Trip: Malaysia - Mount Kinabalu
My wife and I took a recent trip to Malaysia and thought some of you might be interested in hearing a bit about one of the most unique and obscure areas for climbing in SE Asia. This is a somewhat abbreviated version (though still a bit long-winded) of a post from our website. If you want to see some other parts of our trip or read the longer version, go to http://joannestamplis.wordpress.com .
Our first destination was Mt Kinabalu. At 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) it is the highest point in Malaysia and depending on your definition of the region, the tallest in Southeast Asia. Our reason for coming here was to explore the upper regions of the mountain with it’s vast amount of exposed granite and dozens of peaks.
Here's the view of the mountain from Park HQ.
But first we had to pick up our permit and figure out where we were going to sleep that night. I had e-mailed the park before our arrival to reserve the West Gurkha Hut and secure our “Multipeak Climbing Permit”. (Here’s where the fun begins). After reading over the permit we became a bit confused: it specified 3 peaks that we were allowed to climb. And so we asked: “Well, what about all the other peaks?” We were informed that those peaks are “technical” climbs and require a rope (!) so we can’t climb those. HUH!? We actually had to show the park guide some of our gear: I don’t think he believed we had proper equipment.
And here’s where the confusion started: when visiting Malaysia 18 months before we picked up a copy of the local climbing guidebook, “Climb Malaysia”. It features a section on Mt Kinabalu and has the following to say about permits (for rock climbing): “You’ll need a Multi-Peak Climbing Permit … Send your applications along with your climbing resume…”. The park officials found the book fascinating (they hadn’t seen it before!) and asked to make photocopies.
Meanwhile, we decided to ask how we could get a “Rock Climbing Permit”. How hard could this be? This is when we were politely informed this request was impossible. Only one individual, the head of park operations, is allowed to issue these permits. And this individual was on vacation, enjoying the beach on Tioman Island. We had packed 2 70 meter ropes, 2 full sets of cams, 2-3 sets of stoppers, aid hooks, etriers, and ascenders and flown across the world with all this gear. You can be damn sure I was going to find a way to use them if I could!
Fortunately, the ranger we talked to was willing to do what he could to get a permit, making phone calls and trying to get a hold of “The Big Boss”. We had already decided we were going up the peak, whether or not we got an official permit. But we figured we’d give the park a day to figure things out: While waiting we decided to go figure out our accommodations before before reaching the Gurkha Hut.
It turns out there's only one option for sleeping on the mountain: Laban Rata. Last year they charged 29RM/person for the dorm-style accommodations. But they decided to raise prices this year, to a whopping 190RM/person. How could prices rise so much? They force you to buy 4 meals to go with the room and all the food has to be carried by porters up the mountain. We tried to get them to exclude the food (we had our own food) but they told us this was not possible. Setting up a tent is not allowed. So we were forced to pay $109US for 1 night at Laban Rata. Sheesh - what a rip off! (This is not a 5-star hotel).
Finally we got some good news, though: we would be able to get our “Rock Climbing Permit”. We went in to the park office and signed a bunch of legal documents and then went to pay our “fees” (a nice word for the extortion racket the park runs). 400RM for “Rock Climbing Permits”, 380RM for 19 days at for the Gurkha Hut (which used to be FREE), 380RM for 1 night in Laban Rata, 180RM for a “mandatory guide”, 266RM for insurance (one of the documents we signed essentially said if we get in trouble on the mountain we’re screwed as the park provides no rescue resources - so I’m not sure what this insurance is). This adds up to a grand total of 1606RM ($459US). D’oh!
So after coughing up nearly all of our cash, we were happy to finally get started up the mountain! But with one bizarre stipulation from the park: they wanted us to send them daily updates to make sure we were OK. Of course, if we’re NOT OK, they’re not going to rescue us. OOOO-K. We were getting a distinct impression that park officials would prefer every visitor to follow their cookie cutter plan for reaching the summit. And they certainly did their best to dissuade us from following through with our plans.
Our first day we were hiking 6km from Park HQ (866m) to the Gunting Lagadan Hut (3323m). If you do the math, this is a whooping 8000 feet of elevation gain in just 3.7 miles! As I’m writing this, this is the first time I did this calculation - holy crap that’s a big day. But what made the hike more ridiculous was the size of our packs. We were both carrying about HALF of our bodyweight. My bag was somewhere around 80lbs, Joanne’s about 55lbs (I weigh about 150 lbs).
We must not have been very far on the trail at this point. I know this for two reasons: the trail is still flat and Joanne is smiling. Joanne was actually mistaken for a porter on several occasions!
The hike was, needless to say, one of the hardest I’ve ever done. The trail is relentlessly steep and with a crushing load I sometimes felt like I was climbing a ladder, using my hands to grab roots and whatever else I could to keep from toppling backwards. The last kilometer became a real fight: we would make it a few hundred meters at a time, taking frequent breaks. When we dropped our bags I noticed by legs were actually shaking from the effort.
Finally, we reached the Gunting Lagadan Hut, collapsed in our room, took a cold shower then went for dinner at Laban Rata. We slept like rocks, waking up at 7 still feeling pretty tired and headed to breakfast. The food is pretty mediocre at Laban Rata, especially considering the price. I was excited, though, to see french toast. I loaded my plate up and poured “syrup” all over the them. I started eating and immediately I commented how salty the food was. Salty fried rice, salty meat and worst of all, salty french toast! Gross! Then we realized what was wrong: the “maple syrup” I had liberally drowned my food in was, in fact, soy sauce. A bit confusing since it was in a maple syrup container and placed next to the french toast!
After filling up on what would be our last big meal for a while, we shouldered our packs in preparation for the final 2.5km to the Gurkha Hut…
Our 2nd day of hiking was shorter but we still had 2300 feet to gain to reach our basecamp. And we were pretty worn out from the previous day’s hike. Joanne was really struggling with her load: our guide offered to shoulder some of the load. We were happy to oblige and the day ended up being considerably easier than the 1st day’s effort, though I could feel the air getting a bit thinner. And so we arrived at the Gurkha Hut early in the afternoon.
We received a pleasant surprise on arriving: the hut is easily one of the coolest places to stay that I’ve ever seen in any mountain! For starters, it’s weather proof and rodent proof (though you can hear a rat moving around outside at night). Rain pours from the roof into two water storage tanks to provide water during droughts. Inside, you’ll find 4 mattresses, cooking ware, leftover fuel from other parties, and a small collection of books including a real gem: 3 volumes of journals that record the building of the hut in 1984 and all the visitors who have stayed in the hut. It makes great reading when the weather is bad, which is almost inevitable!
The Gurkha Hut! A cozy place for 2 to stay. You could squeeze a couple more people in if you wanted to be close.
The Western Plateau of Mt Kinabalu in all its glory! From left to right are Alexandra Peak, Oyayubi Peak (the tilted tower in front of Alexandra), the Dewali Pinnacles, Victoria Peak (the huge prominent peak on the right), then finally St Andrews is the is identified by the insanely overhanging prow in the bottom right. The Gurhka Hut occupies prime real estate here, right below Oyayubi: Any of these peaks can be reached with just a short stroll from your base camp, making for incredible access.
Alexandra Peak, as viewed from the Gurkha Hut. Despite being right next to the hut, the prominent face in the middle of the picture is unclimbed. Of course, all of the orange rock is overhanging and looks loose. And there are very few cracks on the lower half of the face!
The jaw-dropping Oyayubi Peak towers over the Gurkha Hut. This face is likely unclimbed: I spent a some time looking over the face but it was difficult to see any line that wouldn’t be highly artificial. Some things might be better left unclimbed! Instead we climbed the much easier South Ridge of the peak. It was 4th class or so and was terrifyingly loose without a rope.
But before you get too excited about the prospect of first ascents and book the next flight to Malaysia it’s worth giving a word (or two) of caution. The rock here is geologically young and hasn’t been weathered as much as granite that I’ve climbed in North America. As a result, there is considerable amount of loose rock and there are very rarely continuous crack sections. And many cracks end up being shallow seams. As a result you’ll often find yourself climbing on semi-detached and hollow flakes with little or no protection.
And the other drawback to climbing on Kinabalu? The weather! Usually April-June and Sep-Oct are considered to be the dry season. But this year, things have been a little strange and the locals told us it’s been raining pretty much all year! And the weather didn’t change for us: it rained every single day. And almost every night. So we would wake up in the morning and it would usually be somewhat clear but the rock would be completely soaked. So we would wait for things to dry out but the weather inevitably would change, often with no warning.
The video shows a pretty typical view from the Gurkha Hut. There is so much bare rock and hardly any soil so the water just pours down the rock and forms rivers and waterfalls everywhere you look. I’ve never seen anything like it. During these rains the Gurkha Hut is cut off from the rest of the park: it would be life-threatening to try to descend the slabs back to Park HQ. I hope you brought a kayak!
So with horrible weather we did pretty much the only thing we could…wait. And wait.
I didn’t know anyone played Solitaire except on computers…
Occasionally the weather would clear up and allow us to play OUTSIDE!
On the edge of the abyss. From here, Low’s Gully drops for thousands of feet towards the Pacific Ocean. Some of the biggest (and most remote) walls in the world can be found here. Just reaching the base of these walls can take close to a week of rappelling and scrambling down the gully! Maybe next time…
Occasionally we even climbed with a rope. Here is where I decided it would be more fun to do a jig instead of climbing! Taken on the Southeast Ridge of Alexandra, shortly before bailing due to high winds. Then when it started raining an hour later we figured we made the right call.
Taking a walk over to the incredibly aesthetic South Kinabalu Peak. This was one of the few peaks we were able to summit! A clean slab with a 4th class move or two gains access to the summit and a spectacular view.
The view from the top of South Kinabalu Peak: you can see some of the huts far below.
After a week of crushing rain, our spirits were getting low. We had spied a few potential lines to try but the weather wouldn’t cooperate long enough for us to even walk over to their base. We hadn’t finished any technical climbs (though we bailed from several) and our food supplies were getting low. And then we received a text message from Park HQ telling us that there was a mistake with our permit and we would need to come down to sort things out. Argh!
We had been rationing our food supplies to try to stay as long as possible but when we finally decided to bail off Kinabalu we started gorging ourselves on the remaining food, trying to lighten our loads for the next day. And so, after 7 nights in the Gurkha Hut, we packed our things up and started the descend down the mountain. Despite ridding ourselves of fuel/food our packs were heavy enough that the 10,000 foot descent was quad destroying. It took 4 days of rest before we could walk downstairs without pain.
Mt Kinabalu is a spectacular peak and the Gurkha Hut is the best base camp you could ever hope for in the mountains. The weather is a mixed bag: from reading the journals, there are spells of great weather so we just had some bad luck. And because of the elevation, temperatures are so much nicer than anywhere else in Malaysia (temperatures frequently drop to around freezing). And while a lot of the rock looks terrible (really sketchy loose flakes) there are sections that look fantastic. I won’t give away all the places I found but No Name Peak and Victoria Peak might be good places to find solid rock.
But park management left a bitter taste in our mouths. I would like to return and try our luck again in a couple years but there’s many other places out there, most of which don’t have such hassles involved. Still, as far as adventure climbing in South East Asia goes, it doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re thinking about making a trip there, feel free to PM or respond here and I can fill you in on all the details. Of course, there’s no guarantee things won’t be very different in a few years!
If doing technical routes, bring at least a set of cams and nuts. A hammer, some pins, and a bolt kit (for bolt replacement) would be advisable. 2 ropes are a good idea for any of the bigger routes
It's about 9km and 10000 feet of elevation to make it to the Gurkha Hut. If you have a heavy load, be ready for some pain. Or fork over the money for a porter (might be costly).