The Pinnacles

You have to wonder who thought this was a good idea. What prompted someone to create a hiking route up Gunung (Mount) Api in Malaysian Borneo’s Gunung Mulu National Park to the view the famous limestone rock formations known as the Pinnacles?

This very steep 2.4 kilometre trail from Mulu’s Camp 5 to midway up Gunung Api sees trekkers climb over rocks and tree roots and up ropes and ladders in a test of both physical fitness and mental resolve.

Those who make it to the top arrive at a viewpoint overlooking jagged limestone rock formations known as the Pinnacles. These huge structures conjure up images of the sharp teeth of some mountain beast waiting to gobble up hikers brave or dumb enough to have climbed up here.

Ever since my partner and I booked a holiday to the Borneo jungle, the Pinnacles trail has been an enigma. Whenever we mentioned a trip to Camp 5 or Mulu National Park ‘Are you doing the Pinnacles?’ was the usual riposte, often said in the same tone you might use to ask someone if they were planning to drop live tarantulas down their pants or run naked through a blizzard.

Attracted to Mulu by its famous caves and the Head-hunter Trail, I’d never heard of the Pinnacles. When the travel agent asked if we wanted to climb the Pinnacles I figured ‘Well, if we’re here and the Pinnacles trail is the ‘it’ thing here, then we may as well do it.’

Trepidation began to build with some research into exactly what we had signed up for. Our Lonely Planet guide noted that if climbing Mount Kinabalu was 7 out of 10 for difficulty then the Pinnacles was the perfect 10. A series of clips viewed on YouTube made it clear this was not going to be a gentle stroll through the forest. And what kind of a trail needs a minimum of eight hours to cover 2.4 kilometres each way?

We arrived at Camp 5 anticipating a ‘character building’ experience. That’s exactly what we got.

The day before attempting the Pinnacles we trekked into Camp 5 after a longboat ride down the river from Clearwater Cave. We were greeted by swarms of bees that are attracted to human sweat (which was in abundance) and a young man, dressed only in a towel who, having looked us up and down demanded ‘So you think you are up to the Pinnacles?’ I had a feeling he thought not.

The pre-walk briefing after dinner that evening hammered home the dangers of what we about to attempt. Along with a second ‘mature’ Australian couple who would hike with us, we were reminded that the trek was a high-risk and high-danger activity. We would need at least three litres of water and there was still a strong danger of dehydration – the worst thing that could happen out in the jungle.

The guides stressed that there were three crucial time points on the trail. If we failed to reach any of the three designated points within the allowed time, we would be considered not fit enough to safely complete the return journey in daylight and be sent back to camp. If we passed the time trials our reward would be approval to climb the final 600 or so metres of near vertical cliff using ropes and ladders and other contraptions to reach the Pinnacles viewpoint. The ladders would pose new dangers. We were warned about very sharp rocks that could cut our hands or ‘smash your face’ if you were to slip from a ladder.

Throughout the briefing the eyes of the camp guides darted between the four hikers as they issued their dire warnings, perhaps searching for signs of weakness or waiting for one of us to crack and cry ‘Ok. I’m not up to it. I can’t do it.’ But no-one faltered.

No wonder it takes hours to move a couple of kilometres!

With our collective resolve steeled, four hikers and our guide set off at 6.45am the next morning. As the slowest climber in the group I became the pacesetter with the added pressure of not getting everyone sent back at the time points. Our fellow travellers, however, soon broke ranks and disappeared into the distance ahead of us leaving my partner and me with the guide.

The first test was to reach a point known as the Mini Pinnacles, 900 metres along the trail within an hour. Walking 900 metres in under an hour has to be a doddle right? Wrong. Most of these 900 metres run over tree roots and rocks and climb 600 metres at a ridiculous gradient that feels almost vertical.

The trail quickly revealed itself to be as much obstacle course as path. Striped poles mark the route but there is little to distinguish the ‘path’ from off-track areas. Before long we were soaked in sweat and very thirsty – the warnings about dehydration were ringing in my ears.

My heart pounded so hard I could hear it as I worked my way slowly up the hill. I arrived at the Mini Pinnacles only a few minutes ahead of the time limit and narrowly avoided the humiliation of being sent back at the first time check. Our reward was a designated 10 minute rest and a handful of jelly beans before moving on to stage 2.

The next stage to the halfway mark at 1.2 kilometres had to be completed within 1 hour 45 of leaving camp. This 600 metres of trail climbed 400 metres in altitude slightly less steep and shorter than the first section. It was a touch less challenging but only just. Another brief rest, some more jelly beans and it was on to the start of the ropes and ladders that had to be reached no later than 10am. We got there at 9.40 having made up some time in the middle section.

The ropes and ladders added a whole new dimension. Ropes, sharp rocks, foot holds and over a dozen metal ladders were used to scale the final 600 metres to the Pinnacles lookout. From here I started to believe that I was actually going to make it. And I did. We arrived at the Pinnacles just over four hours after leaving camp.

I was promised a spectacular view of jagged limestone peaks all around if I got here. After all that effort I felt somewhat disappointed by this view – perhaps I was just too stuffed by the effort I’d spent to get here to be able to really enjoy it. After a break to eat lunch and with the weather looking ominous, it was soon time to head back down.

For a brief moment, Pinnacles victory was mine

Believe it or not, getting up here was actually the easy part. Getting back down raised the degree of difficulty even further.

Returning down the ladders and ropes backwards I could better appreciate what I had climbed barely an hour beforehand. Several times I stopped and asked myself ‘did I just climb up that?’ I even asked our guide to confirm that we were coming down the same way we went up. We were.

Having negotiated the ropes and ladders section twice I figured it would be all downhill from here – no pun intended. That was where I was very wrong. It was downhill alright – down that same relentless slope with the same ridiculous gradient.

Having reached the 1.8 kilometre marker on the return journey I was already feeling on the verge of exhaustion. To look down and see an endless, relentless course of tree roots and rocks was very disheartening. From there it was a great struggle to get back to camp. Small gains felt like major milestones. I could have hugged the way markers that each announced I was another 100 metres closer to the finish.

Our guide meanwhile was not too concerned about my welfare. Every time I stopped to rest he sank to his haunches and continued playing the game in his mobile phone that had entertained him all day.

Finally, wrung out like a sponge and with my shins beginning to take on the appearance of a Dalmatian dog with round purple bruises on my white skin, we trudged back into Camp 5. It was right on 6pm; 11 hours and 15 minutes after setting out and two hours behind the other couple that had started with us.

I’ve never been so glad to finish something. I didn’t realise at the time that the guides’ procedures are to automatically send out a search and rescue party for any group that has not returned by 6.30pm, the point at which darkness is starting to fall. I had avoided ‘rescue’ by half an hour.

The following day a camp guide delivered me a ‘pass mark’ of sorts. Since I had successfully avoided the two big fails of the Pinnacles; I didn’t get sent back and I didn’t have to be rescued I was therefore ‘a good trekker.’ And that was good enough for me.

The Pinnacles trail is at Camp 5 in Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysian Borneo. More information about Gunung Mulu National Park and the activities can be found here

Louise trekked to the Pinnacles in June 2014.

A hike that’s the pinnacle of silliness