An electrical storm flashes from damson storm clouds, streaking pulses of pink and blue above the city of Kota Kinabalu, some 100 km west.
From my vantage point at about 4,000 metres of elevation, I’m nearly level with the tempest. It’s a spectacular lightshow. But I can’t stop to marvel at it. Sunlight is beginning to illuminate the horizon and my goal is to reach the summit of Mount Kinabalu for dawn. For this, lightning is a cherry on top, destined to become just one more bucket-list memory from 10 days in Malaysian Borneo.
Bisected by the equator and set between Peninsular Malaysia and the Philippines, Borneo is the third-largest island on Earth. Three countries share this landmass — Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia — with the latter home to some six million people along the island’s northern reaches. Kota Kinabalu, the half-million-strong workaday capital of Malaysia’s Sabah province, is easily reached via flight from Hong Kong and provides an accessible gateway for Canadians visiting Borneo.
I’ve joined a G Adventures group for their 10-day Borneo-Sabah Adventure. With wildlife-seeking along the Kinabatagan River, a visit to an orang-utan preserve and touring Turtle Islands National Park on the horizon (see sidebar), I’m now primed for the premier alpine hike in this storied region of Asia — a setting that’s still very much a frontier, yet on the cusp of tourism greatness.
Since the days of British colonization, Borneo has been synonymous with intense tropical heat and humidity. Right now, though, it’s twilight at Mesilau Nature Resort, at about 2,000 metres of elevation, and it’s a tad chilly. We’re encased in mist and mahogany trees; dripping ferns and tangled vines. Somewhere in the clouds behind our huts, the massive granite pluton of Mount Kinabalu rises skyward. Considered a sacred mountain — home to the spirit world in regional mythology — Mount Kinabalu reaches to 4,095.2 metres, the highest point between the Himalayas and New Guinea. At a bit shy of eight million years old, it is also some of the youngest exposed granite on Earth. Summiting this brag-worthy massif is one of the foremost reasons for travel to the area. And after fuelling up with curry lamb and chilli squid at dinner, we discuss our plans to ascend it tomorrow.
Kinabalu is climbed in two legs — the first is a 1,270-vertical-metre ascent to Laban Rata, a guesthouse at 3,270 metres. There are two ways to get there: the popular, five-kilometre-long “short route” from Timpohon Gate, or the tougher eight-kilometre Mesilau Trail. (The trails join-up two kilometres before Laban Rata.) We’ll trek the Summit Trail the following morning — 2:30 a.m. to be exact — to push through the final 2.72 km and 825 vertical metres for a sunrise view from atop ironically named Low’s Peak. A quick breakfast back at Laban Rata is followed by the full descent. Our group (nearly) unanimously opts for the Tough Way Up. It’s an early night.
By morning, at the base of Mesilau Trail, there is scarcely a cloud in the sky; I suddenly question the weight of the rain gear loaded in my overnight pack. We all gaze toward the apex of Kinabalu, its barren peaks looming abruptly two vertical kilometres above us. There is a shared moment of, “We gotta hike up there?”
Mesilau Trail is deceptively easy at first, and its total length is hardly threatening. Starting at 2,000 metres above sea level, daytime temperatures are pleasant. A cool breeze meanders through the lush rainforest as our dozen-strong group marches upslope in single file. The path is mostly uneven rock lined with pitcher plants and orchids at the end of their bloom-season. Fig and rattan trees shut out the sunlight; this elevation is devoid of bugs. Near a sign marking KM1, an expansive vista opens up and reveals a lonely waterfall on the far side of a valley carpeted with greenery. Classic Borneo.
Mesilau climbs a couple of hundred vertical metres, then descends again, leading past runoff streams and small waterfalls. We cross two suspension bridges and pass a rest shelter with a horrid outhouse. Our G Adventures guide, Omar, had advised us that since Kinabalu is known as “the revered abode of the dead,” one must always apologize when using the bathroom. You may be peeing on a ghost.
Three kilometres in, I’ve officially decided Kinabalu is a walk in the park. I’m barely sweating and we’re almost halfway to Laban Rata.
Things change quickly. Just before KM4, the path turns decidedly acclivous. First, we step atop slippery wooden steps that carry us above mossy granite. Then, the trail morphs into a carved stone staircase leading through misty woods. And every step forward is a step up. Our group begins to thin out.
A few of us congregate at KM5, where a shelter gathers lunching groups and scampering squirrels to feed on our crumbs. We’re totally encased by clouds and flanked by endemic Dacrydium gibbsiae and Leptospermum — robust trees able to tolerate Kinabalu’s heavy metal content. The mountain’s unique ecosystems have fostered some 400 endemic plant species. Rhododendrons also line the trail; they would electrify in bloom. We’re all a bit knackered — to use the vernacular popular with my all-British group-mates — but with only three kilometres to Laban Rata, there seems little reason to fret. I ask a guide our approximate elevation.
“About 2,500 metres,” he responds.
My heart sinks. In five kilometres, we’ve only climbed 500 metres. This means in the next three kilometres of trail, we’ll ascend 770 metres. In short, things are about to get steep. And as we pass 3,000 metres of elevation, we’ll be gasping for air in the first level of oxygen deprivation. Hydration is key, as is a steady, comfortable pace. But the sun sets by 6:00 p.m., so you can’t dawdle the day away.
We set out through a tree-lined ridge-walk, enveloped by clouds. It’s myth-like; a kingdom in heaven. Upward, the trail is relentless. Like an itch you can’t scratch. At KM6, my pack feels as though it has doubled in weight. At KM7, we can feel the end is near, but a lack of oxygen and aching quadriceps see us resting every quarter-kilometre. Rather than a steady incline from the lunch hut, the path is like a line graph of compound interest — exponentially steeper the further it progresses. The last click climbs 270 vertical metres; it’s the longest kilometre of my life. The trees are sparse. The path is heaving, rugged igneous rock. Haggardly, I round a corner to see a beige structure protruding from the mountainside, half obscured by fog and backdropped by Kinabalu’s barren zenith. Gasping and soaked in sweat, we’ve arrived at Laban Rata — six hours and 30 minutes after our first step. (The slowest in our group arrived some three hours later, guided up via headlamp and thoroughly tortured.) Entering the guesthouse, we’re prideful to learn we were the only hikers to tackle Mesilau Trail today — of the 30-odd folks here for the night, all opted for the short route.
Laban Rata’s icy showers, questionable buffet, expensive beer and dorm-style accommodation are welcome after the day’s grind. And since we’re set to wake at 2:00 a.m. to push for the summit, bedtime is prompt.
A restless night begets an early morning. Outside, it’s black. Chilled. Misty. Our headlamps illuminate a path that begins with wooden stairs before emerging out of the alpine forest into lifeless volcanic rock. Above 3,700 metres, I have no energy. Every dozen steps leave me gassed. I slow to a comfortable plod, following the ubiquitous white rope that leads across the granite all the way to the summit. At times, the slope is steep enough to become a scramble — we pull ourselves hand-over-hand, along edges that drop to darkness, crawling atop jagged stone like nervous cats in the pitch. Eventually, the terrain eases to a massive plateau, half-domed and swooping towards a multitude of peaks. It is little wonder the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun considered Kinabalu home to the spirit-world — as beautiful as it is, the ashen stone seems scorched and hellish.
I can see a train of headlamps ahead and behind. Some 2,000-plus metres below, early morning houselights dot the valley — the abruptness of Kinabalu looks as though the plateau drops sheer to the valley bottom. The sun imparts a soft orange glow to the horizon; a lightning storm energizes the western sky. It’s a game of inches as I move toward the summit. The last push is an angular pile of broken boulders of about 75 vertical metres. I scramble up, wearied, as the sun crests to the west.
Spires of orange and red beam out of an endless sea of clouds as the sun emerges like a deity. Kinabalu’s granite glows pink; its igneous pikes are Dr. Seuss-like — sharp, gnarled and pyramidal. On impressive South Peak, the mountain’s penultimate point, our guide identifies a massive formation that resembles the face of a gorilla.
From alongside the summit signpost, the sunrise is one part breathtaking beauty, one part pride in accomplishment — marked by the exhausted faces of the dozen-or-so climbers congregated on this apogee. Atop the highest point in Southeast Asia — the world’s 20th most prominent peak — above an infinite vista punctuated by a dawn so vibrant it seems to have invented a new array of colours, it’s clear the sweat and suffering are a small price to pay.
Of course, I still have to hike back down.
The Mount Kinabalu hike is included in G Adventure’s Borneo-Sabah Adventure. (gadventures.com)