I told a tale some months ago, of my childhood interest in mountain adventures, ending with the point at which my plans for Kinabalu crystallised. I still plan to post (better a couple of years late than never, right?) an account of the ascent in a later blogpost, together with some photos so that climbers-to-be reading this can hopefully have an idea of what to expect. One of my bugbears prior to the climb, at the time, was that I had no idea what to expect because publicly-available photos of what the route along the Summit Trail looked like were hard to come by!
This post reminisces my four months or so of ‘training’ between December 2010 and April 2011, memories that resurfaced when my running-group friends recently decided to take on Kinabalu in May 2014 subsequent to running 21Ks at the 2014 Borneo International Marathon. Kota Kinabalu is one of my favourite cities (both for adventure and the food!), and I will be joining the group for the Half at the BIM, though not up the mountain – for me, thin air has a significant dampening effect on stamina, and I don’t feel that I will be sufficiently fit to meet the mountain again, just yet. (Unfortunately, running after an independent-minded 1-year-old apparently doesn’t quite count as sufficient training.)
Aiyah, the danged knee
Yes, I have typed ‘training’ in quotation marks – just to make sure I set the right expectations! Don’t expect high-intensity trail boot camps in this post.. Keywords to take note: Bad knees. Other keywords: Yes, I made it to the summit and back in one piece, and also slow enough for Timpohon Gate to admit me as its last descending climber for the day at 5pm and then immediately shut the gate behind me as I clambered up the final steps to the shelter.
Here’s a bit of background to my climb. It wasn’t easy finding people who also thought Kinabalu might be their cup of tea and that they were ready to give it a try, and after I did (in the form of a loosely-framed ‘Yes! Let’s!’ amongst a few MBA classmates after submitting our dissertations, and a good measure of enthusiasm from the hubby, who owns a coloured* Mount Kinabalu certificate from his college days), I had dislocations of my left patella in 2005 and then 2009 (the injuries were by-and-large dance-related) that dashed any hopes of doing any form of uphill exertion for some years. At the end of 2010, I finally decided that I would meet the mountain in 2011 or bust.
* Trivia: A certificate printed in full colour indicates you made it to the summit – otherwise you receive a black-and-white version with a note of the elevation of the last checkpoint you got to.
I had not yet started running – it was in fact Kinabalu training – a bit of running as a sort of variety in between the long walks or hikes – that got me into the sport.
However, I wasn’t commencing fitness build-up from zero, as I had been doing pilates regularly for about 3 years at the time, in addition to rhythm tap classes twice a week. While that meant that I had more in hand than the average sedentary office-worker who made periodic appearances at the gym, I was well aware that the mountain was not to be taken lightly – hours of steps uphill and hours of steps downhill would be a strain on any knee, much less my twice-bashed left knee and the overtired right knee that had been compensating for the left. Training, and conditioning, was essential.
‘Training’ took place at various locations in Kuala Lumpur/Selangor, some more frequented than others (mostly depending on which was more conveniently located!) Since this is meant to be a single post on Kinabalu training, I have not gone into detail about the individual trails, but rather provided summaries of the various experiences. I would have liked to have hiked some of the hills out of town, but we did not manage to find the time within those three to four months that we had. Ah well, fodder for future trips/posts 🙂
We started by taking stock of hills in KL/Selangor that we could organise fairly straightforward day outings to. Broga Hill (approx 400m ASL) was popular and well-documented, and I had hiked it once in 2009, so we decided to kick-off the training season with a revisit of Broga Hill together with some friends who happened to need guides for going up Broga. Broga’s great for the views at the top and the grassy landscape that lends a picturesque, almost English-countryside feel to the scenery, and is an easy hike (it shouldn’t take you more than 45 minutes each for the ascent and descent), but if it’s mountain training you’re after, do note that it isn’t reflective of what Kinabalu would be like.
If you’ve never hiked up a hill and would like to start somewhere, then yes, Broga’s great for group outings, either in the early morning (a 4-5am start if you’d like to see the sunrise, otherwise a 6-7am start isn’t too bad either) or, as some of my colleagues have done, in the late afternoon about 4pm after the heat of the sun has gone past its peak hours. After an initial hike through an oil palm estate and a muddy trail through some forest, the hill, with paths in the long grass snaking across its three or four knolls (or peaks, if you like), is completely exposed – so do bring sun protection. Some drawbacks of Broga Hill is that the trail has become quite barren due to the hordes that trample on it weekend after weekend, and loose soil on the steeper parts of the trail can be dangerous even with good shoes. Something else that stems from the hill’s popularity is that one may arrive at the top of the first grassy knoll only to be met with a large crowd puffing away at cigarettes to ‘reward’ their effort while admiring the view – IMHO, hardly the ideal culmination of a Sunday morning hill hike.. and the slopes of the hill can be really packed on weekends – and I mean really packed…
A more difficult, and much less frequented, jungle trail continues on from the third peak of Broga Hill towards Gunung Tok Wan (675m ASL) which I have not attempted.
Mt Nuang (up to Kem Lolo)
Gunung (or Mount) Nuang, at 1,498m ASL, is the highest peak in the state of Selangor, and is a place of diverse experiences – even if you only went up to Kem (Camp) Lolo at 510m ASL, as we did. The full summit trail is tough (based on accounts of experienced hikers) and probably best undertaken with people who know the trail well. Nuang has also recently been the site of a trail ultramarathon of sorts where participants run back and forth along the 5km gravel trail (a 10K loop) as many times (and at least 4x) as they can between 6am and 6pm. Nuang has trailheads at Janda Baik (on the Pahang side of the mountain), Pangsoon, Hulu Langat (Selangor) and Kemensah (Gombak, Selangor). The trail to Kem Lolo begins from Hulu Langat. (Ed: I recently found out about ‘Trans Nuang‘ – a trail for the hard-core spans the route between the Janda Baik and Hulu Langat trailheads, via the summit, including a return hike to the trailhead you started from, covering a Marathon distance over an elevation of close to 3,000m.)
The drive to Nuang itself is picturesque – a turnoff after the 9th-Mile Cheras-Kajang highway tollbooth takes you past villages that get smaller, and greener, as you drive towards Pangsoon in the interior. When you get to the carpark at the foot of Nuang (which we did at 8am), 25km from the tollbooth, there is nothing but the cool morning mist and invigorating morning air that beckons you to the slopes of the mountain. Our Nuang hike in January 2011 started with the 5K of seemingly endless, mostly gently-sloping, gravel/dirt/mud trail. The slight incline can look deceptively simple at the start, but going on foot over uneven terrain for a couple of kilometres can slowly take a toll on you. At the end of the gravel trail, the landscape quickly changes and we then follow an almost-hidden stretch of a rather more damp, leaf-covered (and slippery) path beside a stream. The trail is often fairly visible, but we did spend some moments checking for a proper stream crossing.
After finding the stream crossing (indicated, at the time, by a small sawn-off section of a fallen tree trunk), the trail continues up a steeper slope of stone-and-mud terrain, by a moss-covered pipeline, for about 20 minutes before reaching the small Langat Dam, where one can take a breather and have a late breakfast (or in our case, lunch as it was close to 12pm when we got there) before continuing on for a short while to Kem Lolo, just slightly further upstream. The trail would proceed on to other Camps en route to the summit, but we had not planned to summit that day, so Kem Lolo was were we turned back. A hike at a leisurely pace the same way back takes you back down in time for a late lunch (or tea!) back in Cheras (ours was bak kut teh in Taman Midah!) This is, of course, provided the weather is fair; rain would probably reduce the mud paths to mudslides. We’re looking to summit Nuang in the future, with experienced guides – and I shall record details of that expedition when that happens!
Nuang is a test of fitness, of one’s resilience over various terrains, and also a test of how hardy your hiking shoes are (P.S. please leave your sneakers and tennis shoes at home!) Hubby’s some-years-old pair finally gave up the ghost (we sourced for pieces of raffia left behind at the Kem Lolo camping ground to secure the soles to the uppers) though my slightly-newer pair fared all right. The changing sceneries at various sections – from secondary forest to bamboo to lush greenery fueled by a gurgling stream – are a feast for the eyes. There will be leeches. Bring some salt, or tea tree oil (a useful disinfectant). Do bring plenty of food and water, a first-aid kit, rainwear, and headlamps, particularly if you’re starting out early (these rules would apply for any hike, for that matter, even Broga). A change of clothes back at your car may be handy, too.
Bukit Gasing, or Gasing Hill, is an oasis of green right in our backyard, amid the bustling arteries of Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur. A quick web search will turn up many sites (mostly blogs) with overviews of the Gasing Hill trails. We only went on short trails at Gasing a few times, and then stopped, largely due to concerns of safety and security at the time. During all our outings there, we would always end up being escorted on the trails by regular trail walkers, who would emphatically advise us to stay in groups and to store away our cameras – thefts of DSLRs had taken place, apparently, at the fringes of the hill; deftly and swiftly grabbed from the hands of unsuspecting photographers. They shared with us, and with other fellow regulars they met along the trails, recent reports of thefts and even an attempted kidnapping, it seemed. (NB. All this was back in 2010/11 before the widely-reported incident in 2013 of a woman being fatally stabbed by robbers on a motorbike, while walking on the perimeter road.) After three consecutive encounters with regulars who regaled us with grim stories and earnest warnings each time, we decided to look for a different training ground, for peace of mind, as there were just the two of us training – which was a shame as Gasing Hill was not only convenient to get to; it had so many interesting (and appropriate) trails to offer (looking back now, the Gasing Hill trails would have been a fair introduction to the earlier parts of the Kinabalu summit trail). In 2013, in the aftermath of the unfortunate stabbing incident, the race director of the Malaysia Women Marathon organised a gathering at Gasing Hill to make a stand for a safer environment for women and their families to partake in outdoor activties. I do hope that the awareness raised has somehow made Gasing Hill a safer place for all. Development around Bukit Gasing has been in the limelight in recent years, and residents and NGOs have teamed up to to save what is one of the last green lungs in the Klang Valley (see also their Facebook profile). Bukit Gasing was also mentioned in a statement on urban green areas issued jointly by WWF-Malaysia and the Malaysian Nature Society.
FRIM (Forest Research Institute Malaysia)
FRIM has long been a popular walking, hiking and picnicking venue for families and outdoor enthusiasts, and the Canopy Walk Trail that is great training ground for Kinabalu climbers (indeed, we came across groups of other people training for Kinabalu who would do back-and-forth loops of the trail with weighted backpacks). To get to the Canopy Walk Trail, follow signs toward the park’s Canopy Walk. The way in starts off on a simple wide gravel trail/rover track, popular with cyclists and families. After some distance on the rover track, you will see signages that indicate a detour that will take you off the gravel path onto a proper forest trail. The trail eventually gets you to the canopy walk entrance hut. (There is need to do the canopy walk.) The trail eventually finds its way to the banks of the River Kroh, and meets the main rover trail again at a waterfall area, a perfect site for a late-morning snack. This not-to-scale trail map (at the bottom of the webpage, which is on the FRIM website) gives you an idea of the route.
…has hilly tarmac roads that are closed to traffic (save for the occasional motorcycle ridden by a guard on duty), that are very popular with walkers on mornings and weekends. Two to three rounds of brisk walking while carrying a suitably weighted backpack (6-8kg may be indicative of the stuff you might be carrying up Kinabalu, but do do your own inventory just to be sure!) can be quite a cardio workout. Warning: If you haven’t had recent regular exercise, one loop may well be sufficient to push your limits on your first try. Listen to your body : ) A 1km asphalt slope starts from the guardhouse at the bottom of the hill, to a crossroads at the crest where you would start your loops by either turning left onto a path that begins rather flatly, or going straight on towards a steep downhill. (The road on the right is not connected to the loop.) Try your loop both directions – each has its challenges. Many also run on this route, though I don’t as the gradient is a little extreme for my quick-to-ache knees. Kiara Hill has an extensive network of mountain biking trails as well (check out this detailed map too, from the same site), and groups also do trail runs on these (yes, unpaved) paths. It’s best to attempt these trails with someone who is familiar with them as the hill covers a vast area amongst the fringes of Taman Tun, Hartamas, Mont’Kiara, Kampung Sungai Penchala and Segambut.
Upper-body strength training
I mentioned, in the section on Gasing Hill, the ‘earlier part’ of the Kinabalu summit trail. I’ll post more on the changes of terrain in the trail in the post that I will put up on Kinabalu itself, but as a rough guide, there is a forest trail you will encounter on your first day and at the start of the early-morning ascent, which will give way quite suddenly, in the dark, to climbing over a granite rock surface, all the way to the summit. At the time, I felt that I would have done better on the rockface if I had had more upper-body strength training – it was almost a cruel jolt to the arms and shoulders to suddenly have to grip rope, after a whole day of significantly leg-muscle usage. The jolt was admittedly a little harder for me, as I had an unexpected setback I encountered during the push for the summit on the morning of the second day. My hiking boots suddenly lost all traction on the first rockface that climbers encounter after emerging from the last steps of the forest trail. While the rock was wet and slippery, everyone else managed to scramble over without much fuss, with the assistance of the guides. I was stuck for some minutes – every step I made with either feet ended up as a slide over what seemed to be frictionless rock. While I was surprisingly calm given the various thoughts that were racing through my mind (from ‘I can’t turn back now!’ to ‘What if I fell? Is there even anything past this rockface?’ to ‘Is it going to be like this all the way up?’ and ultimately ‘If I make it up, what’s gonna happen when I come down later?’), I couldn’t muster enough strength to pull myself up on the rope by relying on only my arms to support my bodyweight. I do recall being adamant on not giving up, and ended up inching up with my arms and my belly, with two guides pushing me upwards by the soles of my feet. (The rest of the granite trail was, fortunately, not as eventful.) You would probably be curious to ask how I handled the way down? Our guide, supporting himself solely on the suction of his adidas kampung, used his hands to fashion out ‘steps’ on that short yet treacherous stretch of wet rock, for me to inch my way down on my shoes that suddenly turned frictionless at that section, half-sitting all the way. By then, the sun was up and I could see the steep rockface, and we asked with some trepidation, upon safe descent, if people have ever slipped at that section. Our guide politely declined to give an answer. It wouldn’t be too much to say that on the granite trail, my life on that mountain that morning was in the hands of our trusty guide, Jonius.
Epsom salt baths
As with running, don’t forget to warm-up and stretch before after your hike! And, if you’d like to try – there’s epsom salt baths. Some swear by this. A colleague who had a positive experience from epsom salt baths during Kinabalu training passed on this recommendation, which I tried since I was quite eager to remain ache-free. Epsom salts are said to provide relief for muscular aches & stiffness of joints. Soaking in a hot epsom salt bath did seem to make for a therapeutic experience during post-exercise recovery; though it’s not clear if that was just the effect of the hot water itself. Ah well, a box of the stuff at a pharmacy costs just a couple of dollars (if you’re lucky you may find a shop that sells them in bags by the kilos) – so feel free to try it out and see if it works for you!