Saturday, April 23, 2016

AsiaTrip: Low's Peak

I'd arrived at Laban Rata after one o'clock, having done the climb in a little over four hours. Dinner would not be served for another three, and a clique of anglophones quickly formed at the tables. This is the social spirit of backpacking at its best: it happens not on the Thai beaches of a full moon party, and not at an Amsterdam coffee shop, but at a place like Laban Rata, or like Lencois, the base camp at the Brazilian national park of Chapada Diamantina. It is built on sincerity stemming from exhaustion, and a default respect awarded to everyone who is present at the table: none of us have gotten here other than through the crucible. Be it the greying Austrian who left his wife and kids at the seaside resort to come on an impromptu trek and was the first one up the mountain, or the two English conservation students who'd been traveling around Malaysia on a sort of extra-credit holiday, or the two blonde Danish girls just out of high school, or the horribly sunburnt American who turned out to be in possession of Estonian roots and a very Estonian name - about as Estonian as could survive for a second-generation Floridian whose father had been born in a German displaced-persons camp.

Over the next few hours, the conversation had gone through every plausible topic, from Eurovision (explaining it to the American) to how Europeans are not *really* racist towards visible-minority immigrants at home (I smile and nod, and wonder to myself if this topic could have been discussed as earnestly if there had been a non-
white European within earshot; and no, Asians don't count). The night ends in a round of six-euro beers. The Austrian and the American stay up to drink, but I stumble down to my dorm hut for some rest - my alarm is set for 1.30 am, and an hour after that, I start climbing.

The blackout is soon interrupted: a few Malaysian climbers stumble in, and say that a bunch of people are still on the trail, and terribly late. These guys are part of a group of 37 people from a Kota Kinabalu college, who chose to take the Mesilau Gate path - which is 2km longer and tougher than the Timpohon Gate one. They'd started around 9am, like everyone else, but through some combination of inferior guides, a lack of preparation, or whatever else, the first people in the party did not get to Laban Rata until well after sunset, around 9pm - which is to say, they'd been climbing in the dark. A lot of people from their group were still down there.

I ask the guy if he's doing the summit climb tomorrow, and his answer amounts to a resolute "hell no" - which, in the circumstances, is perfectly fair. So I borrow his headlamp - I was going to rent one from the hostel, but he won't be needing his until I get back down in the morning...


I wake up in the dark, and and decide the bush shower is not worth attempting. Maybe the people in the main building have hot water, but the outhouse next to my hut sure doesn't. I stuff my feet into my long-suffering ankle-high orange Timberlands and go up to the hostel for breakfast, wearing more-or-less everything I brought - which amounts to a black fleece with my employer's logo (mercifully discretely) sewn on it, the thin synthetic cargo pants I bought in a mall in Salvador da Bahia because it was literally cheaper than doing laundry, my Australian kangaroo-hide drover's hat, and my climbing gloves - which are actually cheap ten-euro fingerless leather gloves I got from my moto shop back at home: they are meant for cruiser riders, entirely useless as riding protection, but have decent padding on the inside of the palm.

Byron comes to collect me, dressed like a polar explorer. Departures are staggered by handicap: my guide gets me out early, probably because he is not too sure about my climbing speed. I wave to the breakfast crowd - see you on the trail! The Austrian is there with the others, but his guide told him he might as well sleep in.

The start of the final leg is even more crowded than the base of the mountain yesterday, but it quickly thins out as the Japanese school groups fall behind. My borrowed headlamp's strap is useless, it keeps coming off; I fiddle a bit, and find that I can actually attach the lamp itself to the horizontal chest strap on my backpack. Much better!

We proceed up a very long set of steps, a wooden staircase attached to the side of the mountain roughly as far as the treeline goes, and then bunch up again slightly at a chokepoint: a thick rope, like a ship's mooring cable, shines white against the grey rock face. We are well above the tree line now, and there is obviously nothing natural to grab onto. I shrug inwardly, and follow the procession of climbers. Later that morning, while coming back down, I will be astounded by how different it looks: in the daytime I would be incredibly intimidated by this section, and would be quite reluctant to attempt it uphill. But in the dark, there is no context and no alternative: I must simply trust that if everyone else is doing it, I can and must as well. So I grab onto the rope and scramble up the broken rock face.

Half way up the summit trail is a checkpoint, where a park employee reviews our passes and makes a note of our passage - I assume it is mostly to know who to look for in the event of a disaster, rather than weeding out those who did not pay the climbing fee, because the shack is surely not that difficult to avoid for a genuinely motivated scoundrel. After we get through, Byron calls for a rest break: this is how he measures progress, time until sunrise against distance left to cover. I sit on the rocks and take photos of the distant lights - Kinabalu City? Some other conurbation? It feels about as far as the view out of an airplane window at cruising altitude, though I know we are still below four thousand meters. I wave to the British girls as they pass by.

Beyond the checkpoint there isn't really a trail, just a general direction along a broad barren incline. In the darkness, I lose Byron, but it makes no real difference: I'm not feeling very chatty, and the faint points of headlamp light ahead show me where I must go. I follow the incline, at first straight up, then start zig-zagging to trade total distance for grade. The climb is cold, lonely, and seemingly interminable, but I know how long I've been up here and how long I have until sunrise. Yesterday was worse.

Beyond the crest of the tilted plateau lies the last stage of the climb: a boulder-crawl up to Low's Peak itself. Now that the end in sight, I am motivated, and progressing with three points of contact at all times is actually less strenuous than walking uphill. Before very long, I make it all the way up.

Time to have my picture taken next to the sign. Low's Peak, four thousand and ninety-five meters above sea level; achieved without any specialist climbing equipment other than biker's gloves and mall-common Timberlands, by a fat bastard who's not seen the inside of a gym in years. Never mind that this is the terminus of a well-trodden gringo trail; it's a goddamn accomplishment, and I'm proud!

It's at least an hour until sunrise. That was the entire point of the exercise: sunrise at Low's Peak. The whole procession is structured around this, designed to give us this singular experience, because in all honesty, there are not that many other experiences to be had up here. Borneo is a tropical jungle, so much of the Timpohon Gate trail is covered in vegetation anyway; and when you do get a window out onto the expanse, it's nothing but a sea of green. Kinabalu stands proud and alone. There is neither the civilizational sprawl of Rio or Naples, nor the volcanic spectacle of Japan, nor the stark visual overload of Finnmark. And as the temperature rises throughout the day, so does the mist; the point of sunrise on the summit is that if you arrive late, you see nothing but the wooden plank affixed into the rock.

That gringo terminus feeling is predominant. Low's Peak is literally that - a pencil-point sticking out of a wider mountaintop. No convenient shelter is available. The windchill is a major factor, so as the extended line of tourist climbers bunches up again at their destination, the place resembles nothing so much as a group of ants clinging to each other at the tip of a toothpick: every single patch of less-than-vertical surface on the leeward side is taken up by a miserable European, shivering and washing down their energy bars with cold water. Everyone is exhausted, everyone is sleep-deprived, but closing your eyes on this precarious encampment is out of the question. Besides, there's always some Taiwanese or Israeli girl climbing over you to get to a point of illusory comfort beyond the next rock.


Dawn comes and we stare at the sun, appearing out of the haze. The Benetton cluster turns towards the light, snaps one last selfie and begins to disassemble. Byron - now looking like an Arctic explorer in the full gear he'd hauled up just to wait out the predawn chill - finds me and urges me to start heading back. Fair enough, there's not much more to see here.

This really is the highlight of the climb - not the way up, not the sunset at Laban Rata, and not the appearance of the sun, but the magic first hour of crisp fresh light above the cloud cover. After a rope-aided descent from Low's Peak itself, where I feel I am getting somewhat good at this boulder-crawling thing, we have a long walk down the barren incline. This is where I take my best photos, of other distant peaks silhouetted against the deep blue of altitude. A bunch of guides are sitting at an enclosure of piled-up rocks, waiting for their respective gringos to get down. I'm feeling good now, going down is less strenuous than going up, and Byron tells me stories. On the approach towards the now-irrelevant checkpoint, he mentions how a few months ago, a Frenchman lost his footing and tumbled down the rocky plateau. Luckily for him, this is one of the two points on the trail - the other being Laban Rata itself - where a helicopter medevac is possible; so he got a quick ride down, not that he enjoyed it.

A few months after my trip, a major earthquake near Mount Kinabalu resulted in the deaths of several guides and tourist climbers who were on the Via Ferrata - an additional post-peak activity that I had intended to do, but decided to skip after all. They were climbing along special equipment affixed to a vertical mountainface, which was dislodged in the quake. Nobody on the Via Ferrata survived, but as far as I know, nobody else on the busy mountain at the time was killed. This is a testament to the professionalism and care of the local guides and emergency services. In addition, the earthquake resulted in the destruction of a few of the freestanding mountaintop formations - some of the peaks in my pictures are no longer there.
After the rope section, which now becomes a brief unsecured absail, we dive back into the treeline. The stairs are definitely taking a toll on my knees, but I encourage myself with the prospect of breakfast and a nice sit-down at the hostel. I don't get much rest, though - I'm barely done with the hearty but uninspiring food before Byron drives me on.

As we leave the compound, I go through my pockets and show him the thing I bought specifically for this part of the trip, but that I did not end up needing: a bottle of high-strength insect repellent, the sort of stuff that is almost entirely poison. I brought some this time because I remembered not having it in Brazil - assuming I would be able to get it anywhere in-country; turned out it's really uncommon there. I'd ended up buying some regular beach-type stuff before going to the Amazon, and hardly needed it at all: my hostel on the acidic arm of the river was almost entirely devoid of mosquitoes in late February. So it is with Borneo, as between the dry season and the altitude, the insect life has been entirely unobtrusive. I toss the bottle to Byron and tell him to keep it, but not put it on synthetic clothing, because it will eat right through the fibers. The Malaysian seems fascinated and slightly frightened by the implication of a culture and climate that required the manufacture of such precautions on an industrial scale.

Ironically, because I set foot in Borneo, I was blocked from giving blood for a year. The rest of the trip - Thailand, Laos, Western China, Taiwan - was of no concern to the epidemiological authorities, and neither was the main body of Malaysia. Better safe than sorry, I guess.

As we descend, I begin to understand why the way down is scheduled to take as long as the way up, if not more. I missed a walking stick while climbing the mountain, but I am really missing it now. The summit trail is not steep enough to keep three points of contact with the ground or vegetation, but it is definitely too steep to be a taken at a brisk trot, as I would do with a downhill trail at home or in Europe. It is a series of large natural steps, and I have to jump down each one; I try to set a good pace at the outset, but the constant impact has a jarring effect on my knees. I may not have too much regard for my physical shape, but I did sort of expect the way down to be something of a walk in the (national) park. It is anything but. I know not to push too hard, as it is much easier to be injured in a fall on the downslope than on the climb, so as we keep going, I take increasingly frequent rest breaks. Mentally, this is easier than yesterday because I have my headphones on.

We meet the day's new shift of tourists going up, along with the cargo-carrying locals. Whenever I stop to rest, Byron is off to have a conversation - I'm sure that in his mind, he's already down the mountain and partying in town with his friends. At the halfway mark he goes off to the guides' hut to have his instant noodles, while I talk to a group of Westerners on their way up, and finish the last of my Pocky.

We dip down further into the treeline; the descent smooths out eventually; and I find myself facing a small but visible rise. It may be slightly daunting, but it's actually the end of the line; Timpohon Gate, the place where we started. We check out of the park, and Byron finds a little shuttle just about to leave for base camp. Once there, I say goodbye - he's eager to be off. The descent only took about four hours, which is a respectable pace.

I buy a polo shirt with the Mount Kinabalu logo and go down to a restaurant - this lunch buffet was part of my package trip. The food is not bad, but I'm far too gone to eat anything substantial. I get back to the parking lot and find the bus back to Kinabalu City. It is an astoundingly comfortable coach - it doesn't have the in-seat entertainment of Europe's nicer intercity lines, but the interior is ostentatiously appointed, and my deeply reclining seat affords me all the legroom I could want. If this is the standard of coach travel in South-East Asia, maybe my overnight trip from Laos to China won't be so bad!

I make an honest effort to enjoy the view from the panoramic window, but I zone out before the bus even begins to move, and spend most of the way to Kinabalu City unconscious. Back at my hotel, in a different room but reunited with my baggage, it is as much as I can do to take a brief shower and fall into bed. It's 5pm. I wanted to see some more of the city. I never did.

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