No visit to Sabah is complete without climbing Mount Kinabalu. For those that have travelled to Malaysian Borneo and experienced the wondrous beauty of Mount Kinabalu I’m sure all would agree that it is definitely a destination not to be missed when you are in this part of the world. For the vast majority of visitors climbing the mountain, most would embark on the standard two day one night itinerary, which involves a rather arduous descent from the mountain summit back to Kinabalu Park Headquarters. A group of us set off to tackle the mountain taking a bit of a different approach to the standard itinerary opting for a three day two night stay allowing us a bit more time and freedom during our climbing adventure to truly capture the beauty of Mount Kinabalu.
For those that don’t know Kinabalu Mountain is the jewel of Sabah and is probably the most iconic landmark in the Malaysian Borneo state. Whether you are in Kota Kinabalu or heading up to the beaches of Kota Belud a clear day will almost guarantee a view of the mountain from numerous locations. The Kinabalu National Park itself is an incredibly special place for the budding naturalist offering a glimpse into the iconic flora and fauna that makes up this unique World Heritage listed landscape. The lower trails of the mountain offer stunning walks through enchanted forest experiencing significantly cooler temperatures than you would encounter in the sweaty lowland forest of Borneo. A great option to explore the lesser known trails of Kinabalu National Park is a trip to Sayap Sub-station, for more information about this section of the park you can read our blog here.
Panabalan is the site for accommodation properties on the mountain and sits below the summit. All climbers will stay overnight and begin their summit from this point. Also referred to as Laban Rata, named after the primary accommodation facility for foreign tourists there is also the option to stay at Pendant Hut if you plan to do the via-ferrata route. Providing you have a good level of fitness and you are up for a bit of a challenge you will have no issues climbing the mountain. It is an incredibly doable climb even if you don’t have the fitness of a marathon runner. If you want to do a little bit of preparation training for the mountain fitting in a couple of weekly cardio sessions in the weeks leading up to your climb will go a long way towards ensuring your body will be up for the challenge. The morning of our climb we met our Sabah Park’s guide at the Kinabalu Park Headquarters after registering for the climb and receiving our permits. It is compulsory to have an official Sabah Parks guide with you for the climb. For the most part the guides are a cheery bunch and a wealth of knowledge regarding the natural history of the mountain. The start of the climb officially starts at Timpohon Gate, which is also the highest point you can reach without needing a mountain permit. Once you reach the gate you will register again and begin the accent through the lush misty montane forest.
With 135 climbing permits issued a day the trail to the summit is well maintained so there is absolutely no chance of taking a wrong turn and ending up lost. In order to reach the accommodation at Laban Rata you will need to cover six kilometers starting at 1,866 metres ASL and finishing at 3,270 metres ASL climbing a total of 1,400 metres in elevation on your first day. Things tend to get increasingly steep as you get closer to the accommodation however there are numerous stops along the way to have a break and catch your breath. At a good pace you can complete the climb to Laban Rata within 3-4 hours, some will take a little longer but shouldn’t be more than seven hours.
As you gain elevation you will begin to see the changes in the vegetation, at the start of the climb the forest is still quite tall with towering trees lining the trail. The vegetation gets progressively shorter the higher you get and in some parts you will witness a unique vegetation community that grows on nutrient poor ultramafic soils. It is worth noting that the Kinabalu National Park boasts one of the richest floral communities known worldwide and the highest concentration of orchid species on earth, with around 866 species in total.
With multiple sites to rest along the climb to Panabalan there is no need whatsoever to rush your ascent. Take your time to enjoy the views and the vegetation that surrounds you. It’s a pretty ethereal feeling walking the trail while cloud and mist rolls across the surrounding landscape with glimpses of the mountain being revealed as the cloud clears for the view. The mountain can deliver some pretty temperamental weather so without warning you can encounter rain or a light shower, by the afternoon typically a light drizzle can overcome the mountain so best to keep your foul weather gear handy.
If you are keeping a good pace with few rest stops you can make it to Panabalan in around four hours or less. For some people it can take six hours or more depending on your level of fitness. Reaching the accommodation at Panabalan is a welcomed relief by the days end and you will be looking forward to a shower to freshen up. A hot tip, warm water on the mountain is a bit of a luxury and most of the time the showers are lukewarm at best as they are solar powered. Showering as soon as you arrive before you cool down too much will make the process a little more bearable if you happen to need to shower in icy cold water.
Depending on where you have booked you will be staying at one of the few accommodation options in the area. Most foreign visitors will stay at Laban Rata or Pendant Hut for the night in dorm style accommodation. A buffet style dinner is served each evening at Laban Rata catering to all the climbers on the mountain.
Take the opportunity to relax and rest your legs whilst enjoying the beautiful surroundings of Panabalan. Providing the weather is good and there isn’t too much cloud you will catch glimpses of the peaks around the summit of Mount Kinabalu and the montane forest that is so unique. There is a helicopter landing pad where you can watch the sunset and take some photos as the sky turns into a melange of yellows, oranges and pinks as the sun disappears beyond the horizon.
Enjoy dinner and try to get an early nights sleep, the next morning is going to be an early start so you are going to want to be well rested. If you are staying in a dorm at your accommodation it should go without saying but please be mindful of the other guests you will be sharing this space with.
Hearing the alarm going off at 2 am brings both a sense of excitement at the adventure ahead and dread at the thought of getting out of your cozy warm bed to be met with the cold and the dark. A light supper will be available so that you have the opportunity to eat some food and won’t be attempting the summit on an empty stomach. By 2:30 am you will meet your mountain guide to begin the final ascent.
Under the guidance of your torch light and mountain guide you will follow the ever ascending steep trail to the summit surrounded by total darkness. Eventually you will reach a point where you will have a view of the villages down below that surround the mountain and begin to grasp the reality of where you are on the trail. By this stage the vegetation has been reduced to mere shrubs and eventually you will climbing across the bare granite rock face. The final checkpoint at Sayat Sayat will be your last opportunity for a toilet until you return to this point again so be sure to use the facilities if you need to.
From Sayat Sayat there is a big white rope that trails all the way to Low’s Peak, the official summit of Mount Kinabalu. Following this will ensure you won’t get lost on your way to the summit in the dark. Here you will make the final section of the climb across the open rock face under a stunningly beautiful Milky Way. Once your body starts cooling down from the trek up you will begin to get cold as you can experience sub-zero temperatures at the summit. Just be sure to have enough warm clothing with you and a spare undershirt if you are wet from the sweaty climb up.
From the summit you will begin to witness the surrounding skyline light up as the sun edges closer to the horizon. For the next hour or so you will bear witness to one of the most incredibly beautiful moments you will ever have in your life. The dark orange and purple sky gradually gives way to pinks and yellows as the sun rises casting a massive shadow of the mountain upon the surrounding landscape. As the sun begins to light the mountain top it is only then you will begin to grasp the sheer enormity of Mount Kinabalu and the uniqueness of the rocky granite landscape that makes up the many different peaks.
Sitting at the edge of the 1800 metres deep chasm that is Low’s Gully gives you some insight into the mountain’s geological past. What could possibly carve this huge section of rock and the surrounding craggy rocky peaks? Around 100,000 years ago Mount Kinabalu was covered by huge ice sheets and glaciers which flowed down its slopes scouring the surface of the rock in the process forming the landscape that we see before us today. You can also witness the scarring across the mountain landscape, a relic from the 2015 earthquake which caused steep ground to slip resulting in numerous landslides and rock falls. Growing at 5 mm per year the geological activity at the mountain is quite significant and something to be respected when you are there. Follow the instructions of your guide carefully and adhere to signage to ensure your own safety on the mountain. The 2015 earthquake was a sharp reminder that the mountain is a place that needs to be given a great amount of respect.
The title of this chapter says it all really, so indeed once you have enjoyed your time at the summit you will begin to descend back to Laban Rata to have breakfast. By 9 am you will commence the final descent back to Timpohon Gate. This is where all that preparation training comes in handy, from Low’s Peak to Timpohon gate you will be covering 8.7km in distance and descending an elevation of over 2.2km. Needless to say that is a lot of downward pressure on the knees so take it easy if you have knee issues and be sure to take care of yourself. The good thing about coming down is that you will be able to complete the descent in about half the time it took to climb up. For most climbers they will reach Timpohon Gate around lunchtime.
Mount Kinabalu is such a prominent feature that the towering peaks can be seen from Kota Kinabalu to Kudat and points along Crocker Range, the mountainous region to the west of Mount Kinabalu. Whilst you can have a clear sunny day in the city it is probably likely that the mountain will be shrouded in cloud and glimpsing a clear view of the mountain is near impossible unless it’s early morning. The mountain is so big that it creates its own weather and can throw some nasty conditions at you whilst hiking on the trail.
If you are climbing the mountain you need to be prepared for the fact that if the weather turns nasty the summit will be closed and you will be going back to bed at 2am rather than summiting. This is for your own safety as things can quickly go wrong in cold, wet conditions where visibility is sometimes reduced to a few metres. The open rock face offers no protection from wind and rain and the view probably won’t be too great if the summit is clouded in.
Don’t let this be a deterrent, just be aware of the realities of nature. For the vast majority of occasions the weather during sunrise is nothing but stunning. You are so high at the summit that you are above the clouds so even though it could be raining elsewhere you can experience clear views above it all.
Whilst Sabah is a tropical place experiencing consistent temperatures year round the mountain is certainly an exception due to the elevation factor. Even around Kinabalu Park Headquarters can get chilly especially at night. During the climb you will be warm, at times sweating it out and then very quickly cold whilst taking a rest. The key is layering your clothing so that you can put on and take off clothing items depending on your body temperature. The following is a list of suggested items to keep you comfortable during the climb.
Whilst there is the option to hire a porter to carry the things you wish to take with you, you might also want to take a daypack or something similar to carry anything you might need on the go such as your camera, food, waterproof jacket, and drinking water. If you are only doing to 2 day 1 night itinerary you really won’t need to take much at all so could probably even carry everything you need if you are feeling up for it. Do keep in mind that by hiring porters you are helping to provide jobs for people from the various villages around the mountain and this is an important source of income for people in the area.
Want to do your bit for the environment during your time on the mountain? One of the simplest things you can do is bring your own water bottle and fill it up along the way using water purification drops or tablets to treat the water at the rest stops. If you are purchasing water at the accommodation you are paying around 10 times what you would normally pay and creating plastic pollution in the process. You can also order a jug of boiled water which is safe for drinking.
If you are someone that suffers from knee or ankle issues be sure to wear a compression brace or something of the likes so everything stays in good working order. The most brutal part of the trek is the descent from the summit to Timpohon Gate, the constant downhill can be tough on the knees. During both the ascent and descent you might want to carry a walking pole with you. Whilst the track is well maintained there are some rocky sections that a walking stick can provide support and give you something to stabilise yourself with.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu is one of the most rewarding experiences you can undertake in Malaysian Borneo. The sheer scale of the mountain and the uniqueness of its geological formation make this destination a one of a kind. Your visit will not be complete unless you climb the mountain during your visit to Malaysian Borneo, you will not be disappointed.