With my climb on 01 May 2023, my team and I had started training on 01 February 2023 with 3 weekdays dedicated to strength training, 1 day of stairs (10-15 stories) for 60 minutes, 1 day of walk/jog/run and Saturday mornings was terrain training - ascending and descending endless stairs/slopes at Singapore’s tallest hill (Bt Timah) standing proudly at 164 metres high for a solid 3 hours. Was this 3-month preparation enough training for me to summit South East Asia’s tallest mountain, a mighty 4095 metres above sea level?
I scoured blogs, spoke to people who had done the climbs before me but nothing can prepare you for the climb but experiencing it yourself.
So let me first set some context to my climb: I’m a 53-year old woman and pretty active – somewhat fit as I have been exercising and going for treks for the past 14 years. But as I was training with my group, I was well aware that compared to the rest who were in their 30s and 40s, I was much slower. It didn’t help that 1 month before the climb, I had Covid so I missed almost 7 days of training and I was worried about my ability to summit Mount Kinabalu.
So here are my “the Real Deal” Tips:
Personal Guide and Porter – to have or not to have?
Upon advise of my coaches, I decided to engage a personal guide from Kinabalu Park all the way to the summit and back and he also doubled up as my porter and carried my backpack which was about 13 kgs. With his own bag, he was lugging a good 20 kgs all the way to base camp, Leban Rata at 3.27 km above sea level. All in it cost me about MYR600 (guide fee, porter fee and tips) but it definitely made it easier for me to climb without any extra load.
Key places to note :
Kinabalu Park HQ – where you get your climbing pass and board the shuttle bus to the starting point.
Timpohon Gate – where you start the climb.
Leban Rata – the base camp; hostel with dining room and common bathroom and toilets; drinking water dispenser is in dining hall. Bunk beds with sheet, pillows and blanket.
Sayat Sayat Checkpoint – on the way to summit, you must reach there before 5.30 a.m. in order to continue to the summit.
Low’s Peak – climb the peak for the final distance marker 4095m.
Stairs, stairs and More Stairs
In my first blog I’ve described the stairs. In total, I had walked almost 5 km of stairs (one way) and in some parts, it is a very steep incline. Train going down stairs as much as you train climbing them. If you are training in a building with standard steps, do practice doing 2 steps at a time as there are some very high steps to manoeuvre.
After about the 4 km mark (on Day 1), I was pretty pleased that the stairs had ended and it was jungle trail and boulders which were manageable BUT I found myself running out of breath and had to walk slower. As we got higher, we had been told that the level of oxygen decreases and that it would affect our climb. That last 1 km to base camp (Leban Rata) was the toughest as I had been walking for almost 6 hours and a headache was developing and there was absolutely nothing I could do but just carry on and finally when I got to Leban Rata, I had some dinner and went to bed at 7.30 p.m. but I couldn’t sleep as my head still hurt and I still found it hard to take deep breaths and could feel some slight discomfort in my chest. This continued all the way to the summit, and at about 1 km from the summit, I was stopping after every 5 steps to catch my breath.
The Climb – Day Climb and Night Climb
We started our climb on Day 1 at Timpohon Gate at 9 a.m. (after getting our passes at Kinabalu Park HQ and took the shuttle bus to Timpohon Gate. All this is arranged by the tour operator that you engage.) I reached Leban Rata (base camp) at 4.30 p.m. while the faster climbers in my group reached at about 3 p.m. The terrain is 4 km of stairs of varying height and style – some are well structured whilst others are wobbly planks and height of the steps can vary with someone who is short like me having to take gigantic strides to haul myself up these stairs.
After dinner (a buffet) and a quick wipe-down (as there is no hot water so don't even dream of a shower), get ready the SMALLER BACKPACK to bring to the summit – 1.5 litres of water, energy gels and protein bars is all you need. I wore my dry-fit T-shirt, thermal wear and hiking pants to bed. By 8 p.m. the lights are out and you’re encouraged to sleep till about 1 a.m. where you will put on your gear (on top of what I was already wearing, I had a fleece jacket, waterproof raincoat and rain pants, woollen socks, ski gloves, woollen neck warmer, bandanna, head torch and my trusted hiking poles. Pack a cap for the descend from the summit as there is no shelter from the sunrays). I only managed about 2 hours of interrupted sleep because of the headache, cold temperature and breathing difficulties – typical symptoms of altitude sickness.
At about 2.20 a.m. we begin the climb to the summit – in pitch darkness with only the head torch illuminating the path. I do recommend bringing your hiking poles as I found they provided me with much needed support even on the rocky surface.
Perhaps the most frustrating part for me was how time sensitive this climb was.
Cut-off time to start the climb at Timpohon Gate is 10.30 a.m.
For the summit climb, gates open only at about 2.15 a.m.
Mid-way up to the summit, there is the only checkpoint, Sayat Sayat and you have to reach it before 5.30 a.m. and it is non-negotiable. Miss this deadline and you’re not allowed to the summit.
Those who wanted to do the additional challenge of Via Ferrata had to reach Leban Rata by 3 p.m. for a compulsory briefing between 3-4 p.m. Then on Day 2, once you reach the summit, you have to get to the starting points of the Walk the Torq climb by 7.15 a.m. and Low’s Peak Circuit by 6.30 a.m.
And from the summit, you have to get to Leban Rata before 10.30 a.m. to check-out of the dormitory and grab your breakfast.
You then need to reach Timpohon Gate by 4.30 p.m. and any later than that you will need to pay the guides and porters overtime fees.
There are good reasons for all these tight timelines so you need to really be conscious of your pace and timings throughout the climb.
You Walk Alone and With Your Head Down
Even if you’re climbing with a group, due to the different pace and adaptation to the environment, your climbing speed will vary and you may find yourself walking alone with your thoughts for not just a few minutes but a few hours. And if you’re not prepared for this, it can be a very lonely experience as you will not have any means to communicate with your travel companions.
Due to the uneven terrain, you will be looking down for most of the work to avoid tripping, slipping or missing steps. On the first day, your head may be down for about 5 to 7 hours and day 2, it could be from between 10 to 16 hours. More than sore legs, I was nursing a sore neck for up to a week after the climb.
By no means is this a comprehensive guide to climbing to Mt Kinabalu but a quick overview if you’re contemplating the climb and the more detailed blogs or articles overwhelm you. As a novice climber, you may hear many conflicting details and I was in that position not too long ago and I hope this blog gives you an overview of the climb and the key information that you can look up in greater depth. I’ll conclude with something I said at the start, that nothing can prepare you for the climb but the experience itself.