Sabah See: Conquering Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo
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 interested 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 also 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: email@example.com. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
As we got nearer to Laban Rata, the vegetation became sparser and the air had turned thinner and colder. We slowed our pace as breathing became heavy. It was also at this part of the journey that the scenery was the most beautiful. Our legs were wobbling, aching and sore. The first sight of a white building on the mountain was a great relief to all.
After hiking 6Km from Timpohon Gate and scaling an altitude of 1,688m, we reached Laban Rata Resthouse at around 3.30pm — it took us 6.5 hours. It was still drizzling and the temperature shown at the doorstep was 10°C. Our accommodations were in the main house with heaters — dormitory huts had no heating facilities. We quickly got out of the cold and check-in to our rooms.
A shower was much sought-after but the cold bathroom was not welcoming. After shower, I was so reluctant to turn off the hot water. At 6pm, we went down to the dining hall for buffet dinner (inclusive). We were hungry and also needed to replenish energy for the next lap of the journey. It was only 7pm when we went to bed and forcing ourselves to sleep, barely digesting the food. It was still raining outside.
Day 3: Conquering the Peak
We had less than 7 hours of sleep before waking up at 1.45am and got ready for the final ascend to the peak. Fully geared with warm jackets and pants, gloves (make sure it's waterproof too), head wear and headlamps, and only essentials in our backpacks (mainly water and camera, the rest was left in the room), we went to rendezvous with our guide. Then, we were led outside to assemble with other climbers. The rain had stopped and the temperature was indicated as 8.8°C.
At 2.30am, all climbers were accounted for — except for those who had admitted defeat and opted out, or would not mind missing the sunrise — and we began our ascend up the last 833m (altitude) to the summit in the cold dark morning.
It was no easy morning hike — it's a climb. The upward-going slopes were what greeted us in 10 minutes. No photographs could be taken in the darkness and both hands were needed to reach out for support and balancing. The final climb was much steeper than the previous day's trek. There were sparser vegetation with more rocky outcrops. We were totally exposed to the cold winds. Aching legs, cold hands, numb feet and clattering teeth worked together to move the body up the mountain in the cold thin air.
Among the four of us, two gave up after a short while, having headaches due to altitude sickness and muscle aches, and retreated back to the rest house. The rest of us continued the climb to Sayat Sayat Hut, which was the last gateway before the summit. Again, we had our passes verified and names recorded. We did not know the temperature at that point but it should be another few degrees lower.
Beyond the hut, there were no more vegetation, we were climbing up smooth and wet gigantic rock faces with the aid of pre-laid ropes. And sometimes, we were walking on inclined rock. I made the mistake of bringing a pair of woven gloves that got wet and allowed the cold to numb my fingers. Strong ice-cold winds also sent most climbers clambering for wind shelters or pulling up jackets to cover the heads whenever we stopped for breathers. I kept moving in order to create heat constantly in my body or I would freeze.
At 5.30am, we finally reached the summit, named Low's Peak. The topmost spot was very small and climbers who had reached the spot need to queue to had their photographs taken with the signboards — evidence that they were finally on "top" of Southeast Asia. The altitude was 4095.2m above sea level and 2Km from Laban Rata. We managed to glimpse sunrise in the far horizon but it was misty and freezing cold to stay on the summit for long.
And that was Low's Peak in the morning mist. The highest point in Southeast Asia.
After about 10 minutes at the peak, we began to descend back to Laban Rata, which was much faster than going up but much more strenuous on the aching legs. With the aid of the morning sun, we were able to see the terrains that we had been climbing on in the dark. And the views from the summit were superb!
We could see Borneo below us with seas of clouds (above). And the terrain at the summit (below).
And back to Sayat Sayat Hut on the way down.
Below was the part where we climbed. It was easier to go up in the dark when we could not see clearly where we were going but when coming down under the sunlight, it was tougher and scarier. And we had to take turns to descent as late-rising climbers were using the same path too.
We were back at the rest house by 8.30am and joined the other two for breakfast. At 9.30am, we checked-out. The air had cleared up quite a bit and we took some parting shots of the peak from outside Laban Rata. Then, we began descending the mountain.
The toll on the legs, especially the knees, made us stopped more frequently on the way down. The going-up had been "easy", it was the going-down that was the most difficult because of aching muscles. I also twisted my right foot when I stepped on a loose rock that gave way. It hurts badly but I had to continue walking on my own — everybody was tired. With aching leg muscles, strained knees and a twisted ankle, I limped my way down the mountain, biting my teeth on every step — and that is why this trip is so unforgettable to me.
We were back at Timpohon Gate at around 2.30pm where we took the shutter back to the Park Office. Our guide bid farewell to us and went into the office to register us for our commemoration certificates. We retrieved our baggage and headed to the canteen for lunch while waiting for the certificates to be processed.
Only those who had reached the top of Mount Kinabalu, Low's Peak, received the colored certificates. Those who managed to reach Laban Rata, but not the peak, would receive the back-and-white certificates but with the same design. The design of the certificate changes every year.
And this ended the 2D1N conquer-the-top-of-Southeast-Asia hiking trip.
Departing from Kinabalu Park HQ in the late afternoon, we took a cab to Poring Hot Springs about 40Km away. We badly needed the sulphuric therapeutic pools to heal our tired and aching bodies. And my foot, which had swollen to twice its size.