Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo
Mt Kinabalu Overview
Mt Kinabalu, standing at 4,095m, is the highest mountain on the island of Borneo, the highest mountain in the country of Malaysia, and the highest mountain in SE Asia between Hkakabo Razi (5,881m) in the Himalaya of northern Myanmar and the peaks of Indonesia’s Papua province (the highest of which is Puncak Jaya at 4,884m) on New Guinea island. It’s also higher than any mountain in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, or coastal China, making it the highest mountain located on the western Pacific rim after those on New Guinea – in short, Mt Kinabalu is the most significant mountain for a long way in every direction. This is perhaps the most easily accessible 4,000m-plus mountain anywhere in the world and requires no specialist equipment or skills, so it’s a great way for the casual hiker to experience a moderately high altitude while taking in some fantastic terrain and scenery.
The Mt Kinabalu hike
The mountain’s located in Kinabalu National Park, a drive of a few hours from the Sabah state capital of Kota Kinabalu. The Mt Kinabalu hike starts from the park headquarters situated at around 1,700m above sea level, and is done as a 2-day job with an overnight stop on the mountain at Laban Rata hut. The first day sees you initially hiking through the jungle, past waterfalls and spectacular flora (though we didn’t see much by way of fauna) – the overgrowth is heavy, but the path is well-maintained and not too steep so the hiking is fairly easygoing… other than the humidity anyway, which is a killer! It’s hot, sweaty work, and you’ll need plenty of water.
After a few hours of climbing through the jungle, you emerge out of the forest into an intermediate band of high altitude plant life which doesn’t grow to any great height and finally allows you your first clear views of the bare granite summit above you. A couple more hours of hiking brings you up to Laban Rata hut, above which the vegetation disappears and the mountain is all sweeping granite slopes, rising up to some bizarre rock formations I found somewhat reminiscent of LV-426 (the alien world visited in the first Alien movies). After checking in to the hut, you’re fed a meal (and can also buy snacks, drinks and other supplies – at a premium – from their shop) and then, after hopefully catching as spectacular a sunset as we were treated to, it’s wise to get an early night as you’ll be up well before the crack of dawn to set out for the summit (though you may find your sleep fitful due to the altitude – see below)
The second day is when you’ll be needing your headlamp (these really are much better than anything you’d have to hold, as they leave both hands free for scrambling and arresting any slips or falls) as you climb the final 800m of vertical in the pre-dawn darkness. If you time things right, you’ll be on the summit just before the sun comes up and will see the mountain’s bulk casting a pyramid of shadow though the sky to the west as the sun breaks the eastern horizon; a truly incredible sight. Be careful if you’re a fast hiker though – getting to the top too quickly will leave you waiting around in some freezing temperatures, so take it fairly easy!
Once all of your group has reached the top (your guide will be bringing up the rear with the slowest group members), you can then begin your descent all the way from the summit to the park headquarters and a well-deserved rest – or, perhaps, a several-hour bus ride to your next destination!
Altitude issues on the Mt Kinabalu hike
Mt Kinabalu is high enough for altitude sickness to be an issue. Altitude sickness can potentially affect anyone above 3,000m if they aren’t acclimatised, and with Mt Kinabalu’s summit above 4,000m and the overnight hut at 3,270m, you may find yourself suffering during the night, or on the early morning summit climb. In my case, I was absolutely fine on the first day, but slept very poorly at Laban Rata hut with really bizarre dreams seeming to ruin whatever sleep I did get, which is typical after rapidly moving from low altitudes to 3,000m+. Starting the morning climb I felt very tired, but not sick – but as we climbed above 3,500m the headache kicked in and I started to feel like I’d been on a minor bender the night before. It wasn’t nearly bad enough to make me turn back (in severe cases of altitude sickness, immediate descent is the only remedy – but this usually applies to higher altitudes, and such a severe case is unlikely at 3 to 4,000m), and it wasn’t bad enough ruin the feeling of being on the summit watching the sun rise… but it was pretty unpleasant and I was very happy to start the descent (the headache disappears remarkably quickly once you are going down instead of up). The problem here is that you can’t possibly fully acclimatise while doing the Mt Kinabalu hike due to the altitude profile, which is fixed and beyond your control. You start from the park entrance at 1,700m, you sleep at 3,270m, then you climb to 4,095m. If you take the bus from KK on the morning of your climb, this means you go from sea level to over 4,000m in around 20 hours; this is far too fast for acclimatisation, and altitude sickness is a possibility whatever your age and level of fitness. The one thing you can do to reduce the likelihood is to do the 2-night option, with a night at the park headquarters at 1,700m. This means you’ll go from sea level to 4,000m in perhaps 36 hours, depending on your bus time, which is still too fast to acclimatise properly but should reduce your chances of feeling sick.
I actually think the best way to avoid altitude sickness on the Mt Kinabalu hike would be to do the whole climb up and straight back down in a single day – that would mean only spending a few hours above 3,000m, reducing your time in the thinner air. Even if you did feel a headache brewing, you’d be on your way down again soon. This isn’t an option for Kinabalu unfortunately (unless you’re one of these nutters), but it’s the way I’d advise tackling Mt Fuji should that also be on your radar.
Mt Kinabalu hike Practicalities
The first thing you have to do is get yourself to Malaysian Borneo, an excellent travel destination for many reasons – as well as Mt Kinabalu, visitors are drawn by tropical beaches, hot springs, jungle eco-lodges, river tours, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (near Sandakan), and the world-famous diving at Sipadan. Malaysian Borneo is administered as two states – Sarawak (which I haven’t yet visited) to the south-west, and Sabah to the north-east – and Mt Kinabalu is located in Sabah. The state capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, is generally referred to as KK and this is where you’ll arrive in Sabah whether flying directly there or coming overland (or sea) from Brunei or Sarawak. We visited Borneo en route from Bangkok to Perth flying with Royal Air Brunei – meaning we flew from Thailand to Brunei, stayed overnight in Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB, Brunei’s capital and only city), and then took the ferry to KK (and then one week later, after finishing our Sabah trip, did the same thing in reverse before flying to Australia). At that time one had to apply for a climbing permit at the national park office in KK, necessitating a stay of a couple days in KK, and while it’s not the most attractive of cities it has a great night market, a few beautiful islands a short boat ride away, and a nice beach (with attached luxury resort – popular with Australian, Korean, and Japanese honeymooners), not to mention great food and friendly people, so it was an enjoyable enough place to relax for a few days. Since then, changes have been made to the mountain permit & accommodation booking situation meaning that you don’t have to stay in KK for more than a night any more; but it’s still a good place to rest for a day or two after a long flight or after climbing the mountain. (I returned there a few years later on my way to and from a failed attempt to dive at Sipadan, and had a pleasant enough time enjoying the beach and the food despite completely failing to do any diving)
All climbers must have a permit, and in order to get the permit you must join a guided group. This is compulsory, and you get a group of up to five climbers per guide (it was eight per guide when we did it). While anyone with hiking experience may feel the guide isn’t really necessary and perhaps they’d rather not be paying for one, the system’s designed to save the one climber in every 25,000 or so who runs into difficulties on the mountain while also creating worthwhile employment and ensuring that tourist money goes back to the park and the local population. Our guide (whose name I’m afraid I’ve long since forgotten) was clearly experienced & highly competent, and a really nice bloke to boot, and he walked along at the back of the group allowing the faster walkers to go off at our own pace – we had to wait for everyone to catch up at the rest points he specified, but apart from that I didn’t really feel that being required to join a guided group was particularly limiting. And on the plus side, it was nice to be placed in a group of pleasant and interesting fellow climbers with whom we could share the climb while debating philosophy or engaging in toilet humour (I think my travel partner Danny and I were getting fairly bored of each other by this point after several months on the road together!), so I really felt the positives outweighed the negatives.
After obtaining the permit in KK and booking ahead for accommodation, we took a public bus to the park, registered at the headquarters, were assigned to our group and guide, checked in to the hostel, went for dinner with our new climbing-mates, and then started the climb in the morning. These days, however, you have to book a climbing package with an agency, which includes the accommodation, permit, and guide fees, plus optional transportation. Booking for the accommodation is all actually handled by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, making them the cheapest option (with no additional outside agency fees) but requiring reservation months in advance; other agencies book the accommodation through them, hence you pay a markup in the tour price. Check the great Mt Kinabalu page over at Notesofnomads for more details on how to book with Sutera, and some other agency recommendations in case you can’t get a spot with Sutera. There are also multiple accommodation options just outside the national park (in the vicinity of the entrance gate) which you can make use of before or after climbing, which you can search & book here.
You can either do a one-night option, with a very early start from KK and just one night’s accommodation at the Laban Rata hut on the mountain, or a two-night option allowing for a later departure from KK with the first night spent at the national park headquarters at the start of the climb and the second night at the Laban Rata hut (the latter is basically what we did, and is advisable due to the swift altitude gain from KK to the summit of Mt Kinabalu; I would do it that way if I were to climb the mountain again. Actually, I’d really like to try doing it up and down in a single day but that option isn’t available unless you’re one of the nutters doing the Climbathon). If your dates are fixed and you want to be sure of being able to do the climb on a specific date, your best bet would be to book well in advance and suck it up and pay for a more expensive package including transportation; but if you’re able to be flexible with your dates and don’t mind potentially hanging out in KK or elsewhere in Sabah for a few days, you can still just rock up in KK and book a cheaper package there with Sutera and then take the public bus to the park. As of 2018, prices with tour agencies are around 2,000 MYR ($500 USD) for a one-night package and around 2,200-plus for a 2-night package (Sutera lists by far the lowest prices, but their prices don’t include all the fees (park entrance, climbing permit, guide etc) as listed here. Once those are taken into account, it’s still the cheapest but not by a large margin). After finishing the climb and returning to the park headquarters, you can either head back to KK on your booked transportation, or, if you travelled to the mountain by public transport you can flag down a bus to take you on towards Sandakan, Sepilok, or Sipidan. We continued straight on to Sepilok to visit the orangutan centre, a place which I definitely recommend… although the bus ride wasn’t a lot of fun directly after finishing the hike, I remember it clearly for the fact they played the hit Thai martial arts movie Ong Bak on the bus which was entertaining enough to distract us from our aching legs… but anyway, wherever you head to after climbing Mt Kinabalu and whichever climbing package you decide to go with, it’s an enjoyable and rewarding hike – have fun!
Have you climbed Mt Kinabalu? How was it? Do you have any questions about the Mt Kinabalu hike? Leave a comment below!
See here for agencies to book your climb package.
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