Whilst reading my guidebook before leaving home I knew Mount Kinabalu had to be on the list for the trip. Photos from the plateau at sunrise looked spectacular and it promised to be a simple climb to Low’s Peak at 4095m (the highest point in SE Asia).
Unfortunately our guidebook advises booking months in advance, there are only 140 climbing permits made available each day. In addition accommodation at Laban Rata, the mountain hut halfway up Mt Kinabalu had limited spaces. We were lucky to find availability the following week so quickly booked our flight to Borneo from the Philippines and started making plans.
We read online that the temperature at the summit is 5°C for this time of year, our beach clothes are not going to be sufficient! We scour shopping malls in Kota Kinabalu for cheap hiking gear and supplies for the climb.
Arriving at the National Park the day before the climb makes us realise the challenge we face. Peaks rise high above the park entrance and it seems hard to believe we will soon be watching sunset from the summit. It doesn’t help to hear a German tourist fell to her death just a few months ago whilst taking photos at the top. A big meal and early night are our last preparation, we need to be up early to organise a guide and transport to the gate.
In the morning we prepare our packs to be as light as possible, everything we take with us needs to be carried all the way to the summit. Starting at 9.10AM and it is already very hot in shorts and a t-shirt. We’re determined to complete the first days trek in under 4 hours.
At the lower stages local men walk past us, carrying heavy loads on wooden boards strapped to their back. Our guide explains these porters are paid to carry food and drink up to the restaurant at Laban Rata (3272m). They receive 5 Ringit (£1) for every kilo carried so must take as much as they can to earn a decent wage. They seem fit, but not as fit as athletes who compete in the Mt Kinabalu Climbathon. They race from Timphon Gate to the summit and back (17km total) in only 2 1/2 hours. Tourists take two days to achieve the same!
We reach Laban Rata at 1PM, out of breath but happy to be 10 minutes ahead of our target! Climbers spend the afternoon here enjoying the view and acclimatising to the altitude before attacking the summit early the next morning. It is our most expensive nights accommodation in Asia yet one of the most basic. 500 Ringit (£100) buys a bed in 4 person dorm, thick blanket and an ice cold shower. We can’t face a cold shower so steal a jug of hot water meant for tea and coffee, and head down for the included buffet. Over dinner we see the most dramatic sunset of our life and everyone congregates on the restaurant balcony to take photos. We are above the clouds and the sun casts a fiery glow on them as mist swirls around the mountain’s peak.
We are up again at 2AM for a quick breakfast before the summit ascent. Sunrise is at 5.30AM and we need to keep a slow steady pace to prevent getting out of breath from the altitude. In the pitch black we have only a head torch to see the path. The trees and mud soon lead to a rock slope – a white rope guides us up the mountain through the darkness. The long exposure photos show a lot more light than we saw at the time.
The rocky path opens up to a long plateau and we are surrounded by several towering peaks. We are lucky to be climbing with a full moon and can now walk with our torches turned off, enjoying the stars in complete silence. Low’s Peak lies ahead and we can see a climber has already reached the summit. The flickering line of head torches stretches ahead like a chain of fairy lights.
We reach the summit at 5.30AM in darkness and quickly put on all of our layers. There’s no protection from the wind and it saps the head we have built from the climb. We feel great, the climb has been breathtaking and we are happy to have time to take it all in. Lily hides below some rocks to shelter from the wind whilst we wait for sunrise.
Most descend the mountain via the same route they came up. We had decided to take the worlds highest Via Ferrata or ‘Iron Road’. Steel bolts and wires guided us around Lows Peak for 5 hours giving even more spectacular views of the mountain. We’ve both done rope climbing previously, but being perched on a cliff face at this altitude is not a memory we will forget in a hurry.
We don’t reach the bottom of Mt Kinabalu until 4.30PM, walking the last few hours in the rain. Both wet, tired and with aching knees we don’t yet appreciate what we’ve accomplished. We spend the next few days walking with limps and struggling with stairs. It makes locals laugh as they say “You’ve climbed the mountain then!”.
If you are thinking of climbing Mt Kinabalu the following information should be helpful:
Laban Rata and surrounding huts caters for a maximum of 140 climbers, lack of accommodation availability is what may prevent you from climbing. Simply call Sutera Sanctuary Lodges who manage all park accommodation to make a reservation before planning a climb. There is no need to use an agent who charge inflated prices for the climb. See below for all official Mount Kinabalu climbing costs correct as of April 2014.
Recommended Mt Kinabalu Guide
Guides are organised at the park with a fixed fee. We strongly recommend Ronny (+60198736523). Dealing direct may allow you to negotiate a better price. See below for official prices.
If booking the Mountain Torq Via Ferrara as part of a package, you are not entitled to any refund if the activity is rained off. However walk-in guests who attend the 3pm briefing and pay by card at Pendant Hut are entitled to refunds. Max capacity is 14 people per day for Low’s Peak Circuit and 40 for Walk the Torq. You can use this info to gauge the chance of the activity being fully booked on your descent day.
It gets down to 0°C at the summit, so a warm jacket is needed. If you are not travelling with one don’t bother buying one. Instead rent one for 10MYR from either Laban Rata or Mountain Torq. The Mountain Torq jackets are warmer/better quality. Usually jackets are first come first serve but you can reserve one from either company – but this probably isn’t necessary as very few seem to rent jackets. Warm gloves (30MYR) and tracksuit trousers are (20MYR) available from the top floor of Centre Point Mall in Kota Kinabalu. Beanie hats are 15MYR at a shop in the basement that also sells country flags for the patriotic to hoist at the summit. Some Chinese shops on Sunday Market street in KK sell a variety of dried fruits and nuts for the climb.