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Home > Treks > Kinabalu > Day 3 > 3.5
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Swirling Clouds of the Dead Zone

Swirling Clouds of the Dead Zone

THEY say less than fifteen percent of those who go to Kinabalu actually reach the summit. I suppose many of these people would have no desire at all to attempt the climb, instead being perfectly happy to gaze upwards from the comfort of the bottom. Others attempt the mountain yet do not reach the summit. Most of these people definitely have the physical capacity to conquer it, but as Sapinggi said the other night, physique is of little use if you don't have the mental strength.

Pilgrim ascending the trail
Pilgrim ascending the trail

The path continuing up the mountain suddenly felt long as we continued walking through the forest which was getting thinner as the ultramafic mineralization increased. This created a zone of heavily stunted vegetation, almost a dead zone. Numerous people walking down the mountain were passing us now, some were beaming that they had made it to the summit. Others just seemed relieved to be getting off the mountain.

At 2898m ASL
4.5km, 2898m ASL

Before long I reached another marker – KM4.5 2898M. I was now one hundred and one metres higher than Mount Ruapehu (Maori for two explosions, a reference to the mountain being an active volcano) – the highest mountain in the North Island of New Zealand, and a little higher than Mount Tapuae-O-Uenuku (Maori for sacred footstool of the gods), the highest mountain in the top half of the South Island. I had not done those mountains before, but already I was higher. The cloud was still very thick here, thick enough to feel the wetness from it. It was now starting to feel a little cold now that we were so high up. The track was now large broken boulders looking as if it were a dried up mountain river bed.

The undergrowth was now very thick with a small fern that appeared to be a miniature bracken fern. The forest seemed to be similar to the kanuka forest found near the cost of the top of the South Island. There were many beautiful white and dark pink flowers of all different varieties.

Flowers growing on the steps
Flowers growing on the steps

There were more people descending from the hut passing me a lot faster than I was going. Then I suddenly saw a young lady I recognised.

I met Jane a couple of days ago in the hotel reception in Kota Kinabalu. She was a young lady from Canada who we had worked out was leaving on a very similar tour to me but departing one day ahead of me. She had shared how much she wanted to climb Mount Kinabalu. I had mentioned I was going up there a day later, so we had agreed to look out for each other as we will no doubt be passing each other somewhere high up on the mountain. She had been so keen, but it was a shame that I wasn’t going to be in the same tour group as her as she had seemed very nice and I certainly wanted nice people in my tour group. Thankfully the group I was with turned out to be very nice.

Windswept scrub in the ultramafic zone
Windswept scrub in the ultramafic zone

Jane had followed the trail up to the hut overnight still bursting with enthusiasm. This morning had been a totally different story though. She was too tired to get up and attempt the summit. She said she just didn’t have it in her with the very early morning start. What a shame to have come half way around the world and gone all the way up to the base camp hut only to give up like that. We said good bye, no doubt for the last time we’d ever see each other.

I started to wonder if that would happen to me. Is this a symptom of altitude sickness? Most other people we were passing seemed to have happily reached the summit, and some of these people were surprisingly old. The high altitude had obviously not been too much of a mental barrier for them. Maybe there was hope for me.

Why is it that some people who you take one look at and decide there is no way they could climb a mountain somehow manage to find it in themselves to reach the summit, and why is it that people who seem incredibly fit fail and say it is too hard?

Then I remembered Sapinggi’s words from the other night. It is all in the mind. Sure your body needs to be in good condition for a climb like this. However as he said, ninety percent of the battle is in the mind. Jane obviously didn’t have a strong enough will to conquer this mountain despite appearing to clearly have what it took physically to reach the summit.

Now the question was would I be able to make it up? I seemed to have the physical strength having comfortably kept up with the rest of the group, but would I have the mental stamina to climb up there in the early hours of tomorrow morning to the top of a mountain higher than anything I had ever seen before?

Only time will tell.


The stunted forest suddenly cleared and the orange soil amongst the rock we were ascending changed into an even stronger shade of orange. The previous area had been ultramafic, but not at all as intense as this zone. The rock here was almost completely bare containing very little vegetation. Perhaps I had reached the tree line. The soil here was too poor to support a forest thanks to the soil being low in phosphates and high in iron and heavy metals poisonous to most plants. The trees here were no more than small windswept gnarly shrubs, similar to some of the bonsai regions I had been hiked through in the subalpine regions of New Zealand.

I passed a dwarf lady coming down a steep section making quite good progress lumbering down the mountain with ease. Good on her for climbing such a high mountain!

A few minutes later I passed a sign – Tandas – Toilet. A long drop stood leaning to its side about to fall off the mountain about two metres off the track. A thick black plastic tube went over the toilet and continued following the track right up towards Laban Rata hut.

Thick cloud swirled around us enveloping the ghoulish hulks of the windswept trees. The stairs gave way to rocks and sometimes large bare granite as we climbed higher and higher. The thick cloud concealed any view to the lower mountains and valleys which would have by now been far below us.

Climbers on the steep track
Climbers on the steep track

The group had somewhat thinned off, and I was now climbing with Robert. We were both making steady progress, but he decided to rest on a large flat rock sloping with the slope of the mountain to wait for Jessica. With that I was now climbing alone.

Just when I had become convinced the forest was about to completely end giving way to true alpine vegetation the ultramafic zone suddenly stopped and thick cloud forest covered me again. The forest was still stunted, the trees here were not standing tall as they had been further below, but they were obviously a lot healthier with better soil to grow in.

The track was now rough going over small boulders looking very much like a dry river bed. I imagined that the track would sometimes have a raging torrent running down the track in heavy rain. Fortunately there was almost no rain today, just a heavy mist.

At 3001m ASL
5.0km, 3001m ASL

I passed another marker at KM5.0 3001M where Robert and Jessica briefly caught up with me again to take my picture and to continue resting while I continued up the mountain. Now I was over three vertical kilometres above sea level, at the altitude of the highest mountains of the Southern Alps, level with Mount Aspiring. There was now a distinct chill in the air thanks to the high altitude. The temperature is supposed to drop six degrees for every thousand metres of altitude. It should therefore be eighteen degrees cooler here than at sea level.

Now I wanted to go up a bit faster to get to the hut as soon as possible. This was too remote a location for hypothermia to set in.

Maybe this mountain was too much for me.

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18 May 2010


Mount Kinabalu



2805 - 3001m ASL


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