Kinabalu- My first real mountain climb

December 7, 2012, the day I was going to climb a real mountain, along with 4 other friends of mine, with me being the youngest and inexperience of all. Well, its not that I had never climbed a mountain before. I climbed Mount Ophir in Peninsula Malaysia many years back. But at only 1276m above sea level, I don’t consider it a real true mountain to me, as it’s more of a jungle trek than really climbing. I was really excited before the trip, as the sense of adventure awaits, and Mount Kinabalu is listed in one of the places to go to in my list of things to accomplished.

Early morning on December 7, we set off from Singapore to Senai Airport in Johor Bahru to board the plane to Kota Kinabalu. The airport was small and deserted, unlike Singapore. It feels nice for a change with less people and I loved the tranquility of it. We spent a couple of hours there waiting for our flight. Things started to get a little boring, so we bought books from a bookstore to entertain ourselves. Finally, after the long wait, it is time to board the plane to our destination.

We landed on Kota Kinabalu International Airport after a 2.5 hours journey, and were immediately greeted by our agency driver who was there to transport us to the lodge at the foot of the mountain. The journey took another hour or two to get to the lodge. It was a crazy ride as the driver was speeding in the rain with very low visibility and winding roads. Somehow I managed to sleep in such situation, waking up only when the van starts to get really cold.

We arrived at the lodge in the afternoon and the rest of the day was spent walking around the vicinity, taking photos. It was cloudy and misty and rain started pouring. As we walked along and open area, Mount Kinbalu began to reveal itself from behind the cloud and mist, and it was gorgeous. Just then, a double rainbow appeared in front of it. What a sight it was to see such a scene just on our first day.

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We had dinner at a nearby restaurant before heading back to lodge to rest. I slept early and woke up at 4am to try and take some shots of the night sky filled with stars. However, things did not go as desired as there was a light source coming from the nearby lodge which disrupted my focusing. I had to manually focus as it was too dark to autofocus. In the end I ended up with a crappy shot which was off focus. Oh well, there will be more opportunities on getting the starry sky in future. Soon, dawn was breaking and I took some shots of the mountain before setting off for breakfast and starting our climb.

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We met up with our guide Boni and headed off into the lush Bornean tropical rainforest. The whole pathway consisted of never ending steep steps. Along the way, we encountered the cute and fearless Mountain Ground Squirrel each time we stop to rest at a hut. They weave in and out around us waiting for someone to feed them. I was doing ok for the first few kilometers until the 4km mark when I started to get really exhausted and I kept stretching my leg to prevent any cramps. My fellow climbers had selflessly offered to help carry some of my loads, and I would always be thankful for their kindness. At this point I also had given up taking pictures and focused on climbing. Slowly, the temperature started to drop, and the air grew thinner. The vegetation around us also began to change drastically, from lush tropical mountain cloud forest to layers of short conifer trees. The ground also became steeper, very rocky and uneven to climb. Every step now feels like a ton weighing on you. Every now and then, my legs are hinting of cramping up. I had to stop again and again to stretch, as I know that if my legs start to cramp, it would be harder to climb.

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Our guide Boni

Slowly, we reached the 3000m mark, and took some pictures. We were close to our destination at the Laban Rata resort with just another 150m more to go. With one last push, I regained my energy and climb up to the resort, before heading into our lodge for a well deserved rest.

We woke up at 130am the next morning ready for our final ascend to the summit. It was bitterly cold. I was having headache the night before and was worried that I was not able to make it. However, panadol extra work wonders, and my legs feel fine as well. We set off into the trail in total darkness with only our headlamp to lighten our path. I was feeling a little scared and excited as this would be the hardest part of the climb with very steep routes. I began to feel exhausted quickly from the relentless steps and the thin air. Soon we reached the part where we have to use all four limbs to climb. I had never climbed such slopes before in my life. It was a vertical 70 degrees upward climb with a rope for assistance. After climbing what felt like 3 stories high, we were faced with a narrow path which could only fit a foot. Beneath is a steep drop to hell. I held on the rope for dear life while climbing up, leaning my body close to the wall to prevent me from falling the other way. I was really frightened at this point, as it was dark, wet, cold and exhausting. I could not see exactly how steep the slope is, I just held on to the rope really tightly.

We came to an area where the slopes started to become gradual, and I could climb the mountain without much aid from the rope. But I was really exhausted. Every 20 steps I had to stop and take a break to catch my breath. It was really really cold now and it starts to get to me. My gloves were all wet and my hands were freezing. We gathered together and hugged each other at certain points to stay warm. Vision was also a problem as it starts to get really foggy. There were times when I felt like giving up, stop and rest till the sun rises before heading down. But I chose to carry on. I was determined to reach the summit despite my already exhausted body, and as the cold starts to kick in when we started to rest, we had to keep moving. There was nothing in my mind then to just walk and walk all the way up.

We were now nearing the 4000m mark, and close to the summit. My body was feeling wobbly. I do not know if I could make that last steep climb to the summit, but I wanted to do it no matter what. However, my guide had noticed my condition and suggested me not to climb and stay put while the rest proceed. We were actually in a rush for time as we had registered ourselves for the Via Ferrata adventure course. My pace would slow everyone down and my guide was worried we would not make the course on time. So we came to an agreement that I will not proceed further. I was disappointed, although initially I doubted myself, I had managed to come all the way here, nearing the peak, only to be told not to proceed. However, this would mean that I would have plenty of time to take photos. Hence, the thought of beautiful pictures would cover up the disappointment of reaching the peak. In fact, reaching the peak does not matter anymore. Out comes my camera, and with renewed enthusiasm I started snapping all around, compensating the lack of photos I had taken before that. One of my friends decided to accompany me as we slowly and leisurely head down slope to the place where the adventure course would take place.

The descending was really enjoyable, suddenly time slows down and I had all the time needed to take my pictures. It was a beautiful sunrise with clear skies. The temperature started to increase, bringing warmth. The landscape started to reveal itself and for the first time and it was not as bad as I first imagined when climbing up in the dark. I had over imagined. We took breaks as we descend, sitting down and enjoying the peace and view. I just could not get enough of the awesome scenery surrounding me. There was one scene which captivated me most among all, and it took me a few attempts before I could find the best angle. It was a backlight situation showing the granite surface and a beautiful formation of the mountain with the clouds at the background. It was the most beautiful scene I had seen up to this point of my life.

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We waited for rest to arrive for the Via Ferrata, but bad weather had made the guide to cancel the course for safety reason. Rain was falling, and we struggled to make our way down due to the slippery surface. There were many close shaves when we slipped and fell only to be saved from holding on to the rope. Once again, exhaustion started to kick in. Merely walking down the steps is a torture. I struggled all the way back to the lodge, packed our stuff, and headed all the way back to the entrance. Once again, my fitter and selfless buddies helped to offload my bag by carrying some of my stuff, while I help to carry the lighter ones. The descending was no easier. My legs were already very wobbly, my mind fading out. My body was practically running on auto pilot, moving instinctively while my mind was in a daze. I had ran out of water, and was really thirsty. All thoughts in my mind were to push all the way till I reach the entrance. Hut after hut, I took breaks, and then continued to push forward. I would look for every support available, walking down like an eighty year old man.

The sound of the waterfall indicates the nearing of the entrance, and feeling motivated once more, I pushed all the way. Finally I had made it, and with the applause from my friends, I felt happy and satisfied. Reflecting back on the climb, I felt there were many things I could have done better, such as my fitness. I came ill prepared and unfit and paid the price. My friends were equally tired, but they had heavier load than me, and I would always remember such kindness from them. Also I felt my pictures could have been better, if I could be fit enough to carry a tripod up. There are still many areas which I had yet to photograph, such as the Low’s Gully, a beautiful gorge behind the peak. But all the while this leaves a reason to go back again to create more pictures. When the time comes, I would be better prepared, fitter, and most importantly, coming back with more amazing pictures.

My buddies during the climb: Ben, John, Sonnie, Jaedon

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© [Dennis Ong] [DennisOngPhotography], [2012]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Dennis Ong] [Dennis Ong Photography] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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