‘If hell were a mountain, it would look like Mount Kinabalu’: a Hong Kong hiker’s Borneo blues

Mount Kinabalu is much tougher to climb than it’s made out to be, as avid hiker but novice mountaineer Sasha Gonzales discovers

 Mount Kinabalu. Photo: Jollence Lee

I’ve been an avid hiker for years, but I’ve never climbed anything as high as Mount Kinabalu in East Malaysia. Calling it “difficult” would be an understatement. If hell were a mountain, I think it would look a bit like Mount Kinabalu.

Nearly a month after the trek, I still couldn’t squat, cross my legs or do lunges without wincing in pain. It hurt to wear heels, and I still had moments where I couldn’t feel my toes.

I don’t know what possessed me to do the hike. It was the New Year; I happened to be in region at the time and thought, what better way to kick off 2015 than to climb a famous mountain? Mount Kinabalu is the highest point in Malaysia at 4,095 metres and also a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In the weeks leading up to the climb, I stepped up my workout routine and checked out other climbers’ experiences online. From what I read it didn’t sound too bad, so I didn’t think I had anything to be worried about.

Besides, according to all the marketing material I’d read, Mount Kinabalu was ideal for anybody of reasonable fitness – for novice hikers, in fact. So really, how tough could the climb be?

Day one

My ride to the mountain began at 6am. It took us a couple of hours to get to the Kinabalu Park headquarters, where we received our identification tags and met our mountain guide. Because I was a solo traveller, I was assigned my own guide, a local Kadazan-Dusun tribesman called Safrey. From here, it was a short drive to Timpohon Gate (at 1,866 metres elevation), the starting point of the trail.

I’d signed up for the two-day/one-night climb. My plan was to arrive at the Laban Rata Resthouse (at 3,272 metres) by 4pm on the first day, so that I could go to bed early and wake up at 1.30am on Day Two to begin the summit climb.

Entering Timpohon Gate at about 9am, I thought, “this should be a piece of cake”. After all, it was only a 6km hike to the rest house. But not even 500 metres into the climb, I wanted to turn back.

My legs were fine; I just hadn’t anticipated any breathing difficulties. At that altitude – we were about 1,900 metres above sea level – my lungs were struggling to function. I thought the tight feeling in my chest would go away as the hike went on, but it didn’t, so I had no choice but to stop every 10 minutes to catch my breath.

The trail was merciless, to say the least. It’s insanely steep, and rocky and slippery to boot. I knew that my frequent stops would slow me down but I didn’t care. I was more concerned about bursting a lung.

The first 4km of the trail was tough, but it was nothing compared to the final 2km to the rest house. The trail got steeper and rockier. By that point, I think I was moving at only 500 metres per hour.

Safrey was eager to get to the rest house before dark, so we wouldn’t have to bring out our headlamps. With the sun setting and just 500 metres to go, I pushed myself as hard as I could. We arrived at 7.30pm – long after sunset. I grabbed a quick bite and went straight to bed, determined to get to the summit the next morning.

My lungs still hurt, but I was thankful that was my only symptom of altitude sickness. That night, I dreamed of rocks.

Day two

At 2.30am, we set off on the 2.7km-long climb to the summit. It was drizzling and windy, and the temperature was about 3 degrees Celsius. I was neither tired nor sleepy, but I was still short of breath.

Again, I had to stop every 10 minutes to rest, feeling inadequate as I watched the other climbers whizz past me. It took me nearly 2½ hours to climb just 700 metres.

It was 4.45am when I arrived at the “danger zone” – a steep rock wall leading to the summit. I’d heard this is where most accidents tend to occur. A long rope ran along the wall, and that was all you had to help you climb the remaining 2km – no harness included.

I was all psyched to complete this last section, but Safrey told me that I’d be turned back at the next checkpoint 400 metres ahead because, for safety reasons, no one is allowed past the checkpoint after 5am. At the speed I was moving, he estimated that I wouldn’t get there till 5.30am.

I could not believe it. At 3,580 metres high, I turned back, disappointed.

The way down

Who knew that the descent would be harder than the climb up? I slipped on wet rock and fell many times. I also pulled my thigh muscle twice and twisted both my ankles. Halfway down, Safrey had to carry my backpack and hold on to me with both hands while I limped along, all the way back to the end-point.

Needless to say, I was a wreck when I got to my hotel. I was even offered a wheelchair, but I politely refused. I was going to walk to my room on my own, thank you very much.

I was disappointed that I couldn’t finish the last 2km of the trail, but the way I see it, it was due to a technicality and not because I was defeated. I was proud of myself for having got that far.

I intend to climb Mt Kinabalu again next year. I do get a little fearful whenever I think about navigating that steep, rocky and slippery trail again, but then I’m reminded and encouraged by the late mountaineering hero, Sir Edmund Hillary: “I will come again and conquer you, because as a mountain you can’t grow, but as a human, I can.”

Thinking of taking on Kinabalu? More information at the official Mount Kinabalu climb and information website mountkinabalu.com

Get high on your next holiday by trekking up one of Asia’s most breathtaking summits

Jade Mountain, Taiwan

Jade Mountain, or Yushan, is Taiwan’s highest peak at 3,952 metres. It’s so-named for its thick snowcap during winter, which resembles stainless jade.

It may sound daunting but the trek to the summit starts at 2,600 metres at the Tatajia Saddle, and the 9.4 kilometre-long trail is mostly gradual except for the final ascent.

Hikes usually take two days, with an overnight stay at Paiyun Lodge at 3,402 metres. Hikers need two permits to enter Yushan National Park; a guide would save you the hassle of logistics.

An easier option in Taiwan is He Huan Shan in Taroko National Park.

Yushan National Park official site: ysnp.gov.tw/en/

Mount Fuji, Japan

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, despite its steep slopes, Japan’s tallest mountain at 3,776 metres high “can be climbed up quite easily even by beginners, for it has signboards and mountain huts. Having said so, however, you will of course be confronted by the harsh conditions of nature …”

There are four different routes to take up to the summit; you can drive up to an altitude of 1,400 metres to 2,400 metres to make the hike easier.

Mount Fuji is only open to hikers from July 1 to early September, due to weather conditions.

Official Mount Fuji climb site: fujisan-climb.jp/en/

Mount Rinjani, Indonesia

This massive 3,726-metre high volcano towers over the island of Lombok, an island in Indonesia’s West Nusa Tenggara province. The second-highest mountain in the country, its name is believed to come from an old Javanese term for God and the peak holds spiritual significance for the locals.

The mountain slopes are covered in lush forests and sprinkled with waterfalls, and within the mountain is the crescent-shaped sulfur lake Segara Anak.

The park officially opened on April 1. It’s recommended to spend four days trekking up to the summit and back down, finishing in Senaru.

Rinjani National Park official site: rinjaninationalpark.com