidable looking Low’s Peak) reaching 4095m, Mt Kinabalu is one of the tallest mountains in South-East Asia.

Because of its relatively easy, climber-friendly terrain, combined with sensational views from the top, the Mt Kinabalu climb is one of the more popular, appealing to about 40,000 climbers (with a vast range in age and experience) every year.

Two days earlier we set out for Kinabalu National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the famous peak) along a beautiful and exhilaratingly steep 90km drive from Kota Kinabalu.

On arrival at the park, we explored the many marked jungle trails and attended the information session provided.

The mountain unveiled itself in glimpses through the clouds until finally a full view of the peaks could be made out.

As I looked up at Low’s Peak with poorly contained apprehension, I was transported back many months to when James and I were planning the trip.

How high? Oh, just over 4000m. No worries, I have plenty of time to train and get into peak condition, as the Climb Mt Kinabalu website recommends.

Now here I am staring up (way up) thinking that perhaps I should have got that full body endurance cross-trainer after all.

Deciding to save our legs for the next day, we have dinner and head straight to bed.

The next morning, after an early start and a delicious (though perhaps ill thought-out) three-course breakfast, we head to Park HQ where we sign to acknowledge there are dangers when climbing mountains.

We are given individual identity tags and introduced to our guide, Freddie. Time to hit the trail.

On the free shuttle to Timpohon Gate (1800m and the start point of our hike), I learn that Freddie has done this climb twice a week, every week for the past five years.

I reason that he could provide tips for a pleasant climb.

Freddie, as time would show, proved his weight in gold.

“Slow, steady, small steps and don’t stop too often,” he told us.

So from the gate Freddie takes the lead and we follow his advice, sometimes needing to check our over-eager selves and slow to Freddie’s pace.

The first stage of the climb presents a rocky path which passes through lush, green lowland forests.

Large steps of either wood or rock assist us as we continue our ascent.

My muscles, recovering from the initial shock, are soon warm and we keep to Freddie’s pace.

The vegetation and views provide an excellent distraction from our hard-working bodies.

The multicoloured rainforest envelops us on the narrow trail, then opens up to provide incredible vistas of the rolling green hills and an already distant Park HQ.

Fatigue is just starting to set in when I see the buildings of Laban Rata looming through the mist in front of me.

A very welcome sight although I laugh at the volleyball net in front of the three-storey main lodge. Rather optimistic.

Laban Rata will provide us with a hot meal and a few hours, sleep before we attempt the summit early the next morning.

Perched on the mountain at 3272m, Laban Rata is a fine example of human determination.

Everything from the food we are longing to eat, to the stove it is cooked on and the bunk bed we’ll sleep on in the dormitory- style rooms, has been carried up by porters.

As if to demonstrate this fact, a porter arrives shortly after us with a 35kg door on his back. Exhausted from the climb, we rest, enjoy the amazing view, eat and then head to bed early.

And wake early. It’s just 2am and for a short while I savour the darkness out the window in silence. I feel a growing sense of excitement and adventure which often accompanies middle-of-the-night expeditions.

Will I make it to the peak?

After a quick breakfast of coffee and porridge, we bundle up and head out into the dark.

The air is bitterly cold. I angle my headlamp to make my way through the blackness and join the row of hikers on the trail.

The flat path from Laban Rata quickly changes to uneven, wooden steps. It’s a surreal feeling climbing step after step in the darkness – another link in a chain of headlamps.

At the top of the steps the forest opens up, only scattered shrubs cover the rock.

Thick ropes are strung along the smooth steep stone but preferring to use my bare hands, I scramble up without the rope.

Catching a glimpse of the drop to one side, I get the distinct feeling that if I could see what lay to my right, I would perhaps not feel as confident.

We pass people suffering from the change in altitude but are luckily unaffected. We continue up the now-naked granite slope.

Just before 5am we make it to the peak, take the mandatory photo at the summit and sit in silence waiting for the famed view of the sunrise

We are not disappointed.

Though there is cloud on the horizon the sight of the sun rising against the silhouetted peaks is breathtaking.

There is an eerie blue light and though the peak is crowded, an awestruck silence prevails.
Our journey to the peak was nothing short of magic and even after the strenuous climb down (tougher than going up) I will never forget that feeling of, as The Carpenters put it, “looking down on creation”.

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