To reach Kinabalu Park, we took the bus station to Inanam (RM25 from hotel) and there we were greeted by Chavacanos who immediately grabbed our bags and led us towards their cashier. See, I told you Filipinos are everywhere. Anyway, we took the bus to Sandakan and the trip to Kinabalu Park lasted for 1 hour and 45 minutes – straight driving, with no traffic at all.
As soon as we arrived, we paid the entrance fees and went straight to the Headquarters and presented our booking confirmation to get our meal coupons. Meals have designated times and it actually never occurred to us what will happen if we don’t avail them on time. We found out later that they still accept the coupons despite arriving late. Well, they’d better. We paid for them and no one can control the time we climb and descend the mountain. After getting our coupons, we went to pay for our mountain guide and also got our IDs. We had to wait a while though because there were a lot of groups climbing the mountain that day and I think they ran out of mountain guides for us and the rest of the groups waiting with us. We checked out the Souvenir Shop where everything is expensive so we did not buy anything. We also paid for the ride to Timpohon Gate and soon after, we met our guide.
Here’s the thing about our guide. He’s 18 years old, petite, and doesn’t speak English. You see the problem there? We realized that but we didn’t make a big deal out of it. We assumed it would be ok. Boy, we were wrong. So we went to Timpohon Gate via a private car. Thankfully, our driver spoke good English and gave us a few tips. He told us to walk slowly and take our time. When we asked the average time it takes to climb Mt. Kinabalu, he said it was around 4-6 hours for experienced hikers. Some even take as long as 8-9 hours. We laughed so hard and joked we were the ones who will do the 8-9 hour climb. Again, we were wrong.
Climb: 13 hours
Descent: 7 hours
On both accounts, we were the last ones to arrive at the rest house and at Timpohon Gate. Now, before you have that shock and awe face, here are the details of our climb (finally!)
10:45AM – Start of climb
11:16AM – Reached the first 500m mark
11:55AM – Arrived at Pondok Kandis, which was the first shelter stop-over; had lunch which consisted of apples, sandwiches, and eggs
12:45PM – Reached the first 1km mark
1:15PM – Arrived at Pondok Ubah (441m away from Pondok Kandis)
1:53PM –Reached the 1.5km mark
2:23PM – Reached the 2km mark
3:17PM – Reached the 2.5km mark
3:53PM – Reached the 3km mark
5:24PM – Reached the 3.5km mark
See, the first 3km was easy but still it took us 5 hours and that was just the first half. Notice how it took us 1.5 hours to climb just 500m? The steps become higher and steeper as we ascend the mountain, coupled with the rain, it will really slow us down. We even came across two hikers who got into accidents that they had to be on stretchers, carried by four men and assisted by a couple others.
The Laban Rata Guest House is at the 6km mark. With that rate, we assumed it would be another 5 hours to reach the guest house. I’m not sure if it was at Pondok Lowii or Pondok Mempening (3rd & 4th stops, respectively) that we encountered a Malay porter who said that we need to keep our pace or else we’d reach the rest house by midnight. At first we thought she was just trying to piss us off, challenging us to move faster so we’d reach the rest house earlier. So we didn’t believe her.
But in reality, Love and I were both starting to feel that the climb is beginning to take its toll on our bodies and I actually suggested that we not finish the hike anymore. I don’t care if we paid a lot for this activity. Seeing her suffering from the experience was enough for me to go back down and just go home to our hotel. But it was her who wanted to finish the hike. She was challenging herself, testing her physical strength. All I could do was stay with her and have faith that we can do this.
It was also at this time that we realized how useless our mountain guide was because he could not speak and understand any English. If I understand correctly, mountain guides are supposed to assist you with your climb – instructing you how and where to step, help you breath normally, and encourage you when you’re about to give up. None of this was accomplished by our guide. We had to learn everything on our own, sometimes through the help of other climbers and porters who’d climb past us. Every time we ask our guide a question, he’d only answer in Malay which we cannot understand, at all. So we gave up after numerous attempts to ask him if we are nearing the next shelter or not.
In the end, Love and I became each other’s mountain guide. When she climbed ahead of me, she’d tell me where to step and vice versa. We gave each other warnings on what rocks not to step on, what branches we can hold on to, and what paths are too steep to take. We’d ask how each other was doing – were our knees still doing fine, do we need to stop and take a breather, and we motivated each other. We’d quote Gloria Pritchett (Sofia Vergara) of Modern Family, plan our 2nd year anniversary, anything that we can talk about that would motivate us to get to the rest house.
8:52PM – Arrived at Pondok Villosa, 2nd to the last shelter before we finally reach Laban Rata
9:10PM – Reached 5k mark (3001m above sea level)
10:11PM – Arrived at Pondok Paka
10:46PM – Reached 5.5km mark
There was a gap in taking pictures because it was during these times that we had to stop every 10minutes or so due to the difficulty of the trail. After the first 3km, it became harder to breath, especially for Love. She was the one who suffered from altitude sickness – nausea, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, and persistent rapid pulse. Her weak knees also contributed to the worsening feeling she was experiencing at that time.
I only suffered from sleepiness, feeling my eyes give up each time we rest. I was so sleepy I thought I could fall asleep wherever rock I sat. But it was becoming colder. My bonnet had moist in it and so did the other things we brought with us. The headlights and gloves we thought we’d use for the night climb to the summit we used at this point on. Our mountain guide did not have a headlight, probably because never did he expect it would take this long for us to reach the rest house. At the start of the climb, he was coughing a little. Now, he was shivering from the cold (he only had a jacket and a raincoat on) and was coughing and sniffing consistently. We wanted to hate him for being a useless mountain guide but seeing him suffer that much, we only pitied him. Add that to the fact that he never complained once. I guess that’s a downside of not being able to speak English.
Many times we reached our breaking point, resting only to contemplate if we will be able to survive the climb. We both wanted to cry, break down, and give up but we both knew that doing so would only dishearten the other and so we didn’t. I realized and literally told myself that I had to be strong for her and I knew she was thinking the same thing. I knew she was feeling worse than I was with all the knee-aching and lack of oxygen she’s experiencing which is why I assigned myself to being the stronger one at this point. With each step accompanied by an “Oh, my God” or “Please, Mother Nature, help us” and each rest ending with a “Ready? Let’s try again?”or “We can do this”, we managed to climb the remaining steps that would soon become the hardest steps to take.
As first-time climbers without any experience at all, we were amazed at how guides and porters climb Mt. Kinabalu with minimum effort. At around 8pm, it was clear that we were the only ones left climbing or descending the mountain. It was a scary thought. It was so scary we had to control ourselves from entertaining crazy ideas and voicing them out for fear they might come true. We had to stop ourselves from literally cursing the mountain for fear of Mother Nature getting back at us before we even reach Laban Rata. As an avid fan of gory films like The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, and other similar movies, you’d understand our fear when we realized we were trapped in the mountain.
Imagine our surprise when we saw 2 porters ascending the mountain to bring food to Laban Rata. I immediately asked if they speak English and when one answered “Yes”, I could only say thank you. We asked for help and if he could have someone from Laban Rata meet us halfway or at least on the next shelter. Before these porters appeared, we were already trying to call SSL or Laban Rata to have ourselves rescued. Yes, we were literally asking for help from the authorities. When the porter said that no one might be able to meet us, we were doomed. We started thinking why no one was bothering to look for us since they should be doing a headcount already and they should have noticed that 2 climbers still haven’t checked in to the rest house. And so the 2 porters carried on and continued their climb, leaving us to wonder if we’d ever see our families back home ever again. They did promise to try though.
Then we climbed. We continued climbing the seemingly endless steps that would hopefully lead us to the rest house. After an hour or two, the 2 porters we asked for help are descending the mountain. Wow, they do it so fast and effortlessly, we could only stare in awe. The porter who spoke English is Blass and they were so kind that they brought down with them our packed dinner. *Insert “Thank you!”* Not only did they bring our dinner with them, they also managed to inform security. Everything he said after that was a blur. We were just so thankful to see another pair of people who managed to get help and bring us food. I told him, “Blass, you are a blessing in disguise!”
Despite having our food with us, we didn’t stop to eat because all we wanted was to reach the rest house. We stopped and rested every few minutes and soon after I wailed that I just wanted to see another porter, a ranger came down and rescued us. James Lee, the ranger who literally saved our lives aside from Blass and his friend, arrived at around 11pm. He immediately apologized for rescuing us late because the information did not reach him right away. After checking that everything was ok with us, he held Love’s hands and assisted her while handing the rest of our things to the poor mountain guide. Every 10 steps, we stopped and breathed. Inhale, exhale. I was hungry and even if I didn’t want to stop, James Lee insisted that we did and so I ate a few spoons of the dinner handed to us by the porter. Thankfully, we saw the rest house not long after. The image of the rest house was such a joyous sight but we still couldn’t cry our hearts out. And a 12:20am, we finally reached Laban Rata.
At the rest house, the security was so nice to us that he even told us we could eat our dinner downstairs first before resting. But we were just so tired that we slept soon as we reached our room. I only changed my shirt but we wore the same pants to bed. We roomed with a couple who took the bottom beds since they arrived early. At 8°C, they did not have heated water. Love and I slept in the same bed to warm each other up but even that did not help. Not only were we thankful we reached Laban Rata, we were also appreciative of our bodies which did not collapse in the middle of the hike. Our physical strength cooperated to the extent that we did not feel that exhausted nor did we feel the maximum pain possible, giving us energy to finish the descent in the morning. Our 23rd month together ended with us trying hard to ignore the cold and hoping that the morning will be nicer to us than the evening was.