BD employees explore world's highest via ferrata in Borneo
In mid-August 2009 three Black Diamond Quality Assurance Engineers, Nick Rueff, Jimmy Basler and Andy Merriman, made a side-trip from working at BD Asia to Borneo's Mount Kinabalu, home to the world's highest via ferrata. Below is the excellent trip report and photos Nick sent us upon returning Stateside. (Since Jimmy, Nick and Andy argue amongst each other like old hens it should be noted that most of the photos are Jimmy and Nick's and that Merriman's photos were awful, mostly point-n-shoot scenery shots and weird self-portraits...)
Since Black Diamond Equipment Asia (BDEA) was founded in Zhuhai, China in 2006, there has been a dedicated group of Salt Lake City employees that travel there on a regular basis. Because BDEA is owned and operated by Black Diamond, having Salt Lake based employees, especially Manufacturing and Quality Assurance Engineers, rotate through regularly has been necessary to maintain the level of quality BD has always been known for. While the inevitable weekend flights, long hours in the office and sometimes-questionable food make these visits challenging, the opportunity to get away for a couple days of vacation and take advantage of cheap flights to Southeast Asia makes it ultimately manageable. Andy Merriman, Jimmy Basler and I had another tour of duty scheduled for mid-August and we knew it was going to be hot and sticky in Zhuhai. We started scheming on how to get out of the brutal humidity and do something different.
After seeing video and hearing reports from BD athletes Alex Honnold, Conrad Anker and company, Mt. Kinabalu on the island of Borneo started sounding pretty good. We weren’t going to have time to climb anything but it sounded like a pretty sweet reconnaissance mission for future climbing trips with good temps at the higher elevations. We contacted Wilfred and I-Gek at Mountain Torq (www.mountaintorq.com) for some beta.
Wilfred and I-Gek are dedicated climbers with an amazing playground at their fingertips. After consulting with experts from Europe, they constructed the world’s highest elevation Via Ferrata on the western slopes of Mt. Kinabalu. They have a fleet of well trained and knowledgeable Via Ferrata guides or “trainers” that will escort guests along the series of steel cables and metal rungs up to the summit. They also own several “huts” at various locations on Mt. Kinabalu, which would serve as a good launching point for our explorations. Our plan: a mellow respite from the crushing Southeast Asia summer, scope out the amazing summit plateau for future climbing trips and log some mileage on BD’s Via Ferrata sets which we had just started partially assembling at BDEA.
Friday, August 14th
I arrived in Zhuhai, China at 11:30pm after the prerequisite 30 hours of traveling from Salt Lake City. Jimmy and Andy had already been in Asia for a couple weeks and were psyched to do something fun. I quickly repacked my bags with just what l needed for the weekend and tried to ignore the impending jet lag. After a solid 4 or 5 hours sleep, we got up and hit the road.
Saturday, August 15th
After enduring the effort required to get to the Macau airport (an ordeal that takes multiple hours and involves 2 taxi rides, 1 bus ride and 3 border crossings but is only a couple miles away as the crow flies), we get corralled onto the plane like cattle and leave. A couple hours later, we’re in Kota Kinabalu. Previously a British colony, “KK” (as it’s known to locals tired of rattling off the entire name), is a small coastal town in the Sabah region of Malaysia on the island of Borneo. Flanked on one side by the South China Sea and by dense jungle on the other, this was our starting point before heading off to Mt. Kinabalu, 90 kilometers to the east.
We catch a cab to our hostel, Borneo Backpackers, and drop our stuff. We meet up with Wilfred and I-Gek for a drink and chat about our plans for the next couple days. After a couple Tigers, we make some plans and drop off some gear for them to test and then head out to explore the night markets of KK.
We look every bit the part of the American tourist, with our western clothes and expensive cameras, and the locals stare and smile as we chase Andy through town, apparently late for something. We stumble across the night market we had been told about and start combing through the aisles, taking it all in. It’s not much different from other outdoor markets we’ve been to elsewhere in Asia, but like each of them, it has its own personality. We see all the constituents of the local Malay cuisine, a blend of Thai, Indian and Chinese foods, including hot peppers, bags of spices and strange vegetables. There is a whole section devoted to fresh caught seafood; some slowly circling in tanks, some already filleted and some carefully lain out. There are huge fish with mouths open, full of sharp teeth as well as smaller fish, every iridescent color of the rainbow.
We cross paths with a group of young locals who are very interested in our cameras. They can’t be much older than 6 or 7 years and howl with laughter when we show them the pictures we’ve taken, especially the one’s of them. They demand we take more pictures as they gather together and start throwing elaborate “gang signs”. Jimmy naturally jumps in and starts mimicking them the best he can. We’re not sure what some of the gestures mean, if anything, but they’re most likely obscene. Some of the gestures, Andy is more familiar with.
Sunday, August 16th
We’re up early, knowing a driver will soon be at the hostel to give us a ride to Mt. Kinabalu. We have a few minutes though, so we walk down the block and watch as the villagers start to set up a different market with fresh vegetables and local kitsch. As we’re heading back to the hostel, a local approaches us and asks us if we’re the Americans heading to Mt. Kinabalu. I ask him what gave us away, knowing full well we were as inconspicuous as… well, a bunch of white dudes in Asia. “Well, you look like American climbers”, was his straightforward response. And so we met our driver, a man with zero sense of sarcasm. We were also joined by Vicente, one of Mt. Torq’s dedicated employees, hired by Wilfred and I-Gek to help manage things on the mountain and serve as a “technical resource” to the trainers.
We bounced through the jungle for a couple hours as the roads became more and more winding and steep. We would catch glimpses of the summit through the trees and lingering clouds. Shortly before we got to the mountain, we stopped to get some breakfast and coffee at a small roadside stand with an amazing view of Mt. Kinabalu – or at least what would have been amazing if the sun wasn’t just rising behind it in a glare of high clouds.
We sat down to decently strong coffee, Chinese rice noodles, a couple fried eggs and donuts. Because we hadn’t eaten anything before we left, everything tasted great, especially the donuts. Andy and I must have put away six or eight just sitting there. We decided we should take some for the road, knowing we had a good hike in front of us, and virtually cleaned the lady out. Both she and Jimmy were astonished two people could possibly eat what she saw as several days worth of donuts but hey, they were tasty…
We made our way into the park and started winding up some very steep and narrow roads. After just a couple miles we arrived at the entrance to the hiking trail. I casually asked our driver roughly what the elevation was at this point.
“1866.4 meters” was his response.
“Roughly…”, I responded.
“No”, he corrected me. “Exactly”
We quickly repacked our bags, tied our shoes and started off. We came to find out that Mt. Kinabalu is highly regulated, mostly by private guiding companies. Everyone on the mountain has to have a guide with them at all times, although if extended periods of time were going to be spent on the summit plateau an “expedition permit” could be obtained which allows slightly more freedom. This can make the experience a little frustrating because everything will cost money and there isn’t an easy way to take off on your own. However, there’s no way for a motorized vehicle to get to the huts (except for helicopters in emergencies). This certainly gives the summit area a refreshingly remote feel, even though hundreds of people pass through the area daily. We quickly realized how lucky we were to have Vicente as a guide and to be staying with Mountain Torq. These guys understood we were capable and were happy to give us as much freedom as they could.
We signed in and started hiking. The trail was steep and slippery, really just a series of steps made out of rock and roots. Andy, characteristically sped off into the mist, occasionally glancing back, wondering what was taking us so long. Jimmy destroyed his ankle a couple years ago in an unfortunate bouldering accident and was having a little trouble negotiating the uneven ground. Jimmy also hates hiking, which he might have mentioned once or twice. Vicente was also having ankle issues, having just sprained it badly a few days ago. I bounced back and forth between the unnecessarily amped and the tragically infirm, torn between wanting to keep up with Andy and wanting to check on the gimps.
Overall, we gained about 1,500 meters (~5,000 ft) of elevation in about 6 km (~3.5 miles). This put us at Laban Rata, a huge “hut” nestled on a large shelf on the side of Mt. Kinabalu just below treeline at about 3,300 meters (~10,800 ft). There are additional huts surrounding Laban Rata, each owned by the various guiding companies. This is where most people stay for the night before getting up early and heading to the summit to watch the sunrise. Apparently most tourists take about 6 hours but we managed to do it in about 3.5, and that even included stopping for a while when the skies opened up about half way through. All the guides were impressed we made such good time but before I start bragging too much, let me put things into context. Each year, there is a race to the summit and back. The racecourse is 21 km’s long and gains over 2,200 meters (~7,200 ft) from top to bottom. The fastest time, to the summit and back, is around two and half hours. These guys would have done what we hiked in 3.5 hours in about 40 minutes. As if this weren’t demoralizing enough, the porters hike this trail, up and down, at least once a day, every day with enormous loads on the their backs. Remember, everything that is up at the huts – food, mattresses, propane canisters… everything – was carried up by porters. One guy apparently carried a septic tank. And the real kicker is that they usually make it up in about 2 hours and down in an hour. As much as it bothered Andy, we had nothing on these guys…
We finally arrived at Laban Rata in the pouring rain and quickly made our way to the Mountain Torq hut. We were greeted by Roland, one of Mountain Torq’s most experienced trainers and he happily showed us to our room where we could change into some dry clothes. We hung out for a bit, drinking tea, looking through what little documentation there is on climbing on the summit and chatting with the trainers. Shockingly little has been climbed on Mt. Kinabalu but what has looked phenomenal.
During this torrential rain, the plateau acted like a giant roof, collecting water and sending it down one gulley right next to Laban Rata. This resulted in an impressive temporary waterfall right outside our window. Jimmy and I talked about walking down to it to take some pictures but Roland was quick to point out that if we wanted to go exploring, we had to have a guide with us. Frustrated by the draconian control the guides have over the guests, Jimmy calmly explained to Roland, “Well, if I get caught, I’ll just tell them that I’m Vicente”. To which Vicente quickly responded, “Jimmy, you’re much too white to be Vicente”.
After a depressingly Chinese-like buffet (pronounced “boo-fay”) for dinner, we crashed. We might have stayed up a bit later but the beer was too expensive for even Jimmy. We had an early morning planned, although not nearly as early as the 34 Koreans who had just shown up. Noisy and clueless, this bumbling group was scheduled to leave the hut around two in the morning and hike to the summit just in time to catch the sunrise. I could tell all the trainers were especially excited.
A few hours later, we were all awakened by what sounded like a Korean frat party. Even burying my head under my pillow couldn’t muffle the loud, fast talking and obnoxious laughing. Finally, around 2 or 2:30 they left and we were able to sneak in a couple of hours of decent sleep.
Monday, August 17th
We reluctantly woke to the sun creeping around the corner of the mountain and a beautifully clear view of the mountain. We quickly ate some toast and drank a few cups of coffee and then were off. Roland was our trainer for the day with Vicente taking up the rear. The plan was to Via Ferrata our way to the summit plateau and then, weather permitting, hike to the summit and generally just scope the plateau for future climbing trips.
We quickly hiked up the trail to where the Via Ferrata started. The first part was very mellow; extremely low angle and almost no rungs or steps were needed to traverse across the face. It gave us the opportunity to inspect the hardware Wilfred had used and we were impressed. Everything was stainless steel, even the foot rungs and all of it was glued into place with two-part epoxy. It was clear he had done his homework and then dropped some cash to make this come together.
The other thing we noticed immediately was the effect the low angle Via Ferrata had on the equipment. They had mentioned to us that they burned through gear quickly and I could see why. Because the cables are close to the ground and the rock is at such a low angle, the Via Ferrata system is under tension almost all the time. As a result, as you walk, you tend to drag the carabiners along the cable. This wears a groove into the basket very quickly and also beats the crap out of the nose. These trainers were using this gear on a daily basis and they couldn’t afford to replace units this quickly so they had developed a creative and functional solution. They would wrap the entire nose with steel bailing wire, which would take the brunt of the wear. The steel would last longer than the aluminum and when it started to wear through, they would simply replace the wire. It was interesting to observe the difference between this Via Ferrata, currently the only one I know of in Southeast Asia, to those in Italy and Europe. The application was clearly a little different.
About half way up the Via Ferrata, the route crossed two suspension bridges and then followed a shallow dihedral to the summit. The bridges offered some nice exposure to the route and offered a stunning view of the valley below with Laban Rata in the foreground. The dihedral above actually followed a route put up by Japanese climbers many decades ago – one of the first ascents in the area. Occasionally we would pass some very old pins and 3/8” ring rivets that they had used for anchors. We even found an old RURP that was well on it’s way to rusting away completely.
As we got near the summit, clouds moved in below us leaving us feeling isolated on the huge slab of granite. However, as we pulled over the top the clouds cleared and we got our first glimpse of the massiveness of the summit plateau. Granite extended from below our feet to as far as we could see, randomly curving upward to form many distinct peaks and spires. Other than small bushes and plants there was no vegetation, which stood in stark contrast to the jungle slopes on the side of the mountain. Clouds would quickly roll in and obscure everything and then just as quickly, blow out exposing more the plateau.
We picked up the summit trail and started down it. Because clouds can move in so quickly and make it impossible to get your bearings, a thick rope has been lain out from treeline to summit providing a trail on the otherwise nondescript granite. As we made our way to the summit, more and more of the plateau came into view and we realized just how huge the potential for climbing was. All the rock we had seen so far, while climbing the Via Ferrata as well as what we were walking on on the summit, was very good – nicely textured, fine grain granite. The most difficult thing about climbing here would be deciding where to start. Only a handful of routes have been developed (I was never able to get a really good idea of how many but I got the sense it was between 50 and 100 at most, quite possibly much less) and the potential could easily stretch into the thousands. Wilfred told us there are 1,000 meter walls that have never been summited and we could easily see how this might be the case. And while there is fantastic potential for routes extending up faces 500 to 1,000 meters, there is as much or more potential for routes in the 2-5 pitch range that looked equally stunning.
30 or 40 minutes later we reached the Low’s Summit, which sits at 4,095.2 meters (13,436 ft) and offers a perfect view into Low’s Gulley. Out of Low’s Gulley extends a wall over 1,000 meters tall and is where Alex, Conrad and team had put up their route. It was fascinating to be perched on an ocean of granite looking down into valley that deep. It offers a perspective in complete contrast to that of places like Yosemite where the walls skyscraper overhead but one no less impressive. It’s only a matter of time before this place starts seeing a lot more climbing traffic.
Clouds were starting to build so we made our way back down the summit trail as quickly as we could. We arrived back at the hut just as the clouds started to open up. We ate some lunch and passed out for a bit, woken only briefly by a short but intense hailstorm. Dinner was the identical boo-fay we had the night before so we ate quickly and called it an early night. We had to hike out the following morning and make our way back to KK.
Tuesday, August 18th
Sometime early in the night we were awoken by muffled retching. A second later, the overhead light snapped on and we could see Jimmy bent over the garbage can puking his guts out.
“Jimmy, what the hell are you doing?” Andy asked in his typically sympathetic way.
“Bleaaagh”, Jimmy responded. “I was lying in bed and all of a sudden, I just felt like puking”
Andy and I started getting worried. Whatever Jimmy had eaten, we had most likely eaten it too. “Well, are you going to make it? Because all this puking is making me want to puke.” Nothing but concern from Andy. Jimmy sat back against the wall with his head between his knees and said he thought he’d be all right.
Andy and I drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally coming to as Jimmy’s stomach tried to get rid of something that was clearly no longer there. Finally, I rolled over and looked at my watch, which said it was just a bit before seven. Jimmy had made it back into bed and had even started to get some water down but he hadn’t really slept.
Andy and I had some breakfast and coffee but Jimmy wasn’t willing to try yet. We packed our stuff and started hiking out. We took it slow, mainly for Jimmy, who wasn’t looking too hot. At one point, he seriously asked how much it cost to get heli-lifted out but our guide just laughed and said a porter would carry him out before they called a helicopter. I think Jimmy probably thought about it for a minute.
After what seemed like eternity but in reality was only three hours, we arrived back at the gate and jumped in a van. Two hours after bumping and winding down mountain roads, we make it back to Kota Kinabalu. We had a few hours before we scheduled to meet up with Wilfred and I-Gek for dinner. Jimmy jumped on the chance to catch up on some sleep while Andy and I walked around KK a bit more.
Before too long Wilfred and I-Gek arrived and we walked down to an Italian restaurant. They had heard that Jimmy wasn’t feeling too well and decided pasta would probably be a better option than spicy curries and other local dishes. Wilfred and I-Gek were quick to recount what they had heard from the trainers.
“Vicente and Roland say you guys have fast feet. They also tell me you eat a lot”.
That sounded about right.
After dinner we walked back to the hostel, ready to catch some sleep before getting up early to catch our flight back to Macau. We thanked Wilfred and I-Gek for their hospitality and promised we’d be back soon. We had only been there a few days but we were sold. Mount Kinabalu is a unique and wild place with enormous potential for climbing that we had only just started to truly understand. The climbing community there is very small but they are hungry for people to visit and develop routes. They know they have something special and are just waiting for others to find out. We’ll be heading back – for sure…
— Nick Rueff