Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Dali would have loved the summit of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea.

Granite towers, horns and cowslicks protrude improbably from a landscape of fractured moraines and curvaceous drops, polished clean by Pleistocene glaciers and decked with gleaming waterfalls.

Low's Peak casts a shadow and refracts the sunrise, Mount Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia.

And watching the rising sun refract around these surrealist sculptures and illuminate Low’s Gully, which falls dark and sheer for over a kilometre, is a memory that will last forever.

Unlike the thigh and calf pain, which I am told should be gone within the week…

Low's Gully against a cloudy sunrise, mount kinabalu, borneo, malaysia.

Now, Z is young enough to have only seen one sunrise before this. His first was a little underwhelming. But this one really, really delivered.

The wonderful Jamie Lee Curtis once said that she intended to write a book on parenting, entitled Bribes and Threats. Now, when persuading a nine-year-old child to ascend more than 1200m in one day, and another 800m between 2.30am and 6am the next day, bribes are, I think, only fair.

Z and I on top of Mount Kinabalu, with clouds below us and granite peaks behind. Borneo, Malaysia.

Sir’s reward for reaching this summit? Eight hours online gaming time. A trip to the hot springs. A non-smoking mother (four days and counting!). And a viewing of Alvin and the Chipmunks. (We normally compromise fairly well on matters cinematic but there are certain films, such as the Chipmunks and Haneke’s Funny Games, on which we will not see alike for many years, if ever.)

I mean, sure, the view and the achievement could have been their own reward. As, in fact, they were.

Can a child climb Mount Kinabalu?

Well, as he himself said, “I’d never have done it without the bribe to look forward to.”

Day 1 began in lush, cool, mossy forest.

Z in the lush, cool, mossy forest of the lower slopes of Mount Kinabalu.

Our ascent led through multi-coloured evergreens into a misty, sinister landscape of gnarled and stunted conifers. We covered only six kilometres horizontally but more than 1200 metres vertically. An average gradient steeper than 1 in 5 means a lot of steep steps, or equivalents thereof. Now, steps are a real pisser.

Wood-edged earth steps at beginning of Summit Trail. Mount Kinabalu.

Particularly irregular, rough-hewn, steep ones. They simultaneously remove the sense of adventure (by “taming” the path) while putting even adult-size legs through ten degrees of torture, making a climb really bloody hard work.

ascending the ochre slabs, Mount Kinabalu.

It’s a beautiful trail, though. Even in the rain.
approaching the granite face of mount kinabalu

We spent the night at Laban Rata, around 3200 metres up, neutralising our altitude headaches, and admiring that crazy, slippery granite mound capped with surrealist towers. (Mount Kinabalu itself is a ball of young Pluton granite, forced up from the earth’s crust between the sandstone Crocker Range like an especially plangent zit.)
laban rata guesthouse, mount kinabalu, with summit looming behind.

Now, by night, I mean, well, part of the night. Sir was out cold by 6pm, having negotiated four hours more gaming time for tomorrow’s early start. We were up again at 1.50am and eating a meal they call “supper” at 2am. At 2.30 we were heading off for the summit, complete with head torches and winter coats.

The climb began with…

Yep. More bloody steps.

Ten minutes in, Z begins to chant. “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.”

I am, to be fair, hating it too. We pause. Start again.

“My chest aches,” he says. “I think it’s altitude sickness. I’m having to take deep breaths and it’s making my chest ache.”

“I don’t think it’s altitude sickness,” I say. His heart is beating fast, but he has no headache, no nausea, and I figure we went through our mild bout of headache the day before, at around 3000m. “It’s probably just the cold air.”

“I don’t want to do this any more,” he says. “I honestly don’t think I can.”

“But think about it,” I say. “You’re going to have TWELVE whole hours of computer time if you make it to the top. AND Alvin and the Chipmunks. And think how proud you’re going to feel when you make it to the summit.”

Z by sign marking the peak of Mount Kinabalu on Low's Peak.

“I don’t care about any of that,” he says, a fat tear rolling down his face (I think I mentioned he’s never been a morning person). “I just want to go to sleep.”

My heart bleeds. But I don’t want to abandon the summit attempt at this point. We’ll both, I reckon, feel disappointed at having slogged all this way to give up at this stage. Also, I know myself well enough to know that if we don’t give it our best shot, I’ll be in a vile mood for days. And I know him well enough to know that he can go through this sort of slump and come out the other side.

I offer him some sugar (Mentos). He refuses.

“Well, you can’t go to sleep here,” I say. “Let’s get to the bit with the ropes and decide whether we turn back then.” (The start of the ropes is where most people abandon the summit attempt.)

He agrees.

Soon we are off the steps, and Z’s mood magically lifts. We are scrambling over granite slabs and trickling rainfall rivulets, a million stars above us in a clear, almost unpolluted sky. It’s magical. A quality of light and air you can only get high up a mountain somewhere very remote. “Have you seen how many stars there are, Mum?” he says. “They’re beautiful. This is one of the most amazing things.”

As we start to ascend the ropes, in a long, coiling snake of climbers, the very first glimmers of light start to appear in the night sky, though we’re still, essentially, ascending in darkness.

Z loves the harder ropes. The ones which take him up a 60 degree slope, weight thrown back, or enable him to navigate a tiny ledge leading across the slippery, convex granite that slumps away into the darkness.

I spend most of my time behind him, hissing helpful remarks like “Hold on with BOTH hands.” It’s nervewracking in the dark, when I believe that the drop I can see on our right is exaggerated by vertigo. Even more nervewracking, returning in the light, when I see that, if anything, the ascent was worse than I imagined.
Part of the rope trail across the summit of Mount Kinabalu, Borneo.

On the summit massif, the rays of the rising sun tint the granite gold, and cast great shadows far, far out into the South China Sea. Z is rocking now and I am really, really proud of him. Plenty of adult men have fallen by the wayside. He hasn’t. The shadow of Low's Peak refracts the sunrise: Mount Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia.

With the dawn, Z’s size and age become apparent. As we scramble up the rocks of Low’s Peak, the highest point, with a gully dropping terrifyingly below us, and a view through the clouds right out to the Tip of Borneo and beyond, folk congratulate him and pose for pictures with him. One of the guides takes his picture “to show my son that small small boy can do this”.

Z pleased with himself in the sunrise: Mount Kinabalu, Borneo.

He is, justifiably, very proud of himself. But also, quite genuinely, in awe. “I never realised mountains could look like this,” he says.

We descend, gently, to Laban Rata, and eat breakfast at 9am, in preparation for the 1200m descent to headquarters, which Z manages with a general pizazz that horrifies the hobbling adults around him.

By the last kilometre, my knees are alternating randomly between buckling and locking and I’m genuinely concerned they’re going to give way altogether. On the flat I hobble flat-footed like some sort of show pony, and my ankles are beginning to go the way of my knees. Z?

“Well,” he says. “My legs are a little sore, but…”

Looking for more information? Read my practical guide How to Climb Mount Kinabalu with Kids. Or, if your mind turns instead to higher peaks beginning with K, you can read an in-depth guide to climbing Kilimanjaro here, which covers both the Machame and Lemosho routes.

30 Responses

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    Congratulations! You both did it – and you’re not smoking – and the pictures are fantastic. Tell Z he’s an amazing walker. Look forward to skyping tomorrow if the connection is OK.

  2. Caroline & Fred says:

    Hey, good job with the mountain! One of the pictures almost made me scared! We saw a meteor shower over Loch Long and a nuclear sub! Love the sound of the millions of stars and sunrise, I envy you climbing such a big mountain. Fred (and mum) x

    • MummyT says:

      Wow! The meteor shower sounds AMAZING… Zac would love to chat to you on Skype if you are around today: I think he’d like to brag a bit…

  3. Snap says:

    Spectacular effort and photos, what an experience to remember…Congrats to you both. I don’t think (know) I could have done the same!

    Make sure your next hotel has a hot bath to rest those sore limbs in.

    • MummyT says:

      We did the hot springs today! A good substitute. Sir’s legs are absolutely fine. Mine still feel like I’ve run a marathon but are at least not in imminent danger of collapse?

  4. Congratulations to both of you. I can’t imagine there are two many 9 year olds who have made that climb so Z must be very proud of himself. Hope you’re enjoying hot springs and a lot of computer games. I’m sure your legs will recover… in a month or two! We’re hoping to walk up Penang Hill in a few weeks… nothing like your achievement but 5km up a mountain will be a mission for our guys!

    Amazing photos and a wonderfully written story. Can’t wait to see whats next. Indonesia? We’re catching up with two families with kids closer to Z’s age in September in Koh Samui if you’re back this way at all.

    • MummyT says:

      We didn’t do Penang Hill when we were there — an amazing place. Somewhere we could easily spend more time. Indonesia’s next up. We head to Tawau tomorrow to get the visa, then hop on the ferry and we’re in… Apparently they do 60 day visas, though given our luck I’m not holding my breath… I need to work out what we’re doing in September. I’m going to need to do a visa run of some kind…

  5. Helen says:

    Fantastic, what an achievement. Well done both of you on all counts.

  6. mish says:

    What an awesome achievement – that is a very challenging climb. Photos are great too. Well done Z&T x

    • MummyT says:

      Thank you!!! We have to Skype soon. Next weekend may be a bit dubious as the island does not have much by way of electricity. But maybe the weekend after???? Hope Broadstairs is still lovely: Z was talking about it the other day.

  7. VERY impressive! Nice story, your little man sure hacked it whell. I particularly like the first photo with the mountain shadow on the clouds, the glare shot (into the sun) and the night-time photo. The two of you huddled near darkness speaks a volume as to the remoteness of the place. Bravo, really, bravo to you both.

  8. Holger says:

    Well done both of you. What is the next spectacular sunrise?

    • MummyT says:

      HOw lovely to hear from you! A volcano in Indonesia, I reckon. Deciding which one at the moment. Had some amazing sunsets on Borneo, I have to say… Are you still thinking of taking your boys away?

  9. Suzy says:

    What a feat for you and your son! Gorgeous photos as well.

  10. What a great story an adventure. You must be so proud of your son. It is amazing that he made the climb and what a memory he has to treasure for the rest of his life. There is nothing more character building than climbing a mountain, especially one of this height.

    • MummyT says:

      Ahh! Thank you for that, and thank you for the share. I think we’ll do the highest mountain in Australia just for the hell of it. It’s only about 7000 feet. (Reinhard Meissner refused to include it in the Seven Summits as it didn’t count as a climb, just a hike…) Just need to pick the right volcano for Indonesia, now.

  11. Andi says:

    Unfreakingbelievable! Z rocks!!!

  12. ccsayre says:

    Remarkable photos and advventures! Your son was very fortunate and hasn’t fallen far from the tree! I’ve enjoyed his writing a perspective! I for one appreciate your photos of places I may never experience. Photos are the next best thing to being there!

  13. sheela says:

    Awesome & amazing endurance for a nine yr old…. Planning a climb next yr March. Bringing along my 11yr old but small in size.
    Whats your advise in terms of training ???


    • Theodora says:

      Hi Sheela! We didn’t do any training specifically. The main issues are the climb, which is like climbing a shedload of steep steps, and then back down, the altitude and the early start. This was a lot harder in the long run for me than for Zac, so I would, in all seriousness, find a towerblock and climb to the top of it every so often, or use a stairmaster.

      I don’t think there is a lot to be done about the altitude, or the early start — you could allow a day for acclimatisation at the mountain lodge but there is nothing to do there and it’s pretty chilly.

      Hope this helps! Any more questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me…

  14. Another great adventure – you really have seen the great mountains

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Paul! We’re rather bad on the Alps, in fact — or at least, I am. And I still have yet to see the Andes…

  15. congo both of you!! Trekking the mountain, its feel really awesome.

  1. August 22, 2010

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