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  • Rick

Conquering Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Peak of Mount Kinabalu, Sabah

(This post was migrated from TravelPod.)

Although the trip up Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (East Malaysia), was done in September 2008, the sequence of events did not change much, so I am re-sharing the trip for keen travellers to know what to expect from a 2D1N climb package.

Before going into the details of my journey to conquer Mount Kinabalu in 2008, take note of the following:

1. A hike up Mount Kinabalu (or Gunong Kinabalu) must have a climb permit, at least one night stay on the mountain and accompanied by a registered mountain guide. You will not be allowed to get on the mountain without all 3 of them.

2. Make plans for the climb at least 3-6 months in advance if you are planning to go during a peak season. Only 135 climb permits will be issued by Sabah Parks per day (limited by the accommodations in the mountain base camp and for safety).

3. Start training for the mountain-climb (mainly hiking up on steps) for at least 6 months if you are a beginner. Experienced or seasoned climbers will say Mount Kinabalu is "easy" but not so to those who do not hike or exercise regularly. A certain level of fitness is still required.

4. Form a group of 4 people (optimal) to share the cost of a guide (RM230) and accommodations (have standard rooms with heaters and unheated dormitories). Or join a tour group to share with others, which is still cheaper than going up solo with a personal guide.

5. 1-Day trip was abolished after the earthquake in 2015. The most common package is 2D1N while 3D2N allows more time to explore the summit and better chance of taking good photos without time constraints.

6. The accommodations in Kinabalu Park are managed by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (Facebook). Their website has not been working for months, so email them with details of your climbing plan: Expect replies to be slow. Alternatively, join a tour group (3rd party) that can arrange everything for you — just pay a little more.

7. Mesilau Trail is closed indefinitely after damages caused by the earthquake and flooding in the region that washed away the access bridge and roads.

Day 1: Getting to Kinabalu Park

There were 4 of us on the mountain-climbing trip so we shared a cab to Kinabalu Park from Padang Merdeka (Merdeka Square) in Kota Kinabalu. The journey took about 2 hours and we fell asleep from the heat inside the cab — the air-conditioning was too weak for 5 adults in the confined space and under a scorching sun. If I were to do this journey again, I would opt for the minivans to Ranau that passed by the park — at least, it's more spacious.

After arriving at Kinabalu Park, the headquarter of Mount Kinabalu National Park, we settled all administrative matters at the Park Office just near the entrance. Then, we were shown to our reserved accommodation at the foot of the mountain, where we would rest for a night before the climb the next day. This would avoid a crazy rush-over from Kota Kinabalu early in the morning and trying to reach the park before 9am for the climb. Two hours lesser sleep would not be a good start for the climb too.

Rock Hostel at Kinabalu Park

The Rock Hostel was a double-storey wooden building with dormitories. We were assigned a room with 4 beds. Shared bathrooms were in the mid-section of the hostel. The air outside was clear when we entered the hostel but when we exited half an hour later at 2pm, the whole park was engulfed in mist — Kinabalu Park is 1,585m above sea level.

We went to the canteen for late lunch (the meals on this day were not included in the package). We had a long and relaxing meal until 3.30pm as there was not much to do. The mist had cleared a little when we exited the canteen, so we tried photographing the peak of Mount Kinabalu in the far distance.

Peak of Mt. Kinabalu

A wooden board nearby showed the results of the 21st Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon in 2007. The annual Climbathon was hailed as the "world's toughest mountain race", but amazingly, the participants could run to the peak of Mount Kinabalu and back in less than 4 hours. The 22nd Climbathon was held just a week before our arrival but the new board was not up yet.

We went back to Rock Hostel for early showers, knowing that it would be much colder at night. After nightfall, the surrounding had turned foggy as we made our way to the Visitor Centre, where we were briefed on the details of the climb and on safety aspects — it was mandatory. Then, we had dinner at a restaurant in the centre.

After dinner, we returned to our room to repack our baggage. Items not needed were packed into the larger baggage to be deposited at the Park Office the following day and only essentials (see the list below) were put into small backpacks for the 2-day hike. Then, we went to bed early to be fully rested for the ascend up Mount Kinabalu.

List of essential items to carry up the mountain

1. For the ascend:

- Proper hiking shoes (make sure is waterproof)

- Poncho / raincoat (big enough to cover backpack) - Knee supports (highly recommended even if you have no knee problems)

- Camera with fully-charged battery

- Walking stick (optional)

2. Staying overnight:

- Toiletries & small towel

3. For the peak climb (near 0°C):

- Head lamp with 1 set of batteries (you won't be able to hold a torchlight)

- Warm clothing (warm jacket, long-sleeve cotton shirt and thermal underpants. Jeans may restrict movements) - Waterproof winter gloves (rock surfaces will be wet in the morning) - Thermal socks - Hat / cap / scarf / bandana / etc (shield the head and face from cold winds) - Heat packs (optional)

4. For the descend:

- A change of light hiking clothing and socks

Note: Other than the above items, you will need to carry your own drinking water and packed lunch. So, leave all other non-essential and non-valuable things at the Park Office. Otherwise, carry the dead weight yourself if you are super fit or hire a porter to carry it up for you.

Day 2: Ascending to Laban Rata (now known as "Panalaban Base Camp")

After clearing out of the hostel and had breakfast (included in package), we assembled at Kinabalu Park Office, with all climbers, to meet up with our mountain guide — the guides are aborigines and native to the sacred mountain. We deposited our larger baggage at the office and were issued with entry passes.

Mt Kinabalu Entry Pass

At 9am, all climbers took the transport provided to Timpohon Gate, which was 4.5 km from the Park Office. Once we had our passes verified at the gate, we started the climb proper and followed the guide up the mountain.

Timpohon Gate

It was easy to walk the trail at the start, but became tiring after a while as the trail was mostly going up-slope. Quite a number of steps were knee-high and we were advised to use those rocks or tree trunks that were placed by porters as "interim-steps" to minimise straining the knees. There were also resting points with washrooms along the trail. The guide would stop once a while and point out some unique flora, like the pitcher plants (or monkey cups).

Trail up Mt Kinabalu

It started drizzling close to lunch time and eventually got heavier, so we took a lunch break at the next rest point. Each lunch set included 4 pieces of bread with cheese, a piece of fried chicken, an egg, 2 spring rolls, an apple and a can of soft drink. It was designed to be eaten without the need for fork and spoon.

Packed lunch

After having enough rest, we continued up the mountain in the rain and slippery trail with our ponchos on — couldn't call it a day when on the mountain. Heat started swelling up in my poncho and I sweated even more. I was wearing sport shoes and they were wet, including my socks (this is why I keep emphasizing to wear waterproof hiking shoes, you won't know if it will rain heavily). Thanks goodness that the rain reduced to a drizzle after another hour.