Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mt. Kinabalu, Granite Paradise

Reports on this trip were published on the Alpinist and Climbing Magazine websites as well as the Base Camp section of a Climbing Magazine issue.
Photos by me and Boer Zhao
I came to Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo keen for one last epedition before my worldwide jounts ended for a while. I had been climbing around North America and Asia and was keen for one last taste of granite climbing before going home to Perth, Western Autralia. The trip had been thought up late one night in a bar in China and all our planning had reflected that drunken enthusiasm we had. The last trip up the mountain had been a well planned expedition with over ten separate sponsors. We had none except for our near empty bank accounts (Credit cards can be wonderful things!). Luckily for us the Park Service didn’t seem to know exactly what the term climbing meant and gave us our permit and insurance coverge thinking we were walking around siteseeing on the plateau. You should have seen the surprise on their faces when we turned up with ropes and aid gear spilling out of our oversized packs!

Mt. Kinabalu rising to 4095m ASL reaches the highest point between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The summit plataeu covers a remarkably large area and contains an abundance of granite spires ranging from 100 to 200m high. It is the youngest exposed granite body in the world having cooled only 10 million years ago compared to 80 to 100 million years ago for Yosemite and Squamish and a couple of Billion years for the granite from Perths Yilgarn Craton. The granite has the similar features that exist in Yosemite, Squamish and the bugaboos that are left from glaciation which includes striations, polishing and the regular U shaped valleys which cause most climbs to start as slabs and finish steep. The thing that stands out is the friction. I have never climbed on grit in the UK but I imagine that the friction that exists there must be akin to the fine grained granite from Mt. Kinabalu. Your feet will literally stick to almost anything. This opens up a huge range of possibilities in an area where only a handful of routes have been developed. The limiting factor so far has been the accessibility and the amount of protection the rock will allow.

Mt. Kinabalu is the centrepiece of the Kinabalu National Park, a World Heritage Site, which is accessed from Kota Kinabalu the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. The Park contains a diverse and unique biology containing many species that occur no where else in the world. The preservation of the environment is incredibly important to the locals as ecotourism is the main industry in Sabah so any expeditions up the mountain have to be run in full cooperation with the Park Service. I found that during our 2 week stay the Park Service were more than helpful and were always willing to take money off us for permits, hut fees, insurance, guide fees etc etc… After spending time on the mountain though you start to see that the money goes to good use with the park being one of the best run I have ever seen and in imaculate condition. A day hike (2 days with heavy packs) up a tourist trail leads you to the summit plataeu and a fairytale land of granite spires.

When climbing one of the first things you notice is the lack of protection. You tend to climb from flake system to flake system, all which sound hollow, rather than up traditional splitter cracks of which there are few. This lack of fracturing is likely due to the rocks young age and strength. Pitons and Bolts are a must for developing new routes of which most will contain runout slabs (A good headspace is also a must!). Despite this, the quality of the climbing is incredible and in many instances on par with the major granite destinations of North America.

The climbing isn't for everyone… Four of us headed up the mountain, Edd Stockdale, a climbing bum from Perth, Boer Zhao, a climber we met in China, Brad Stapperfenne, an ex-marine from the United States and me, also a climbing bum from Perth. The walk up took us a lousy wet two days as we refused to hire porters and were punished with packs in excess of 40kg. This was almost too much for all and Edd, whos pack was a beaten up Haul Bag, never seemed to recover. Upon Edd and Boers discovery of the run out alpine style climbing they came to a decision that alpine climbing sucked. Edd left after a few days and Boer stuck it out but prefered not to lead. Luckily Brad used to leading sandbagged 5.9s in the states and who had been
improving rapidly to the 5.12 grade on sport managed to stand up to the challenge and provided an awsome partner. The lesson learned here is that climbing on Mt. Kinabalu as in any alpine environment is torturous and to make sure you are crazy and enjoy pain before you commit to any expedition.

The opportunities are endless. During my 2 week stay I noticed an abundance of unclimbed lines, managed to get the FFA on two previous aid routes(now graded 11- and 11+), and put up The Alpine Birdy (3 pitches, 5.12b), the hardest free route on the mountain and named after Edd's views on alpine climbing and the arete also looking like a middle finger. This is hard considering you're pulling the moves at 4000m causing your lungs to work a lot harder than normal. Apart from the granite spires that litter the summit plataeu the more futuristic and greatest new route opportunities exist in a kilometre deep rift seperating thr East and Western sides of the plataeu. This rift is known as Lows Gully and a first ascent of its larger walls is most likely only going to be available to party of skilled wall climbers in siege like expedition style.

Anyone wanting to experience and add to this developing granite paradise should contact the park service atleast a month in advance and prepare for some rewarding hard work. A miniguide is present in the Climb Malaysia guide book although it doesn’t give topos or even very good discriptions of routes. It does help you get psyched though and gives you information on getting to the mountain and the spires on the plataeu. For route discriptions the best resource is the Gurkha Hut log book on the Western Plataeu. The Gurkha hut is the primary residence for climbers, sleeping four, and needs to be booked from the park service.

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