Standing at 4095m, Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo is the highest point between the Himalayas to the West and the Maoke Alps in New Guinea to the East. Billed as an ‘unrelenting’ climb by Lonely Planet, witnessing the sunrise from Low’s Peak was one of the first things I read about when we started to plan our travels. As you’ll already know if you’ve read Mel’s post, Borneo is home to all manner of beautiful scenery and amazing wildlife, with a seemingly endless array of things to see and experience. Kinabalu is a sterling example, differing only by virtue of the fact that it’s all very much on a slope, which is why you might notice Mel is conspicuous by her absence for the following post!
Before I begin, let me make something clear. I am not a mountain climber, nor am I an extreme fitness nut. I like beer, coffee, watching movies and eating the occasional pizza. Nonetheless, I like to think I maintain a passable level of fitness, and so you can consider this an ‘average 20-something’s perspective’.
The two-day trip sees you start at the entrance to Kinabalu Park, where you complete all the necessary admin and get shuttled up to Timpohon Gate to begin your ascent. Day one sees you hike for 6km, ascending through 1400 vertical metres, to an overnight rest stop at Laban Rata. In the very early hours of day two climbers then make for the summit, just over 2.5km and 800 vertical metres away, before descending all the way back to the start point at Kinabalu Park HQ.
Accounts of just how “easy” a climb Mt. Kinabalu is vary, with many claiming it’s a breeze (tour operators make a point of telling you they’ve served people from 3 to 87 years old!), whilst others describe it as tough due to the altitudes involved, unrelenting nature of the trail and the pressing timeframes involved. Ultimately, experiences vary from person to person and I met old, young, big, small, smokers and even a man with a crutch on my way up. That said, I couldn’t tell you how many of them made it all the way.
This post is intended as a blow-by-blow guide to independently organising your own Mt. Kinabalu trip, as well as a record of my experiences on the mountain. On the day of my climb, 18th October, it looked like 95% of people had booked through a tour operator (Amazing Borneo seemed to be the most popular), but it is still totally possible to DIY in 2016. If you aren’t planning a climb any time soon, you might want to just skip to my experiences below.
The key to organising a Kinabalu climb is the stopping point approximately two-thirds of the way up at Laban Rata. This is non-negotiable, and for my trip I stayed at Laban Rata Lodge, run by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (no longer Sutera Harbour, as referenced in older guides), which is the most often mentioned option and where most organised tours will stay. There is a lot of construction of additional accommodation going on at Laban Rata, but I was unable to find out any information online about how to book it and the costs involved prior to my trip. For reference, other accommodation options I saw signposts for were Waras Hut, Pendant Hut and Lemaing Hostel. Shout outs to Climbing Mount Kinabalu, My Sabah and Notes of Nomads all of which were invaluable in planning my trip. There are also some good tips on this old Lonely Planet thread.
Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty…
Note: At time of writing, one day climbs and the Mesilau Trail remain closed following June 2015’s earthquake and subsequent landslips, and the 135 person daily limit on climb permits still applies.
What It Cost
- 781 RM to Sutera Lodges 2D1N (info on what this includes below)
- 55 RM Transport to/from Kinabalu Park
- 28 RM for D’Villa
- 15 RM Conservation Fee
- 200 RM Climb Permit
- 7 RM Insurance
- 230 RM Guide (Not oft mentioned, but this is per guide, not per person. Share and lower the cost. I shared with someone I met at D’Villa so paid 115)
- 17 RM Timpohon shuttle bus
- 34 RM Additional Food & Drink
My Total: 1,252 RM / 225 GBP
There are lots of costs you could trim if you wanted to really spend the absolute bare minimum. Start by travelling to the park using public busses instead of a coach, don’t stay the night before, figure out how to book a room in a cheaper dorm at Laban Rata and split the guide fee between the maximum of five people to bring the cost to nearer 700 RM. You could even save the money on the Timpohon shuttle bus if your legs have the extra mileage in them, not that I’d recommend it.
Planning Your Trip
Like a lot of things when you travel, it’s all very simple once you know how. Same applies to independently organising the climb. To get yourself to the entrance of Kinabalu Park, where you’ll register, pay your fees and be assigned a guide, all you really need is the following:
- A stay booked at Laban Rata. If you’re going for the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges option, you can visit their office at Wisma Sabbah in Kota Kinabalu to book, or book over the phone. Generally it’s a good idea to do so way in advance, but it is possible to get last-minute spots as well. I booked for the next available spot, which was in about 2 weeks.
- Some means of getting there. If there’s a few of you, clubbing together for a taxi could even be cheaper than taking a coach. As I was travelling alone I chose the latter, for which I had to jump on a local mini-bus (any of the white and blue ones numbered 4-8) from the bus station outside Hotel Shangi-La to the long distance coach station at Inanam, where all coaches travelling East (Sandakan, Semporna etc.) will be able to drop you at the entrance. Finally, you could also get a local bus the whole way, boarding at Padang Merdeka Terminal and heading towards Ranau. Check out My Sabah for great information on bus travel.
- Roughly the right assortment of kit to see you up and down again in one piece. More on that below…
- Somewhere to stay just outside the park the night before. I went for D’Villa Rina Ria Lodge, which is a short walk up the road from the gates. Very reasonably priced, friendly, great food and a small shop for any last-minute supplies. Staying close by makes life a lot easier and means you can get to registration bright and early to secure one of the 135 daily climb permits.
What to Pack
Things you need:
- Waterproof or poncho – Former keeps you warm and protects from the wind too, but the latter is lighter weight.
- Backpack with waterproof cover – Or keep it dry under your poncho and look super cool at the same time.
- Comfortable, strong shoes – Essential to last the hike, and help you to remain sure-footed. Some locals opted for flip flops and espadrilles, which I wouldn’t recommend!
- Warm clothes – You’ll be dying to change once you reach Laban Rata, where temperatures hovered around 10°C, whilst the summit was closer to zero. Gloves, hat, scarf, the works.
- Water – It’s not cheap up the mountain, so stocking up if your back can carry it will save cash. I took two 1.5l bottles and used a little over a litre on the first leg of the climb. You’ll also get 500ml included with your packed lunch.
- Energy snacks.
- Your passport for hotel checkin and climb permit.
Things you don’t need (if staying with Sutera, at least):
- A towel
- Shampoo/body wash
- Walking stick
- Bug spray & sun cream
- The kitchen sink… Seriously, pack light.
Starting Blocks (1,564m Elev.)
Before you get onto the mountain ‘proper’, first you will need to register at Kinabalu Park entrance and get to Timpohon Gate, where you’ll start your ascent.
If you’re staying with Sutera, first step will be to check in for your evening in Laban Rata at the company’s other lodge inside the gate. Any luggage you don’t wish to take with you can also be left here. Then head to the second building where you’ll pay for your permit, insurance and guide. Don’t forget your passport!
Money handed over, I was introduced to our quiet but excellent guide Joseph, who pointed out where we could pick up the packed lunch provided as part of our overnight package and jump on the shuttle to Timpohon Gate at 1,866m.
Ascent to Laban Rata
Take your first steps through Timpohon Gate and low and behold, you’re headed downhill. ‘This should be a doddle’ I thought to myself. That didn’t last long.
You quickly pass Carson Falls, and from then on the first couple of kilometers of the trail consists primarily of wooden stairs, so don’t be skipping leg day! There are a number of huts all the way up the ascent where you can take 5, read about the geology at your present altitude and check the distance remaining.
Between 2 and 4km distance the weather closed in on us and the heavens opened. Wonderfully cooling, but not helpful in keeping anything for the next day dry, so make sure to pack a waterproof cover for your backpack. Having powered through the rain, at about 4km we broke through the cloud cover and were rewarded with our first views down the hillside to the towns below. At this point the trail becomes more strenuous, with the wooden steps replaced by those cut into the rock at wildly varying intervals.
For the final third of the distance to our overnight stop the going got tougher with every meter of ascent. Steps gave way to sheer rock as we emerged from the Bornean rainforest to the first really spectacular views of Mount Kinabalu’s peaks. After a quick photo call, we took a lunch break at the Villosa Shelter, just shy of 3km above sea level and with approximately 1km hike until we reached Laban Rata. At this point there’s much further between huts, and the trail steepens, but the more spartan landscape means you are rewarded with really stunning vistas at every turn.
With one last scramble, now a glorious mixture of sweat and rainwater chilled by the rapidly falling air temperature (about 10°C by this point), your intrepid explorer rounded a corner and the resthouse came into view.
For those thinking of trying the climb for themselves and looking for a benchmark, here’s my approximate split times from day one.
0-2km – 0:45 hrs
2-4km – 1:15 hrs
4-6km – 2:00 hrs
Total: 4:00 hrs
At Laban Rata (3,273m Elev.)
The stay at Laban Rata was a brief (disappointingly so, given the cost), but extremely pleasant one. There’s a great sense of comradery amongst everyone there with the same common goal, and given the remote location the facilities are really pretty good.
After check in I was directed to my dorm which consisted of two bunk beds, with comfortable mattresses and plenty of thick sheets for when the temperatures really start to drop. Gear dumped, first stop the showers. They do come with the caveat of being solar-heated, and I knew how little sun there had been that day, but christ were they cold!
Nonetheless, they did the job and I headed down for dinner which was a delicious buffet of noodles, rice, chicken, lamb, soup and more. Definitely arrive early to ensure you get it warm, it doesn’t stay that way for long. One other point of note were the prices if you stray off-menu. You’re looking at 14 RM for a small bottle of water, 26 RM for a beer and 11 RM for a coffee.
Much food, good conversation and a solid beating at Chess later I decided it best I retire to avoid any further embarrassment, and rest up in preparation to attempt the summit.
Summit Ascent to Low’s Peak (4,095m Elev.)
At 2:00am my alarm sounded, after three hours of sleep and another four hours of trying (no fault of the accommodation, I might add). I dragged my drowsy self out of bed for a quick supper in preparation to ascend Low’s Peak for sunrise. The air temperature was barely at double figures, and as the wind had picked up overnight the real feel was considerably lower. But luckily, there was no rain in sight, so the climb was on!
Channeling my Mum’s voice in my head, I donned every layer I had with me, including two t-shirts, a hoody, raincoat, jeans, over trousers and my sweat-drenched thermals, which may or may not have actually been my girlfriend’s leggings (Sorry Mel!). After a roadside repair of my head torch we were ready to go for the summit.
The first kilometer or so up to the final hut was steep, but navigation is primarily courtesy of wooden steps and platforms. In the pitch black darkness it is difficult to really appreciate the magnitude of your surroundings. Save for the lights twinkling in the towns far below, the howling wind is the primary reminder of just what an inhospitable place you are entering. Once your permit has been checked at Sayat-Sayat, and with 427m of elevation remaining to climb, you will pass by the last of the mountain foliage, man-made structures fall away behind you and it’s just sheer granite clifface to the summit.
This was where Joseph really came into his own. Whilst for most of the relatively easy going on day one he had led from the back, we were now completely reliant on him expertly selecting the best of old and new routes to the peak. At this point the trail is almost what you might imagine a lunar environment to be; steep cliffs, dark, freezing cold and nothing to break the wind. The only manmade objects are the final distance marker and a smattering of white markings and rope lines to assist you in navigating.
It was at this final marker, 8km from yesterday’s starting point, that the air started to become noticeably thinner. With the peak hidden from view by the thick cloud, I found myself starting to wonder how much longer it could possibly take. Apparently we were about halfway there in terms of time, and the more difficult path coupled with far from optimum conditions that morning meant that the final few hundred metres were by far the slowest.
Nevertheless, on we went, and at 6:04am after 2 hours 10 minutes of ascent we made it to Low’s Peak! Sadly, the weather meant there would be no sunrise from the summit for us that morning – it was far too wet and blustery to stay for more than a few minutes. Irregardless, knowing what I’d just accomplished was phenomenal. The feeling of absolute exposure atop the highest point in Borneo, coupled with heightened senses in the dark and adrenaline from the climb was something else. Whilst I wanted to stay and savour that moment for as long as possible, limited space and the increasing numbness of my hands meant we were soon headed downhill. Luckily, Joseph had been keeping quiet about his amateur photographic skills, so he kindly captured my victorious achievement forever…
Don’t think that once you reach Low’s Peak, that’s it and it’s all routine to the bottom, far from it! In fact, the first few hundred metres of decent were probably my favourite of the trip. A picture paints a thousand words, but needless to say the views of the sun coming up as we dipped back below cloud cover were phenomenal.
In just 20 minutes we were back at the 8km marker. A few short rope walks down the summit massif (I think ‘abseiling’ would be over playing it) and an hour and a half later we were back at the resthouse.
The remainder of the descent was pretty straight forward. Having checked out of Laban Rata Lodge (which you must do by 10am), 2 hours 25 minutes later we returned to Timpohon Gate. Remember that short downhill stretch that I was overjoyed with at the start? It’s much less welcome when it’s a short uphill stretch at the end! One thing worth noting – the way down is a killer on the knees, so be sure to prepare for that and pack bracing if you think you might need it. I was toddling up and down stairs like a grandpa for days after, much to Mel’s amusement.
Over the past year, I’ve been trying to stretch myself with new challenges, physical and otherwise. For me then, climbing Mount Kinabalu was as much a case of proving to myself that I could complete the hike as it was a chance to tick a pretty special travelling box. Yes, it may have been tiring, sweaty, wet, treacherous, cold and really not some people’s idea of fun, but the feeling of satisfaction more than made up for all of that several times over. Whilst it is costly for the budget traveller, I don’t regret the expenditure for a second, and now the soreness has abated I’d gladly take on other peaks in the future.
If you’re thinking of climbing Mount Kinabalu, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. Ultimately the ascent is most testing on your cardio and back, whilst the descent day will strain your knees. Just customise your climb based on your own abilities, with a lighter pack and more frequent stops if needs be. It isn’t technical, but does get rocky further up and there are some sheer faces that you ascend on a rope, so good strong footwear is essential. Only the locals can get away with flip flops or their plimpsolls from Year 6 PE!
It’s worth doing sooner rather than later as well, before the new accommodation is finished. With everyone assembled for the summit attempt in the wee hours, the trail was very busy. Crowds thinned the higher you got, and in total I’d estimate somewhere in the region of 30 folks made it all the way before the weather really set in. So, what are you waiting for? Go for it, you could be one of them!
One last thing, and there’s probably a really poignant statement about life I could make here, but don’t forget to look behind you as you relax on the bus back to KK to really grasp how far you’ve come. You’ll be treated to some awe-inspiring views, and also a chance to reflect on the fact that earlier that morning you were standing atop Low’s Peak, the highest person with two feet on the ground for thousands of miles.