Monolith A wonder on life's journey

29Jun/11Off

Mount Kinabalu: Attitude over Altitude


As published in Escape as "High and Mighty in Borneo". Trimmed to 750 words.

With too much time spent at the bistro instead of the gym, ambitious mountaineer Roderick Eime, sets his sights on Mount Kinabalu for a triumph of age and Body Mass Index over metres-above-sea-level.

I strain against the rope, trying to haul my overweight bulk up the sheer granite face. At 3am in the morning, thankfully, I can't see how far it is to the bottom should I lose my grip. But I can now just see my objective, Low's Peak, marked by a trail of tiny LED-powered fireflys slowly shuffling ahead of me in the thinning air. I pause frequently to let the faster climbers by and give my heart a chance to slow down. A soft grunt of acknowledgment is exchanged.

I'm on the final leg of my climb to the 4095m summit of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. I'm anything but the stereotypical mountaineer, but if Tim Macartney-Snape were to stand in front of a circus mirror, you'd get some idea.

Beginning at the Timpohon Gate at 1800m, it's a trifling 9 kilometre hike to the peak. Factor in some drizzle, wind and fog, naked granite rock faces, thinning air and a 2.2 kilometre vertical climb (think seven Centrepoint Towers stacked one atop another) on what is mostly a soggy rock-strewn staircase of tree roots and the level of difficulty becomes appreciable. But if you ever wanted to climb a proper mountain without a team of sherpas, thermal suit, cramp-ons and bottled oxygen, then Kinabalu is for you.

Sure, Mount Kinabalu is no Everest, but it's no pushover either. The substantial igneous Granodiorite (just grannite from now on) peak is considered in mountaineering circles to be one of the most climber-friendly around. That explains why up to one hundred valiant souls make the ascent every day. We started out yesterday morning after a hearty early breakfast with a plan to summit and be back soaking in a hot bath by dinner time the next day. That sounds like a sensible timeline, but there are those who are never satisfied with sensible. For example, the ultra-elite band of so-called 'sky runners' will set out from here clad in high-tech sneakers, hydration backpack and fluro shorts and be back checking their standing heart rate in well under three hours.

The trek starts out innocently enough like a leisurely stroll in the woods, but quickly becomes a 'stairway to perdition'. One flight of damp rocky steps is followed by another, then another. Calves and thighs groan in protest as I jab my walking pole into the mud for another vault upwards, all the while the lean and fit stroll past effortlessly. Like branded antelopes, smug six-foot euro-trekkers bound over rocks and logs with broad, spring-loaded strides while I wheeze and shuffle like Yoda with an arthritic hip. It crosses my mind; I could claim a BMI record for the summit. But there is no question, save an avalanche or hungry predator, I will make the peak.

Dotted along the route is a series of pondoks (picnic shelters) with rudimentary washrooms and seats. Brazen little squirrels scamper about cleaning up any food scraps while you ponder the next bruising leg. Consumed with self-pity, it's easy to forget all around you is a 750 square km UNESCO World Heritage-listed biodiversity that boasts one of the richest concentrations of flora covering four distinct climate zones. From thick conifer forests, oak and colourful rhododendron to stubby little alpine bushes and medicinal flowers known only to the local Dusun community, the park is much more than just a masochistic ordeal. Around 80 per cent of visitors don't bother with the climb, instead contenting themselves with a visit to the 5-acre botanical garden which concentrates most of the park's flora into one easy location.

Enough banter, it’s time for the summit. Low’s Peak itself juts upward like a giant meringue tart plopped atop a huge granite cake and excited climbers are making their final scramble to the tip in the warming rays of early morning light. The final effort is almost an anti-climax as jubilant conquerors jostle for photo space on a spot the size of a Volkswagen roof. I oblige a handsome Asian couple in matching blue mountain kit, “Smile!” and they reciprocate. Deep breath, now it’s all downhill.

Some regular climbers figured Kinabalu was not tough enough and devised a series of permanent ropes, pegs and steps based on the European 'via ferrata', Italian for ‘iron way’. This installation was devised by the Italians during the First World War to move troops and even small artillery pieces in the Alps to get one up on their enemy, the Austrians. The military success of that can be argued, but here on the weathered granite surfaces near Lows Peak, the experience adds a whole new dimension.

Suiting up for the descent means climbing into a fetish-inspired harness with lots of metal hooks called carabiners. Add a helmet, gloves and a scrunchy-like safety strap called a ‘scorpio’ designed to catch your plummeting body if it all turns to crap. There are two via ferrata options for the junior Hillarys and Tensings; one a nightmarish odyssey through jungle and across dizzying ravines called the ‘Lows Peak Circuit’ that begins at 3776m and another at 3520m dubbed ‘Walk the Torq’ which simply shortcuts the rocky staircase and is suitable for kids over 10 years. Both terminate at 3411m and yes, I'm on the latter.

Like, the summit itself, it’s not to be scoffed at. Operated by adventure sports company, Mountain Torq, their series of rungs, ropes, cables and bridges is the highest via ferrata in the world and certified by the Guinness Book of Records. There’s a dinky little stamped and verified certificate waiting for me too as I unbuckle my Houdini suit in the hut. But the excitement is over for now and time for the knee-splitting trudge to the bottom.

Away from the imposing mountain, the wider Kota Kinabalu region of Sabah offers plenty of more conventional distractions: golf, sailing, diving, white-water rafting and just relaxing. The sprawling Sutera Harbour Resort complex is a veritable corporate theme park with a bowling alley, cinema and watersports centre for attention- challenged delegates on break-out. Otherwise, head over to the immaculate Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort and its award-winning spa at Dalit Bay where my petit, smiling therapist pays no attention to my torment as she kneads every agonised pressure point and tortured muscle tissue.

For days after, I look at even the smallest stairway with trepidation, searching for a lift or escalator to spare my middle-aged knees any further ordeal. That hackneyed mantra “no pain, no gain”, reverberates with every step, but I know the satisfaction of my modest achievement will linger much longer than the last whiffs of Dencorub.

Doing It

Mountain Torq provide guide, tuition and all equipment for your via ferrata experience. From US$135 per person, activity only. Mountain lodging extra. www.mountaintorq.com

A mandatory park guide must accompany you or your group. Reasonable fitness level is required without undue fear of heights. Guide fee A$20 for up to six climbers. Permit: A$35/person. For full climbing details, visit www.sabahtourism.com

For more information on travelling in Malaysia, visit www.tourism.gov.my

Stay:

Suteru Harbour Resort www.suteraharbour.com provide accommodation at both Kota Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park.
Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort www.shangri-la.com

Fly:

Malaysia Airlines www.malaysiaairlines.com fly to Kota Kinabalu via Kuala Lumpur
For further information or to make a booking phone Flight Centre on 1300 939 414 or see www.flightcentre.com.au/world-travel/malaysia

The writer was a guest of Malaysia Airlines, Tourism Malaysia, Sutera Harbour Resort and Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort

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