It was one of those things that happen out of the blue, one of those things you just instinctively say "Yes!" to. I was offered the opportunity to trek up Mt Kinabalu, exactly a month before the scheduled departure (though unfortunately I had to drop out of the Sukau Eco Lodge part of the trip due to work commitments). Friends thought I’d gone slightly mad (and perhaps I had??) to take this on at such short notice, but I was determined to make it happen.
I spoke to several friends for advice on how to prep for the trek, and began diligently running the treadmill every morning, a little bit of swimming, and supplemented by twice weekly hikes up Gasing Hill every weekend. I still didn't feel prepared, but too late to back out now!
I arrived in Kota Kinabalu after a multi-leg journey from Thailand, met up with the other three in my group and began the trek on very little sleep. It was tough going almost from the start, the trail being a mix of steep steps (after all, I’ve got shorter legs than the rest of my group!), large rocks, and overall very uneven surfaces. But the jungle we walked through was beautiful – with a stunning waterfall, lush foliage, cushy moss, and friendly (overfed!) squirrels. And frequent munching on my stash of snacks and chocolates kept me going.
As we traversed higher up, the scenery changed too, accompanied by mysterious swirling mists. This at least distracted me a little from the fact that it was drizzling almost the entire second half of our trek up to Pendant Hut! As we got closer to our destination, weariness began to really set in, and walking up the stairs to Pendant Hut seemed like the toughest thing I did that day.
We arrived cold and wet at Pendant Hut in time for the briefing for our via ferrata climb the following day. And we only found out when we arrived that we had been signed up for the longer Low's Peak Circuit (surprise!) rather than the shorter Walk The Torq. Err, what did that mean? Honestly had no idea at that point in time (yup, you can see how well prepared I was for this trip...). After warming up, relaxing and having a quick dinner, we rested early for the night as we had to be up again at 2am!
The following morning (but really it felt like the same day) at 2.30am we set off again after a light breakfast. With headlamps on as it was pitch black outside, we followed the crowd, lumbering bleary-eyed toward the direction of the summit. The landscape was pretty much treeless now, and sloping rock faces. Looking ahead, I felt a shared kinship with all the other trekkers before me, little dots of light zig zagging up the mountain, pulled forward by the beckoning call of the impending sunrise. And then looking straight up above, I was dazzled by the incredible display of stars and galaxies glittering in the clear, cold sky.
Tired as we were of trudging up rocky slopes, we sped up a little (okay, a lot) so that we wouldn't miss the sunrise, and arrived at the peak in time to witness the sky seemingly catch fire with the orange glow of sunrise. What a sight and what a sense of accomplishment! We took the mandatory photo with the signboard at the highest point, but spent most of the time admiring the changing hues of the sky. It was also bitingly cold though, and I was glad for my warm jacket and gloves.
Before we knew it, we had to rush back down to the via ferrata meeting point. But I couldn't help stopping multiple times along the way to take pictures of the beautiful landscape around me, made more stunning by the myriad of rockpools formed by rain the evening before. We arrived at the via ferrata starting point at about 7.30am, and was met by the most breathtaking view of the mountain range around us, looking out over Sabah for miles and miles. Then we strapped on our harnesses and equipment, and began our via ferrata adventure!
The first step was DEFINITELY the hardest. Looking down the slope, parts of which were almost vertical rockfaces, I was immediately gripped by panic. My brain thought, "NOOO freaking wayyy! Too terrifying!" but I took my first step, arms and legs shaking uncontrollably by now. I leaned backward, and abseiled slowly down, reaching for the first metal foothold and then the next and the next. Step by step I climbed down the rockface, feeling calmer as I moved along, and stopping every now and then to lean back against the rock and drink in the incredible landscape literally miles below my feet. What an amazing feeling.
We continued climbing down the rockface, sometimes vertically downwards, sometimes horizontally, for what seemed like an age. We also had to traverse a couple of hanging bridges (okay they were pretty scary!) and scramble through a large patch of thick, unruly jungle before arriving at the end. All in all, it took us about four hours to complete the Low's Peak Circuit via ferrata. Four intense, adrenaline-fueled, exhilarating hours, after which we were completely destroyed and depleted of energy.
Arriving back at Pendant Hut, we unanimously, unequivocally decided we all needed a nap! But sadly, a half hour nap was all we could afford, as we still needed to trek down to the base of the mountain that same afternoon. We started making our way down mid-afternoon, retracing our steps of the previous day. Unfortunately, it soon started raining and it continued steadily for most of our journey downwards. Before long, we were soaked through and stayed that way for the rest of the trek.
We made good progress but eventually figured we may not make it out of the park before darkness fell (yikes!). With that realisation, we sped up even faster (where I harnessed this energy from, remains a mystery to me to this day). I suddenly felt like I could run tirelessly on forever, determined as I was to get out of the park before nightfall. However it was too late, and darkness soon befell us. We used a flashlight to guide the way as we continued splashing down the trail that had been transformed into a flowing stream by the rain.
It seemed surreal, and slightly terrifying that we (just two of us now, as the group had gotten split up midway through the trek) were picking our way down this dark trail, unaware of what lurked in the jungle beyond our little circle of light. But the pitter-patter of rain in the thick darkness was also somewhat comforting, somehow... And the sight of Carson Falls heavy with rainfall, glowing almost luminescently in the dark is something I'll never forget.
It also signalled the end of our trek and what a relief it was to finally exit the national park! Exhausted, hungry, wet, cold… Yet we all left the park feeling a definite sense of achievement. Time to celebrate!!! Overall, it was the perfect mini-adventure – despite the challenges, I wouldn't have had it any other way!