Mount Kinabalu (Malaysia)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk

Advance bookings are recommended for lodgings and huts at Kinabalu Park, home of 13,451' Mt. Kinabalu. Malaysia's highest peak. The problem is to ascertain if you've got them or not.

Let me explain. In January two years ago, my son and daughter-in-law, Steve and Nancy, and I decided to make an April attempt of Mt. Kinabalu. I sent an immediate letter to the booking agents, Sabah Park Headquarters, in the city of Kota Kinabalu (K.K.) on the island of Borneo, requesting lodging reservations. Then I waited. By early March, having received no reply, I began making phone calls--only to find the line was either busy or left unanswered. At the end of March, my wife. Jo, and I left on our portion of the trip with still no confirmations. And it wasn't until April 25th, the day we walked into Sabah Park Headquarters, that I found my anxieties were unfounded.

"Certainly you have reservations, Mr. Falk. We sent you a confirmation and all the information back in February. Didn't you receive them?"

Mt. Kinabalu is South-East Asia's tallest mountain, the highest point between Northern Burma and New Guinea. The massif is a youngster as mountains go, born just 1-1/2 million years ago, when a mass of granitic rock that had been cooling and hardening under the surface for several million years began to rise and break through the overlying crusts of softer rocks. Erosion by heavy rains and, later, by ice and glaciers shaped the new mountain. Today, the sculpted and streamlined summit plateau-which is continuing to rise, perhaps as much as 5 mm per year--is a magnet for climbers from around the world.

Steve, Nancy and I started our drive toward Kinabalu Park in mid-afternoon, April 25th, leaving Jo at the Tanjung Aru Beach Hotel, a wonderfully posh resort located on the shores of the South China Sea, just south of K.K.

As we wound into the jungle mountains on a well-paved but twisting road, a thunder storm which had been brewing all day crashed down upon us to the extent that even with our vipers operating at high speed we couldn't see a thing. On two occasions we were forced to pull off the road and wait for the torrential downpour to let up. At 6:30 p.m., the weather clearing, we arrived at the Park, and checked into a handsome modern building, the Annex, our lodgings for the night. After a tasty meal of fried rice, sizzling beef, beer and tea at a nearby cafeteria, we returned to our room to discover that, though quite contemporary in design, our lodgings were strictly third world in terms of insect control. A remarkable menagerie of creepy-crawly things were to share our room for the night, including a couple of moths with 6" wingspans. No doubt that explained the aerosol bottle of bug repellent that we had been dispensed upon our check-in.

The next morning, after a hardy breakfast in the cafeteria, we drove to park headquarters, where we paid a climbing fee of $10 Malaysian ($3.70 U.S.) each. It was there that we were also assigned our required guide, Anthony, who was to accompany us on the two-day adventure for a mere $37 U.S., plus tip.

We left the car in the headquarters parking lot, took a short bus ride ($2,50 Malaysian each) to the trailhead (no parking available), and began our climb at 8:30 a.m. The trail, which started just below 6,000', lead first through a fairly level area of rain forest, but soon turned much steeper, for, in order to reach the Luban Hut, 5,000' of elevation must be gained in just over four miles. We found long sections of steps with handrails as we climbed higher.

When we started, the weather was warm, sunny and humid. As we continued upward; stopping every half hour or so at the thatch-roofed rest stations along the way, it became noticeably cooler. At the 8.000' level, we entered a zone of curiously warm clouds, drifting up from below. At 9,500', Anthony led us off the trail to find and photograph the rare, insect-devouring Nepenthes. More commonly known as "Pitcher Plants"

We reached the 11,000' Luban Hut at 1:30 p.m., where we checked into one of its commodious dormitory rooms. We spent the balance of the afternoon relaxing on the hut's veranda, playing Uno with three fellow climbers from the Netherlands and watching still another massive thunder storm build up over Borneo. That evening, we enjoyed a surprisingly good dinner at the hut's cafeteria, and, in anticipation of a 3:00 a.m. start for the summit, got to bed by 8 p.m. Sleep did not come easily, however, as, outside, the storm had begun to rage in its full electrical fury. There was so much lightning, in fact, and it was so unremitting, that it was almost possible to read by it--no kidding.

At 2:30 a.m., we arose to discover that it was still raining. We dressed quickly and snacked on toast and tea. Just after 3:00, clad in rain gear and carrying flashlights, we started up the sodden trail, following the beams of the hikers, most of whom had left ten or fifteen minutes earlier. At 12,000', the jungle abruptly gave way to barren rock, and the steep trail, which is demarcated by ropes the rest of the way to the top, began to moderate. In order to keep warm Steve, Nancy, Anthony and I pushed hard up through the dark, rainy night. We hiked so fast and passed so many climbers, in fact, that we eventually wound up at the head of the pack, where, looking back, we could see a long, lighted twisting snake of climbers stretched out below us.

Reaching the 13.000' summit plateau at 5:30 a.m., we were pleased to note the first glow of dawn and that the weather was improving. We also discovered there is no well-defined high point on the weathered granitic plateau but rather a number of smooth promontories possessing colorful names, such as Ugly Sister Peak, Donkey's Ears, Lion's Head and Mushroom Peak. Low's Peak, the true high point, was named after Sir Hugh Low, a British officer, who first climbed the peak in 1851. We reached this peaklet from the plateau by an easy 2nd class scramble.

Once on top of Malaysia, we hunkered down with an ever-growing number of climbers to await the sunrise. The summit rocks eventually became so crowded that we were literally pushed off our perch by the later arrivals. when dawn finally broke at 6 a.m., we hastily shot the requisite summit photos, orange sunlight full in our faces, then beat a nippy retreat for the Luban Hut, where, arriving at 8 a.m., we enjoyed a hardy hot breakfast.

The trip back down was uneventful. We reached park headquarters at 11:30 a.m. and were swimming in the magnificent pool at the Tanjung Aru Beach Hotel by early afternoon.

Arriving home in early May and catching up on my mail, I found the long-lost reservation confirmations had indeed been sent. Why they took two months to reach California remains a mystery.

ODDS AND ENDS There is a twice daily bus from K.K. to Kinabalu Park (7:30 a.m. and noon; fare, $3.25 U.S. one way), which is considerably less expensive then renting a car at the K.K. airport at $90 U.S. per day.

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