Letters to the Editor
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"Mount Kinabalu: 9.8.99"
Im a patriot. When National Day comes around, I leave the country, but this year it was with the intention to fly our National Flag on a mountain.
Mt Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. Situated in the Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, Borneo, and the first visible landmark from the sea, the mountain top has three peaks, viz South Peak, St Johns and Lows Peak, the last of which is the highest, at 4101 m/13455 ft. Recent satellite measurements have placed Lows Peak at 4095.2 m less to climb maybe, but small comfort.
Legend has it that the mountain is the sacred home-land of the spirits, and the local Dusun tribesmen still perform daily rituals at dawn, by sacrificing a white fowl. The name is also a corruption of "China Balu" the "Chinese Widow", who disappeared on the mountain top which she scaled to have a last look at her husbands departing fleet. That rascal had stolen the Nagas jewel when the dragon was asleep, and was hurrying off with his treasure back to China.
My wife has climbed Mt Kinabalu some 40 years ago. In those days, there were no proper trails, and no bus to take you to the present starting point at the Power Station, 6,000 feet up. They had to start from the coast and the return journey took 13 days. Whenever I spoke to my wife about the mountains I have climbed, she would point to the two black-and-white photographs of Mt Kinabalu that were hanging on our verandah. So, it was inevitable that I had to get there too.
My interest in mountain trekking began when a colleague, Dr Mah Guan Kong, came into my consultation room with a corneal abrasion. He had just come down from Gunung Tahan. I told him about my yearly pilgrimages to Mt Ophir. Dr Mah replied casually:
"You should give Tahan a try." Which I did, in 1992, and it was tough. The return trip from the base camp took 8 days, during which we carried essential items on back-packs.
An opportunity to climb Kinabalu came about this year when William SAYETING Cheng, a hash buddy, who had climbed the mountain before, organised a party of 6, through a local travel agent, to take advantage of the National Day long weekend holidays, and I was invited.
To avoid mountain sickness, which William had experienced before, we started on Diamox tablets before we left. Luck would also have it that we met David Lim, famed Everest team leader, on a training practice at Bukit Timah Hill, when David introduced to us his pair of telescopic climbing sticks with shock-absorbers that saved many a heavy jolt on our knees, especially when descending downhill.
We left Singapore on Saturday, 7 August, 1999 via the mid-day MAS domestic flight from Sinai airport in Johore, after getting there by shuttle coach from the Novotel Hotel in Singapore.
On arrival in Kota Kinabalu, we were received by the travel agent, and taken to the Kinabalu National Park HQ, for dinner and overnight stay.
The next morning, a small bus took us to the Power Station, 4.5 km up from the Park HQ, which is the end of the road, and 6,000 feet up. The climb started from the Power Station. The distance from here to the summit is 8.75 km. We started at 8.50 am, and reached the "base" camp, called the Laban Rata Resthouse, at 6 km, 11,800 feet up, after 6 hours, and rested overnight.
It was easy and picturesque. The trail started in an oak forest. After a few minutes, it dropped down to a small waterfall Carsons Fall. This was the only dip in the trail, from here it was uphill all the way. The trail was well-cut and for the most part, on steps. The first shelter Pondok Kandis (1095 m/6500 ft) was reached in 20 minutes. The second shelter Pondok Ubah (1981 m/6900 ft) was reached in another 15 minutes. The third shelter Pondok Lowi (2286 m/7500 ft) was in the mossy forest along the trail, about 30 minutes away from the last shelter. The trail went up past the Telekom Station on the left, and reached Pondok Mempening (2518 m/8300 ft) in about 45 minutes. The last trail following on now was steep, and after a further 30 minutes, Carsons Camp was reached. This was also the site of Loyang Loyang Staff Quarters (2621 m/ 8600 ft). At Carsons Camp, the "Nepenthes Villosa" zone started. This was an exotic and rare pitcher plant found only on Kinabalu. From Carsons Camp, it took us another 45 minutes to reach the next shelter at Pondok Villosa (2942 m/9600 ft). The last shelter at Pondok Paka (3052 m/10000 ft), was reached in another 30 minutes. After the last shelter, the vegetation noticeably thinned out. Views of the summit rocks were seen. It took us another hour to reach Punar Laban, where there were several huts, and where the Laban Rata Resthouse was located.
National Day, 9 August 1999
The climb to the summit was to start in the early morning, at 2.30 am, but it was raining, and the guide said there were problems with the slippery slopes. From here on, it was bare rock all the way, as the rest house was built at the top of the tree line.
Some other people did not start. We waited till 4.00 am when the drizzle was manageable, and started when it was still dark, with head-band torches, and a warm "down" jacket under a poncho raincoat. I carried the camera, as well as some water.
The climb was by natural steps on the rocky surface, as well as with ropes on some segments. This must be the worlds longest staircase. Up and on, one step at a time, and I made it from the 6 km mark to the 8 km mark, at the foot of the mountain, where the three peaks arose. The final ascent was by rope, in 2 segments, at 45 degrees, up a height of a 20-storey block.
I made it to the summit Lows Peak at 8.00 am. Another woman from our party, Alice Goh, also made it to the top at 7.45 am. We waited at the top, which had standing room for two persons, and sitting space for another two (Lows Gully drops vertically on the opposite side), for William and his wife and son, and Alices daughter to come up. Because it had rained earlier, it was not cold.
At 9.00 am, when the sun was getting hot, I decided to descend, and left the camera for Alice, as William was carrying the Singapore flag for hoisting at the peak. When I went down, our guide told me that the rest of our party had already turned around, and were making their descent. I called on Alice to "go on back", and she then descended.
We descended all the way back to the base camp rest house, where I had a quick shower and lunch, and then made our way down, all the way to the Power Station, where a bus took us back to the Park HQ. Here, we collected our "certificates". The guide was kind enough to give everyone a "Been to the Top" certificate, as long as they were on the mountain.
A pre-arranged bus took us back to Kota Kinabalu town, where we stayed at a hotel overnight, for the next mornings mid-day flight back to Sinai airport and back to Singapore.
It wasnt too difficult, but you will need some staircase climbing practice, and a strong motivation to get to the top. Given the conditions, some 40 years ago, when my wife made the climb, and she was the first Asian girl to have scaled the peak, I would imagine it must be tough, in those days. But, with todays well-developed back-up tourist facilities, its a breeze.
"Nada, nada, nada ..."
St John of the Cross, Christianitys most famous mountain climber, taught his disciples that the ascent consisted of six steps: "Nada, nada, nada" ... "nothing, nothing, nothing" - even on the mountain top, "nada" - not heavy, not light, not high, not low. Finally, I had my mountain. Kinabalu, mountain.
DR LIM KUANG HUI
Ophthalmologist in private practice