Thursday, January 07, 2016

AsiaTrip: Alternate Climb Path

I found the original text I wrote on the night train from Kuala-Lumpur to Penang. It describes the same thing as the previous post, but I can see no reason not to post it. The second part of it forms the start of the next chapter, but that's it for the reserves - everything from then on is recollected a year or more later.

I wake up at ungodly o'clock, surprisingly upbeat and full of nervous energy. I consider what to bring up to the mountain, and leave my large suitcase at the hotel before checking out - I will be back after a day and a night and a day. I've filled my fancy aluminium canteen with a liter of boiled water, and I also have a couple of boxes of Pocky from the nearest 7-Eleven in my backpack. No breakfast is available (at this hour or at all), and all I have eaten so far in Kota Kinabalu is the disturbing dessert. The last decent meal I had was on the plane. The last decent night's sleep I had was in Tartu.

I'm the last person on the minivan. Besides me, there is a young guy from some other part of South-East Asia, and a big bald American guy, from Hawaii as it turns out, with his Asian-American wife. They are doing not just the summit, but also the Via Ferrata on the way back - something I initially wanted to do, but reconsidered (wisely).

The road out into the countryside reminds me of Brazil, perhaps unsurprisingly - lush jungle, fringed with intermittent industrial sites and Catholic retreats. The extent of human habitation should not be surprising, but somehow is, to a European. Yes, people live on Borneo, and yes, all of them have a Samsung Galaxy.

At base camp, I am introduced to my guide, Byron (named after the poet - I asked). I see people carrying trekking poles, and wonder if I should get one, but decide against it. This will ultimately prove to be a bad decision. We get back on the bus, and it drops us off at the trailhead of Timphon Gate. There are four other climbers in our group, but as I have booked alone and paid for a separate guide, I suggest to him that we strike out ahead. I go first, at the pace that seems good to me; Byron is spotting me from the back. I feel a little bit of social awkwardness - were I alone, I'd just put in my headphones and listen to podcasts or an audiobook. I am absolutely certain Byron would not have been offended, but I still don't do it, electing to take in the high jungle of Borneo with all of my senses.

I love trekking because it offers me a means of introspection, a backdrop of physical effort that I can modulate to my own perceived stamina while meditating - a sort of living REM sleep. I also love verticality as only a person from a very flat country can. On a normal occasion, I could think of nothing more pleasant than a four-hour ramble along a verdant mountainside. So understand when I tell you: the Mount Kinabalu summit trail is many things, but it is not pleasant.

Indeed, it is open to the general public, and can be completed by anyone of reasonable physical fitness levels, without recourse to specialist climbing equipment or technique (other than gloves, a headlamp, and decent footwear). But all the reviews will tell you: it is tough. All of the marketing focuses on the achievement, not the enchantment. You start with a six-kilometer hike, during which you go from 1866 meters above sea level - already higher than most amateur trails in Europe - to something like 3200 meters. That is a gain of 1,4 kilometers, or around a 1-in-4 average grade (gaining 1 kilometer in height per 4 kilometers walked). Furthermore, half of that elevation comes in the last third of the trail. I had a tracker running on my phone for parts of the climb, and the maximum grade it recorded was 47%. To put that in context: there is a gorge next to the Highway Museum in southern Estonia, where road signs tell you in no uncertain terms to slow the hell down to 30km/h and drive extremely carefully. That is for a grade of, if I remember correctly, something like 13%.

I was doing fine for the first four kilometers - feeling the strain, but also feeling like I was within my stamina limits. I could do this. It would be tough, but I would feel better for having done it. At the four-kilometer mark came the lunch stop: at a roadside shelter, I ate the packed lunch provided by the tour operator - a few triangles of ham and cheese on plain white bread, and an apple: intentionally bland enough not to upset any guest's sensibility or stomach. While I ate, me and a couple other climbers - another big American with an Asian girlfriend, oddly enough - chatted with, or rather were aggressively chatted at, a jolly old Englishman in a woolen sweater and a Holland beanie, who volunteered various details about his life, such as having gone to prison for crashing a car after doing coke, and emotionally supporting a Mexican friend who was obssessed with getting back his wife who'd divorced him years before. ("He slept with one of the nurses, and told his wife." - "Well, there's his mistake," I quip back. "He should have slept with his wife, and told one of the nurses.")

After the lunch stop at the four-kilometer mark, though, the trail got significantly steeper. I kept climbing out of sheer stubbornness and resolve. By the five-kilometer mark, I had broken down, physically and mentally. It was only the innate composure and ability to suppress emotion that is the birthright of a North European that prevented me from weeping openly. The guides warned us to take rest breaks, but not to make them long - it would be difficult to start again. Several times, I simply stopped on the trail, unsure of whether I could start again - but I knew that there was no cable car with which to take a short-cut. A big part of why I travel is to put myself not just out of my comfort zone, but into a situation where I have to push myself, because there is simply no other recourse available. This was perhaps the greatest of these moments.

My guide saw that I was struggling, but of course, there was nothing he could do but encourage me. He did not know what I eventually realized - that I was doing this climb on a lack of sleep, and most probably a serious deficit of blood sugar. Looking up at the trail that was shooting ever higher above me, I sat on a rock, and closed my eyes, thinking of nothing and feeling nothing but the sun on my face.

Then I wolfed down a whole box of Pocky in one go.

The Laban Rata mountain refuge was just behind the next crest. I climbed breathlessly onto the volleyball-like pitch beneath the hostel building, as Byron high-fived me. I felt relieved, but only for a moment: this was the six-kilometer mark, and the stop for the day. I still had another three klicks, and eight hundred vertical meters, to go until Low's Peak - and I would have to do that at night.


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