Friday, June 29, 2012

Walking the Torq on Gunung Kinabalu Via Ferrata

9th June 2012, my second time standing on the summit of Mount Kinabalu, world heritage site and arguably the highest mountain this side of South East Asia at 4095m above sea level. My hike up from the base camp at Laban Rata, about 2.7km away and 3270m above sea level took about 3 ½ hours, the lower levels of oxygen and pitch darkness not helping.

Sunrise on Kinabalu...
By 5:30am, we can already see the first haloes of light that preceded the rising sun, such as it is here in the most Easternmost state of the Federation of Malaysia with clocks generally set to the same time zone as the federal capital, Kuala Lumpur, 1679km away over the South China Sea. I was halfway up the final outcrop of rock to Low’s Peak then, huffing and puffing in the thin air.

But this blog entry isn’t about my hike to the summit of Kinabalu, rather it is going to be about the trail down or more accurately the DETOUR down VIA FERRATA. :)

Conquering Kinabalu for the 2nd time! :D
Touted as the highest cable and rope trek at 3776m above sea level, the two circuits on Kinabalu currently available at the time of writing is managed by a company called Mountain Torq.

These circuits are the lengthy 'Low’s Peak Circuit' at 1.2km and the relatively shorter 'Walk the Torq Circuit' at about 430m. Mountain Torq has an office down at the Kinabalu Sanctuary Lodge Main Office area although walk-in requests to join a tour can be quite impossible judging by the trek’s increasing popularity. It is best that you make a reservation 6 months in advance.
The circuits offered for Via Ferrata. We took the long orang line, Low's Peak Circuit. The green represents the shorter Walk the Torq circuit while the blue is the 'traditional' route up and down the summit of Kinabalu.

For this trip, my friend Yee Wei booked us with a tour agent in Kota Kinabalu that arranged for a 3D2N package. Total cost for the whole thing is about RM1179 (not inclusive of flight) and heavy up front payment (>70% in my case, 6 months before the trip) is required for confirmation.
Price List displayed for the Circuits as well as some souvenirs ;) (Correct at time of visit, please call to confirm) ;)
The cost seems a far cry from the RM500+ I paid 5 years ago in my first attempt at Kinabalu. However there was no Mountain Torq then although my package did include Padas River and Poring Hot Spring Visit aside from the compulsory Kinabalu climb (Mesilau and Timpohon routes). Admitedly, prices for Kinabalu packages have skyrocketed in recent years for a host of reasons. :p
Mountain Torq's office at the Sanctuary Lodge, Kinabalu.
For adventurers already booked with their package, lodging is provided by Mountain Torq's very own Pendant Hut hostel in Laban Rata. Spartanly arranged, expect to sleep on bunks with thin mattresses with thermal sleeping bags to keep you warm (surprisingly very effective!). 
Spartan trappings for the night, sleep tight and hope no one snores... ;)
The electric heaters for showers works intermittently and are not very reliable, bathing in icy cold water is a distinct probability. Also, the hostel seems ‘unheated’ (indoor temperatures around 9oC) so bring some sweaters and warm clothing, just to sit in the mess hall.
Inside the Pendant Hut. Notice the strong wind and rain outside... Brrrrr....
Dinner is provided at Laban Rata, which requires a walk down wooden steps from the Hut in the open freezing air to get there. If it rains, good luck! :D Bring a poncho with you on the way up just in case (an umbrella wouldn't work due to the very strong winds).
Dinner at Laban Rata, after walking through driving FREEZING rain!
To their credit, the food at Laban Rata Restaurant has improved VASTLY! :D Other necessities can be obtained at their convenience store located in one corner of the restaurant (at slightly higher prices of course!)
Breakfast and Lunch will be at the Pendant Hut and features baked beans, sausages and toasted bread accompanied with some peanut butter and fruit jam.

Timetables are followed very strictly when it comes to the initial course briefing as well as the beginning of the actual trek. Participants are warned that their trek can be easily forfeited should they fail to attend the course briefing held at around 3pm the day before the trek or if they are late arriving at the start point of the mountain circuit the next day. No refunds are apparently given. Penalties will be charged if you are late checking out.
Briefing at Pendant Hut conducted by your friendly neighbourhood guide... Don't miss it!
Thus as I basked at the ‘triumph’ of conquering Kinabalu once again, half of my mind was already thinking that it was time to hurry down before we missed the boat.

The start point for Low's Peak Circuit
By the time I got down to the start point from the summit, about 1.2km away, it was already 7:15am in the morning. At this point in time, I was still recovering from the early morning hike. 2 other friends (Eu Jin and Terence) were with me out of our initial team of 11 that summitted Kinabalu early in the morning. The rest were either still struggling up the final stretch, sitting at the top taking photos or descending the summit somewhere behind.

By 730am, we were joined by two others, the trip organizer, Yee Wei and his friend. :)

We suited up, myself following what I have learnt from the briefing session the day before, although the guides were quite helpful in tightening up all those straps and making sure everything is properly mounted. 
Yes, it's safe... :D (Unless if you are some
suicidal crazy)

There are three fail-safes. Aside from the two carabiners attached securely on the worn harness which will be attached to a steel cable later on, there is an additional sturdy climbing rope also tied on to the harnesses of all participants. This rope will be looped around the steel rings (pre-)rammed into the solid granite wall of the mountain. So, if someone is to be so absent minded as to not hook the two carabiners onto the steel cable and fell, there is this still last length of rope tied to the group which will arrest their fall. Of course, at least one member of the group should have their carabiners similarly hooked onto the cable for the formula to work. Unless everyone (including the guide) is high on something and all didn’t do the needful, then the result would be a great red smear on the bottom of the mountain. :p

We were split into two groups. One consisting of Yee Wei and his friend, while my group consisted of Eu Jin, Terence and myself. Each group has a guide acting as the ‘anchor’.

We had to nominate a ‘leader’ for each group, whose responsibility aside from defying ‘death’ is to be the first in our train and therefore responsible to loop the rope around the series of steel rings running the length of the circuit at spaces of approximately 3 meters.

Having finally strapped on our helmets and taking the necessary pictures, we then moved to the edge.

The start of the Low’s Peak Circuit is dramatic, a 600m drop welcoming us just a few meters from the start point. It was so dramatic, that one of my group, Terence, loss heart and requested to be ‘relieved’ of his harness and gear. He opted to return back to Laban Rata the traditional way. That left Eu Jin, myself and our ‘anchor’ Ah Liow (he is Kadazan Dusun (I think) by the way).
Yee Wei and friend going over the 'edge'. Notice the steel rings for footholds. ;)
Two other members of our group arrived just as Terence got himself out of his gear. It was pass the 730am start time and although his withdrawal necessitated a minor reformation of the community rope and group arrangement, pleas from the two to join Eu Jin and I were flatly refused, the guide citing 'policy'.

He'll be climbing down the mountain when he comes... :)
Eu Jin and I soldiered on, the other group consisting of Yee Wei and friend already moving down the vertical wall of the mountain. At first it was indeed daunting. I was thinking it was going to be some abseiling thing all the way down the 600m vertical wall until to my relief, I saw metal footholds also hammered in on strategic points. But mind you, they are not there ALL the time. At certain points, it will be literally the bare rock wall against the sole of your shoe so make you have a GOOD shoe for the descent. Slippers/sandals are NOT ALLOWED (You’ll never make it pass the guide anyway). I also emphasized the ‘GOOD’ in the shoe as you don’t want your sole peeling off halfway down. You’d really going to suffer if it happens as the leverage would then have to go to your arms and shoulders for support. Also, despite the brochure saying that you should be above 1.3m tall to do the circuits, I felt the spacing of the footholds might be tad bit wide, requiring a 5'10" guy like me to still do an occasional little bit of yogic 'stretching' to reach the next foothold.

After a while, the initially complex process of looping the guide rope around the steel rings, transferring each carabiner over the ring by unhooking it from the steel cable and the rehooking it on the same cable on the other side of the steel ring becomes second nature. You’d have plenty of practice because on the entire length of the circuit there would probably be hundreds of times to do this.

Horizontal movement...
The view is of course breath-taking. At this height, Laban Rata lodge would be the size of your handphone if not hidden by the occasional cloud that rises from the ground below. On a good day, the valley beyond Kinabalu can also be seen (the town of Ranau and Keningau) as well as distant Kota Kinabalu. Of course, a clear unobstructed view also means no shade or protection from the blazing sun.

You will be sun burnt and you will get dehydrated as the rising sun directly shines on this side of the mountain. Sun tan lotion is recommended while bringing at least enough water via either a hydration pack or a small container is a necessity. A small 500ml bottle might just be enough for the first segment before reaching a small pool lower down to replenish it with mountain ‘dew’… er water. ;)

After the first ‘plummet’ of 600m, the trek changes direction to skirt horizontally around the side of the mountain. It then resumes the drop, ending under the shade of a mountain ‘forest’ located on a ledge. There were perhaps a couple spots on the trail (which is nothing more than a ledge on the mountain side) for real rest but when it does come, it’s a welcome relief and a good opportunity to sip some water. 

Taking a break by a ledge. Time to whip out the camera...
There is of course two lengths of ‘bridges’ to contend with before reaching the forested shelter. The first was fashioned from steel ropes and a wooden plank, it is way easier to cross than the second one which is similar to one on the Walk the Torq circuit. :p That one consists of 3 steel cables. Two at shoulder level, one at the bottom for foot travel. ;) 
Crossing a 'bridge'... this was the EASY one

It took us almost 3 hours to finish the first segment of the Low’s Peak Circuit, which is literally the climb down from the start point to the mountain forest below. In retrospec, my thought was that the first segment was a tad bit too long prior to a break.

The mid morning sun was already high and the thin air combined with the rising heat can take it’s toll on already tired bodies. We took a brief 30 min break before trekking thru the forest, rope removed, carabiners stowed away and harness still worn. Our destination, another length of cables and rings, the link to ‘Walk the Torq’ circuit. There are no ‘escape routes’ if you want to ‘skip’ this section. Apparently, once you go down the path, you are committed to finish it, all the way. :p ;)
Vertical Limit: Tranversing over a flimsy cable of the 2nd 'bridge'.
Trekking through the forest isn’t really your walk in Gasing Hill Park either. In fact you’d have to contend with low hanging tree branches, entangling roots and loose boulders as you literally scramble down the mountain. Crouching, crawling, balancing and squeezing through tight spots would take up most of the ‘trekking’ than mere ‘walking’.
'Jungle Trek'?! More like Commando crawl!

The good news is that there is a water hole on the trek, just before the start of the next segment. Resembling some Eastern Mediterranean oasis, it is a welcomed relief. Here, you can refill your canteen, water container or hydration pack with mountain water if you are not adverse to drinking the untreated stuff. :p ;) If you are, prepare to bring MORE when you start.

I was actually moaning at having to do another circuit when I saw the sun baked side of the mountain that we have to negotiate before the finish line. I had taken off my heavy leather jacket when a gust of chilly wind blew up clouds of mist from the valley dropping the temperature down again significantly. I put my jacket back on, knowing that once strapped, it will be neigh impossible to take it off (safely).
Clearing the forest section of the circuit and viewing the 'Walk the Torq' segment...
For the next segment, I took the lead from Eu Jin on the recommendation of the guide. Not sure if it’s lack of oxygen or the loss of a sole from one of his boots, but he has been fumbling with the ropes a little earlier on. ;)

We moved, the prospect of seeing our journey’s end spurring us on. On this trek, there were a few branches that led back up the mountain. Those are for the people taking the ‘Walk the Torq’ circuit exclusively, the way up for us was the way down for them on the main trek. I believe their start point was an hour later from ours around 830am. The guide pointed us to continue the right way.

Yee Wei skirting around the mountain
Once more we skirted around the mountain horizontally. There appears to be more ‘aids’ here than on the previous segment, long hand bars making an appearance on the mountain wall. Ah Liow taught us a method of hanging back and letting the harness shoulder the weight of our bodies instead of pasting ourselves to the rock wall, greatly aiding our movement.

By the time we reached the ‘bridge’ on this trek, I was dog tired. :p

As mentioned above, it consisted of just three steel cables, one on each side at chest level and a single one for footing. It was not easy to cross. In fact I was supporting myself with my arms and shoulders so as not to slip off the single tightrope.

The end of the trail was in sight a short while later, almost 5 hours from the start of hike. It actually connects with the traditional way up the summit at the point where wooden staircases led up from the huts and lodges of Laban Rata. 
Yee Wei and friend at the exit...

Eu Jin and I finished the trek, reaching the welcomed shelter of trees from the beating warmth of the afternoon sun. We removed the ropes and handed it to Ah Liow, although we had to bring our harness, carabiners and helmet back to Pendant Hut on our own.

By the time we reached Pendant Hut, the others that couldn’t make it to the Low’s Peak Circuit (losing a few hundred bucks in the process) was gone, already moving down the mountain to meet up with the van that will ferry us all to Kota Kinabalu for the night. There is a checkout time for the hut, failing which there will be penalties paid for every hour stuff are left behind in the room. Ours, because we took the longer route was 11:30am, but even with that additional ‘allowance’ we returned to the hut only at 2:00pm. Fortunately, our friends have helped us packed up and moved our bags to the mess hall.
Resting in the mess hall after a strenous climb... :) "Boss! Teh tarik satu?"
We wolved down our lunch of toasted bread, sausages and baked beans. By 3pm it was time to push off, a little late really to leave Laban Rata for Timpohon Gate since sunset arrives earlier here at 6:00pm. It was a race to the bottom not only to beat the sun but for me exclusively to also catch the flight back to Kuala Lumpur at 10:45pm. Unlike the others, I will not be staying the night in Kota Kinabalu.

Leaving my bag to the porter and carrying a small bag, I literally flew down the mountain to arrive at Timpohon Gate at 5:45pm. From there it is an additional 2 hour drive through a single carriageway to the airport.

The Reward for all the HARD WORK!
Now back to Via Ferrata :).

Unless you are in really good shape, I would consider adding an additional night in Laban Rata, either to do the summit trail and Via Ferrata on the same day and rest a night before descending OR doing the summit trail and Via Ferrata separately in two days, the last day descending back to base camp.

Doing the summit trail and via ferrata together might be risky though, testament to the 7 other friends of mine who could not make it on time to the start point at 730am for the Low’s Peak Circuit. They were of course of various fitness levels ranging from didn’t train in any significant way prior to our trip to somewhat regular weekend jungle trekking (Apeh Hill) in the last few months. Even if all of us made it to the trek, a single person with a muscle cramp on the Low’s Peak Circuit will significantly delay the rest as most of us would be tethered to one another. Time will be at a premium especially if failing to meet the schedule might incur hefty penalties or cancellation of subsequent plans. Keep in mind, guides do charge ‘overtime’ fees if they have to spend time with you after the sun sets on the trail out.
Nothing beats eating Maggee Curry in the cold weather! :D Yummm...
Overall, it was a very interesting and exciting detour from the usual hum drum of the trek down the summit. It is however, extremely challenging especially if you intend to complete the summit trail and then go down to the base camp on the same day! A healthy awareness of one’s physical as well as mental health is important. This is NOT skytrek (in Shah Alam). ;)

Until next time... "Selamat Mendaki!" ;)