climb

mount kinabalu

when i discovered that i lost about 300 photos of my first trip to kota kinabalu in may of 2006, i was severely derailed. my focus and concentration were transferred to a desire to find the CD where i burned my pictures. so although my trip took place in late february, i only managed to finish the article i promised MB very late in may (thanks to dindo for sending me a CD of my own photos via LBC). by then the line-up for several of its travel specials had already been identified. knowing that the regular sections have limitations on both layout and length, i wanted my article, which was a product of labor as taxing and exhausting as breaking up an old concrete road with a jack-hammer, to be in the travel special. my editor said that it would have to wait till september. then this weekend she sent a message that she'd read my article -- ang ganda-ganda, she remarked -- and that it would be part of july's special. and although it's not the main feature (some 5-paragraph piece on sagada was on the cover), my article was beautifully spread over 7 pages, with enormous photos. loved the way it looked. i agree with my editor -- ang ganda nga.

below is the piece you'll find in today's manila bulletin travel special, beginning at page 8. of course the title i borrowed the entry i wrote on my first trip to kinabalu, although the article itself is as fresh as ever. i think as writers, we're allowed to improvise a little.

On Kinabalu’s Crown
Text and photos by Alman Dave O. Quiboquibo

Behind me, a trail of lights was moving slowly in the darkness, tracing the faint outlines of weak, uncertain heartbeats. It had been an hour since we began the trek, and we marched silently on the summit plateau of Mount Kinabalu: a massive crown of granite on top of one of the most important rainforests in the region. In the glimmer of the waning moonlight, the silhouette of the mountain was ominous, resembling the pointy head of a dinosaur, whose many, uneven horns drilled the sky. I could hear nothing save the gentle whisper of the wind, and the heavy breathing of other climbers. At more than 3,800 meters above sea level (masl), the air was thin, and I competed with over a hundred other pairs of overworked lungs for the precious little oxygen that was available.

Although the actual climb began the previous day, the plans were hatched months before we packed our bags and drove to Clark for a seat on a budget carrier. Beds at the mountain’s lodging houses are booked early by backpackers and travelers seeking adventure. When we reached the manicured capital city of the State of Sabah on the island of Borneo, we were fetched by a van we arranged from Manila, and were quickly spirited away to the Mesilau Nature Resort, one of two entry points to the summit. Mesilau itself was carved into the slopes of the mountain, some 2,000 masl, and was about two hours away from Kota Kinabalu. My friends and I spent the chilly evening at the Bishop’s Head Lodge, which was both spartan and spooky, we were unsure whether ghosts or the cool weather caused the hairs on our napes to rise.

On the morning we began the climb, the guides were giddy and anxious. They had wanted us to hit the trail at 8am, but at a few minutes to 9am, we were still gingerly eating breakfast. Mesilau’s restaurant was built on several stilts, and underneath it flowed a strong and steady stream. The wind whistled through the landscaped forest, and countless leaves shivered around us. It seemed like a good day to start the trek, although the guides, not completely convinced of our abilities as mountaineers, worried that nighttime would fall upon us if we didn’t leave sooner.

The Mesilau route, the guides warned during the briefing, and which we later realized, was more difficult: longer by over two kilometers, it followed the indecisiveness of a wild crescendo: steep and steady ascents with quick and sudden descents. Nevertheless, the excitement of anticipating this climb the months prior to it imbued us with some confidence to believe that we were prepared. One by one, we entered a gate that took us deep into the wild, dwarfed by trees of all kinds, and roofed by a canopy of intertwined branches. The sun fell through the forest like mosaics of light, and the songs of birds accompanied us; the variety of the sounds was as rich as the colors of their feathers.

The sometimes primitive, sometimes unpaved path snaked through the primeval forest of oaks, figs, and chestnuts, and signs alongside the trail regularly apprised us of the distance we’d traveled. Shelters (“pondok”) and toilets (“tandas”) were spaced at an average of one kilometer apart, offering our tired legs respite from the climb, and allowing us as well to rest and admire the scenery. The added challenge of Mesilau’s trail was matched nevertheless by its abundant beauty. We crossed gentle streams, listened to the forceful cascades of an invisible waterfall, and admired the distant walls of rock erected by tectonic forces.

Above us floated orchids and plants whose roots hung in the air, with long leaves that looked like bent green swords. Although I fought cramps tugging at my hamstrings, my curiosity and gift of observation were not obscured by my own difficulties, and I noticed a row of the orange Nepenthes pitcher plants whose deep poisonous pools drowned insects. At a certain altitude, the height of trees was reduced by the thinning soil and their branches and trunks gnarled and bent to the direction of the battering winds. They were adorned by moss that appeared like profuse green cobwebs. A thick mist tumbled in to wrap the forest in an enchanting embrace, and I was completely lost in its magic.

Whenever sections of the trail rose or fell too steeply or turned too slippery, wooden stairs whose steps seemed to have been built for longer legs appeared. Sometimes, flitches and rocks were driven to the ground. Information on the mountain, including distance and altitude were posted at the shelters, where squirrels or furry mountain rats – we weren’t sure – had taken up residence, attracted perhaps by food left behind by tired and hungry trekkers. Although I often felt that I was swallowed whole by an entirely different world, in many ways remote, teeming with the sounds, colors, and shapes of diverse forms of life, the well-maintained trails reassured me that it was unlikely I would go on missing.

Eventually, the two different routes converged at Layang-layang Trail, and the uphill burden continued. Pipes carrying water and electricity were fixed beside the trail like a fence. Visitors to the park coming from the Timpohon Gate were scattered along the remaining few kilometers to the Laban Rata Resthouse, many in various stages of distress. Assisted by wooden canes, they carried only bottles of water, but were burdened by the weight of regretting the decision to climb the mountain. Some of them were inexperienced, and were shod in shoes not made for long treks. Many of them hired porters who charged an average of one Malaysian Ringgit per kilometer for each kilogram of load. Pride, more than anything else, compelled me to carry my own pack.

Upon reaching Laban Rata, which was built on a small plateau over 3,150 masl, I was quickly relieved of my long bout with a pair of stubborn muscle cramps. The Guesthouse was well equipped: it had a big restaurant, which at 4pm, buzzed with the noise of many different tongues, I felt like I had just climbed the tower of Babel. We shared our tables with golden-headed backpackers from across Europe and Australia, exchanging fantastic tales of travels through a world full of irony and drama, even as the day quickly drifted into night, and the temperature dropped without warning. Although the buffet dinner was expensive and unremarkable, the contents of my plate did not fall from the sky, but were transported to Laban Rata by the collective efforts of the locals – some of them middle-aged women – who wore no shoes and who overtook me on the trail, despite the burden of 30-kilogram baskets anchored to their foreheads.

I would have wanted that evening to drag on longer, but in order to reach the summit before sunrise, we had to be ready before 3am the following day. The Europeans had to endure a brief trek to Gunting Lagadan, perched a little higher than Laban Rata, while the Australians were lodged at Waras Hut. There were other places of accommodation around the area of Laban Rata. We retired to our rooms, wrapped ourselves with layers of clothes and sheets, and chased sleep – which in my deep excitement was difficult to do, although I was profoundly tired. The following morning, although the bags under my eyes were swollen with a desire for a few more hours of sleep, I stretched out of bed and laced on my boots. I warmed my hands and staved my hunger with a cup of hot, instant noodles, and my team prepared for the assault. Slowly, we followed a file of climbers who went up a flight of stairs whose end we could not see.

Each one of us piled on layers of clothing, but as we kept walking, I peeled off my shell, then my fleece jacket, until I only had a long-sleeved synthetic shirt. The ordeal of pushing against gravity generated heat, but it was so terribly cold that we could not rest longer than a minute without shivering uncontrollably. After a while, the wooden staircase ended, and nothing but pure rock unfolded before me. A fat piece of rope had been fixed where vegetation ceased, and where the granite began. Its purpose was to guide climbers to the summit, although there were certain sections of the plateau where the rope doubled as a lifeline. A little farther up, we passed the Sayat-Sayat Hut, by its lonesome at 3,368 masl. It was the last habitable structure on the granite summit, and was furnished with a toilet, two telephone booths, and bunk beds for those who’ve given up and felt they could not go on.

Turning back was farthest from my mind, so I continued to bear the yoke of my adventurous heart: a burden I was all too happy to carry. I walked on, guided by the white rope, my path illumined by my headlamp, and found a sign that established my location: 8km, it read. I was that far away from the Timpohon Gate, and the peak which was my destination was less than half a kilometer ahead. I sat on the cold, rough granite. It looked cracked, with dark wounds spreading over its entirety like a mesh of capillaries. I wondered whether parts of it would fall off. Nearby, the leaves of a tiny shrub began to creep out of the crevices. I slid my gloved hands into my armpits. My face was bloated, and I was dizzy with a slight headache. One huge puff followed another. But when my trek buddy appeared, we resumed the hike. The horizon was turning blue, and the summit was upon us: it looked like a stack of boulders. By this time, there already was a long queue to the sign which proclaimed the altitude of the highest peak of Mount Kinabalu at 4095.2 masl, and named after English explorer Sir Hugh Low in honor of the first ascent. A photo was mandatory, most certainly, as it served as proof of a modest achievement.

When I reached Mount Kinabalu’s summit, I had no time to celebrate, or even wax philosophical about what I had just achieved. The climb was certainly not complete, as there was the matter of returning safely to the plains. Besides, I was deprived of intelligence, as my head felt heavy with the weight of the heavens.

Shortly, the sun began to rise, its orange rays tearing open the bleak, dark sky. It sent a warm light over the mountain, revealing the pale, gray, crown whose long, brooding shadow resembled a prostrate pyramid that covered a portion of the towns below in an extended dusk. When the beautiful morning descended upon Mount Kinabalu, we saw that the vast and empty plateau dipped at wild angles in some places. Beside Low’s Peak was Low’s Gully, which fell into a deep, vertiginous hole I didn’t want to see, and it seemed too late to appreciate the importance of the guide’s reminder not to stray too far away from the rope. Walking back to Laban Rata, the steep drops on the northern and western slopes inspired palpitations. I could not figure out how we had managed to reach the summit without the aid of flight.

Nevertheless, I descended slowly back to our dormitory, although the temptation to run down the granite crown was strong, and with good reason: yearly, the world’s best mountain runners converge in Mount Kinabalu to compete in what is believed to be the world’s toughest mountain race. Besides, gravity’s pull was strong. I walked carefully but deliberately, mindful not to put too much stress on my knees, threading the path alongside the long, white rope, holding on to it when necessary, until I reached the tree line, where the stunted and twisted forest rose from the ground with trepidation, and where the flight of stairs also began. I reached Laban Rata with enough time to have a long, restful breakfast with my friends. And at past 10am, we hauled our small packs again and contemplated the distance between us and Timpohon Gate. It was still a good 6 kilometers as the crow flies, I would suppose, and a vertical descent of over 1,000 meters. The geometry of the remaining trek exhausted my mind, but there was a lot of time to think about things both mundane and complicated, while behind me, the granite massif was being devoured by the sky.

On the way down, we met climbers laboring their way up Laban Rata, all wearing dazed smiles and beaming eyes that begged the question: was all the effort worth it? I didn’t give a direct answer. Rather, I wished them good luck with the weather even as the clouds clapped with hints of thunder. Not wanting to influence their experience with my opinion, I left them curious enough to discover for themselves whether the mountain and all its otherworldly charms deserved the burden of the interminable march. Besides, while a few adjectives were beginning to roll out my tongue to describe my climb, ultimately, Mount Kinabalu is a task that’s best endured and enjoyed, rather than experienced vicariously through the words of just one, optimistic adventurer.