Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu has been on my bucket list for years and I decided that 2013 was the year to make it happen.
Located in Kinabalu National Park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, the mountain is roughly a two hour drive from tourist friendly Kota Kinabalu. At 4095m, the mighty granite peak is one of the highest in South East Asia and also one of the most accessible peaks of this altitude. It can be summited without specialist climbing gear or the snow you’ll experience in Nepal. Anyone with good fitness can take on this mountain but prepare to be challenged mentally and physically. An 8.7km hike from Timpohon Gate to the summit sounds easy, but climbing more than 2200m in altitude on a steep incline is definitely a challenge.
We set off along a rocky path that quickly climbs through the forest. My husband is a green thumb so we spend time searching out orchids, “pitcher” plants, honey flowers, and wild raspberries (a little tart for my tastebuds). Our English-speaking guide Sai shares stories about his village and life as a mountain guide.
The track is steep, rough and uneven so we have one eye on our feet and one on the landscape. Although the mountain air is cooler than in Kota Kinabalu, it’s still hot work. Regular shelters along the track are rest stops for a well earned drink and a chance to watch tiny mountain squirrels scavenge for crumbs.
The pace is slow but altitude sickness starts to kick in about 200m below Laban Rata, our stop for the night. I’ve been at altitude before but starting from sea level has increased the risk of getting ill – many people spend a night in the National Park acclimatising.
We arrive at our hut and find our cosy dorm, without heating or hot water, but aspirin, water, warmer clothes and a nap are all I need. The buffet and local food is a feast after a big day, and tastes better than expected given everything is walked in by porters. After a spectacular sunset, it’s bed and lights out by 7pm.
The alarm goes off at 2am and I’m relieved to have no signs of altitude sickness. Breakfast is jam on bread and a cup of tea before we’re on the path at 2.45am. I can feel the nervous energy rising as climbers wait to begin the day.
Single file we start to climb, step by step through the last of the vegetation, our head torches forming an iridescent snake up the mountain. I walk slowly, keeping my heart rate low to avoid altitude sickness.
Just after the final checkpoint we reach bare granite. It’s still pitch black and as I edge myself along a granite rock face, holding a thick white rope for stability, I can’t tell how steep the drop is. The rope marks the summit track and is a handy way to haul yourself up when the incline is too steep.
A soft light begins to fill the sky. I don’t look at the time – it doesn’t help to know how long until sunrise. Just before 6am we arrive at ‘the top of the world’, it’s a huge thrill to have made it.
Below the huge sweeping granite mountain now has a trail of people climbing. The sun peeks between the clouds to light up their path and the view is breathtaking. We look out at the world below in wonder.
This high up we’re shivering in the thin air and after 20 minutes it’s time to descend. Going down is much faster with daylight to guide the way. I lower myself backwards using the rope on steep sections and before I know it we’re back at Laban Rata ready to recharge with a hearty breakfast before descending to Timpohon Gate.
Summiting is only the first challenge of the day – the final descent is even tougher! The steep decline is unrelenting … down, down, down. By the time we reach Timpohon Gate my legs are total jelly and my knees are screaming “stop” but none of it matters because we just climbed Mount Kinabalu.
If you have an adventurous spirit, love the outdoors, and enjoy a challenge make sure Mount Kinabalu is on your bucketlist.
I consider myself an average speed hiker so this will give you an idea of the time taken to climb.
Day 1: Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata, 6km in 5 ½ hours
Day 2: Laban Rata to the summit, 2.7km in 3 hours. 1 ¾hr back to Laban Rata, then 3 ½ hours to Timpohon Gate.
How to Book
You must have a guide to climb Mount Kinabalu and it’s best to book several months in advance before beds on the mountain book out. The huts at Laban Rata are managed by the stunning Sutera Harbour Resort – book in a few days before and after your trek for some downtime and a post-climb massage. I booked our climb with Dive Down Below. From my initial enquiries, securing a booking and managing our climb once in Kota Kinabalu, they were proactive, reliable, friendly and very helpful.
PS – if your legs don’t like the sound of this adventure, there’s always the beautiful Kinabalu National Park and Poring Hot Springs.
Images by Linda Anderson