Mount Kinabalu's high wire act up in the clouds

Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above and left) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. Via Ferrata trekkers cross a monkey bridge along Walk The Torq, a beginner's route (right). Via Ferrata trekkers cro
Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above and left) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. Via Ferrata trekkers cross a monkey bridge along Walk The Torq, a beginner's route (right). Via Ferrata trekkers cross a narrow bridge (above) on the more challenging Low's Peak Circuit on Mount Kinabalu.
Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. -- PHOTO: MOUNTAIN TORQ
Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. -- PHOTO: MOUNTAIN TORQPHOTOS: JOHN MARTIN GATIJIN, MOUNTAIN TORQ, LEE SIEW HUA
Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above and left) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. Via Ferrata trekkers cross a monkey bridge along Walk The Torq, a beginner's route (right). Via Ferrata trekkers cro
Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above and left) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. Via Ferrata trekkers cross a monkey bridge along Walk The Torq, a beginner's route (right). Via Ferrata trekkers cross a narrow bridge (above) on the more challenging Low's Peak Circuit on Mount Kinabalu.
Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above and left) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. Via Ferrata trekkers cross a monkey bridge along Walk The Torq, a beginner's route (right). Via Ferrata trekkers cro
Via Ferrata or Iron Route in Italian (above and left) begins at 3,411m and takes trekkers acoss the steep rockface of Mount Kinabalu. Via Ferrata trekkers cross a monkey bridge along Walk The Torq, a beginner's route (right). Via Ferrata trekkers cross a narrow bridge (above) on the more challenging Low's Peak Circuit on Mount Kinabalu.

Clipped to a cable, trekkers can tackle the rockface of Mount Kinabalu and enjoy high-altitude scenery of clouds and tropical jungle

I love mountains and the roof- of-the-world tranquillity of being nearer the clouds. Oddly, I even savour the mild vertigo I always get, staring down from the gusty heights of skyscrapers and feeling like a leaf, especially in a new city.

But I do live with a lifetime of low-grade anxiety about heights and the Via Ferrata route on the sheer rockface of Mount Kinabalu intimidates me when I previewed it on YouTube.

Via Ferrata, Iron Road in Italian, is a mountain route composed of metal rungs, cables and palettes (footholds) permanently fixed to the rockface.

Terrifyingly narrow foot-bridges and beams, which are sure to conjure up images of tightrope acrobats, connect high places on certain trails.

With this intricate climbing system, Via Ferrata trekkers have rare access to the high-altitude scenery enjoyed by rock climbers and mountaineers, but in a safer style.

Mount Kinabalu in Sabah soars to a height of 4,095m. Its Via Ferrata route begins at 3,411m, with its highest point at 3,776m. It is the highest in the world and the first of its kind in Asia.

Launched in December 2007, it was constructed by Malaysian mountaineering company Mountain Torq (www.mountaintorq.com), a circle of outdoor enthusiasts.

I sign up for the beginner's Walk The Torq route, a 450m trail which takes two to three hours to traverse. According to Mountain Torq, climbers aged 10 to 70 use the course. It is suitable for someone without a fear of heights or at least is willing to squelch that fear.

The more challenging route - the 1.2km Low's Peak Circuit - is only for those who are really fit. It requires four to five hours.

One highlight is a suspension bridge at 3,600m - one of the loftiest on the planet.

The afternoon before my climb, in a classroom setting with hands-on practice, Via Ferrata trainers teach us how we should move along our route.

Essentially, we move safely by clipping a pair of carabiners, or metal loops, to a long cable fixed to the mountainside. We will do it over and over again, stepping slowly.

The adventure begins at 7.30am the next morning, when we are given harnesses to wear on our lower body. We put on emergency orange helmets in case of falling rocks. I also don gloves to protect my hands.

To get to the isolated starting point of the Via Ferrata, we trek about 15 minutes and this precursor already pumps the adrenaline.

There are a couple of narrow ledges on the rockface to inch over, and a slope to rappel down, and my dread of heights rises reflexively.

One of my two mountain guides, Mr Jabadi Iainsin, 32, happens to be around. At dodgier points, he cheerily grips my hand and he is like a rock.

At the starting point, Mr John Martin Gatijin, a young Via Ferrata trainer, wants to know: "Who's afraid of heights?"

I raise my hand. Reassuringly, he plants me next to him when he ropes our group of six climbers together, 3m apart.

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It is around 8.30am when we start to descend slowly, repeating the actions of clipping and detaching the carabiners all the way down the slopes.

We are asked to lean away from the cable on the rockface - and also to walk backwards at times. These actions are quite scary and counter-intuitive at first, for my instinct is to lean closer to the mountain for a sense of security - not away from it.

Observant and humorous, Mr Gatijin watches all six of us, telling us not to step and slip on the rope, which is like a cylinder under our feet.

He reminds us how to clip the carabiners securely to the cable, that tenuous line between us and a perilous plunge down Mount Kinabalu.

I begin to trust him and my gear. In fact, the repetitive task of bending over to clip and unclip the carabiners absorbs me.

Mercifully, the anxiety dissipates and it starts to feel normal to perch on the side of a mountain.

It is possible to focus on the immediate terrain of smooth, sun-exposed rock, I discover, and this makes my climb seem less steep somehow.

When I am ready, I sneak peeks at the panorama all around and it is like nothing I have ever seen. The rockface is like a fortress, the clouds below bloom like colossal castles in the air, and Borneo's jungle vistas are wild and verdant.

It is a blazing hot morning. But that is good as treks can be cancelled in bad weather and there is no refund. A bit of rain is fine, however.

Towards the end, we take turns to cross a small gully on a monkey bridge. To do this, we walk sideways on a tightrope-like cable, while gripping a cable above our heads.

At the end of two hours, it feels like I may be liberated from a lingering fear and that I have almost touched the sky.

Mr Gatijin says: "If you have a fear of heights, the Via Ferrata is a way to conquer it. You can do it without any climbing experience."

The harness, helmet and rope offer "triple security", he adds.

Mr Nathan Bernhard, 24, a building operator in Calgary Zoo who climbs jagged peaks in Canada, says of his Via Ferrata experience in the tropics: "It was cool to be so high above the jungle, with the clouds below. You can see forever."

Close to 40,000 people have climbed the two Via Ferrata routes since December 2007.

About 40 per cent are travellers from Singapore. Overall, about one-fifth of all Kinabalu trekkers decide to attempt the Via Ferrata.

Describing the appeal of the sport, Ms Quek I-Gek, 42, marketing director of Mountain Torq, says: "They are willing to go out on a wire to better connect with themselves and with nature."

Those who wander in high places encounter beauty and contemplate the edge. The Via Ferrata makes me think that travel can be active and ethereal in the same intoxicating moment.

siewhua@sph.com.sg

Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

This is the third instalment of a five-part series. Next week: Trek and canoe in the Hill Country of Sri Lanka.

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