I have this thing about being woefully unprepared for mountain climbing. There was that time I got caught in a dust storm in Arizona without any food or water. And the time that we ended up going much higher on Mt. Fuji then planned, and the Japanese thought we were crazy for climbing that high in just shorts and a T-shirt (for the record it wasn’t that cold, and we’re Canadian—so it felt like summer). But the toughest hike I have done to date was up beautiful Mount Kinabalu in Borneo—all because I lost my shoes.
Located in the province of Sabah, the mountain is near the city of Kota Kinabalu (KK), which will be your base if you attempt to summit the 4,095 metre peak.
One of the highest mountains in all of southeast Asia, it features breathtaking views of the rainforests below, tropical plants and flowers as you hike up, as well as the odd bird.
Most climbers book a full excursion from KK which includes transportation to the mountain, one night’s accommodation and two day’s worth of food. If you choose to get to the mountain on your own, the rest of the trip costs MYR 730 (about $225). There are also a number of other options available, including a one-day non-summit hike, a ‘hardcore’ climb where you do the whole trip up and down in just one day, or the Ferrata option where you scale the mountain with the help of ropes.
What to pack
This is a full on trek my friends, and you can only bring what you can carry—so pack wisely.
First off, for the love of God, wear good hiking boots. Sadly, I had lost my shoes in Japan before arriving in KK and thus was subjected to wearing Crocs. Taking pity on me, my husband decided to wear his as well…and let’s just say we wouldn’t do that again. Not only did we fall victim to the incredulous looks from more prepared hikers, but the shoes also led me to injure my knee and probably made the hike five times harder.
You’ll also want to wear comfortable, warm clothes that can be easily layered, as the temperature can fluctuate from freezing to hot in the space of a day. Pack a flashlight and waterproof gloves, which will come in handy near the summit (more on that later). A water bottle is also a necessity, and make sure you throw it all into a backpack that you feel comfortable hauling around for two days.
Starting to climb
When you arrive at the base you’ll check in at the registration area then meet your guide. The Malaysian government has clued in to what a cash-cow the mountain is, and thus requires that all climbers hire a guide to take them up, even though the pathways are extremely well marked. You’ll also be passed a number of times on the trail by slim Malaysians burdened with massive bags full of supplies to take up and down the mountain—it’s truly incredible to see how hard they work every single day, for mere dollars. You’ll also get a bagged lunch at the bottom of the hill (ours was two slices of white bread, a slice of cheese and an apple—which left something to be desired), before taking a quick bus ride to the gate which signals the start of the climb. Then you’re off to the races!
The first leg of the trip is a six kilometer trek to the Laban Rata guesthouse, which takes about five or six hours. The trails are made of dirt with carved out steps, so it’s nothing too arduous to start with. You’ll actually go downhill for the first little bit, so enjoy it! There are also a number of rest stops and washrooms along the way. As the way up, you’ll pass a few pretty waterfalls and the surrounding rainforest full of flora and fauna. The great thing about this trip is you can go at whatever pace you want, as long as you get up to the on-hill accommodations in time for dinner!
Eating and sleeping
Once you’re at the five kilometer mark, you’ll notice the trail gets dramatically harder, as the rainforest clears and the mountain opens up. Expect to do more scramble-type climbing as you approach Laban Rata. This is where all of the meals are served, and some lucky climbers get to stay. The rest end up in some of the surrounding guesthouses, which isn’t ideal as you have to navigate large boulders to get to them—not fun in the dark, when you’re exhausted! Accommodations consist of rooms with two bunkbeds (so you might be sharing with a stranger) and there are also bathrooms and showers, although the water is COLD! I also found myself freezing at night, so it might be best to just wear a change of clothes to bed.
After dropping their bags off, most climbers head back to Laban Rata to fill up on the delicious grub. Remember how I didn’t like my bread and cheese lunch? Well, I was pleasantly surprised with the dinner offerings, which was a smorgasbord including chili, fresh buns, salad and some traditional Malaysian dishes. Be sure to try the Sabah tea! The guesthouse also has a place where you can buy souvenirs like the aforementioned tea and postcards, and there are also a number of board games which will help pass the time.
The highlight of the trek is to get to the top just before sunrise, so you can watch the sun come up from nine kilometers above ground.
This sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? In reality—it’s downright exhausting.
To make it up in time, you’ll have to wake up around 1:30 a.m. See, told you it’s not glamorous. After rubbing the sleep out of your eyes and bundling up (it’s surprisingly cold that early in the morning) you’ll shuffle out of the guesthouse and hit the trail, guided only by a flashlight. Navigating the seemingly endless rocks is tough enough, but it gets worse when you hit a sheer rock face. A thin white rope has been pounded into the side, and you will use this to literally pull yourself up—so I suggest wearing those waterproof gloves. This is by far the most difficult part of the climb, and sadly people have been killed on this leg after tumbling off the extremely steep mountainside. Ironically, this is the only part of the climb where we lost our guide, so we were forced to navigate the treacherous trail on our own.
It takes about three hours of this sort of madness before you finally see the triangle of the summit, as dawn starts to break behind it. The peak is marked by a sign stating ‘Low’s Peak’—a name I’m not sure I agree with—and climbers clamor around it to snap a quick photo before settling down to watch the sunrise. My experience, however, was a bit different. Remember that whole part about being under-prepared? Well, my husband and I were both so bitterly chilled that not only did we expect to lose fingers to frostbite, but we had no desire to sit there freezing just to watch the sun come up. So, we snapped an embarrassingly-awful photo of ourselves at the peak—then got the heck back down. I’m sure the sunrise is a phenomenal site, but to this day I do not regret our decision to warm up instead!
The blissful walk back down
It takes about two hours to get back to Laban Rata, and you will still be able to watch the sun come up as you scamper towards it. A huge breakfast awaits weary climbers when they arrive at the guesthouse, and you can also take a nap to regroup ahead of the descent. It may seem like the walk down would be the easy part, but it’s actually quite jarring as your legs are beyond exhausted, and take quite the impact with every step. That being said, the trek is quite enjoyable, as you get to look at the entire national park stretched out below you. Mountain ranges are accented with fluffy white clouds and surrounded by bright green trees, making for beautiful photos. It’s surprising how long it takes to get down, and I had to resist the urge to try and sprint! Budget about three to four hours to reach the bottom, at which point you’ll get to do a happy dance as you finally touch down on level ground—and immediately book a much-needed massage.
Getting there: It’s easiest to book a packaged excursion from KK, otherwise you can catch a bus to the park or go by taxi.
When to go: The best season to climb is typically March to August, which is the dry season. However, the mountain is open all year round.
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