Climbing Mount Kinabalu, one of the tallest mountains in South East Asia had been one of the first things I wrote down on our “to do” list in the region. As the list inevitably grew over time and encompassed some amazing and immense bucket list experiences and many more we didn’t even know about until we arrive… Mt. Kinabalu still loomed large. As our trip went on it seemed more and more unlikely, stories of having to book months in advance, of paying hundreds of pounds only to get turned around just before the peak, we wondered if it was all worth it? But as we usually do we made it happen, we waited it out, found a place and managed to drag ourselves over 2 days up this gigantic piece of rock…here’s our story of summiting Malaysia’s highest mountain: Climbing Mount Kinabalu on Borneo!
Heading over to Borneo still unsure if we could make this dream a reality
I’ll be honest, when we boarded that plane over to Borneo I was still not sure if this would be a huge wast of time and effort, plus, I hate flying so wondered why I was dragging myself on another flight for what might turn out to be disappointment. So many people had told us it was too late to tick off our dream of climbing Mount Kinabalu, that we needed to book 3 months in advance… and when you’re backpacking who knows for certain where they are going to be in 3 months time, internet research and speaking to the hostel seemed to confirm this.
On top of that I had presumed (never do that!) that many of the other amazing things to do on Borneo such as trekking in the national parks and seeing the Orangutans in the wild would be also too expensive and hard to organise… I wondered if this might be a place we should have left until we had more time and money.
But always up for an adventure we decided to just bite the bullet, take a flight over and see how it all panned out (by the way, it was completely, totally bloody amazing, all of Borneo, one of the highlights of the whole of Asia!!)
Between price, availability, last minute planning and an open schedule we get on a trip…
After arriving in Kuching we set about planning what we would be doing in Borneo, it turns out it was pretty east to see the Orangutans and also amazingly cheap to visit the unbelievably Bako National Park that was frankly like a dream! We set about now attempting to organise climbing Mount Kinabalu!
Honestly, it wasn’t until 2 days before the trek we actually decided to go for it and finally tick off climbing Mount Kinabalu. I won’t lie, its expensive, probably excessively so, but we figured we are only here once and it’s only money at the end of the day. We desperately wanted to stand on top of that mountain and these were the sort of experiences we had saved up to do, ate noodles to be able to afford and now here we were! Contrary to popular believe it is pretty possible to get on a tour at the last moment, though you do need to be flexible. We had to wait around for over a week to get a space, but in that time we managed to do our PADI course so it was worth the wait!!
The problem with climbing Mount Kinabalu… but why we chose to do it anyway!
Mt. Kinabalu is currently a bit of an anomaly for Malaysia. In a country where most things are very reasonably priced and where you are often left to you own devices when it comes to hiking (See Cameron Highlands for an example of that). But here, for a hike that, though very challenging isn’t enough to warrant needing a guide, requires a climbing permit, an over night stay in the lodgings and a guide at all times.
This is mostly due to the devastating earthquake of 2015 where 18 people died on the mountain. This is possibly an over reaction and I am not sure what these measures would actually do to avoid this tragic but just unlucky situation from happening again. This also means that you can no longer hike in one day (which honestly is stupid anyway as the peak is always in cloud after 9/10am) and it then limits the number of people on the mountain at one time as well as setting time restrictions such as passing the last checkpoint before the summit before 5am!
It all adds up to making it much more expensive that it used to be, harder to get a permit, place in the huts and a guide as well as placing limits on you once you are on the mountain all of which mean you might not even get to the top!
Finally setting off climbing Mount Kinabalu: our highest mountain to date… a tough first day on the trails
The first day was an early wake up call to be picked up at 6am from the hostel with all our bags packed for the next couple of exhausting days climbing Mount Kinabalu. We were all filled with a sense of excitement and trepidation, having waited so long and paid so much it was time now to see how this turned out. Where we fit enough after so long on the road, would the weather hold out, were our bags to heavy… all questions running through our heads during the 2 hour drive to the base of the mountain from the city.
There we met up with some friends we had met in Kota Kinabalu either from the hostel or our PADI course, this meant that there were 5 of us in a group ready to tackle this mountain and when you have such a mammoth task having a great group really does keep morale and spirits high especially when climbing Mount Kinabalu is such a mammoth effort!
The first day was a 6km hike up to the hut, 6km seems like nothing but this was unrelentingly steep and never let out. The entire way were huge uneven step, some a good 30-40 cm high and unlike other mountains that seem to give you a few steps of flat occasionally, this was all up hill! However we made a good pace and soon left the guides behind, truth be told we didn’t want them in the first place and it was much more fun without them. We were sweating and panting, but decided to only take a break every km and keep pushing on passing by many slower people from the groups that had set off before us.
The going was tough and tiring even with a small backpack on. But the most shocking thing were the porters who would whisk passed us in a breeze climbing Mount Kinabalu like it was nothing! They were carrying supplies up to the huts as this was the only way to get things up and down, this included food and drink as well as building materials for the still on going renovations after the earth quake. Many of them were carrying over 40kg and in awkward to carry packages too such as plaster board and timber, even little old ladies were in on the act with nothing but a strap of webbing over their shoulders… not even padding! It was insane and I really take my hat off to these super fit and strong people. Now I just hoped that at least some of the money we had to pay to stay up here was actually going to these hard working people!
Finally, just as the rain began we reached the hut by around 3pm, the place was almost empty as we were one of the first groups to make it, the first day of climbing Mount Kinabalu was complete!
Spending an anxious but comfortable night in the hut at at 3,270 metres (10,730 ft)
As soon as we arrived at the mountain hut the rain began, and when I say rain I mean a full on thunder storm… at 10,730ft in a wooden hut! In all fairness the hut was better than expected when we had all selected the cheapest option of “Hostel” on the form. Our 4 bed dorm was actually some of the most comfortable beds I have experienced in Asia and the open buffet was really delicious with great western and vegetarian options… I carb loaded for about 3 days that night!!
However, there was no internet, no TV, little in the way of heating either and the rain continued to pour and pour. We kept ourselves entertained by a combination of playing a poor standard of scrabble (with far too many suspect words!) and going back for more and more food in an attempt to convince ourselves we were preparing for the next days hike as we were tucking into our third place of spaghetti and garlic potato wedges!
But rumours began to fly around the cabin like wild fire of the next days hike being called off if the weather was too bad. Here we all were, ready and eager to push for the summit at the ungodly hour of 1.30am only to be told it might not happen. All that time, effort and money lay in the hands of the weather which seemed to be getting worse and worse. We finally retired to bed far to early to be tired despite our efforts earlier in the day and honestly didn’t sleep a wink. The anxiety over what the next day would bring, a combination of worry about it not climbing Mount Kinabalu and then further worry about how hard it would be if it did happen wasn’t a good mix and neither was the pounding rain on the thin windows!
Waking up at 1.30am for the steep and arduous push for the summit and finally seeing that famous view!
1.30am came around all too quickly, well, it does when you only manage to drift off at 12am!! As I had gone to sleep I could still hear the rain and sank down into my pillow with a resignation to failure. In my sleepy and honestly slightly nauseous haze I wasn’t sure if I could hear rain or not. I sprang out of bed and woke everyone up, I knew if I lay there for any longer I might just decide to stay in bed! Throwing open the curtains I was still non the wiser, it was pitch black, freezing and I could hear the trickle of water. Finally dressed and ready our guide told us to get our breakfast… we were good to go! Now the nerves and excitement really began, and that was before coffee! This was it, we were climbing Mount Kinabalu!
We set off later than most people, waiting for the guides who again we would inevitably leave and not see again until we got back to the hut. We were behind a low moving train of people, plodding one foot painfully slowly in front of the other in the freezing mud. We were getting frustrated and worried about reaching the final check point before 5am, so we decided to go for it. We ducked and dived in front of people, literally running and jumping on sections of the trail, by this point we were pouring with sweat into and de-layering as we went. We were making good time, and eventually found ourselves up at the front with the long trail of head lights slowly snaking down the mountain below us.
After setting off at 2:30 am we were at the 7km Sayat Sayat checkpoint by 4am with sunrise due in two hours. The last push was in sight but it was also the hardest section of the climb. At this point we decided to continue to press on despite some saying we were too early. This meant we could press on slowly and steadily up the now blank and steep slabs of granite that lay before us.
In the pitch black still we began the the exhausting push, using ropes to pull on as our breathing became laboured in the high altitude and the cold really began to bite. From here the stars were amazing and intense, the first splashes of light began to create huge silhouettes of the impending rock we had to clamber up. Just one foot in front of another up the 45 degree slab, hand over hand on the soaking rope, head down and go…The final push of climbing Mount Kinabalu!
We made it! With our last remaining fragments of energy we celebrated at the summit of Low’s Peak, 4,095 m (13,435 ft) and on top of the world! The sun began to break over the rocky landscape and shimmer off the silver moonscape we found ourselves on. Our bodies were now shaking in the cold still wet from the effort of the final push as the first beams of sun began to hit us on this monumental day. It felt strange that the day was only beginning after such a rollercoaster journey through the early hours of the morning.
A painful but jubilant decent back down to Kota Kinabalu and a well deserved rest!
We stayed on the summit plateau for over an hour, taking in the changing light and colours as they seemed to dance over this most strange place. There simply wasn’t words for the fascinating features up here, the famous donkey ears and the stunning wave like South Peak that characterises this mountain.
From here we could see clearly down into the jungle and across to the towns below. It was monumental feeling to take in the world from such a stunning vantage point and to know you’ve literally walked all the way up here.
Now, unbeknownst to us was one of the most ruthless sections of the climb… going back down. We made the first section in no time at all, still on a high from the bright clear day we had caught at the summit of one of the worlds most magnificent peaks. Our challenge was complete, we had been successful, we had conquered the mountain, the weather, the permits and the costs, we had finally stood there and made all of that effort worth while. We ate our breakfast with jubilation and cheer ready for the stroll back to the National Park entrance where lunch and a van would be waiting.
But anyone who has ever climbed a mountain knows the way down is the worst! On the way up you are excited, full of energy and vigour. On the way down you are drained, your legs turn to jelly and your knees ache. From start to finish this was 12km in total, 3km up and 9km back down! We raced down again and made good time, but I was just about to collapse by the time I set eyes on the gate, or was it a mirage!!
How you can tick off climbing Mount Kinabalu and some facts
At 4,095m (13,435 feet above sea level), Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea and the highest mountain in Malaysia and on Borneo
There are a total of 135 climb permits & dormitory beds in all huts of Panalaban available each day.
All climbers need to have booked a permit and accommodation on the mountain before starting.
Pricing and info:
The current price (2017) for non Malaysians for the 2 day 1 night package with everything included is MYR 1,880 / £342.40 / $439.00 (based on two people) the price is lower the more you can get in a group and higher if you do it by yourself. Check for more up to date pricing info here: Mount Kinabalu info
We recommend the 2 day 1 night option for cost and time but we know some who did the more expensive 3 day trip just to get on the mountain with the first day being in the National Park.
Try to book as soon as you know you will be in Kinabalu as places go fast. However don’t despair if you are on the last minute as there is often a small amount of availability. These prices include food, transport and accommodation but not drinks.
Bring warm clothing, gloves and layers as well as waterproof clothing.
The first day you will be warm and will be ok trekking in shorts and t-shirt usually, the second day you will likely get cold especially on the summit in the early hours.
Wear good shoes with solid grips, walking boots or shoes are best but we did it in running shoes and were ok.
Bring a head torch and batteries (You can rent them if you need)
Bring plenty of water with you as you can’t fill your bottle on the way, but you can at the hut.
Bring with you some high energy snacks such as cereal bars, chocolate bars, nut, trail mix etc.
Bring along waterproof covers for your bag and dry sacks for your important belongings.
The showers are freezing so some wet wipes instead are a good option as well as a small towel.
Don’t over pack, you have to carry your bag all the way to the hut (you can leave all but essentials in the rooms for the summit)
Have you ever thought about climbing Mount Kinabalu on Borneo or any other amazing mountain?
Mt Kinabalu has to be one of the best mountains we’ve climbed and the highest to day, some others that stand out for us are The Schilthorn in Switzerland, Crib Gogh and Tryfan in Wales, Striding Edge in The Lake District and that time we climbed the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales in 24 hours on the 3 peaks challenge!
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