Mount Kinabalu National Park is spread out and surrounded by lush, misty forest. There is bird call everywhere and looming golden pink in the setting sun; the peaks of the Mount Kinabalu, the highest in South East Asia at 4,095m. If climbing Mount Kinabalu is on your itinerary, you can book with numerous travel agents in Kota Kinabalu itself, or if you prefer, book your Mount Kinabalu climb in advance to make sure you have a spot – the accommodation on the mountain is limited, and so are the permits allowed each day.
The trail itself is accessible to most, with only a moderate level of fitness required – your main obstacle will be altitude sickness, but if you go slow and acclimatize, climbing Mount Kinabalu shouldn’t be too much of a problem
Day 1 | Arrive in Kinabalu National Park
You won’t need the full day in the National Park, so you can either sleep in, or start with a city tour of Kota Kinabalu before heading out to Kinabalu National Park. Located about an hour drive away from Kota Kinabalu, the national park offers hiking trails and comfortable accommodation at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu can be done in just 2 days, but for a more relaxing experience, factor in your first night in Kinabalu National Park, instead of madly rushing to catch transportation out to the park in the morning. You’ll meet your guide, have a pre-climb briefing, be able to buy dinner and relax.
Day 2 | Climbing Mount Kinabalu
At first light the next morning you’ll have breakfast, register at the first check point and start off. It’s only 6.5km as the crow flies to Laban Rata, the rest house we are to spend the night at, but the trail is steep and adjusting to the thinner air means we’ll take a slow pace, stopping to rest at the seven huts dotting the trail.
The trail itself is comprised of packed earth, stones and in some cases, worn boardwalk or chicken wire laid into the ground for traction. Birds flit in the trees and the sun breaks through clouds occasionally. Our guide points out local flora, like the pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant that traps insects. As you climb you’ll be overtaken by porters, lugging up supplies to Laban Rata – everything there is brought up by human labour, including 32kgs gas tanks, 3’ x 10’ MDF boards, bushels of vegetables, and climbers’ backpacks.
At just after noon, the fog rolls in. Everything’s shrouded in pearlescent mist and the view is ethereal and otherworldly.
After about 4 hours the vegetation changes – jungle gives way to rhododendrons, to montane to alpine forest; branches gnarled, twisted, garlanded with light green wizards beard. Above the tree line, there is a cool wind, welcome and refreshing. At this altitude there are no longer any mosquitoes buzzing around us.
By about 3-4pm you’ll reach Laban Rata, Mount Kinabalu’s halfway point at 3,300m above sea level. There are a number of huts located here, where you’ll sleep, as well as a cafeteria where you can order lunch and rest. There are hot showers as well, which feel amazing after a full day’s climb. Try to sleep early as the summit attempt will begin just after midnight.
At this height we are above the clouds, which stretch out ahead of us in a carpet of white. The silver granite peak is sharply sheer on this side, naked of vegetation and outlined against a flat sky.
Day 3 | Summit night
Your guide will wake you for the last push on your climb, around 2-3am or so. When I awoke on my summit night, the thunder of rain is an incessant drumroll on the tin roof of the hut and the night is cold; visibility is poor. Weather on the mountain is fickle, so be sure to be prepared for everything. My guide waited for the rain to subside before we push off into the wet, cold dark, our headtorches glimmering ahead.
The montane vegetation on the steep narrow trails give way to bare faced granite rock, and the luminescent glow of the white climbing rope. The guides have to shout to be heard above the sound of rain and volumes of water rush towards us off the sheer face of the mountain.
At Sayat-Sayat, the last checkpoint before the summit, you’ll be allowed to rest and catch a breath. From here, the trail tapers off slightly, reducing in gradient. Sayat-Sayat is at 3,800m above sea level and only 1.5km away from Low’s Peak, Mount Kinabalu’s highest point. The windblown plateau between Sayat-Sayat and Low’s Peak is unexpectedly the hardest and also most beautiful section of this pre-dawn climb.
Above are luminescent clouds; below, the twinkling golden lights of Kota Kinabalu spread out. By now dawn isn’t too far off, and the sky is lightening slightly, silhouetting the peaks ahead. The stars are brilliant and white hot, close enough to touch. Wavering points of light all in a line snake around the mountain – the other climbers, close behind.
Your guide will try to time your arrival at the summit with sunrise, but this is weather dependent. Their main goal is to get you up, and off the mountain safely. When I reach the summit, dawn is just approaching. The peaks are grimly dark, shot through with white chalk deposits. Pale weak sunlight sneaks through the clouds. Light glitters off the rivulets of rainwater slithering across the sloping ground. There are clouds at our feet, the air is crisply clear, dark blue peaks of lower ranges line the far horizon.
The way down is easier than the climb in the dark, but harder on knees and ankles. The section near Sayat-Sayat looks downright precipitous in the cold light of morning – slick with rain, the trail inches its way across a cliff face with nothing but a safety rope to hold on and a sheer drop on the other side.
Once you reach Laban Rata again, after about a 4-5 hour round trip, refuel and rest. The trail down from there to sea level will be much easier once you’ve recuperated a little. Budget for about 2-3 hours to climb all the way down again, giving yourself enough time to not rush the downward climb. Make sure you’ve booked a transfer back from the National Park to Kota Kinabalu.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu can be done by anyone who’s of average fitness – the trail does not require technical climbing skills. If you can walk 5km while carrying a backpack, you can climb Mount Kinabalu. Altitude, however, may affect you on your climb. It also pays to be prepared – pack a waterproof, good shoes, plenty of water and snacks.