Every day scores of people from around the world make a smooth climb up Mount Kinabalu, southeast Asia’s highest peak, to watch a spectacular sunrise over the rainforest island of Borneo.
High winds can send wind-chill temperatures at nightfall to below freezing near the top of the mountain, even though it lies some 600 km north of the equator.
Legend has it that a dragon guards the entrance to Low’s Gully beneath the summit. Tribal people believe the gully is the resting place of the souls of their dead.
Every year about 30,000 people conquer the mountain on the northern tip of Borneo, trudging up through dense forest to emerge on a rocky alpine plateau.
The climb up the mountain on a well-defined path is usually easy but some trekkers suffer dizziness, nausea and exhaustion because of the altitude as they make their final push up the summit.
Species found in Kinabalu represent more than half of the world’s flowering plants, including the bizarre insect-eating pitcher plant and the rare Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower, which measures 90 centimetres across.
The climb starts from park headquarters, only a couple of hours drive from the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu, but already more than 1,500 metres above sea level.
Most people take the easy route to the summit, Low’s Peak, striding up rock-hewn steps, helped by ropes pegged to the mountain wall. The summit is named after its first conqueror – Sir Hugh Low who climbed it in 1851.
It normally takes five hours or more to go from the base of the mountain to a rest house near the top.
Many people stay there or at chalets nearby, sheltered from the freezing temperatures, before beginning a final ascent at 2.00 am, timing their arrival for daybreak three hours later.
“You’ll be rewarded with a beautiful sunrise as well as a glimpse of the southern islands of the Philippines,” Dusun guide Michael Gimpopon said.
More a trek than a climb, it is still a tough walk and altitude sickness can take its toll. “The air is thinner, harder to breathe,” Gimpopon said.
Veteran climber Wan Abdul Rahman Wan Abdullah says the descent is riskier than the climb up.
“The only difficult thing about climbing Mount Kinabalu is adjusting to the altitude. But coming down is more physical as it is slippery and you have to avoid getting cramps and sprains.”
The jungle on the lower reaches of the mountain poses few dangers, but the upper slopes can be slippery from rain and moist mosses can be treacherous.
“You can survive the jungle but once you slip and fall into the ravine, that’s the end of it,” Wan Abdul said.
Two Malaysian climbers disappeared without a trace 10 years ago, and a young boy was lost in the early 1970′s.
But 18 British soldiers were luckier. They were missing for about a month in 1994 after becoming stranded while trying to abseil down from Low’s Peak. They lost their bearings in a heavily forested area and were only fo
und after one party went in s
earch of help.
A fourth person died at the summit, another 17-year-old girl, who suffered a heart attack in the thin air.