Mt Kinabalu (Gunung Kinabalu in Malaysian) is a popular experience for travellers to Malaysia. I’d like to share my experience of climbing Mt Kinabalu and tens of thousands of people reach the summit each year, from teenagers to grandparents.
A big reason for its popularity is that it is so accessible. This is a properly big mountain (4,095m) that you can hike up with no mountaineering equipment or skills. However, it’s no walk in the park and the hike can be quite intense for many as the air gets thinner all the way up.
This post is a mix of really useful information (everything you need to know about climbing Mt Kinabalu) and my frank description of my own experience.
Booking a Mt Kinabalu climb
Climbing Mt Kinabalu is a highly regulated experience. You can’t just rock up and walk up the mountain independently. It is mandatory to have a local guide. Because I didn’t have much time in Malaysia I chose to book it before I left home. If your travel plans are more flexible I’m sure you could book something cheaper in Kota Kinabalu or even turn up to the Kinabalu National Park Office and hire a guide. However, I found most providers I contacted were already full – in fact I was worried I wouldn’t be able to book anything but eventually found a tour company with a place for me.
Getting to the mountain
It is a one-and-a-half hour drive from Kota Kinabalu to the park headquarters at Timpohon gate is a gentle start to the two-day trip. My package included transfer to the mountain with a pick up from my hotel at 6.30am. In the bright sunshine I enjoyed leaving the city behind, passing through the countryside and watching the mountain grow slowly bigger on the horizon. You can also get a public bus to the Kinabalu National Park Office, from where the climb starts but that would probably require a really early start!
How long does it take to climb Mt Kinabalu?
Most people take two days for this trip, trekking 6km to Laban Rata on the first day (four to six hours) before climbing to the summit early on the following morning. The return trip from Laban Rata to the summit can take anything from six to nine hours. Climbers then descend to the park headquarters that afternoon, which takes three to four hours.
What is it like climbing Mt Kinabalu?
By the time you get to Timpohon gate the mountain looks pretty big – it really dominates the landscape around. My driver sorted out the permits etc in about 15 minutes and I was ready to go with a lunch pack provided.
The majority of the first day involves hiking up through the forest, mostly undercover of trees, with mosses and bright flowers picked out by shafts of sunlight. The sounds of birdsong, humming insects and running water is all around. The richness of the plant life is amazing – there were exquisite orchids, colourful begonias and wild rhododendrons. I found it fascinating watching it change as I ascended the mountain through different zones.
The track is punctuated by rest stops, often with a small shelter, and a sign informing you of how far you have walked and how high you have climbed. I enjoyed taking a breather at many of these, drinking and watching the tiny squirrels scampering about. There are also information boards about the flora and fauna of the region.
Climbing Mt Kinabalu attracts all sorts of people. There were people in trainers and running shorts, teams wearing matching t-shirts, sensible people with hiking boots and trekking poles, and the odd person carrying an umbrella.
I have to say at this point that the guide was pleasant but really quite pointless. As I mentioned it is mandatory to hire a guide and I agree with supporting employment for local people but it is a bit frustrating for an experienced hiker to have a young guide walking with his mates 20 metres behind.
His English was very limited, although he had a nice smile, and at times I had to ask for information from other guides. I don’t mind solo hiking (although of course it is hardly lonely as there are hundreds of other hikers on the trail) and slightly resented the sense of being ‘babysat’.
From the 4km mark at Layang the waves of cold, damp air that give the cloud forest its name started to make their presence felt, wafting across the path and muffling sound. There are outcrops of orange Serpentinite rock that contrasts with the dark granite and become polished and slippery in the dank air. Soon coniferous trees start to replace the jungle, increasingly twisted and stunted by wind and altitude. The temperature drops quite significantly and I was keen to start walking again just to get warm.
At last you reach the ultra-basic forest zone and the cloud makes things more and more eerie. I could hear people’s voices but see nothing ahead or behind. After the Pondok shelter at 2,960m the path starts traversing granite slabs. I absolutely loved this schima wallichi plant, which looks a bit like an alpine camellia.
Laban Rata is essentially a collection of guest houses and a big building where meals are served. I stayed in a small guest house and ate my evening meal at the big house. This was organised by the tour company so I didn’t have any choice in the matter. In fact when I got there I was surprised to hear that I had been booked onto a package that included doing the Kinabalu Via Ferrata!
I have done via ferrata before in Italy and loved it so I was happy about this, although perhaps some warning would have been nice. I think perhaps it was because the ‘via ferrata guesthouse’ was the only one that had a spare bed when I was trying to book. I’ll have to leave the Kinabalu Via Ferrata for another post because this one is getting too long!
Dinner consists of an extensive buffet of tasty food and the atmosphere in this old wooden hut is cheerful and cosy. There is a little shop where you can buy extra snack food if needed (chocolate bars etc). The lunch provided by my tour company was on the light side so make sure you bring some of your own snacks and buy more at Laban Rata if needed.
The long verandah offers fantastic views of Borneo and the sunset was stunning with the many cloud formations turning gloriously pink and orange.
The Pendant hut is one of the newest and has a good mountain hut feel to it. Downstairs there are toilets and washbasins (with soap and toilet paper) and some very lukewarm showers, more luke than warm.
For the summit climb I pared my rucksack down to essentials (water, snacks, valuables and a warm fleece and hat). The rest I left at the hut when I set off for the summit climb at 2am next morning after shoving down some toast and peanut butter.
I joined the hundreds of other people, most only visibly as a long line of head-torch lights, snaking up the path. My guide was ahead or behind somewhere. I could only see the patch of torchlit granite at my feet, the sickle moon and the stars in the sky.
Everyone walked quietly with the single-minded goal of reaching the summit by sunrise. On the upper mountain a thick white rope has been fixed to the rock. Mostly it simply guides you on the path but occasionally it is useful to pull up a steeper bit.
Hiking at altitude
I had previously hiked at altitude in Nepal, both in the Annapurna Sanctuary and the Khumbu region, so I knew to expect shortness of breath and headaches. I had a strategy to cope with the altitude this time. It is very important to keep hydrated. On the first day the walk up through the jungle is hot and humid so you need to keep drinking water.
I only started to notice the altitude in the last half hour of the first day but it wasn’t much of a problem. I didn’t need headache pills in the evening, which was a relief, although I didn’t get the best sleep in a crowded dormitory.
On summit day I found the expected impact on my fitness kicked in quite quickly as the ascent is rapid. Within an hour I felt wiped out. My strategy was to walk 20 paces and then stop for 10 breaths – and repeat. It’s surprising how much altitude slows you down but following this pattern helped me even though every 100m felt like a thousand!
However, because of my previous experience I wasn’t worried about this, knowing that as soon as I started to descend I would feel fine again. It’s amazing what difference that knowledge makes!
Summiting Mt Kinabalu
As the sky began to turn from black to midnight blue the temperature dropped and I put on my thermal jumper. On the horizon an electrical storm flashed near the coastline. I turned off my head torch and looked up to see two shooting stars bisect the sky. Far away in the valley the lights of a village twinkled.
As I reached the summit plateau the wind began to rise and the peak ahead looked impossibly huge. My heart sank because this isn’t even the highest summit – Low’s Peak is not visible until you’re nearly upon it. The summit is named for the first official ascent by British colonial administrator and naturalist Hugh Low in 1851.
There was quite a crush of people at the base of Low’s Peak, at least 100 and in the end the cloud did not deign to reveal the sun rising. With the wind chill it is very cold on the summit and I donned another jumper, windbreaker jacket and my fleece hat and gloves.
I waited for my turn and then crouched beside the sign for a photo (finally my guide came in useful for something) and felt brief disappointed. But as I turned back the cloud rolled away, revealing the multiple summits of the mountain glowing in the early morning light.
That is the magic of descent at altitude. Where I felt despairingly tired a few moments before, suddenly I felt marvellous. Scrambling down the rocky peak I was jubilant. This is not exactly a spiritual experience – I was still surrounded by hundreds of people going up and down the path, chattering excitedly.
But the views as the clouds rolled away and the newly-minted sun lit up the peaks of the granite plateau and then spread over the sea of Borneo’s blue-green mountains – wow!
Descending from Mt Kinabalu
The descent from Laban Rata back to the Timpohon gate took me longer than I expected. I find hiking downhill hard on my knees and I slowed right down. I got back to Timpohon gate about 5pm.
Walking through the cloud-dimmed forest I could hear the sound of dripping water but under the trees there was only a fine mist. The clouds roll in so you can’t see a metre in front then part to reveal spectacular panoramas of rock and sky and range upon range of jungle-covered mountains under a cerulean sky. It’s like a sea of rippling green with cotton wool cloud in the troughs.
Is climbing Mt Kinabalu worth it?
By the end I was very, very tired. I had, after all, been up since 1.30am, climbed nearly 1,000m at altitude, done a couple of hours of via ferrata then walked down 6km of knee-jarring steps. For several days afterwards literally every muscle in my legs ached and I hobbled down stairs like an old granny.
It is a busy mountain and a far from wilderness experience. But those hours on the top of the mountain looking out over Borneo in the early morning light, and the massive sense of achievement, were worth it, definitely worth it.
As a wall plaque in the Laban Rata guesthouse offers:
Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance towards the summit keeps the goal in mind. But many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point. Climb slowly, steadily, enjoying each passing moment, and the view from the summit will prove to be astonishing.
How much does it cost?
If you don’t book a package tour the non-negotiable costs are as follows: First there is the Kinabalu National Park Entrance Fee (adult RM15, under 18 RM10 for non-Malaysians), then the climbing permit (adult RM100, under 18 RM40 for non-Malaysians), the Compulsory Guide fee (1–3 Climbers: RM70 – RM84, 4–6 Climbers: RM74 – RM90, 7–8 Climbers: RM80 – RM100) and finally an insurance fee of RM7 per climber. You have to show your permit (fixed to a lanyard) a number of times.
A tour package costs in the vicinity of RM990 (US$245) per person (for 1-4 people, it is slightly less for a bigger group) including one night’s accommodation at a rest house in Laban Rata, meals (one breakfast, two lunches and one dinner), return transfers, the mountain guide, as well as entrance fees, climbing insurance, climbing permit and a certificate at the end.
When is the best time to climb Mt Kinabalu?
The best time to climb Mt Kinabalu is from February to April, although conditions are often okay up until June.
What to pack for climbing Mt Kinabalu
- Moderately-sized backpack with a waterproof liner bag to keep things dry
- Beanie or woollen hat for summit day
- Warm gloves
- Good waterproof jacket
- Warm, lightweight jumper
- Walking trousers (lightweight and quick dry)
- Sturdy hiking boots
- Spare socks and underwear
- Head torch with spare batteries
- Water bottle
- Walking pole or poles
- High-energy food snacks (e.g. bananas, dried fruits, chocolates, nuts, energy bar)
- Small first aid kit including medication for altitude sickness and headaches
- Plastic bags to bring your rubbish down the mountain
- Sleeping bag liner/sheet
Bring only the essentials listed here and keep your total pack weight to a minimum.
By Natasha von Geldern