climb every mountain

Or in my case just the one mountain, Mount Kinabalu.

I’ve never been into walking or trekking for my own pleasure. I know a number of people whose entire annual holiday allocation is taken up by going on mountain hikes or countryside walks. For me, it just hasn’t been an activity that has interested me in the slightest. To be fair my holidays from work are usually taken up by watching England play test cricket around the four corners of the globe, so I wouldn’t have had the time in the past to go on a holiday based around long strolls up steep hills or big fields or even if I wanted to.

At the start of the trip in Thailand I wrote about my trek in the jungle that became slightly more adventurous than I hoped it would be. I also commented on the pretentious side of ‘trekking’ that I don’t like. You know, the kind of people that go on and on about how climbing a small hill in Wales or Scotland being a ‘great achievement’ and an ‘amazing experience’. They also tend to wear the latest hiking gear, modelling brand names as if they are being sponsored to climb Everest in record time while boasting of fitness preparations to match a fine tuned Olympian.

At one point on my Mount Kinabalu ascent I envisaged that this whole blog was going to be based around sticking two fingers up to all trekkers out there that claim mountain climbing is tough. In a way, it still is – but after the descent back to base camp, I’ve got more respect than I thought I would have for people who do real trekking. Let’s just call it sticking one finger up instead of two. As you will find out by reading on, I still find the whole activity pretty pretentious and not anywhere near as ‘tough’ as those stereotypical trekking holiday types make out.

Lets start off by giving you all some lovely statistics about Mount Kinabalu. The trek starts at The Timphon Gate which is some 6122ft above sea level. That’s some 1714ft higher than Ben Nevis’ summit, the highest point in the UK which is 4408ft above sea level. Kinabalu finishes at Low’s Peak, located 13,435ft in the sky. The trek to the summit is a two day affair, with a night’s accommodation on the mountain itself at Laban Rata hostel, found at the 10,738ft point. The trek itself is just over 8km in total, all achieved alongside a guide, as per the Park’s guidelines.

Now, as I said above I am by no means a trekker or a walker. I don’t have any walking boots, I don’t own a proper waterproof coat and I certainly do not own a matching North Face glove, scarf and beanie hat set. I don’t even have a suitable backpack for such a climb, using my hand luggage strap bag that is more suitable for its day to day job of carrying a laptop and a guidebook than it is for a mountain climb. This is probably down to a few reasons – the first being that I’m on a six month trip that will be based around spending time in warm climes. I simply don’t need a big waterproof coat or even a fleece taking up precious backpack space. The second reason is because I have a bit of a dislike for trekking branded clothing. Not so much the clothes themselves, but the people that I see wear them. Why an earth do you need a trekkers coat or jacket for walking to the car to drive to work in the morning? You don’t. Why do you need a trekkers coat or jacket to walk to the supermarket, a quick ten minute round the corner stroll? You don’t. Why do you need walking boots to take the dog for a walk in the local park? You don’t.

By completing the Kinabalu ascent in the time I did I have also proven that you don’t need to be anything other than in reasonable shape and of a determined mindset to climb a mountain as high as Kinabalu. For the record I was all over the ascent without even trying. From Timphon Gate to Laban Rata took me less than three and half hours. This included stops to take the standard photos as well as a break for lunch with a group of lads from Brunei. I was second up that morning, with around a hundred and fifty people taking the climb on every day. Of course others would have left after me, but I heard tales of some taking up to eight to ten hours to complete this leg. As I was eating tea, after a three hour afternoon nap, many people were still arriving, soaking wet and in no fit shape for the following mornings climb to the summit. And yes, they were all wearing proper trekking clothing. The mornings ascent to the summit started at 3am, a heart pounding 2697ft climb in pitch black from Laban Rata to Low’s Peak, ready in time for sunrise. I set off behind several large groups, and again made it up to the summit in good lick – the fourth person in fact. At sunrise itself, it was noticeable that only a fraction of the days climbers had made it in time, maybe thirty of us making it to Low’s Peak in time to see Borneo at first light. And most of us were wearing non trekkers clothing. My dorm mate, an Italian lad called Mattia, was one of my fellow sunrise climbers. Like me, he was wearing a mismatch of clothes that would hardly be on the rack in Millets or Lockwards.

What I’m trying to say is that owning trekking branded clothing does not make you a good trekker. In fact, it makes you a worse trekker as these fancy bits of kit no doubt will assist you on occasions. Without these bits of kit, you’d be even further behind. Which is embarrassing. The people wearing the ‘proper’ kit were in fact several hundred feet below, out of breath and in most cases giving up and walking back down. On my descent back to Laban Rata I passed a group of Japanese who all had the latest gear on, carrying ridiculously large backpacks that were completely unnecessary. They had left before me; I passed them several hours previous on the way to the summit. I thought to myself ‘You might look the part, but actually, you’re a bunch of morons who have spent a lot of money on shit’ that said, freezing my arse off at the top, I would have appreciated those lovely North Face gloves they had on…..

Right, now I have got that off my chest let’s get down to the experience itself!

And what an experience it was. The views from the top of Mount Kinabalu were incredible. Being so far up in the sky, looking over Borneo as the sun came up, was an extraordinary experience. It was the kind of experience I craved when planning this jaunt. There was also a great sense of achievement. Here I was, on top of a mountain as high as this, with no preparation other than to purchase a 20 Ringgit pair of waterproof trousers. I had proved to myself that you don’t need to be pretentious about climbing mountains and also that my fitness levels were far greater than what I, and others give me respect for. I quite often take the piss myself out of how unfit I am, but actually I have come to realise I’m not. I’m actually pretty fit. Cycling to work and playing regular rounds of golf must work! I fancy another rant now at all these people who bang on and on about going to a gym and how ‘great they feel’ but I’ll restrain myself…..feel free to look at the pictures I took. They will do far more justice than any words I could pen down. There are several at the bottom this update as well as on facebook. If you click the gallery tab at the top of the page you can view all the pictures without being a facebook user – how amazing is that?!

I’d be lying if I said I found the whole experience easy. It was a tough climb. The main issue was the terrain that you had to tackle in order to get first to Laban Rata. The first few Km’s were pretty simple. Of course the path was nearly all uphill, but the steep wooden staircases and the paths themselves were not particularly challenging. The only issue was being at altitude made you always feel out of breath, especially whilst making conversation with fellow climbers. I found that keeping your head down while maintaining a regular breath was the way to go. Either side of the path was thick vegetation that broke in places, giving the occasional spectacular view of Borneo through gathering blankets of white cloud. At the 4km point I had my one major rest, preferring in the main to just crack on with the ascent. Here I said farewell to the friendly Brunei guys, who couldn’t go any further as they were day trippers. One lad called ‘One’ had a great knowledge of English football thanks to hours clicking on Football Manager and had heard of Hereford United.

The final ascent of the day may have only been a couple of Km’s, but the terrain and conditions made the climb pretty tough. Not only was it now teeming down with rain, the relatively clear path had now turned into nothing but large rocks and stones that were also on an extremely steep angle. With the rain falling, gaps in the rocks were filled with mini waterfalls, making it not only a more uncomfortable experience, but also dangerous. To be honest the rocks were not as slippery as I thought they would be, but I found my concentration levels were now on high alert due to the potential of going arse over tit. I was also now over 9000ft above sea level, so regular twenty second stops to catch my breath were now a necessity. This last 2km to Laban Rata took nearly as long as the first 4km to the point the day trippers left. This was defiantly more due to the change in conditions than a fitness issue.

On arrival at Laban Rata I was amazed to discover I was one of the first ones up. I had passed quite a few people on the ascent, but I hadn’t started at stupid o’clock so I assumed there would be a number of people already waiting to check into their dorms like me. I had left the Timpohon Gate at 8.15am on the suggestion of a random Aussie lad called Reggie that I met the day previous while strolling around Kota Kinabalu. He had done the climb in a similar time to me, commenting that the rain held off till just after he got into to Laban Rata at half eleven. Sadly it arrived an hour and a half earlier on the day of my climb! After checking in with Mattia, we were joined by a lovely German girl called Kristen who taught her native language in Singapore. The three of us instantly hit it off, with the usual chats and banter throughout the afternoon and evening before bed. The best bit was me trying to talk up English food and beer, much to the amusement of my new found European friends. To be fair I was on a loser while chatting to an Italian and a German on those subjects! For the record strong Cheddar cheese is fantastic no matter what the opinion of my dorm buddies…..it was here that I also had one of those moments where you travel where something hits you that you have always known, but never fully contemplated.

We English are lazy when it comes to learning other languages. I mean, really lazy. Here I was, over 10,000ft in the air holding a full conversation with identically aged people from two different countries in my mother tongue. I felt pretty guilty about it to be honest. Why is it that we accept that anywhere we go in the world we should expect everyone to speak English? Whether they work in a hostel or a restaurant, drive a tuk-tuk or share our dorm rooms, we sub consciously accept that everything will be OK because people will talk English. At CCH in Cambodia the kids, whose early years were spent on a rubbish dump, could speak brilliant English. I decided that if I came into power then it would be compulsory for primary schools to teach a foreign language. I didn’t have a single lesson in a foreign language until I was eleven and at secondary school. By that time I think it is too late. You realise that the world speaks English through holidays to Greece or Spain with your family and that learning a different language is, in theory, non necessary. As you get older most people have other interests, hobbies and responsibilities, so learning a new lingo from scratch isn’t feasible. It would be great to think I could learn a new language, but I know I won’t have the patience or make the time when back in the UK so I will continue to be a lazy Englishman for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, back to the climb. The final leg of the trip was from Laban Rata to Lows Peak. Luckily it wasn’t raining when we set off at around 3am and was even pleasant enough to climb the first part in a t-shirt once I’d built up a sweat. After entertaining some of Kristen’s German group by singing ‘She’ll be coming round the mountain’, ‘Climb every mountain’ and other suitable ditties, I cracked on ahead of several groups. The biggest surprise of this ascent was the amount of climbing that involved a rope. Although it was pitch black, you could sense that some of this was serious climbing from the light given from a torch, which incidentally is a must for climbing Mount Kinabalu. With no safety gear, it wasn’t an option to get some of this wrong. On the way back down you realised just how tricky some of this actually was. Not just physically, but also mentally. As someone who used to be a tad scared of heights (thanks to Sigiriya, Sri Lanka) I’m not sure I would have ‘braved’ part of this trip in daylight. Coming down in daylight knowing you had already successfully done the route in the dark of the night made it much easier to settle the mind. The last half an hour to the summit was tough – clinging onto the guide rope, clambering over rocks and fighting a distinct lack of breath were all obstacles. It was also getting cold. Like a cold I had forgotten from being in thirty degree climes for the last five weeks and avoiding last winters cold snap jollying it up in South Africa. You already know about the summit itself, which concluded a thrilling trek to the top.

After kicking the arse out of the mountain and my fellow trekkers, I made my way down, happily clicking my camera at the sights that were in front of my eyes. We were so lucky, having such a clear morning. The day before had only had a few minutes of clear, before the whole setting of Borneo was covered in thick cloud. I started having my first issues on this descent back to Laban Rata, as I could feel my feet start to rub against my wet shoes and socks, giving me some fairly uncomfortable blisters. As you know from the infamous leech update, I had to throw away an old pair of worn in, comfy trainers. This was only the third time I’d worn this new pair of trainers (golfing in PP and Langkawi) as naturally the rest of the time is spent wearing flip flops. After a quick stop at Laban Rata, I met up with my guide, Ruby, for the final descent all the way down.

I thought this whole update was going to be all about taking the piss out of trekking. That changed somewhat after a painful, wet and at times disheartening trek back down. Wearing just a wet pair of trainers on my blistered covered feet, as opposed to walking boots, I started to respect the proper trekkers that do this day after day for pleasure. If the worse thing about going up to the Laban Rata point was nothing more than the odd loss of breath, then going down was the opposite in terms of ease. I won’t lie, it was a fucking struggle. My guide must have sensed I was struggling as he left me to my own accords for a good two hour stretch, knowing fore well that I wasn’t going to get too far ahead. I swore and groaned with every other step down that mountain, as my feet, knees and ankles started to hurt big time. This is a minor issue for an hour or so, but for four hours? My god, I just wanted to be back in KK having a hot shower in my hostel. I’m not exaggerating here, this was arguably the hardest thing I had ever done physically in my life. For four long hours I looked down, concentrating on where each step would take me, making sure I didn’t slip on the rocks. If it was the blisters that gave me issues at the start, it was my knees and jelly-like legs that were an issue towards the end. The last two kilometres were horrible. My knees felt like they would fail with any step, which for the record were now being met with fairly loud and now the crudest of swear words. Doing this alone was even tougher, with no one alongside to encourage me to keep going. This is where I wrote at the start about needing to be of a determined mindset to achieve such a goal. I just tried to tell myself to take one step at a time, but going so slowly due to my now growing physical deficiencies, was frustrating. I found that once I stopped, I struggled to get going. Equally, once I got going I struggled to stop because my knees wouldn’t allow me to put the brakes on. Not ideal when jumped from unstable rock to the next. Any rock that wasn’t flat greeted me with a twist of my foot, often putting added pressure on my blistered feet. The relief at getting back to the gate would have been overawing if I wasn’t so physically and mentally drained.

Sat here in KK the day after coming back from Kinabalu, it is time for reflection once more. My legs are sore, reminding me of days running in to bowl dozens of overs at my mates down the Bishops Meadows, only to wake the next morning and struggle to walk down the stairs. I’ve decided that as great as the view was from a mountain some 13,435ft up, at the time while coming down I didn’t think it was worth it. Sat here, stiffer than an ironing board after a morning doing nothing but tell tales of my trek to fellow travellers, I’m still trying to decide whether it was worth the pain. Perhaps it was, if only to prove that you don’t have to wear those proper trekkers clothes to successfully climb such a challenging mountain. Now I have done that, I’m not convinced I need to do it again, certainly anytime soon.

My relaxing preparation for Mount Kinabalu certainly was hampered somewhat by a night out in KK with Emma and Rachel; two nurses from the UK that I mentioned were sharing my dorm with me. After a reasonably quiet time on the beer front since I left Fred in Phnom Penh, it was cool to have a proper smash up again. The kind of smash up where you can’t remember a great deal after a certain round of drinks and where studying photographs the morning afterwards doesn’t help jog a beer hazed memory. It’s safe to say that a nameless nightclub on the seafront was certainly made aware of our presence with some truly horrific dancing. It was good preparation for drinking challenges that lie ahead over the coming weeks, starting in Singapore in a couple of days with Basingstoke Pat.

It will be the beginning of a new chapter of my six month adventure. All being well, from now on till mid January I will be sharing my time and space with cricket mates. I’ll be rooming with Pat for the next few weeks across Indonesia and then the start of the Ashes, before joining up with Dave for the back end of the tour. After several weeks travelling ‘alone’ it will be cool to spend some proper time with people again. When travelling ‘alone’ you tend to only have brief conversations with fellow travellers, repeating itineraries and travel tales. If you are lucky you will spend a night drinking with them, or maybe share a bus ride together and you can build more bridges. Getting the chance to spend that extended time in others company will be a nice change from the traveller bandwagon. Don’t get me wrong, it has been great. I have been pretty lucky with the people I have met on this zig-zag jaunt across South East Asia; it’s just that I’m ready for some non travel chat with some cricket loving buddies. As this is my last day in Malaysian territory I feel I should write something about this vast, diverse country. That can wait till the next update as this one has been long enough (and my belly is telling me it is time for a late lunch)

As a growing habit with these updates I would like to finish with a shout out. This time to Sara and Deano who visited the CCH Orphanage in Phnom Penh this weekend – great stuff! You can follow them at http://deanosontour.blogspot.com/ for all their travel tales.


3 Responses to “climb every mountain”

  1. 1 Martin Chapple
    November 8, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Absolutely brilliant mate – top trekking! laughed at the “keeners” with all their labelled kit getting fagged out! Still using defiantly instead of definitely I see! Good luck on your next stage.

  2. 2 Damo
    November 8, 2010 at 2:52 pm

    Richie Poo oos

    It all sounds absolutely ace.You will remember these days for the rest of your life! Can picture you been Julie Andrews on the way up singing and cursing and swearing coming down ha ha ha go rich!

  3. 3 Donna
    November 8, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    AWESOME Kinabalu ascent Richard….just awesome and I adore the photo’s of you on the mountain. You are looking good!!! I also especially like the mountain path one. WHAT a challenge. WHAT a RANT! It was surely that ONE trip you did up Hay Bluff in 1993ish that set you up for this…!!! And yes, in my experience, coming down a mountain is SOOOOOOOOOO much harder than going up!!I am very proud of you!!! And, I now know what to get you for Christmas! How about a nice pair of north face, that’s north, and not fat face, gloves and good quality pair of hiking boots!! HA HA That said Iit’s a shame your comfy trainers went before the climb as I am sure you would have enjoyed it more with those on! Still, YOU DID IT and I think that is marvelous of you..glad you are looking forward to seeing your cricket mates..phew the next few weeks should be a tad easier for a while!! FANTASTIC – WELL DONE FROM ME. RESPECT!

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