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Mt Kinabalu, Borneo Run Up
Article by: John LindsayReproduced with permission of the author
"The hardest thing I've ever done ... harder than all my marathons, harder than Six Foot, harder than Comrades, harder even than the 100 km Adelaide Trailwalker."
That's how I described my experience last week on Borneo's Mt Kinabalu, S.E. Asia's highest mountain at 13,455 feet (4094 m). And the verdict still stands, and at 10 hours to cover 17.4 kms, there's ample justification for this opinion.
Mt Kinabalu was the venue for the 1999 World Mountain Running Championship, and every year a high quality International Climbathon race is run on it's walking track (http://www.jaring.my/sabah/mkic.htm). Tis mountain dominates the landscape for 100 kms around its base, and exerts a magnetic attraction which compels you to look at it.
I was at a resort in Borneo with 165 other people as part of a sales incentive trip for our dealers and employees (I work for a tractor company), and I took advantage of the one free day we had to try and replicate the Climbathon as far as possible. I was accompanied by two others from the group - Ben and Ashley. Ben was a young bloke of around 25 who had done some mountain climbing in the Grampians and at Mt Arapiles in Victoria. Ashley was a 35 year old 6 time Melbourne Marathonner (sub 3 hours), who also had completed the Murray River Canoe Marathon, and was a state level squash player. And I'm 52, a back of the pack runner who for reasons not yet fully comprehended, likes to accomplish running activities most 'normal' people think are not possible.
We rented a car and left at 5.30 in the morning for a 2 hour drive up to Mt Kinabalu Park HQ which sits at 5200 feet (1554 m) above sea level. We met up with our mandatory guide, a 22 year old called William who had made 300 plus ascents of the mountain from when he was six. We drove 4.5 kms to the start at 6200 feet (1890 m) - if the conversion to metric are not perfect, it's due to discrepancies on the various maps and literature we've picked up.
The track runs down hill for a bit, which is not great as it only means you have to come up again. And come up we did ... on stairs ... big buggers up to knee high ... thousands of them ... most of the way in fact between the start at 6200 feet and the Laban Rata rest house at 11,000 feet (3353 m). The steps are made from tree roots, planks and in places cut into the rock. The mountain up to about 9,000 feet is shrouded in mist much of the time, so the surface is wet and at times slippery.
The highest I've ever run is Mt Bogong which is approximately the height of the starting point for Kinabalu. I've read a lot on the web about altitude sickness, but there is little you can do to prepare for this in Australia, as our highest mountain is half the height of Mt Kinabalu.
I estimated a 7 hour round trip, based on my normal practice of doubling the record time for an event to get my time, and then adding some extra for lack of altitude acclimatisation (a guess of course). The record for the 21 km Climbathon (8.7 km up and down, with an additional 4.5 km on the road at the end) is 2 hrs 45 mins set by UK runner Ian Holmes. So 7 hours seemed to me to be conservative ... I was to find out later that the effects of altitude were much greater than I had anticipated.
About 30,000 walkers a year make the journey to the summit. Typically they will stay overnight at the Park HQ, then walk up to 11,000 ft and stay overnight in huts at a Laban Rata rest house for further altitude acclimatisation. Then at 3.00 am on the third day they set out with flash lights to reach the summit by 6.00 am for sunrise.
Along the way there are 7 shelters where people could rest. Near the 2nd shelter, we caught up with a couple of the local women who carry huge loads averaging 80 pounds (about 35 kgs) with slings on their back and over their foreheads. These women make the journey every day for a pittance in money, so that the rest house has supplies for the climbers. They do not stop, they do not eat, and they seldom drink on the way. They just keep up a relentless steady pace while we bust our boilers passing them only to have them catch us at the next shelter. We eventually did pull away from them.
As you'd expect, I started full of energy, running the less steep sections, but that stopped pretty soon. By about 8,000 ft there was no more running, and by 10,000 ft I was stopping every 50 metres with my pulse flat out pounding in my head. I stopped at the 11,000 ft rest house for a cup of tea and something to eat. Ben arrived at the rest house a few minutes ahead of me, with Ashley coming in about 10 minutes later suffering badly from altitude induced nausea and dizziness.
After a half hour or so break, we started out again. Ben took off with a request from me that he wait at the top so we could take some pictures. Ashley took about 10 steps and sunk to his knees as the altitude sickness got a real grip on him. He subsequently made his way slowly down the mountain on his own, with the guide accompanying me and Ben who was widening the gap between us.
The section after the rest house is very hard. It rises about 1000 feet (300 m) in about 700 metres of travel, with much of it up fixed ladder-type steps which at times are at an angle of 60-70 degrees from horizontal. Just under 12,000 feet (around 3600 m), you leave the trees behind and the rest is across granite rock face. They have laid a 1 inch rope from this point to the top, which serves several purposes. In some cases it is needed to pull yourself up on steeper sections, but it's main purpose is to show the way and to serve as a marker in thick cloud. It also provides a sense of security when you realise you are traversing a couple of kms of sloping rock face with nothing between the top and the trees at 12,000 feet.
By this time, I had really started to get into trouble. I could not walk a straight line due to disorientation, and the control and power in my legs had deserted me. I was stopping about every 20 paces with my pulse audibly banging in my head at about 180+ beats per minute. I was starting to get concerned because this was a new experience and it was not a good one to have on top of a mountain devoid of trees or other objects to stop you if you fell.
Low's Peak, the highest point, rises sharply for the last several hundred feet from the summit plateau, and this proved quite a challenge with my wobbly legs and no air, despite the rope. By the time I reached this section, the rain had started and the temperature dropped to around 4 degrees Celsius so I put on my hooded jacket and gloves.
Eventually 6 hrs and 20 mins after starting I reached the top to find Ben. The top has a sign and can hold about 12 people at a push. The other side to which you climb has a sharp drop of 1800 metres (that's right, 1800 metres which is around 6,000 feet) into Low's Gully where 10 British soldiers got lost for 3 weeks in 1994 on a training exercise. Unfortunately, the cloud obscured my view of this, but I was glad they had erected a wire fence over this section.
We took our photos and I waited 10 minutes to see if my head would clear, and when it didn't we started down, Ben leading the way. I sure was glad for the rope which I held onto and allowed to slide through my hands as if I was abseiling. I have always been a stronger runner down-hill than uphill, so I started running to keep up with my guide who was doing a kind of walking shuffle ahead of me. Normally on rough ground down hill, my feet seem to automatically find the exact spot to land without me thinking about it. But I was having great difficulty making this happen at 13,000 feet.
I became aware after a while that I was running faster than was safe, and I attempted to slow the pace. However, my quads were shot and did not respond to my command. I saw a big rock coming up, and decided to land on it, as that would normally slow my descent. However in this case, my leg folded under me, and before I knew it I was tumbling down the mountain side with 1.5 kms of bare rock between me and the trees.
My guide heard me yelling and swearing, and he lunged towards me, catching me half way through what I reckon was my 2nd full 360 degree roll. He was only a little bloke so we both ended up on the ground, eventually grinding to a halt. I had heard rather than felt my head crack on the granite, and was aware that I'd taken a hiding over many parts of the body, so I lay there for a while testing different limbs to see what worked.
My gloves were shredded but had saved my hands except for one deep gouge in the palm. My $200 Macpac Activent jacket was remarkable in not tearing much, but I still received abrasions through it in many places, destroying my Capeline shirt underneath in the process. My legs were bare and I was bruised and lacerated down a large area of one thigh, and my backside had been clobbered. Surprisingly my head only got a couple of scratches, and I ended up with a sprained finger.
I tried to stand up and immediately fell down again. So I waited a few minutes and tried again, this time with success. Then with the help of my guide pointing out where I should place my feet as my judgement was clearly suspect by now, I commenced the slow trek down to the rest house at 11,000 feet.
My guide suggested I stay up on the mountain overnight and go down in the morning, however that would not work as I had the keys to the hire car and the others by this time were on their way down to the bottom. I also had to take a plane load of people to the Sandakan Orang Utan reserve on the other side of Borneo at 5.30 am the next morning, so I really had to get down the mountain that day. So I had another cup of tea and slowly started the trip down.
I allowed my wounds to bleed with the idea that it was best for the blood to cake over them and seal them off until I could attend to them properly back in my hotel. This caused quite a few stares (and possibly some scares as well) among the walkers still making the trek to the top as I went down.
By the time I reached 3,000 metres I was starting to come good, and this accelerated so that by the time I reached the bottom I was pretty much back to normal, even though I didn't look it.
We arrived back at the hotel around 9 pm, and fortunately I was able to clean myself up before too many people saw me. Having said that, the brown antiseptic I used and the bandaids were clearly visible, and if the truth be known, probably added to my hero status in the group the next day, something which was a bit unfair to the others.
2ND CLIMB - THIS TIME WITH MY WIFE
It had always been our plan that I would do the run (I still call it a run even though very little running was done by me) in one day, and I'd do it again to accompany my wife Olga up the mountain over 3 days, once my official work duties were over. So on Saturday we rented a car and drove up to the Park HQ to stay over night in what was billed as deluxe accommodation, but in reality was a dump.
I had done some running down Mt St Leonards in the weeks prior to going to Borneo, and as a result of this, despite the thousands of steps on Mt Kinabalu, my legs were in good shape for the start on Sunday morning. Our guide this time was called Moiden, a short solid fellow who worked as a guide 4 days a week and was a rice farmer for the rest.
I must explain here that my wife Olga suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - has done for over 20 years. With no cure in sight, about 15 years ago she made the decision to live life to the fullest possible despite this handicap, and has since completed 13 marathons in an average time of around 7.5 hours. She has also done the 46.6 km Six Foot (for most people equal to about 1.5 road marathons), and this took her 18 hours and 10 minutes to complete due to the difficulty of the terrain and weather. So for her, Mt Kinabalu was another "mountain to climb", if you'll excuse the pun.
After what I had experienced earlier in the week, I did not expect her to have a snowball's chance in hell of reaching even the rest house at 11,000 feet. However, with lots of guts and determination she did, and in better time (6 hrs 45 mins) than I had anticipated.
The stay at the rest house was 'different', with four people to a room. We shared to with a French woman and her 17 years old half Malaysian son, and spent most of the night on edge trying to keep quiet so that we didn't keep them awake. They were probably doing the same. Not that we could sleep much anyway. Increased urination is one of the effects of altitude, and we and everyone else kept getting up to go to the toilet down the corridor. It seemed that every door on every room creaked when it was opened, and this went on all night until 1.45 am when we decided to call it quits and get up.
So at 3.00 am, together with our guide, we joined the tail end of the line of 80 climbers setting off with flashlights for the summit. We were unsure just how far Olga would get, but having come this far, despite nausea, headache and other symptoms of altitude sickness, she had to give it a go. It was very slow and hard work for her. It took 2 hours to cover 700 metres with 250-300 metres of elevation increase. Then came to the rope section. She took a hold of the rope and tried to pull herself up. Very slowly she made her way a distance of 4 metres, and then had nothing left in her arms. So at 11,900 ft and with another two kms to go, all across rock, she made the decision for safety reasons not to proceed to the top.
I must admit to being a bit of a mountain freak. I could sit and look at Mt Bogong, Feathertop and the Main Range at Kosciusko all day and not tire of it. But nothing I have ever seen, in photos or in real life, comes close to the overwhelming sense of awe which you experience when you reach the rest house at 11,000 feet and see the multiple peaks and massive cliffs of sheer rock towering above you. Words and pictures do not do it justice. It is easy to understand why the local Dusan people feel a spiritual affinity with the mountain, and they feel an obligation to climb it at least once in their life time.
As for Olga, although yet hardly able to walk due to sore legs and fatigue, she's playing with the idea of returning to the mountain. She's "looked the beast in the eye" and there's unfinished business there. It's too early to make any decisions on this, but clearly a program to increase upper body strength would be required to overcome the problem at the ropes. These things have a way of making their own decisions, so we'll just let time take care of this for now.
If any of you ever get the chance to go to Malaysian Borneo, make sure you include Mt Kinabalu in your plans. The following website contain some pics, none of which really capture the magnificence of the place.
PS. I found this information relating to altitude on the web.
How to Acclimatize to High Altitudes
Altitude sickness, or "mountain sickness," can occur when people are unused to high altitudes. Adjusting to decreased oxygen and lower atmospheric pressure may take up to four days. Here's how to make it easier.
John has also written the following articles that are published on CoolRunning Australia :
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