FIFTEEN mainstream media members from Sarawak are dedicating their conquest of Mt Kinabalu to Sarawak Day which is celebrated every year on July 22.
The group, comprising journalists, photographers and videographers, found themselves in the news when they successfully scaled the summit of Sabah’s revered mountain during the two-day Mt Kinabalu Media Expedition 2019 on July 10 to 11.
The event was organised by the Association of Journalists of Kuching Division (KDJA) in collaboration with the State government, Lea Centre and Petronas which support healthy outdoor activities for media members.
This is in line with the call by Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg to the media fraternity to practise a healthy lifestyle, balancing work and play in consonance with the aphorism that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
For the media climbers, the ascent was a challenge that took more than physical endurance as it was also a test of mental strength.
Mt Kinabalu, better known to the locals as Akinabalu, stands at 4,095 metres (13,435 feet), the highest mountain in Malaysia and the 10th highest in the region behind little known peaks in the Kachin Province of Burma and three others in West Papua, Indonesia.
According to Julie Ronnie Bindaron, one of the agents handling the group, mountaineering experts rate Mt Kinabalu “as one of the easiest big mountains you are likely to climb.”
But she has a word of advice: “Don’t treat it as a piece of cake because even repeat climbers think it is really hard.”
The starting point at Timpohon Gate is already 1,866m above sea level. Since the trail is pretty much straight uphill all the way, the actual height scaled is only 2,229m, and the distance covered is around 8.7km each way.
“The climb to the summit through Timpohon Gate is a complete mental and physical workout that gives you a self-esteem boost for the sense of personal achievement at the end of the climb,” she said.
Mountain guide and porter Danson Bulangai from Kota Belud admitted they are fussy and undisciplined climbers who think they know their way around the thick jungles but there are also disciplined and successful ones.
“We have seen different characters — disciplined undisciplined – but if you’re new to the environment, it’s better to listen to your local guide who knows every nook and cranny of this place.
“To climb the mountain here, there’s no need for any specialist mountaineering equipment. All that’s required to reach the summit is a reasonable level of fitness and a dogged mental attitude,” said the 39-year-old Dusun, a mountain guide since 2005 and who had also witnessed the mag 6.0 earthquake that struck the mountain in Ranau on June 5, 2015.
The porters and guides are friendly people. Strong as a horse and almost always barefooted, they guided the group up the mountain, making sure everyone was on the right track.
Kenny Henry, a porter from Kampung Riau, Ranau, a few km from Kinabalu National Park, has been carrying climbers’ backpacks and gas cylinders, sometimes weighing 30kg, to the restaurant or homes at Laban Rata, the mid-way point, over the past five years.
Of small build but muscular, he said the rainforest was like home to him and he knows every step up the mountain.
“As a porter, you’ve to walk at a slow pace. Don’t rush! If you see a ladder along a steep route, learn how to stand with one foot straight on the upper ladder and another foot 45 degrees towards one ladder below,” advised Kenny, who is a full-time Kinabalu National Park ranger.
During the 2015 earthquake which lasted 30 seconds, 18 fatalities were reported on Mt Kinabalu, including nine Singaporeans, six Malaysians and three other nationals. Four members of the guide community also lost their lives trying to help the climbers.
UNESCO Heritage Site
Mt Kinabalu is situated in Kinabalu National Park, 88km (or two to three hours’ drive) from Kota Kinabalu, the capital. It covers 754 sq km and is home to thousands of species of plants, orchids, butterflies and birds. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Kinabalu National Park is a credit to Malaysia, well geared towards handling the large numbers of climbers every day.
On the first day of the ascent, the media climbers made the necessary registrations and payments at the Park HQ, and after picking up their guides, were driven by coaches to Timpohon Gate, the starting point.
The path up the mountain, paved mainly with uneven steps, is, however, well-defined and maintained. Climbers first pass through the rainforest which thins out to more temperate vegetation at higher altitudes. There are seven shelters along the way for climbers to catch their breath, use the toilet, refill their water bottles and throw rubbish into bins.
The climbing time on day one for most people is between four to seven hours before arriving at Laban Rata, 3,272m above sea level, where there is a big hostel (and some smaller huts) with hot shower, toilet, cooked food and basic sharing rooms with bunk beds.
The media climbers arrived at Laban Rata close to 5pm after starting out at 8.30am. The temperature was 8 degrees Celsius. While waiting for the sunset, they braved the cold to play volleyball in the open field and managed to catch the beautiful setting sun before heading for dinner comprising a fusion of western and Asian food.
Early morning climb
Everybody retired early to prepare for the next day’s hike as early as 2am.
On the second day, everyone woke up at 2am for a 3am start. The media group were not the only ones climbing that day as close to 200 others, mostly Europeans and Asians, and maybe some Malaysians, were also summit-bound.
The media climbers started up the seemingly endless flights of steps with some ladders and ropes in place to assist over the tricky parts. The trail was not crowded, so it was relatively easy trekking for them.
Above Laban Rata, the vegetation disappears but what the climbers saw in the final stages of the climb were massive rare granite slabs, smoothened and furrowed by long extinct glaciers.
At this level, altitude sickness began to take its toll. Some experienced nausea, sleepiness (maybe from the lack of oxygen because the air is uncomfortably thin) and cramps. Plodding on became a mental struggle.
At the summit (Low’s Peak), with the temperature plunging to 2 degrees Celsius, it was starting to get light — a beautiful sight with white fluffy clouds cascading over the horizon. Dawn was breaking and the morning mist was just starting to lift.
The media climbers got their cameras out as they gathered next to the plaque, marking the highest point, while waiting for the sunrise. They posed with their banners emblazoned across with the wordings – Kuching Media Climbers Expeditions. Another group sang the Sarawak Anthem — Sarawak Ibu Pertiwiku — with the Sarawak colours flying high.
One climber, Zulazhar Sheblee, performed Subuh (dusk) prayers atop Mt Kinabalu, giving thanks that he had made it to Malaysia’s highest peak.
Coming back down to Laban Rata for breakfast, checking out of the hostel and continuing the descent over the next four to five hours to the Park’s exit gate — though easier on the heart and lungs – was, nonetheless, brutal on the knees which were taking heaps of pressure on the way down.
The group arrived at the exit gate late afternoon with legs quivering and body cold and wet because it was raining. But you could see the joy in their face when they collected their certificates at the Park HQ as if to say they had overcome a very big challenge and by successfully scaling the country’s loftiest mountain in their first attempt.
For TV3 reporter, Adib Othman, one of the group leaders, climbing this formidable mountain brought him double joy — the ecstasy of reaching the summit and the relief of safely completing the descent.
What Sir Edmund Hillary said is true: It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
For Abid, reaching Low’s Peak was the highlight of the expedition.
“But make no mistake, it wasn’t the end. Reaching the peak was only half the battle won. Another daunting challenge was coming down and with not much energy left, it was a lot harder.
“Personally, the last stretch to Timpohon Gate, 6km down, was the most gruelling. Naturally, we all were extremely tired and very low in morale. With both my legs starting to cramp, I wasn’t sure I could make it down but I had little choice but to carry on.
“With encouragement from my fellow climber, Farizan and a few others, I started the trek down anyway,” he said.
Another first timer, Sharon Kong from The Borneo Post said the attack on the summit from Laban Rata at 2.45am on the second day was at first quite torturous.
“I had to adjust to the altitude. My heart was beating fast constantly, so I had to stop for a few seconds to catch my breath several times. Eventually, I acclimatised and moved on at a steady pace,” she related.
Kong admitted the sights of the slopes with ropes scared her the most.
“I was afraid I would keep sliding down. The ropes were wet and coarse which got my gloves wet too. Sometimes after going up a slope, breathing got difficult again but fortunately, I had a can of oxygen on standby.”
Another climber, Watson Menjang from Utusan Borneo, had always wished to climb Mt Kinabalu. Although he studied in a Sabah university for six years, he never had the chance.
“The challenges are actually mental. Physical strength isn’t a problem. So we prepared mentally and kept motivating each other. Personally, on my walk up to Laban Rata, I almost gave up with 1km to go because I was walking alone. But the porter came and talked to me, and being busy making conversation, I didn’t realise I had reached Laban Raya.
“The gruelling part came the next day when we headed for the summit. I almost gave up again because of the slippery, steep slopes along the trail but this time, I told myself I could do it and I did,” said Watson who even video-called his parents and siblings when he was at the peak.
“This is once in a lifetime achievement for all of us — a fantastic team effort. We want to thank all our partners, the state government, Lea Centre, Petronas and KDJA for making this happen. It’s a dream come true for us,” Adib enthused.