I got altitude sickness in Mt Kinabalu

Standing 4,095m tall, Mt Kinabalu towered menacingly over us. As our van twisted and turned following the road, I stared at my friends in horror. 

“It’s big”, I said. We couldn’t help but start laughing maniacally, to the distaste of our hiking group. The whole situation was hilarious because my best friend has a pathological fear of heights and her flatmate’s and my backpack had been lost in transit, so all we had was what we were wearing. I had had the good foresight to at least be wearing comfortable clothing and my hiking shoes, but everything else was somewhere in Kuala Lumpur: my trusty frontal, my wind-cutters, thermal leggings, breathable shirts… and my underwear. We were exhausted after 16 long hours of travelling and just under 4 of sleep. And now we were about to hike up a 4K mountain.

A female hiker, wearing a pink t-shirt and grey clothes, walks up a staircase carved into the mountain surrounded by the green jungle.
The trek seemed pretty achievable at the start. We didn’t know what was about to come.

We knew what we’d signed up to. Kind of. We’d trained a little bit. Kind of. We thought we’d be fine since literally everyone that goes to Borneo does this. We started walking with confidence but, almost imperceptibly, I started to feel a bit off. I walked slower. Then it was hard to take big steps. So I took more breaks. Then, I couldn’t breathe.

“I think this might be the altitude,” someone said. That soon turned into “I think you have altitude sickness”.

Yeah. So that happened.

A picture of the jungle - focusing on ferns.
I’d been looking forward to this climb for months, and as I felt sicker and sicker I stopped taking pictures – much to my present regret.

About altitude sickness

I knew this could happen. In preparation for this trip, I probably read a few dozens of articles, blog posts and recommendations on how to best attempt the assault. 

Let me begin by saying that I’m no professional, and I have not spoken to any professionals about this. The following info is all based on my own experience and my good pal Google.

The high altitude mark is around 3000m (just under 10k feet). After this point it is thought that the risk of experiencing altitude sickness is acute. Altitude sickness is risky, and not something to be taken lightly. Symptoms often worsen during the evening and can include:

  • headache
  • nausea and vomiting
  • dizziness
  • tiredness
  • loss of appetite
  • shortness of breath

Treatment will vary on your symptoms, but most of the time professionals recommend taking it slow, letting your body acclimatise to the height, taking ibuprofen or paracetamol for headaches and acetazolamide as a preventative measure. Since I’m no expert, nor a medical professional, please make sure you speak to your GP or provider if you’re thinking of taking any preventative medicine.

My symptoms

The main thing I remember now is an intense chest pain. It almost felt as if I had a small human sitting on my chest and I couldn’t breathe properly. This lasted for nearly 24 hours, and for a few days after we’d climbed down. 

During the climb up, I noticed I got tired a lot faster than my friends. I had some sporadic episodes of vertigo – where I lose my balance and it feels like the world is spinning – and the sensation that I could not breathe. I became more irritable. By the time I reached Panalaban Base Camps (3,244m) I was taking breaks every two or three steps.

The final stretch of stairs from the Base Camp restaurant to Pendant Hunt (roughly 40m in altitude difference) nearly wiped me out. I thought I was simply tired, and that a bit of a nap and some hot water would help me sleep and get ready for the summit in the morning. But it got much, much worse. 

A shot of one of the peaks from the hut, sightly covered in clouds.
While I gained my strength, I ventured out of the hut to see how far I could make it.

Chest pain got unbearable. Eating did not help and I just about suppressed the urge to punch one of my friends in the face when she tried to suggest I take deep breaths. Then, when I had to climb up the measly 40 meters back to the hut, I thought I was going to die. My heart was pounding like it never had before. I was gasping for air as if I’d been underwater for longer than I could handle and the pain was taking over everything. I vaguely remember my friends rushing to take off my boots, and walking me to my bed. After one or two hours of sleep, I woke up to even more intense pain. 

Even moving an arm seeking comfort was excruciating. I asked the wardens to help, but, since they were not medically trained, they sent me to bed with some hot water and the promise to check on me through the night. 2AM arrived and everyone was getting ready for the summit. I stayed behind.

Deciding not to climb

4 white climbers (3 male and one female) sit against a window backlit by a cloud.
Some fellow climbers, discussing the climb to the summit ahead.

My best friend, sleepy from the odd schedule, fetched the warden right before they departed for the summit. I stayed on my bunk shaking with pain, anger and worry. I imagined not making it home (“At least I’ll die travelling”, I told myself) or having to be rushed to a hospital by helicopter (the wardens told me later that morning that that is simply impossible). 

The wardens came back and took my metrics. My oxygen levels were OK but my heart rate was abnormally fast, and had been as such for over 8 hours. They called for oxygen. I hardly slept that night as I went through 3 courses of oxygen that helped lessen the pain (I was far from OK), but at least I felt I could breathe. After a while, the wardens left me to try to sleep a bit longer.

Recovery and the aftermath

A few hours after receiving oxygen I tentatively made it into the dining hall, where I had some food with the wardens and guides. I was weak, and weighing whether I had enough strength for the long trek to the bottom of the mountain. While an offer to join a group of Japanese singles was tempting, I opted to wait for my friends.

In a way, spending that morning with the wardens and guides was unique. I learnt a ton about their lifestyles, hopes and dreams as well as their views on adventure tourism. They told me of their desire for a system that helps local young generations climb for fun and for the pleasure of being in nature, not simply acting as guides or porters to white tourists. It made me think even more about the privilege of travelling, of crowding someone’s nature at their expense. Of accomplishing a physical challenge, and claiming it ours.

A porter, male, Malaysian, stares into the camera with his load on his back and surrounded by the jungle.
All food and consumable goods need to be taken to the Pendant Hut and Base Camp by porters, on a daily basis. This includes drinking water and bringing back down the waste.

While I enjoyed the climb down a little bit more, even today I still feel guilty and resentful. I KNOW that I did the right thing, that had I gone on to the summit I’d have risked my life, but a part of me feels weak, dramatic, mediocre. Everybody else in the hut that night was able to make it, so I still feel like perhaps I just didn’t push hard enough and that I should have just… sucked it up.

Recently I hosted two girls from a couch-surfing network and they asked me if I had any piece of advice I could give. In the end, they got 3 snippets of knowledge which included “learn to give up”. Mt. Kinabalu was one moment where I had to take my own advice – but that doesn’t mean it sucks less.

Bottom line is, listen to your body – life always comes above everything else.

3 thoughts on “I got altitude sickness in Mt Kinabalu

  1. I can’t believe the wardens didn’t make you descend lower. You would have have felt much better. Scary story. We tried to do Kinabalu last year but due to our bad timing it was rainy season and you could see anything so we decided not to climb at all.

    Like

    1. That was probably a good call! It was raining a bit when we started to climb down and it was really slippery…

      Honestly, there was nowhere to descend to as it was the middle of the night!

      Like

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