Mt. Kinabalu And Stair Climbing – How To Successfully Put A Bunch of 15-Year-Olds On The 4000 Metre Summit?

“I’m tired.” “I don’t feel well.” “My feet hurt.” “I want to go home.” To hear this as a teacher? Not fun. So, if possible, avoidance of anything remotely resembling above is key to success, not to mention sanity! Unpredictable weather, injuries and Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are just a few of the things that one would need to prepare for when ascending a mountain. And when ascending a mountain with students, we want to tackle these challenges as mentally ready and physically fit as we can. More importantly, mental and physical readiness is something we can try to develop in our students. That said, I’ll be joining my students to trek up Mt. Kinabalu in Sabah, East Malaysia this March and hopefully we’ll summit as well. That’s why we’re going prepare ourselves by climbing stairs. Lots of them and with loaded packs.

Stairs - a necessary evil.
Stairs – a necessary evil.

We’re lucky here in Singapore to have tall apartment buildings everywhere. Housing Development Board flats – HDB flats, as they’re called – are government housing buildings that most people in Singapore live in. They all have at least two staircases that go all the way to the top of each building. The one pictured above is 17 stories tall but some can go as high as 25 stories. We start off without backpacks at first and do ‘sets’ of stairs to build up our cardio. A ‘set’ means all the way up and down again.

HDB flat
Typical HDB flats in Singapore.

Gradually, over a few weeks, we’ll work up to about 10kg in our backpacks. Those who feel up to it can increase the weight. 10kg is usually just over the amount that a student would usually end up packing. It’s a challenging weight but not something that would really, really be a torture. Ok, only just a little bit of torture ;). With packs on, we focus mostly on elapsed time instead of sets because it simulates the actual trek. For example, we would often do 50mins of stairs and rest for 10mins. The actual part where you haul yourself up the stairs is pretty straight forward – but with a twist:

  • Take two steps at a time (Kinabalu has some mighty big steps in a few sections).
  • No holding of handrails (Sorry, mountains don’t have handrails).
  • Taking “rest steps” is encouraged (Putting one leg up to rest on the next step for a few seconds while leaving weight on the other leg).
  • Avoiding long breaks (Better cardio, less likely chance of cramping leg muscles and better time management).

Applying different conditions also make it a great testing ground for teamwork and camaraderie. People may have to stay together as a whole group, small group or partners to ensure that individuals are aware each other, keeping pace, socializing and not left alone.

All set to climb.
All set to climb.

Obviously, climbing stairs could get stale after a few rounds so we change it up. We would walk to different buildings, climb in patterns like climbing to the 5th floor/go down, 10th floor/go down, 15th floor/go down (also in reverse). Occasionally, a short run will be thrown into the mix for variety and cross training. On top of all that, students can break into new boots, experiment with the straps on their packs and get used to using gear like hydration packs. It all seems very simple but I truly believe that the stair climbing we do is one of the activities that prepare the students the most for the trek up Mt. Kinabalu. Team-building, time management, gear-testing and most of all, legs of steel – a few more ingredients added to our recipe for success. Stay tuned for posts on gear preparation as we will be trying to keep our tropical students warm on the summit! -J


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