Everything I read about climbing Mount Kinabalu said it was hard. Really hard. Even the Book of Opinion (our Lonely Planet Guide Book) includes an amusing section about the pain, physical and emotional, you go through during the climb. But how about climbing Mount Kinabalu with kids?
The internet told me that people from the age of seven to eighty years have climbed it, but that it’s probably best to wait till the age of at least ten. And it’s expensive too. Really expensive. So we’d discounted it as an option. But I still had a niggling feeling in the back of my mind. My irrational fear of regretting not doing something and my dislike of missing out on things was quietly gnawing away in my brain. Surely we could do this. The kids trekked for eleven days in the Himalayas to get to Annurpurna Base Camp, and that was at 6000m. 4000m and only two days can’t be that hard, surely? And we are here. In Sabah. If we return in years to come, we’ll be diving Sipidan, not climbing mountains.
And then we started meeting people who had climbed it.
“It’s not that hard.”
“The kids will bounce up it.”
“Going up wasn’t too bad. Coming back down was definitely harder.”
“If we can do it, you can do it.”
And so here I am, sitting in my bed in a hotel in Kota Kinabalu, writing about climbing Mount Kinabalu with my kids.
I can barely walk. My calf muscles and quads seize up whenever I stop moving. I dread needing a wee because the toilet is just slightly too low for my legs to cope with. I’ve considered standing in the shower and weeing down my legs but I’d have to get into the bath and that’s just as bad.
I’ve cried twice today already. My shoulders ache and I have a bruised and grazed elbow which I keep accidentally leaning on to support myself so that I don’t have to use my legs. Sam, aged 10, has just dragged himself out of bed and hobbled towards the toilet, wincing. At least he doesn’t need to sit down to wee.
I’m pleased we did it though. Partly because I don’t feel I ever need to do it again.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu takes two days. Before the earthquake in June 2015, it was possible to climb it in a day, although why the hell you would want to do that is completely beyond me.
Day one is spent climbing uphill from Timpohon Gate, the entrance to the summit trail at 1866m above sea level, to Laban Rata Guest House at 3720m above sea level. This is only 6km in length, but ascends almost 1.5km. Day two starts at 2am.
Yes, that’s right. Two o’clock in the morning. In the dark.
The climb to the summit is only another 2.7km but takes you up almost another kilometre. And then you descend. All the way back down on the same day, with a brief pause for breakfast and bag packing. That’s almost 9km, descending 2220m.
And that’s the reason we can’t walk.
It’s a brutal hike.
We arrived at Kinabalu Park on the bus from Kinabantangan, a couple of days before our climb. The accommodation inside the National Park is wa-haay too expensive for us so we stayed at a backpacker lodge just across the road. A bit of altitude acclimatisation never hurt anyone. The rats in the walls of our bedroom and the ice cold, dribbling shared shower were more of an issue. Dez was struggling with a severe bout of Man-Flu and hadn’t slept well for several nights. We were all a bit apprehensive about climbing a mountain.
On the morning of our climb we picked up our two guides (yep, two guides for the four of us. Them’s the rules if you want to climb Mount Kinabalu with kids. Those expenses just keep adding up) and set off from Timpohon Gate on the summit trail. It was 7am and we were the first on the trail. The trail towards the top on Mount Kinabalu winds up and up, first on mud tracks and wooden steps and then on ever increasing boulders and gravel. We stopped at most of the seven rest shelters along the way, to drink water, eat snacks and give our overworked lungs a rest. It was hard going but fun.
The last kilometre was really tough and virus-infested Dez was becoming increasingly weak. I now had sweat running down my legs in an attractive fashion. Sam and Evan were running ahead like excited children (which they are). We were so relieved to see the Lodge. Phew! Just less than five hours walking uphill.
A sit down and a well deserved cup of tea later and we checked into our four bunk dorm room. Excellent! Job done for the day. The sun was shining. We drank more tea on the balcony, watching the clouds race across Mount Kinabalu, and even managed to partly dry out my sopping clothes ready for the next morning.
More and more climbers arrived, mostly Malaysian with a few foreigners. The buffet dinner was good and the atmosphere in the dining room was electric. Sam and Evan were minor celebrities with lots of people asking them how old they were. One chap wanted a photo with them and described them as “inspirational”.
Bedtime was 7.30pm. Alarms were set for 1.45am. We got dressed into our comedy leggings and curled up in our bunk beds, giggling a lot, and thinking “How the hell am I going to get to sleep at 7.30pm?”.
I think we probably got four hours sleep or so in the noisy Laban Rata hostel, more for the boys. Dez’s Man-flu was still refusing to leave. He had spent another night shivering and sweating at the same time, and was feeling sick and exhausted as we left our room at 2am. The dining room filled with porridge eating climbers dressed in woolly hats and head torches and then we were off, into the darkness to climb a mountain!
And climb we did. Up and up on stairs and trails through thick forest in the darkness. The going was thankfully very slow. Much of the trail is very narrow and many people were slower than us. Overtaking people in their 20s is fab while you still can. I certainly wasn’t going to be overtaking anyone on the way down. The sole fell off one of Evan’s expensive (ahem) shoes (about £2.50 from somewhere in Myanmar). Luckily there was another layer of rubber underneath the sole. Phew!
The terrain changed rapidly as the altitude increased. The trees thinned out and then disappeared. The rock turned to granite. Steps were replaced by ropes and we clambered over boulders and pulled ourselves up steep, slippery rock faces by the light of our torches. The wind increased until it hurt our faces. The temperature dropped rapidly. Windproof coats were fastened up to our chins, gloves were donned and the buffs keeping our necks warm were re-employed as balaclavas under our hats. We were thankful for the comedy leggings that we were wearing under our trousers.
The higher we climbed the colder and thinner the air became. We passed the 8km/3929m marker as the sky started to change colour behind the mountain to our right.
The boys were struggling. I was struggling. Dez was struggling more. But we pushed on, holding hands, over the bare rock towards the peaks appearing in the distance as the sun rose.
As we reached the top, just under Low’s Peak, we rounded a corner to see a fantastic sunrise. The sky was a bright red band of colour along the edge of the mountain, topped with fluffy clouds. Incredible colours! We stood and stared.
Now, normally I would have taken dozens of photographs of this amazing sight, but my ridiculous lack of circulation had got the better of me and I couldn’t move my fingers. In fact, they were so painful that I was close to tears. One of the guides asked if we were going to climb up the last few hundred metres to the top of Low’s Peak and I seriously considered staying where I was. But I could see it. It was just over there. How hard can it be? The boys found some of that extra energy that children store away for times such as these, and bounded up the huge boulders to the top. Dez and I dragged ourselves up, the guide telling us where to put each hand and foot. The view from the top was amazing and, in hindsight, sitting here at sea level, it was worth the effort.
We sat at the top for a while before starting the descent. The sky changed colour and the sun rose over the mountain. The mountain’s shadow covered the land below in a weird triangle. We managed to find a spot out of the wind and in the sun and started to thaw out a bit. Dez was feeling really ill now and looked close to tears. I didn’t know at the time that he was going dizzy and had tingling sensations in his arms and legs. The boys were busy being congratulated by other climbers who seemed amazed that nine and eleven year olds could climb to the summit of Mount Kinabalu.
The climb back down to the Lodge was much easier. It was light for a start, and warmer. We could see the amazing views over the tops off the clouds, and the majestic granite peaks to either side of us. We cold see the massive boulders that broke away from the mountain during the earthquake.
Back at the Lodge, Dez was distraught, sobbing and suffering with exhaustion. After more porridge and coffee, he felt a little better and was determined to get going on the long trudge down the mountain. We packed up and set off. It took five long hours to get back to Timpohon Gate.
The first couple of hours were quite funny. I lowered myself gingerly down each slippery boulder, always landing on my left foot, wishing I had a full complement of ligaments in my right knee. Our legs got wobblier and wobblier in a comedy fashion. On the few flat bits, we felt like drunk Thunderbirds puppets. Evan’s other shoe started flapping and the guide tied it up with his shoe lace. Dez got slower and slower. Sam stuck with us old people and Evan skipped off in front chatting with one of the guides about dishwashers, the English language and rock formations. By the end, I was hobbling along on painful legs with a blistered left foot and a grazed elbow. Dez was again reduced to tears and barely able to walk.
Yes. I am. I think.
Being at the top at sunrise was an unforgettable experience. Our kids are bloody amazing. I find their energy, resilience and courage astounding. I’m so proud of them.
They were the only people up there under the age of about twenty. A lots of the twenty year olds were struggling, but the kids just pushed on. So many people congratulated them at the summit of Mount Kinabalu. Some even wanted a photo with them.
We can look out of our hotel window today and see Mount Kinabalu in the distance, over 90km away. We climbed up to the top of that, with our kids. How cool is that?? . And we couldn’t NOT do it, could we??
I’ve just asked Dez if he regrets climbing to the top . He had been ill for days and had such a hard time. He refused to give in despite feeling sick on the second morning. I can see where the boys get their stamina from. To be honest, he probably shouldn’t have attempted the final ascent and stayed in the hostel instead. But who would do that after getting so close? Not me! His thoughts are here.