Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Mt. Kinabalu Experience



Day 1: The Journey From SIN-KOTA KINABALU

The group of Climbathoners, including NTUC Team managers gathered at the Changi Airport at 11am for our afternoon flight to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, with a transit at Kuching, Sarawak. This trip was to be my maiden experience with climbing any mountain of height above 3000ft where cold temperatures and Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) might play a factor. I got a cab and picked up Henry and DO, before arriving to the airport to meet the rest of the team; Yulan, Sabrina, Timothy, Hee Shen, Roland. Yusoff, Hamidah, Carmen and Lingam were to be the NTUC Team (this event has be supported and sponsored by Team NTUC in partnership with Young NTUC) managers accompanying us for this training trip. We all don the Team NTUC T-Shirts with the proper collar pins supplied by NTUC. We had a surprise visitor, IMD Ben who was nice to see us off, and had a cuppa with us to chat about his MK experience. In fact, Ben’s gf was climbing MK that same day, and we would have a chance to bump into her as she was on the descent the next day. Sabrina’s hubby too was there to see her off, and I chatted with him about his upcoming Bhutan experience.

After a 4 hour air journey, with a 50min transit stop at Sarawak, we finally arrived at Sabah around 5pm. We were received by the agent, Jean, a nice lady who had climbed the sacred mountain a few times. Jean was to take care of our support and requirements during our few days stay. We were immediately ushered into a mini-bus, and what followed was a 2-hour journey up rolling hills to the base of Mt. Kinabalu. We had a stop in between to pick up loads of supplies…DO and me picked up lots of food as we were worried there might be nothing to eat in that wilderness..haha. Night had fallen by the time we reached Rose Cabin, our place of lodging for the next 3 nights. It was cold, and fortunately, we all had our wind-breakers and track tops on. We had a group photo, got our rooms, and met for a dinner to discuss the next day’s plans. Dinner was good, with lots of fresh and crispy vegetables, a key feature at MK where the people grow their own vegetables in their backyard and use them to serve guests and tourists, as well as for local consumption. The room at Cabin Rose were Spartan, and water heating was by gas. I took some time to figure that out…had a nice warm bath, and got ready our stuff for the next day’s training. I planned to bring a mini haversack, with bottles of water, cap, windbreaker, powerbars…wearing running tights,and just a dri-fit T-Shirt. I could not get any sleep that night, because of all the weird noises throughout the night….howling winds, sounds of heavy rainfall, and noises of vehicles.

Day 2: The Maiden Climb

We awoke at 6am, and the skies were already bright. It was raining and the grounds were wet. We were worried that the rains might disrupt our ascent to MK, but those fears were soon put to rest. DO asked me about gloves and then only did I realize what I had missed out from my packing list. Fortunately Yulan had an extra pair, which she so kindly loan me for the whole duration…really god-sent…thanks Yulan, DO. When we got to the dining hall, the rains had just stopped, and we could see for the first time in the horizon, the majestic Mt. Kinabalu. It was a majestic sight, with clouds covering parts of the mountain top. We snapped some photos, had a nice breakfast, before proceeding in a mini bus to the visitor centre. We spent some time processing the papers for our training at the mountain, as well as visiting the chief who takes care of MK. He gave a small briefing to Hamidah and Yusof. On his desk were a pile of certificates of successful climbers to the mountain, waiting for his signature. It was 9am by the time we got on the bus to bring us to Timpohon Gate, the start point of our day’s climb. Along the way, Jean showed us the start and finish points for the actual Climbathon race, as well as some of the slopes we will be experiencing for the final 4km of the race itself. We soaked all that in, and I was looking forward to get moving up the mountain for a good workout. I had looked through a map provided by Rodney, and had some idea of the kind of timings we had to be at various checkpoints, but I had no clue at all to the terrain we were going to experience. There were 5 trekking guides attached to our team.

After signing off at the Timpohon Gate entrance, the front people like Timothy, Hee Shen and DO moved up pretty fast. I was walking the route to soak in the atmosphere and the terrain. Very early on, we had to start climbing stairs, which were cut out from the slopes of the mountain, and some had wooden strips across to provide the better grip. The air was cool and crisp. There were many early groups of trekkers who were strewn all along the route. For the first 2km, I was climbing many steps in succession, once in a while with some mud slopes providing relief for a short breather and maybe a sip of water from my water bottle. It was a challenge to be walking fast up those many steps. I soon lost the front group, as well as the back group. Henry was with me up to the Layang Layang area, which was the 4km point. According to plan, we should make it there by 1hr. I think we were there by 1hr10min due to the initial difficulty of moving past the many groups of casual trekkers. Up to Layang Layang, there were many steep slopes and numerous stairs. I took a few pictures as the scenery got better. Henry soon moved ahead, as I continued on to the 4.5km mark. After a short while, I met a group of young students (from NJC I think) who encouraged me, and saying ‘Good Luck To Your Climbathon’….hmm, they must have heard it from some of my team mates further up front. After a short while, someone said ‘hi’ as she was coming down….I looked up, and hey, it was IMD’s gf. Pleasant to see a familiar face. I asked her if she made it to the top, and she jubilantly said yes, as she continued on her journey down the slopes with care.


From 4km to 5km, there was a change in the terrain with more rocks and pebbles lining the slopes. It was quite tricky maneuvering those rocks, and if one is not careful, can easily slip and make a nasty fall. It felt long and slow along this stretch as the gradient increased and my legs and cardio were stretched. I was breathing heavily, and wondering when I could reach Laban Rata, the 6km mark, an important midpoint in the ascent. The air was getting colder as I continued North. Every once in a while, I would stop for about 10-15seconds to catch my breath, before continuing to drive my legs up those rocky slopes. Soon, the 5km mark came. Good…just 1km more. The route was just about to get much tougher after that. The terrain was one of even more stones and rocks, but inclined much steeper, with areas which were wet. It felt like it was never ending. My legs were so tired, and I was literally panting like a dog. There were some pipes along the sides of the path where I used for support to give myself that extra lift, but even with that, it was tough. 500m of that slope took me about 20min.


The beauty of Laban Rata

I checked my watch and it was showing 1hr45min of elapsed time. According to plan, I should reach Laban Rata in 2hr-2:15hr. There were less people on that part of the slopes, but many more porters who were carrying loads of 50kg on their backs as they climbed those slopes... wow, really full of respect for them as they remained nimble and swift. After a bit more of a struggle, I spotted Hee Shen in front, and from there I found renewed energy to finish off the final 200m more. I reached up to Laban Rata to quite a magnificent view. I took a few photos, and then heard shouts from David and Timothy for me to join them at the hut. They had reached about 10min earlier than me. I immediately spotted a nice-looking local girl next to the signboard, and requested to take a photo with her. David and the rest subsequently lined up to take photos with her too...hehe. After some food and water, we proceeded upwards and after 200m of sloping granite, there was the gate to the Sayat Sayat Hut, the next bound. We felt good and strong, and wanted to continue on with the upward journey. We were disappointed to find that the gate was locked, and apparently, the last group had descended about 15min earlier. The gate will normally be closed after the last group from the Summit had come down and crossed that point, usually around noon….Sigh, too bad,… we had to do it the next day then.

At about 12.30pm, we proceeded to descend. It was a whole new experience for us, as going down was certainly more dangerous and risky than going upwards. Although we were not taxed in the area of cardio strength, the rocks, pebbles, slippery steps and undulating surfaces presented a whole new challenge. I took a whole hour just to descend from Laban Rata back to the 4km mark, looking very carefully to make sure I stepped on the correct rocks, and I did slip a few times. Fortunately I held on to something, and nothing bad happened. Henry and DO too were cautious. As we proceeded down, we saw Rodney, and then Roland on their way up. Henry and David proceeded at a much faster rate after that, but I decided to really be cautious and took it slowly…anyway, we were not rushing for any time that day. The 4km down to 1km mark were full of steps, and with the rains the previous night, they were slippery and dangerous. Along the way were also many groups who were descending, and I had to make many stops to follow behind them as the paths were very narrow. That stretch felt really LONG, partly because I was looking down most of the time to make sure of my footing…it was really boring and frustrating…my Cumulus shoes were just not suitable for such surfaces, and I took a few more slips and tumbles, mainly minor ones. I was walking at snail’s pace for fear of tripping over. I had put on my pair of knee guards for the down-slope, which went towards preventing too much wobbling from my knees, and hopefully would minimize the likelihood of injuries. Soon, Roland and Rodney overtook me, and these two were literally running… wow! It took me almost 2 hours to finish that whole down trip, and by the time I reached Timpohon Gate, only Yulan and Sabrina were behind. They soon came back as well. It was a good experience for me, and with a better feel of the terrain, I knew I could do better the next time. As I was doing stretches and chatting, IMD’s gf came back..I was quite surprised she had just finished her descent, but nevertheless, she did very well and had lots of stories to tell of her climb. The team proceeded to have a nice buffet lunch, where we met IMD’s gf and her new Taiwanese friends. They were a friendly bunch. Most of the trekkers were curious of our training, as it was not so usual for people to ascend and descend in the same morning or even on the same day. We went back to Rose Cabin for a good afternoon rest, and many of us had tired and sore legs. I had a slight headache, possibly due to lack of sleep the previous night, and was quiet during dinner. The following day was going to be even longer and harder, as we will be attempting to go all the way to the Summit or at least to Sayat Sayat, the 7.2km mark. I had an early night, and fortunately managed to catch a few hours of sleep.

Day 3: The Full Climb & Time Trial

I woke up to the sound of howling winds at 2.30am..shucks, so early!! We were supposed to wake at 4.30am for a 5.30am set-off. I tossed and turned till it was time. I felt much better, but my quads were feeling the soreness of the previous day’s climb. I quietly hoped that the climb would be cancelled due to bad weather, but then again, I wanted to go to Sayat Sayat to have a look at the treacherous terrain I briefly saw the previous day. Breakfast was packed as we had to eat along the way. The team had promptly gathered at 5.30am outside Rose Cabin. We had some bananas, before we set off to the start point again. Jean was there as usual making all the arrangements for a 6am climb. However due to some mis-communications, we finlly got started only after 7am. Because of the long day ahead, I decided to bring my MountainSmith mini back-pack in order to bring more food, 2 bottles of water, bread, Livita honey, and more food…haha. That added another 2kg of weight, but I reckoned it was good training anyway.

We started 300m away from Timpohon Gate, simulating actual race day, and on the count by Hamidah, the team exploded into a run towards the mountain. I walked briskly, wary not to get into overdrive ahead of the steep climb. My quads were feeling a little sore, but some in the team felt even more sore. I was trailing behind Hee Shen and DO for the 1st km. Henry, Tim and Yulan were already up in front. They were going for the full works. My plan was just to get to Sayat Sayat and then decide. By the 2nd km, I had overtaken Hee Shen, whose legs were really feeling the effects. Because of the earlier start today, there were very little people on the route. I was able to progress more smoothly, and by the 3rd km, I could see DO still. My legs quickly got tired by the numerous steps leading up to Layang Layang. With the gloves, I was able to hold on to more of the railings and sides of the mountain where possible. That helped to give me some lift to keep going. I reached Layang Layang at around 1hr20min today, possibly due to the extra distance at the start point.


Along the high wooden stairway to the Sayat Sayat Hut

The next 2km was again long and testing. My legs were feeling the aches of the previous day;s climb, and the rocky surface. I had on the Montrail Sustina XCR today. It offered very good grip and provided the much need protection and stability in that rocky and x-country terrain. After what seemed like eternity, I finally reached Laban Rata in 2hr13min. The front people in my team had just left for their next check point. The guide told me there were 10min ahead. I took my time to have a nice Livita drink and 2 bananas. I waited for a while more for Hee Shen, before proceeding up to the Sayat Sayat Hut. It felt great to cross that gate, and once through, it was new terrain again. A steep incline with high stairs greeted me…It was shady with lots of trees, and there was nobody except me. I climbed those high stairs with difficulty, and as the air got thinner and colder, I was panting a lot harder. At one stage, I had to stop to catch my breath after every 3-5 steps. Then steps were followed by very rocky and wet terrain, and it was quite difficulty to move around. Since it was new territory, I took more photos and decided to take it easy. After some time, I reached the ‘famed’ granite slopes of the mountain. There I could see the start of a series of ropes, where trekkers normally used to guide and support them for night climbs up the summit.


The ropes leading up to Sayat Sayat & the View from the top

I tugged at the ropes to ensure they were secure, before making my cautious move along the steep mountain sides. Any wrong move can see someone ‘drop’ hundreds of metres down…sweat. Midway through, someone shouted from below…it was Hee Shen. He was telling me the proper way to hold the rope. One of the guide was with him. At that point, my camera’e memory was full and I could not capture fully the vast expanse of cliffs and slopes….it was a magnificent sight out there. With the strong chilly winds blowing, it was indeed a challenge just to move along the sides. I Looked down occasionally…It was steep. When I got to the third rope, I saw DO up there. He was coming down already? When we met up, he said he was not summit-ing as he could feel his quads tightening and he didn’t to want to risk any cramps on the cliffs. I too felt a slight cramp coming in my left quad. I finally reached up to Sayat Sayat in 2hr50min…hmm, I am allowed 3hr30min to make the summit during the race…that timing is really too close for a call. I will just try my best on race day, to go as far as the Race Officials will allow me to go. I moved past Sayat Sayat for a little bit more, before settling back and taking a rest. Beyond that will be the 7.5km, the plateau, 8km mark and then the Summit. I could see only a rope strung across the sides of the steep slopes, and it was just leading to nowhere. After a while, Hee Shen reached Sayat Sayat with his guide. Hee Shen also did not want to summit as he did not want to delay the group. I rested for about 15min, before making my descent. The way down the Sayat Sayat way was indeed treacherous, and one wrong move would see us tumble to ‘hell’. As such, people moved very slowly and cautiously, and lots more time were taken to descend. Then there were the slippery and sharp rocks to manouvre…wow, really very tough to get down. Sayat Sayat really told me that I will never make the descent time requirements, no matter how much more I can improve, because it requires more than speed…it requires the ‘dare-devil’ spirit (in DO’s words) to be able to leap and bound on those sharp, rocky and slippery surfaces…something which a special breed of people called the Sky Runners will be capable of.

After a whole long hour, I finally made it back to Laban Rata. I looked around and didn’t catch sight of my team mates. I reckoned DO might have gone back to the end point first. With my knee guard already on, I continued down from Laban Rata at a smoother and quicker pace than the previous day, even though my quads were aching like ‘hell’ by then. I met Roland by the 4km mark near Layang Layang, and he mentioned that he had turned back earlier at Laban Rata as he had done enough. I proceeded down with Roland and his guide for 1 km or so before moving ahead on my own. The final 3km had me slip-slidding occasionally as I was trying to move faster. Everytime my quads ached, my legs would soften, and I would mis-step and slip. After 6 hours since I started, I finally arrived back to the stairs up to Timpohon Gate…and up there were Yusof, Hamidah, Carmen, Lingam and Sabrina. It was as if I have arrived at Heaven’s Gate…hahaha… they had excited faces, and told me I had 4km more to go….wahhh.dang, there was still the final 4km of rolling downhill road to go…and with the state of my quads, I knew it was going to be bad. I gritted my teeth, tucked my haversack tightly and proceeded to finish the final 4km. I was running at more than 6min/km pace by then. Along the way, many vehicles tooted their horns, people waved and showed thumbs-up at me…hmm, they must be thinking I was the leader in some race and that I was reaching the end point. They were giving me all the encouragement. I waved back and picked up speed at the same time. That 4km seemed like eternity, and for a moment, I was in some kind of stupor. I just ran and ran, and finally I spotted a building and a few coaches. Yah…that’s the end point. I picked up pace a little, spotted Hamidah and Sabrina, and crossed the finish in 6hr30min. Wow…Relief for me. I had no more water by then, and fortunately Sabrina had a whole bottle…thanks so much. Soon, Timothy and Yulan came racing back, followed by Henry. Kudos to them as they went all the way to the Summit and back, all within 7hours. Roland, David and Hee Shen too finished in fine form. We were all so glad it was over, as we walked like ‘crabs’ to the nearby hotel for buffet lunch. All of us felt so hungry from the tough workout. Henry, Tim and Yulan will get certificates for having summit-ed. DO, Hee Shen and me could have gotten certs for reaching Sayat Sayat too, if we wanted to have the guide certify for us..hehe. It was later that I realized that I had sun burns over my neck and body...the sun was really HOT up at Sayat Sayat, just that it was masked by the very cool winds.

Day 4: Post Recce Training & Back To Singapore

We had a whole afternoon of rest. My room’s water heater finally ran out of gas, and we took very cold baths to relief our aching muscles.heh. DO and I spent most of the day doing our little experience sharing and post-mortem. We had a very sumptious dinner with lots of dishes. A post-training briefing was given by Hamidah and Yusoff, who expressed satisfaction with the team’s performance and dedication to the tough training. It was recognized that Yulan had the best chance of making the final cut, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the elite Sky Runners. We will do our best individually, and at the same time, help to support and help the team. The team spirit was getting stronger, and all wore weary but satisfied looks on their faces. We would be back at the end of September for the actual Climbathon Race, and we would be meeting many international Sky Runners and Adventure Racers then....will be an interesting sight to behold.

We got up bright and early the next morning for a incident-free flight back to Singapore. I was warmly welcomed by Beverly and the kids, and we had nice Swensen’s ice-cream afterwards..hahaha. It was like a ‘camp’ for me the past few days…just training and climbing and descending and more training…I didn’t spend a single ringgit while I was at Kota Kinabalu….hahaha. From the point of preparing for the Climbathon race, It was indeed a very fruitful and enriching trip for me. I learnt a lot about doing such mountain expeditions, and also to some extent whether my body can be acclimatized to such kind of environments. During the course of the 2 days of training, I did not suffer from the effects of cold, thin air nor Acute Mountain Sickness…it probably stemmed from the fact that we did not stay for too long high up on the mountain. I found out that it was a totally different matter and difficulty from trekking and racing Mt. Kinabalu…and after this round of recce, I have good reason to believe that the Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon is indeed the Toughest Mountain Race On Earth. My quads really ache badly now, and I think it will be at least 2 days later before I can begin to do my first recovery run.


For a good Post Mortem of the Route and more scenic photos, GO HERE!

Some news of the Climbathon Team's Progress


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3 Comments:

At 1:06 PM, Blogger weishan said...

wow! sounds grueling! glad u had fun there too. i am sure u will make the cut come September.. :)

 
At 3:58 PM, Blogger Teelee said...

Wow,,, the place seems really nice and great. Hope to be able to make it there someday .
Rest Well.

 
At 5:34 PM, Blogger The Dream Runner said...

Divey, teelee... the place is indeed scenic.. one day we can go together and do a leisurely climb to soak in the sights yah? :))

 

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