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

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