Climbing Mt. Kinabalu – Fulfilling a Dream

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu had been a dream of mine for ever so long, it almost became a pipe dream. Until finally, this year I found someone to accompany me on the climb, and a spot for us at the lodgings in Laban Rata (the resthouse in Mt. Kinabalu just before the summit climb).

At long last, my dream was about to come true!

Now that I’d taken the first step in achieving my lifelong dream, the next step was to start our training regimen so that we’ll not collapse in a heap of blood and tears during our ascent. My friend and I made plans to do some trekking, cancelled most of those plans and kept some. I also climbed the stairs to my flat almost daily (all 13 stories!) Of course, neither of us was delusional enough to think that our training was sufficient. But we were cautiously optimistic that we may just survive the trip.

Since, I’m at this very moment, back at my desk and blogging about my experience you’ll realise that we did in fact (spoiler alert) survive!

For those unfamiliar with this mountain, I’m including some background about it in my blog. For those familiar with it, feel free to skip the next paragraph and just head down to my recollections of our very memorable journey to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu – the highest peak in Southeast Asia.

Mount Kinabalu – a brief description

Mt. Kinabalu, at 4,095.2m above sea-level (at Low’s Peak) is the highest peak in Southeast Asia. It’s located in Kinabalu Park in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. Kinabalu Park is itself a major tourist destination for nature lovers, with the incredible range of endemic flora and fauna found there. The area is so richly endowed with nature that it’s been named a Centre of Plant Diversity and both Mt. Kinabalu and Kinabalu Park have been named as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2000.

For its height however, Mt. Kinabalu is not particularly difficult to climb. There is no need for specialised mountaineering or rock-climbing skills necessary for the ascent. That being said, the climber does need to be physically fit for the climb as it is a rather long trek, with the last 2km up to the summit being particularly challenging.

The Climb – Day 1

When we booked our climb with Amazing Borneo Tours, I was sent a very detailed itinerary of our climb up Mt. Kinabalu. Ours was to be a 2day climb, with the trek up to Laban Rata on Day 1, and the Summit climb on Day 2. We’d landed in Kota Kinabalu the day before, and so had arranged for the tour company to pick us up from our hotel at 6.30am for the 2 hour drive up to Kinabalu Park. At the park entrance, we rented ourselves a walking stick each @10RM (trust me, it comes in VERY handy during the trek down the mountain).

There are 2 paths one can take to the summit – via the Timpohon Gate or Mesilau Gate up to Laban Rata. Both gates are situated within the Kinabalu Park itself and merge together approximately 2km from Laban Rata. However, the Timpohon route is a more direct route up the mountain and is a shorter 6km compared to the Mesilau trek of 8km. Both trails are relatively easy to traverse if one is fit and able to climb up stairs. As they are rocky paths you do need to pick your way carefully uphill.

For our climb, my companion and I took the path up Timophon Gate with our mountain guide. We signed in at the gate, and were given our climbing permits (each climber has to have one, or you’re not allowed up the summit). The permits cost RM30 (Malaysian Adult), RM100 (Non-Malaysian Adult) and come with lanyards which you slip around your neck and wear for the duration of your climb. (you get to keep them as souvenirs after your climb as well, which is cool) Most climbers begin from around 830am to 1030am and take an average of 4-6hours for the hike up to Laban Rata (at 3,272.7m above sea level) where they rest for the night before the Summit climb in the early morning.

There are signposts posted every 0.5km along the route, so you know exactly how far along you’ve come and how much more you still need to walk. The route is scenic with the dense vegetation all around you, and mists rolling in from time to time to enchant you.

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My friend and our exceptionally fit mountain guide Nani at one of the route markers

There are also rest stops called ‘pondoks’ at approximately every 1km along the trek so you can rest your tired limbs and partake in a quick nourishing snack of nuts and/or chocolate. The pondoks are also areas to meet up with fellow trekkers and exchange stories with climbers up the mountain as well as those that are on their way down after their summit climb. Everyone either wishes each other the best of luck or congratulations on making their goal (depending on whom you speak with). It is all really rather heartening, especially when you are anxious about the summit climb. Hearing the climbers reminisce about the spectacular sunrise and awe inspiring vistas from Low’s peak just boosts your morale like nothing else and adds much needed spring to your lagging steps.

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At Layang Layang, where we had our packed lunch. Notice that some hikers are wearing ponchos? That’s because it had already begun to drizzle.

If you are a particularly fit climber, you can afford to carry your own bags uphill. However, if you’re more like my friend and I you’d be better off hiring a porter to carry your bags for you. The porters usually charge between 8-9RM per Kg for the full route, which is not a high price to pay when you need to conserve much of your strength for the more grueling summit climb.

The first 4km was relatively easy. It was not a particularly cold day, and the hiking kept us mostly warm. I didn’t even need a jacket for this part of our journey. However, as my friend had just begun her menses, she was feeling particularly weak and tired. So by the time we’d reached Layang Layang, she was pretty fatigued. We stayed there for the better part of an hour so that she could rest and recover her energy for the next 2 km up to Laban Rata.

It is very important that climbers take the rest of the trek easy as the next 2km is rockier than the first few kilometers. In addition, when you’re already more than 2,000m above sea level you’re far more likely to suffer from altitude sickness if you climb too fast. In my friend’s case especially, we were extra cautious as she had already begun to experience some effects of altitude sickness – headache and nausea. So for the next couple of hours, we slowed down considerably and took frequent rests. By the 5km mark, even I began experiencing some of the effects and so I took a couple of Panadol tablets (Paracetamol or any analgesic helps with the headache) to offset the headache brewing just around my right eye area.

At this height, the dense tropical vegetation of our earlier climb had given way to a sparser vegetation which afforded us better views of the surrounding breathtaking scenery.

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Utterly breathtaking isn’t it?

It was getting colder and wetter (the steady drizzle from earlier giving way to a sudden downpour) and we had to huddle together with some Korean hikers for warmth at the very next Pondok. All of us were freezing by then, and had layered on our jackets and gloves. You could even see the fine mists of our breaths – that’s how cold it had become.

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All bundled-up and huddled together. Sharing our collective body heat for warmth in the cold mountain air

We remained in the Pondok for another 15 minutes, until the rain let up a little and then began our climb once again. By the next stop (which was the last stop before Laban Rata) the rain had subsided back to a steady drizzle, so we picked up our pace a little to make up for the lost time. We had to be extra cautious though, as the rain had slicked up the rocky paths and the route had become more slippery with every step.

The vegetation became even sparser and now we could look down and admire the stunning panorama below the clouds. (yes, we were now above actual honest-to-goodness clouds! – I come from a tropical island that’s about as flat as an airport runway. Give me a break for getting excited about clouds alright?!)

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Gorgeous huh? See those wispy white stuff? Those are actual CLOUDS!!

It was also getting more difficult to keep up the pace, due to the cold and the very thin mountain air. So we were breathing heavily and resting more often, just trying to get our breaths back. And then… just when we were almost about to give up, Nani our guide told us to look up ahead –

Laban Rata! Finally! (*weeps* with joy)

We were just mere steps away from warmth and much needed food! Somehow, we got back our lagging energy for the final few meters up to the Laban Rata Guesthouse to rest and refuel for the night.

Thus ended the first leg of our journey.

The Climb – Day 2. The end is near.

A point to note about Laban Rata is that it is the biggest and most modern resthouse in the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu. It has the most substantial meals and best lodgings in the area. This makes it very popular with the tourists and is thus booked fully very early on. We booked our spot here 6 months prior to our climb and still needed to share a dormitory with other climbers. (there are only 2 rooms with twin beds, and the rest are shared unisex dormitories) Quite a number of fellow climbers we met in the dining area were there from other resthouses as they hadn’t managed to get lodgings in Laban Rata itself. My friend and I shared a 6-bed dormitory in Laban Rata with a Malaysian couple and 2 other men. If you are queasy about sharing rooms, I suggest that you book your rooms well in advance, perhaps even a year ahead of your climbing trip.

We rested early as we needed to get an early start to our climb. Most night climbers begin at about 2am so that they can reach Low’s Peak just before sunrise. It is a difficult 2.7km trek up a terrain that is almost vertical in some spots, with cold prevailing winds of up to 40km/h on a freezing mountain in the pitch black night . So, getting an early start will give the climber the time needed to make the trek in time to catch the spectacular sunrise at Low’s Peak.

My roommates and I found much to our collective chagrin that we were all suffering from varying degrees of altitude sickness when we woke up at about 130am. Out of 6 of us, only 4 decreed ourselves fit enough to attempt the summit climb. As my friend needed much more rest than I, we were some of the last to leave the guesthouse at 3am.

Pretty soon, it became apparent to us that she was not well enough to complete the journey, as by 4am, we were less than halfway up to the check point (which we needed to reach by 5am in order to make the climb in time) and she was already struggling to keep up. It was a very difficult decision to make, but we agreed that it would be for the best if she made her way back to Laban Rata. Nani, our guide led her back and told me to continue ahead slowly so that she could catch up with me after sending my friend back safely. So I pushed ahead, alone and in the dark with only my headlamp to light the way ahead. (did I mention that I have a fear of the dark??)

So, it was up to me to continue the climb on my own in the cold terrifying darkness. Things got worse, when I reached the point of the climb where the ropes began. About 2km before the summit, climbers need to make use of the ropes attached to the slopes to literally pull ourselves up at some points. So we have to lie flat on the rock surface, holding on to the ropes for dear life while our feet grasp for purchase on the smooth slopes. The idea itself is frightening to think about; attempting the course in pitch black darkness, fingers frozen from the cold with howling winds blowing across your face when you’re all alone is quite simply terrifying! It doesn’t help that the rain from a few hours ago had soaked the rope through making it wet and freezing and twice as hard to hold on to. This was the point where most summit climbers gave up to return to Laban Rata.

I have no idea how I got the courage to continue on without my guide and friend by my side, but I did. With every step I took, I was chanting to myself “it’s ok, just one more step, it’s ok, just one more step” just to keep moving forward. Eventually, I reached a more stable point where I did not need to grasp fully on to the rope and could actually stand upright. That’s when I had my first full breath of relief, turned around and found that my guide was just a few meters behind. I’d honestly never felt more relieved to see anyone before in my entire life!

We pushed on ahead, this time with surer steps until we reached the check point just before the 5am deadline. I got my climber’s permit checked and was given the go ahead bu the guard. We had a small rest there and refueled for the remaining 1.7km trek ahead.

You’d think things would get easier after the climb up the sheer rock face wouldn’t you? Well, sorry to disappoint you, but you’d be wrong!

Granted there were no more vertical climbs. However, we still had to use the ropes as a guide as the winds at that height were blowing at approximately 25 – 35 km/h with mists swirling all around you obscuring your view ahead (visibility at times was less than 15m). I’ve never been that cold before, and I could literally feel my fingers and toes becoming numb with cold (temperatures veered between freezing and 2 degrees Celsius). I’d pulled my woolen cap around my ears and wrapped my neck scarf over my nose and mouth to keep my nose from freezing. The air was also much thinner here, so I was very much afraid of altitude sickness. Every step was an effort and the only thing that kept me going was the thought that I’d come too far now to turn back.

I must add that when visibility was better, the surrounding view bolstered my waning strength – stunning and otherworldly, it quite literally takes one’s breath away. And when I turned around to look back, I could see the twinkling lights of the land below, the rolling hills and wispy white clouds. In a way, the view itself was an added boost and kept me going until at long last, I spied Low’s Peak just ahead. With my last remaining strength, I somehow managed to scramble up the rocks to reach the summit of Mt. Kinabalu and collapsed on my trembling knees.

And when I finally found my breath, I got up slowly and took in the spectacular sight at the highest peak in Southeast Asia. I’d finally reached my goal and achieved my dream, so to say it was a profound moment for me would be a vast understatement.

Any words I use to describe the unforgettable sight that awaited me would not do it justice. Awe- inspiring, breathtaking, stunning, spectacular, otherworldly, magnificent, gorgeous – it was all that and so much more. So I’m just going to insert the photographs I took here and let them do the talking –

After taking in the magnificent sight, I rested awhile longer to regain my strength for the trek back to Laban Rata.

Since I’d reached my goal, my steps back had a jaunty skip to them (at least in the beginning). I happily fell in step behind my hardy mountain guide (who I believe has to be at least part mountain goat!) who skipped ahead with effortless ease. The view of our downward journey was just as spectacular, and with the warm Sun up in the sky, I was slowly thawing and feeling more alive than I’d felt in ages.

Low's Peak
View of Low’s Peak on our way back. Can you believe I actually climbed that?!
South Peak
Mists partially obscuring the spectacular South Peak – A far more perilous climb than Low’s Peak I’m told
My unreasonably fit guide Nani back at the check point

After the check point though, the almost vertical hike down was taking it’s toll on my poor knees. The muscles in my thighs and calves were also very sore and so it became an arduous hour-long journey back to Laban Rata.

Back at Laban Rata, I had an hour’s rest, had some breakfast, wrote on a couple of postcards (you can send postcards from there at 2RM per postcard. International stamps cost an additional 2RM) and took some photographs around the area.

After that? Well, it was time to head back to the Timpohon Gate – another 6km hike. Luckily for us, my friend had recovered her strength for the return trip. Unluckily for us though, about halfway down the slopes, it began to rain. Again. This time though, it was a torrential downpour that did not let up right up till we reached the Timpohon Gate. So by the time we reached the gate, we were a cold, wet, hungry and very very tired, shivering mess – but very much alive.

And that, my friends is the story of my Mt. Kinabalu climb.

The journey back

Nothing I’ve experienced in my life before this comes remotely close to what I felt and saw at the top of the world (or at least Southeast Asia). That alone was worth the pain, the cold, the hunger and the terror of falling from the steep rock surface in the pitch black night.

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