Mt. Kinabalu Expedition May 14-16, 2004

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By Andrew Sui

It is 5:43 a.m. I am perched atop the Low's Peak of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, waiting for the sun to rise. Looking into the clear bluish sky, I can see the crescent moon and stars which to me is a sign of fine weather. A lady hiker is seen standing behind the landmark of 2 prominent plaques at the peak while her hired ranger is helping to take the photograph. I take out my new digital camera and wait for my turn to snap the photograph at the same landmark. There are only 3 other climbers at the peak apart from the 2 park rangers while many climbers are still on their way. Zipped in my double-layer insulated jacket with an inner fleece jersey, a pair of T-shirt and a pair of insulated hand gloves, I guess that the temperature is just above the freezing point. 

During the last three hours I climbed since leaving the bed at Gunting Lagadan Hut in the pre-dawn, I trusted in God that my goal to the Low's Peak, would worth the effort. The path to the summit was slippery as it had rained throughout the previous night. Under that circumstances, I clung on to God's words in Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." I overtook my colleagues and other climbers while approaching Sayat-sayat checkpoint at around Km 7 and the 2 park rangers were left behind to guide them. I was alone clambering in the dark with 6-LED headlamp through the cool air and lonely steep granite rock surface. I kept close to the fixed ropes as the trail markers to the summit. I remembered my God and thanked Him for every metre I trod. The oxygen content of the air was getting thinner as I ascended and had to halt for deep breaths after every few steps upwards. Slowly but surely a step at a time, I was determined to reach the top against all odds. Praise God that I did not experience any altitude sickness. I finished the race to the peak ahead of 18 other climbers in our expedition. By 5:51 am, with the first rays of the sun now breaking over the eastern horizon, I am about to see the wonders as related by the past climbers.

Mount Kinabalu (13,432 ft)

Sunrise seen from Low’s Peak at 5:55 am

The highest mountain between the Himalayas and the Snow Mountains of Papua New Guinea, Kinabalu is blessed with an astonishing variety of flora and fauna that ranges over 4 climate zones, from the rich lowland dipterocarp forest through the montane oak and coniferous forests to the sub-alpine meadow plants and finally to the alpine stunted bushes of the summit zone. This botanical paradise is Malaysia's first World Heritage designated by UNESCO in December 2000. Thousands of climbers from all over the world come to hike on this mountain every year. 

Kinabalu may be derived from the Dusun word "Aki nabalu", meaning "resting place of the dead". The Dusun people were reluctant to climb the mountain for the fear of disturbing the spirits of their dead ancestors. Sir Hugh Low, a British colonial administrator at Labuan was the first man to make an attempt to conquer Mount Kinabalu on March 7, 1851. He was then 27 years of age. There was no trail to the summit. The Dusun guide only accompanied him up to a certain part of the mountain and then he was left alone to climb. Sir Hugh Low made it to the summit plateau but never really reach the highest peak. However, the highest peak was named after him as Low's Peak.

Three decades later in 1888, John Whitehead, a zoologist held the official honour as the first man to make it to the highest peak, i.e Low's Peak. While collecting birds and mammals on the mountain slope, he climbed to the true summit. In 1910, Lilian Gibbs, a British museum botanist, held the official honour as the first woman to make it to the Low's Peak. While collecting plants, she climbed to the true summit.


South Peak

South Peak seen from Trail about Km 7.5

Mount Kinabalu has claimed some nine lives since the park opened. Each year there are a handful of injuries and accidents, usually involving climbers who have broken bones or been overcome with altitude sickness and exhaustion. But some cases are more serious. In 1987 five climbers were scaling the mountain when three pushed ahead, while the leader stayed back with the slowest member. Minutes later, the weather changed. Visibility was down to a few feet for three days. The two who had lagged behind disappeared. Park rangers looked for the men for a month, but were never found.

The most famous rescue involved a group of Hong Kong-based British Army comprising of 7 British soldiers and 3 Chinese soldiers who set out in February 1994 to become the first to descend Low's Gully. The original team entered the gully in one group, which ultimately fragmented. Five became trapped on the towering cliffs. More than two weeks after the expedition began, the other five climbers escaped out of the gully on 9 & 11 March 1994 and raised the alarm. Park rangers, the Malaysian army and a British mountain rescue team all joined the hunt. After nine days, the stranded climbers were spotted and winched to safety aboard a helicopter on 22 March 1994. No safety organisation existed and no system of communication with the outside world was utilised. However, the events were well covered in the press.

In April 1998 a civilian expedition comprising of 4 British ex-servicemen, with some of the original members, successfully complete a traverse of the Low's Gully. The expertise at this time was largely provided by two individuals, with the qualification of Joint Service Cave Instructor, namely; Chips Rafferty and Chris Jackson. In all, the expedition in Malaysia lasted for 4 weeks. It was an El-Ninio year and consequently had the driest rain records in March and April 1998. The aim of the expedition was not truly met in that a complete pull through descent of the Gully was not completed. A swing in the weather, the expedition leader had to make the decision to pull out of the Gully. The expedition should still be claimed successful as a world's first descent of Commando Cauldron from Mushroom Peak coll, a descent of some 300-400 metres was completed. In addition all expedition members climbed a 4,095.2metres peak and lived at 3,500 metres for over 10 days. (Reference:

Three years later on August 16, 2001, two British teenagers Ellie James and her brother Henry together with their parents, were among a group of 12 that scaled the Low's Peak. However, on the descending from the peak, Ellie and Henry wandered off from the group. Henry was found six hours later by rescuers after the parents alerted the Kinabalu park rangers. Ellie apparently told Henry to stay put while she went to look for help. Due to the howling winds and poor visibility, Ellie was rendered invisible and inaudible for 7 days. A park ranger found the body of missing Ellie James a 17-year-old girl lying face down on a steep rocky slope near St. John's Peak, the third highest peak on Mount Kinabalu with an altitude of 4,090.75 meters. Her body, still clad in her pink jacket, was found just 500 meters from the spot where her 15-year-old brother Henry was rescued earlier. The authorities did not rule out that Ellie could have died from exposure as there were no visible injuries on her body. Rescue efforts were hampered by heavier-than-usual tropical storms that lasted for a week and produced thick fogs. Temperatures on the mountain dropped to freezing point and the wind speeds jumped to over 100 kilometers per hour.

Despite of the past loss of lives, it did not deter me from climbing Mount Kinabalu as I believe in an all-powerful God. It was my ambition to explore the peak of Mount Kinabalu for many years and aimed to receive a certificate of achievement from the Kinabalu National Park. However, Kinabalu was a great challenge to me as I had never climbed any mountain higher than it.

The normal route up to Kinabalu is southern ridge, which I took, basically requires two days for the return trip. The first day is to cover a distance of 6 km and second day to cover another 2.7 km and return to the Park. It sounds easy just 8.7 km to climb. But the main challenges are amongst other things, fatigue, knee pains, unpredictable weather condition, freezing temperature at the peak at night and the possibility of mountain altitude sickness caused by thin oxygen content in the air. No extensive training is needed which makes Mount Kinabalu one of the world's most-climbed major peaks. However, it would be quite strenuous for those unaccustomed to mountain climbing. Stamina and strong knee muscles are essential. To build these up, I walked up and down the flights of stairs and the steep slope at the hill of Jubilee Park for an hour during the weekends for a period of 3 months. Nevertheless there are risks involved in climbing the mountain such as altitude sickness and dying from heart attacks. The greatest risk is arising from sudden swing in weather condition. When the weather is clear, climbing the bare granite above the tree line is fairly straightforward. But mist and rain can blow in at startling speed. With visibility close to zero, climbers can easily stray into barren areas above cliffs where a false step can be a certain death. Everyone who climbs to Low's Peak is usually accompanied with a park ranger or guide.

Before commencing the climb, I was advised to say a prayer while gathering at the front office of Kinabalu National Park. So I committed my expedition in prayer to our Almighty God, Creator of the Universe for a fine weather and protection against misadventure. Then I proceeded to Timpohon Gate located near the Power Station, and set out around 9:26 a.m. The mountain trail had only one descend few metres from Timpohon Gate and after passing the Carson's waterfalls, it was upwards ascend all the way. Climbing steps cut into the sloping forest floor, I reached the Laban Rata rest house located at 3,272.7 metres (10,737 feet) at around 2 p.m. and hiked another 15 minutes further up to Gunting Lagadan Hut to stay for the night. After a short sleep, I began the final and toughest part of the climb at 2:45 a.m. The trail began with steep flights of wooden steps. Soon there was a dangerous narrow cliff with fixed rope to pull over it and followed by smooth granite slopes. On the steeper sections I had hauled myself up on fixed ropes. The final stretch of 120 metres (393 feet) to the peak crossed a jumble of boulders with fixed ropes where a slip could mean a twisted ankle.

St John Peak viewed from Low’s Peak

Flower plant at sub-alpine zone

Mount Kinabalu has been extensively explored only during the last 150 years or so. In 1987, Sabah Parks official organised the Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon for the first time with the trail to the Low's Peak and back. In 1996 the race was taken over by Sabah Tourism Board and turned into an annual international event. In October 2003, the climbathon champion, Marco De Gasperi of Italy, made it to the peak and back in 2 hours, 36 minutes and 59 seconds. 

It took me more than that time to clamber from Gunting Lagadan Hut to the Low's Peak. As the morning light begins to spread, I can now see a succession of granite spires to the east across the 2-mile-wide awe-inspiring chasm of Low's Gully, dropping almost 3,000 feet (915 metres) from the summit. The many pinnacles of Mount Kinabalu become visible. A sea of clouds shrouds the ranges of hills overlooking from the Low's Peak. Here I get to feel the greatness of creation by an awesome God. This huge mass of granite rock was thrust upward 4,095.2 metres (13,432 feet) into the atmosphere by a fantastic geological upheaval in the earth crust. There stand I, a speck like a grain of sand in the desert, on the Low's Peak of granite rock where there is apparently no vegetation around it. I marvel at the astonishing beauty of the sunrise, take a deep breath and praise God that I made it. It is an exhilarating feeling to stand on the highest peak in Malaysia. 

Eager to remain at the peak for as long as possible, I overcame the coldness in my heavy clothing. As the cool mountain breeze sweeps over my face, mucus begins to flow from my nose. Thanks God that the nose watering soon stop. Most climbers leave the peak after less than an hour because of the cold temperature. Soon the time is 7:50 am and no other climbers are making their way up. Without realizing it, I remain on the peak for 2 hours 10 minutes that I believe not many past climbers are there for this long. It is time to descend the peak and return to Sayat-sayat by 10 a.m. before the clouds rolling towards the peak and reduce the visibility to a dangerous level. 

Descending the slope to Kinabalu National Park was relatively easy as compared to ascending but I did it with double the record time because of my knee pain developing during the descent. As I descended, I wondered how I made it. I obtained a certificate of achievement awarded by the Kinabalu National Park, which fulfilled the goal of my expedition. So now I can safely say, I know what it feels like to be on top of South East Asia! A very memorable climbing experience and, if given the chance, I would not hesitate going up again. My sincere thanks to my Bible Study Group for the prayers support during my preparation for my first climbing attempt to the Low's Peak of Mount Kinabalu and my deepest gratitude to God for the success! Indeed God is able just like Apostle Paul said: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." Philippians 4:13 KJV


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