Saturday, 14 January 2012

Heading off, again

...and so the travels continue! Today has been spent packing, running errands, doing laundry, and taking care of the myriad tasks that are the precursors to a long trip. As of early tomorrow morning, I will be heading off for a month-long, multi-city tour of North America - hurrah! Some work, some play, some uncertainty, some things to definitely look forward to. It's funny that I've finally felt of late that I'm hitting my stride here, just in time to leave. I'll miss (don't laugh) my office and my colleagues, but thankfully will have the chance to see some of them while away. I'm anxious to see how it feels to be back after being gone.

Tomorrow - Central Time Zone!

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Christmas 2011, In which I go for a rather steep walk (Part 3)

Our room for the night was densely packed with three sets of bunk beds, all of which were adorned with wet clothing and rucksacks. Orchid and I shared the room with four other hikers - two Indians via way of Australia, and a couple who I believe were Dutch. When I opened my pack to take out my night clothes, I was hit with the realization that everything in the bag was wet. My clothes, granola bars, papers, passport...Despite having secured things in plastic bags inside the pack and securing the poncho over, the rain had seeped in through the zipper and the fabric of the pack itself. I sighed, and bundled myself as well as I could in damp leggings, a skirt, and a t-shirt, read for a bit, and turned over for a restless night. While our bunkmates snored merrily, Orchid, who is apparently a fellow insomniac, and I counted the squeaks of the springs as we tossed and turned and searched for the elusive specter of sleep. Despite my misgivings about the early hour, I was relieved when alarms started going off at 1:45.

Did I mention that the second day of the hike starts at 2:30 AM?

The six of us groggily started packing our things, all lamenting the ever-present dampness. Never mind though, after cleaning ourselves as best we could in the cold shower, securing our packs, and brushing our teeth, we all headed downstairs where there was a promise of coffee. At Laban Rasa, you begin the day with an early breakfast to prepare you for the hike ahead. I sank into my coffee and noodles-with-egg, and gave thanks for warmth, friendly companions, and the knowledge that I would, at some point that day, get to take a real shower. At 2:40, Nani met us at the door and we began the next part of the climb, adorned with headlamps and bundled against the cold. The rain, miraculously, had stopped for a bit, and we caught glimpses of stars in the blackness above.

The second day's hike starts with a trek through the blackness up to the summit for sunrise. 2.7 K, which sounds like...not much, really. Less than two miles? I walk that and more every day. But uphill. Steeply uphill. And it's dark. And it's slippery from the previous day's rain. And did I mention that it's uphill?

The altitude began to get to me a bit here. Or the fatigue. Or the constant climb up slippery steps. Thankfully, the trail is fairly narrow here, and so you really only move at the pace of the slowest person in front of you (all of the groups leave around the same time). I was able to take a good number of breaks without disturbing the pace too much, for which I was immensely grateful. There's not much noise outside at that time of day - the climbers are too tired and breathless, and of course there's no traffic - so you plod through the quiet darkness, with a string of lights ahead and behind you indicating the headlamps of the other climbers.

Strangely enough, this was perhaps my favorite part of the climb. You couldn't really see the scenery, beyond passing glimpses of the lights of the towns far below, it was cold, and the climb was daunting. But it's quietly solitary, particularly as the hikers string out more along the trail, and it's very focused in the present. There's no dwelling on past imperfect or future uncertain - there's only present tense. Where is my foot now, and where should it be next? Stay upright. Don't go too fast. Maintain a slow and steady pace.

It was, in short, the part of the climb most removed from how I normally live, and I sank deeply into it.

We passed the tree line, and emerged onto the very rocky face of the remainder of the climb. You pass through a small checkpoint where they check your badge and remind you to use the rope.

Did I mention the rope?

Parts of the climb are really steep at this point, it's pretty much bare rock face, and (yes, again) it had been raining. The rocks are slick, so there's a guide rope attached to the rock. And you will use it. To haul yourself up, hand over hand, not quite daring to look behind and below.
The rope (at a less steep bit where I was willing to take a photo)

It's hard.

The altitude, the minimal upper body strength, and the mental and physical fatigue all came together to make it difficult to take the next step. Thankfully, Nani got me past some rough patches and reminded me to take it slow. That's the only way to do it. So I walked, pulled, rested, sat when I could, and plodded, one foot in front of the other.

And the reward? Was amazing.
I promise that's me - the full pic will not go up :-)

My pictures don't do it justice, but it is astoundingly beautiful. Small towns and cities below, rock all around, the tree line emerging beneath you, standing above the clouds. It's worth the climb, the bad sleep, the cold, and the wet. It's a proud moment, when the sun comes up and you see how far you've come.

Orchid, Nani, Fit, me and Everest - sleepy but accomplished
The climb down is easier, but more difficult, if that makes any sense. All those steps you came up yesterday? You go down today - the full 8.7K on top of the 2.7K you did to start the morning. At the top of the climb I was grateful that we had climbed up in the dark - seeing the terrain in the light was quite scary, particularly when going backward while hanging on to the rope! Breakfast (the real one) at Laban Rasa breaks up the descent a bit, but by the end our knees ached (I think I pulled my IT band), our toes were numb from slamming against the front of our shoes, and we were all ready to hit a shower.

But it was so worth it, and I can't wait for the next climb.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Christmas 2011, In which I go for a rather steep walk (Part 2)

Cell phone alarms started going off at 6AM, bringing us into the dawn of a cloudy, wet, gray day. My fellow hostelers and I made our morning ablutions, packed our things, and wished each other well for the climb. My group was going to start off slightly later than many, so I sat in the common room, drinking Nescafe, reading, and trying to fashion a makeshift cover for my backpack out of a disposable poncho. This last part would, unfortunately, prove the next best thing to useless.

At 9:30 I wandered up to our meeting point, to be greeted by Nani, our guide, and Fit and Everest (pseudonyms, of course, for the Canadian couple that made up half of my group's hikers - the last, Orchid, joined us about half an hour later). We chatted, traded disparaging comments about the rain, and questioned the wisdom of our packing. Once Orchid had arrived, we were on our way.

We were dropped at the head of the trail, where our passes were checked and our schedule confirmed.

And so we started climbing.

Accounts about Kinabalu's difficulty vary widely. Prior to making the climb, I had read accounts of people who had climbed it with no particular conditioning beforehand, those who hadn't quite made it to the top, and those who felt unprepared despite being in great physical shape. I fall somewhere in between all of these. I spent the last five years living in Chicago and currently reside in Singapore, neither of which have any particularly demanding inclined walks (despite the presence, respectively, of the Sears Tower and Bukit Timah). I'm in reasonable physical shape - I walk frequently, participate in sport, bike and do pilates - but I wouldn't, by any stretch of the imagination, place myself in any top fitness categories. I would say that I'm about average. And, for me? It was a tough climb. As Everest (so dubbed because he made that climb not too long ago) put it, it just keeps going up. There are few sections of relatively level trail or of gradual inclines. The first 4K or so aren't too bad - generally they're made up of moderately steep wooden or stone steps - but after that it gets a bit hairy, particularly as we were hiking in the midst of several days of rain.
The trail map
Trying to fend off the rain
A view from the bottom
The trail pushes relentlessly upward, and the rain added a slickness to each step, with mud and puddles forming the foothold for many stairs. In some areas, it felt as though we were hiking in a very rocky stream bed, and past the 4K mark the steepness increased as the terrain gave way to more rocks, clay, and scrubby trees. Here, there were sections where the word "climb" began to take on new meaning, as hands were used in some places to pull ourselves up over particularly steep sections. There's a hut every kilometer or so, and I viewed each resting place with great joy despite the fact that they were densely packed with other climbers thanks to the rain. One foot in front of the other, breathing frequently to deal with the altitude, and lamenting our sopping clothing we continued, reaching the Laban Rata hostel/resthouse at around 5 PM. The scenery here was remarkably different from the rainforest of the early part of the climb, as we were above the clouds and the trees were more bare with smaller leaves. Above us we could see the rocky slopes and bare rock face of the next day's climb. For now, however, it was time to sit, have a cup of tea and dinner, and settle in for the night.

There were plenty of earthworms on the trail

Plenty of ground squirrels at every shelter, too
The mist was a constant companion

A taste of what was to come the next day
Trail or streambed?

I dubbed this plant my "Christmas tree" with its red bells
Above the clouds, sopping wet and ready for tea and bed