Mount Kinabalu via the ‘via ferrata’

LONG WAY DOWN: Starting at 3,776 metres, Low’s Peak Circuit is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest ‘via ferrata’ in the world and the first in Asia.

FOUR kilometres into our hike up one of Southeast Asia’s highest mountains, Charlotte turned to me and said “this time two years ago we were shopping in Manchester, this time last year we were on an island getting tanned and two weeks ago we were in dresses and heels in Lan Kwai Fong. Now we’re wearing quick-dry sports shirts and backpacks climbing Mount Kinabalu”. Toby smiled. Her words were true.

It was over a decade ago when Charlotte and I used to trek through trails in Bako National Park (in matching T-shirts), run on the Kuching Kid’s Hash and catch tadpoles in Stutong Indah Park. It was not so long ago when we both went to university in the UK and enjoyed socialising, shopping and parties (and studying …). Toby, a friend of Charlotte’s, was used to city life too. We needed a break from the hustle and bustle, so off we headed to the most eastern state of Malaysia to climb Mount Kinabalu, on foot and by ‘via ferrata’.

It has always been Charlotte’s dream to watch the sunrise from the top of Mount Kinabalu. The thought of a gorgeous dawn view painted with the cliche hues of orange and pink kept us going during the 3am 2km uphill hike to the summit on the second day, the ironically named Low’s Peak. The rock was slippery and the air was thin and cold. All we could see were the lights of a hundred torches moving ahead of us, as if we were on some kind of pilgrimage. Several people turned back. It was too challenging for them. It was such a contrast from the previous day’s 6km climb, where the trail had been made into steps, there were comfort stops, and the temperature was more manageable.

We made it to Low’s Peak at 6am, our hair literally frozen with sweat and drizzle. There was not a single bright colour in sight. The mist was blocking the sun and so we were not rewarded with a spectacular sunrise as expected. But we made it, and it felt like such an accomplishment. After just about five minutes of taking photos, we raced downhill to make our 7am meeting with our ‘via ferrata’ guide. On our way, the view of Kota Kinabalu lifted above the morning mist was absolutely breathtaking.

WELL-LINKED: Group members are attached to the system of fixed cables, ladders and gorge-spanning wire-bridges that have been skilfully installed into the mountain.

I also lost my breath when I saw the steep drop that was our first step on our ‘via ferrata’ climb. Excited and scared, I strapped on a harness and donned a yellow helmet, ready for the descent that followed.

‘Via ferrata’ is Italian for iron bridge. It is a trail against rock face, made up of sturdy rope-wires, steel rungs and metal ladders. Its history dates back to the First World War when the army used it to cross the Italian Dolomites. I was in the Dolomites just a month before, where I scaled the mountains with the luxury of cable cars and hot chocolate – a stark contrast to Mount Kinabalu.

A small metal step inserted into the rock face, was a good 10-metre drop away over the ledge. As I made my first gravity-defying step, I kept my body as close to the rock as possible, trying to cling on to it for dear life even though there was nothing yet to cling on to. A few steps down, I was gripping the ladder-like steps that were parallel to the cliff face, questioning the likelihood of my finishing the circuit unscathed.

I had the wrong technique. I was meant to lean back, to stand as far away as possible from the rock and just walk along the rock at an angle. Sound scary? It is! Toby and Charlotte, who have done a lot of rock climbing, were so patient with me, but I gradually got the hang of it. Once you get over the initial fear and awkwardness of walking in such an unnatural way, it’s fun and so easy.

The four of us (Charlotte, Toby, myself and our guide, Jay) were linked together by a rope that Jay anchored and controlled should any of us slip (not fall, because it’s almost impossible to fall). Every four or five metres we bent down to loop the rope over a hook, and clip our carabineers onto the rope at the other side of the hook, whilst balancing on the slope or an iron step. This enabled us to move securely along the rock. In other words, we were always attached to the system of fixed cables, ladders and gorge-spanning wire-bridges that have been skilfully installed into the mountain.

Starting at 3,776 metres, Low’s Peak Circuit is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest ‘via ferrata’ in the world and the first in Asia. The route is 1.2km long. There is a shorter circuit on the mountain called Walk the Torq. The ‘via ferrata’ is managed by a company called Mountain Torq.

The ‘via ferrata’ isn’t as physically demanding as it is mentally. You really learn to trust yourself. I was most scared when we came to the final bridge made up of two pieces of rope – one to stand on and one to hold on to. I looked down and … quickly looked up again. It was long drop below.

“Toby!” I shouted to him as he’d crossed the bridge, “How did you do that?”

“Just walk” came the reply. He was too calm and collected.

I walked, I wobbled, and I made it. We all did, of course we did. The ‘via ferrata’ really is mind over matter. In some ways, I felt like a child in a playground, not worried about scraping my knee or falling off a swing. I was enjoying myself with my friends.

Amidst all the adrenaline and concentration, we stopped and sat on the endless slopes to enjoy the view. On the horizon was the South China Sea, and at the shoreline in the distance we could see the city. The most beautiful sights were that of dominant rock shapes that rose above the clouds and of a green carpet of rainforest treetops down below. It is easy to see why Mount Kinabalu is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.

We were five hours on the ‘via ferrata’. After a quick rest in Pendant Hut (the Mount Torq accommodation where we had spent the night), we continued our descent to Timpohon Gate. In total we walked from 3am until 6pm that day – 15 hours!

The next two days were agony for my legs. When the three of us walked across the road for roti canai, we got funny looks from the way we were walking. I deliberately walked behind an old man as I climbed the stairs to board my plane and almost shed tears when I arrived home in Kuching to a father who needed help moving ironwood furniture.

The whole journey was an experience that goes beyond the achievement of climbing Mount Kinabalu and of completing Low’s Peak Circuit. Aside from the more obvious lessons such as teamwork and confidence, I think the most important thing I learnt is that we can stretch our limits, physically and mentally, by learning to trust ourselves. And it is only by stepping out of our comfort zone that we grow more and more.

by Alena Murangm, The Borneo Post.