Back Into Thin Air – Mt. Kinabalu

March 2, 2007 16 Comments »

View from the top of Mt. Kinnabalu
View from the top of Mt. Kinnabalu

View Borneo Photography

I remember this feeling…the exhilaration, the pain, the lightheadedness, the ache in my body, the nausea, the determination. I’m back in high altitude again. Testing my body and mind again. I’m wondering what it is about this painful experience that continues to draw me in. Whatever it is – I’m here – at 10,000 ft….again.

When Russ and I decided to go to Borneo, we had a single goal – to climb Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in SE Asia. Ever since the sad day that I was banished from Kilimanjaro due to altitude sickness, Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo had been in my sites. I thought that even though I couldn’t make it up to 19,000 ft. (Kilimanjaro), I should be able to make it to 13,000 ft (Kinabalu). I had determination – an intense determination that had been building since Africa.

However – I miscalculated one thing…it’s been 6 months since I left home. Every month that has gone by has marked the deterioration of my fitness level! I used to run 25 miles a week, go the gym twice a week to box and walk a few miles each day around NY. During my vagabonding – I am lucky if I run 9 miles a week period. The furthest I seem to be able to make it in a run is 4 miles and I have to stop and walk at least once during that! My old West Side Runners would banish me from the group if they saw me now!! I look the same; therefore, I thought as was in the same shape…but as soon as Russ and I started up the trail, I knew I was in for trouble!

russ cloudscape

Photo: Russ descending the rock face…it looks as if he is going to walk off the face of the earth!
Russ and I were paired up with an older man, Mick, from London. Mick was 64, he had a great attitude, and he knew nothing about the climb as he had just signed up for it the day before. He said that a young Chinese woman had sold him on the idea of climbing Kinabalu. She told him that it was an easy walk and that she herself had done it 3 times! He observed that she was about 3 stones overweight – so he was at least skeptical. The three of us were assigned a guide, Francis, and off we went. I quickly made some observations within the first km of climbing.
1. I’m out of shape
2. Francis has the personality of a sock
3. Mick, at 64 yrs old, was going to kick my ass all the way up the hill
4. I wouldn’t see Russ again until we met at the lodge
5. I’m out of shape

The literature about the climb said that a reasonably fit person could summit. It takes two days to make the 8.5km climb – the first is spent going up, up, up from 5000 ft. to about 10,000 ft. where you hunker down in a lodge/hut.


The hut is basically an unheated wooden structure that pretty much resembled most of the hostels I have been staying in! Bunk beds, Shared bathroom, luke warm water at best. However – this was 20 times better than camping on Kilimanjaro and peeing on a rock! On day 2 you are to get up at 3AM and start on the summit route in the dark. You make it to the summit (13,435 ft.) by sunrise. The temperatures around the summit are normally right around freezing – 32 degrees – and the wind is brutal

I struggled through the first day, sweating like a piece of lard, huffing and puffing as if I smoked 2 packs a day, but I did make it. Russ took off in front of the pack early. The last time I saw him was at 2.5 km at a little rest hut. As he came into my view – he was sitting on the bench talking on his blackberry…vomit. After that he was on a mission to get to the lodge. Mick and I sort of hung out and would walk about the same pace. Yet there were times when I couldn’t keep up with him. That would leave just Francis and I. I wondered what the Malaysian words for “slow, out of shape American” were…my paranoia got the better of me – I was positive that he was making fun of me to all of his guiding friends. He would walk behind me – right on my heels and work on text messages on his phone. I imagined it to be like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time – not as easy as it seems. I would stop to catch my breath fairly often, or to look at flowers (which was just an excuse to catch my breath). When I did stop – it felt as if my heart were about to explode it was beating so hard. Any way you slice it – there’s just not enough oxygen to go around once you start climbing up a mountain!


I made it to the Laban Rata Hut in the early afternoon in the drizzling rain. (10,800 ft) I met up with Russ who had been there for about 40 minutes before me! We had a chance to set down our packs and relax for a bit. We made our way up to our dorm room and got settled in. We were in the center of a cloud – therefore when we arrived you really couldn’t see a thing. All of a sudden at 4PM the skies cleared and we could witness what surrounded us – granite. The hut was situated right at the tree line, and when you looked up – all you could see was naked granite rock. Our task would be daunting the next morning. We had a good carb dinner at the lodge and were treated to an amazing sunset above the clouds – it was stunning.

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Francis suggested that we get started the next morning at 3AM. So we tried to go to sleep early to prepare for the next day’s climb. It was going to be cold and windy – so we laid out all of our winter gear and laid down for some zzzz’s. Unfortunately, I was quickly reminded that in altitude, you don’t really get good sleep. Sure, you lie down, you sort of doze off – but it’s not fitful sleep. I lay there sleeping on and off for a few hours – my mind racing with thoughts of the summit and anything else that I could worry about. Needless to say when our alarm went off at 2:40AM – I wasn’t feeling very well rested. We dawned our layers of gear, mittens, hats and headlamps and took off.

rock summit The climbing was a bit more technical, steep steps, big rocks to negotiate and steep granite rock that you needed a rope to get up the incline. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except that you were doing it in the dark. When you can look around and see your surroundings – there’s a certain comfort in that. However – with a headlamp – you feel like you are in a tunnel for 3 hours – you can’t see more than 4 ft. in front of you. Russ took off pretty quickly and I didn’t see him again until the summit. Mick also got ahead of me and had a successful summit (even though he was freezing in his shorts – the Chinese woman failed to tell him that it would be 32 degrees at the top!). That left me with Francis – slowly climbing to the top in silence. As we got higher – I started feeling nauseas, and was dizzy and disoriented from the altitude. Since I had experienced similar feelings before on Kilimanjaro – I at least knew what it was and decided that I would keep pushing forward. I certainly couldn’t walk a straight line, I just tried to follow Francis up the rock face. There was a rope the whole way up the rock so that you could use it in the steeper parts and you could simply follow it as your trail marker at other times. In the dark – all I could see was that rope and the rock face. It felt as if you were on the side of a steep cliff and one wrong move and you would fall off the side of the mountain. Therefore not only was a battling the lack of oxygen, but also the fear of falling to my death! I would stop quite frequently to catch my breath. During one of my rests there was a woman coming back down the mountain asking the Francis if he had seen her guide. She wanted to find him to tell him that she was going back down because she was starting to feel dizzy. I thought to myself…”lady, I’ve been feeling dizzy for the last 2 hours, but there’s no way I’m turning back!”. She continued her descent.

Photo: Looking at the final ascent in the daylight. Look carefully at the top of the highest peak – you can make out the people up there…that was the top!


summit rockface

The wind was whipping at we continued to go up – there was really no protection from it. Sometimes it would gust so strongly that it would blow you off your course and you would lose your footing. Now I also had to worry about being blown off the mountain…great. I looked to my right and started to see a light in the sky. I looked at Francis and said in a whiny voice, I just want to make it to the top for the sunrise. He said that it was only 700 more meters. At first this sounded good, then I started to do the calculation in my head and realized that it was about 7 football fields…straight up. We tried to pick up the pace and for the first time, Francis actually would offer me a hand in going up the steep rocks on the final climbing section. He perched me down on a rock at the top – and I sat in the blistering wind trying to get out my camera. At this point – I had no feeling in my fingers (I only had on light running gloves), so I wasn’t even sure if I would be able to take a picture! I tried to hunker down and about 4 minutes later…up popped the sun! Photo: Sunrise over the Donkey Ears

russ and I

I looked around at my surroundings for the first time and was amazed at the beauty. We were on a rock above the clouds. It was stunning. Finally – I was able to summit a mountain – I was relieved and excited…and still a bit nauseas! I found Russ who had been at the summit in the cold for the last hour (he was the first person to arrive on the mountain!). We were happy to find each other still in tact! We hung out for a little while enjoying the view watching the rest of the people trying to perch on top of each other on the small peak and decided that we better start the long road down. For the first time since I carried this camera all night – I could actually use it on the way down – so I took lots of extra time to take pictures.

me summit

The decent was long, hard, wet, and agonizing for the knees. It took about 7 hours total to get down to the beginning of the trail (descent from 13,000ft. to 5000ft). With every step down I could breathe easier, and felt more euphoric. This climb brought a bit of closure for me…the chapter that had been started on Kilimanjaro, was more complete now. Or was it? I still have thoughts of trying Kili again – yet I don’t know if I’m cut out for the amount of work that it would take again. It is a constant nagging in my head. But for now, it’s tamed a little, and Russ and I can enjoy our accomplishment. Who knows what the future holds for me and climbing – I love it, I hate it – but more than anything it teaches you about yourself, your body, and what you are capable of – it awakens my inner spirit – good and bad.
Photo: Me at the Summit!

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