During our trip planning for Borneo we decided to climb Mt. Kinabalu, one of S.E. Asia’s highest mountains. It’s not a technical climb so we thought with some training that we should be able to make it to the summit. We ended up booking a climbing package because that was the only way we could secure space to climb on the dates we wanted (the rest houses where you spend the night get booked up very fast).
I had some problems in the past with altitude sickness while traveling in Peru so this was a concern for me attempting this climb. We made sure we had paracetamol (tylenol) and hydration salts before we left Kota Kinabalu. We decided that it would be a good idea to spend the first night at the park entrance so we could acclimatize before we started our climb the next day. The guesthouse we stayed in had a gorgeous view of the valley below.
The next morning we were up early and took a short walk for breakfast to a little restaurant opposite the park entrance. We were then picked up by our transport and dropped off at the park headquarters where we had to register and meet with our climbing guide (Edwin) – it’s mandatory to have a guide to climb Mt. Kinabalu. We decided to buy trekking poles so that we could save our knees on the descent (a very wise decision). We were then taken to the Timpohon Gate at 10am where we checked in and began our hike up the mountain.
At first the trek seemed nice and easy as we walked on mostly flat trail past a beautiful waterfall but soon after the terrain changed. The trail turned into steps, endless steps, and then it turned into giant steps, endless giant steps, and then it turned into large boulders that we had to use as steps – for me it was extremely difficult at this point and my legs were burning. The saving grace were the rest stops, little gazebo like shelters (some with toilets) that were spaced every 1-2 kilometers. Every time we reached a rest shelter, Edwin would tell us to sit down, eat a snack (we brought nuts and dried mango), and take a rest (even if we felt like pushing on). He kept telling us to go slow and easy because that was the best way to get our body used to the altitude. The longer we trekked the more I looked forward to reaching the next shelter. We were passed by a lot of people coming down from their climb and they offered words of encouragement to everyone going up – it was really motivating.
Around 4 hours into our hike, it started to rain. So we had to put the rain covers on our packs and dig out our rain ponchos. It was hard climbing in a rain poncho, it was hot and it kept getting caught up in my legs. Thankfully we were only about 1 hour away from Pendant Hut where we would be spending the night.
It was 3pm when we arrived at Pendant Hunt, 3290 meters – 10,794 feet (tired and wet) and we would be sleeping here dormitory style. There were only a few people that had made it to the hut ahead of us so we were feeling pretty good about our timing (we are not as young as we used to be). Thankfully we arrived when we did because at that point it really started to pour (we felt so sorry for the others that were still climbing). We looked outside the windows of the hut and the mountain side had turned into a series of waterfalls which had us thinking if we would even be able to leave for the summit at 2am or not. At 4pm we did the mandatory ‘Via Ferrata’ familiarization, our climbing package included an optional ‘walk the torque via ferrata’ (you attach yourself to a steel cable fixed to the rock so that you can take a more difficult climbing route down). Practicing the via ferrata was easy enough when you are safe inside a building but with my fear of heights I really wasn’t convinced on doing this optional activity, especially after the summit when we would be really tired and just ready to go down.
For supper we had to travel downhill about 300 meters (oh the agony on our legs) to Laban Rata rest house where they served a big buffet for all the climbers. The food was okay but we refrained from meat (just in case) and went with vegetarian and carbs. Everything at Laban Rata was really expensive and we could understand why after seeing the porters carry everything from huge propane tanks to cases of water on their backs up the mountain, they are incredibly strong.
After supper I ended up with the ‘altitude headache’ that is common when you’re not used to being up in such high places, so I had to take the paracetamol for that. I can’t remember the last time I slept in bunk beds but I took the top bunk and Gordon was on the bottom, we shared a room with a dozen or so other climbers. Everyone turned in early because 1:30am would come fast and we needed to get at least a little bit of sleep. At one point I got up during the night to use the washroom, and because it was raining so hard I could see the water running down the mountainside right beside the toilets and shower area…a little freaky that I could see this from the inside. Again I was thinking that possibly our summit climb would either be postponed or cancelled.
When they sounded the wake up bell at 1:30am we were happy to see that the rain had stopped and we would be going for the summit as planned. We had a quick bite to eat and our guide picked us up at 2am to start our climb to the summit.
It was eerie climbing in the dark but we had headlamps on and the moon was shining its light. At first there were a lot of steps and I found myself struggling a little bit with the altitude but it wasn’t too bad. Gordon was doing great and he felt fine. Edwin just kept telling us to go slow and easy and just take as many breaks as we needed. He was very encouraging and kept telling us how great we were doing. Then we came to the rope section and my fear of heights quickly overtook me. We had to hold on to a rope and walk on a skinny ledge in the dark and it just felt like one slip and that would be it – game over. It was probably a blessing that it was dark out because I wasn’t really able to see how high we were or how sketchy things were, I could only just imagine in my mind. Gordon seemed okay so that made me feel like it was all okay.
We continued on with more rope sections and just hiking uphill on smooth rock face. The more we climbed the more I started feeling worse and worse. I was getting nauseous and really dizzy so I could only take about 5 steps and then I would have to stop, then I would take another 5 steps and would have to stop. I went on like this for quite a while until finally Gordon suggested that maybe we had gone far enough and it would be okay to stop right there. I looked up and I could see the summit from where I was standing, Edwin told me it was about 1 kilometer away – there was no way I was stopping. That last kilometer was killer but we reached Low’s Peak (summit at 4095 meters-13,435 feet) and we made it in time for sunrise (not a sunny sunrise but day light came)! The view at the top was breathtaking and I quickly forgot how terrible I had been feeling. It was very windy and cold up there and thankfully we had buffs to cover our heads and although we didn’t stay up there too long, we enjoyed our time on the summit just revelling in all the awesomeness of being on top of the world.
As great as it was being at the top, it was pretty great knowing I was going down, and with each 500 meters down I felt better and better. We had to make the via ferrata checkpoint by 7am if we were going to do it, we made it in time but decided right there to opt out. Both of us just really wanted to get down the mountain and going down via ferrata would have set us back around 5 hours.
We stopped in at Pendant Hut on our way down for another breakfast and then continued on our way. Going down was extremely hard on our knees and we were so thankful we bought the trekking poles. It took us about 5 hours to go all the way down from the summit. We were really tired and anxious to get to the hotel in Kota Kinabalu for a long hot shower.
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu was one of the hardest things we have done both physically and mentally but the views were absolutely breathtaking and it was definitely food for the soul.
Tips for the climb:
Shoes: Kampung Adidas (Malaysian made rubber shoes) are great for this climb, they stick to the rock. Most of the mountain guides wear these and you can buy them at any local hardware store. We recommend the lace up kind versus the slip on variety.
Snacks: bring good snacks for fuel during the climb, we took nuts and dried mango.
Paracetamol: helps with the altitude headache.
First Aid Kit: mandatory item in our backpack for any trek.
Trekking poles: in our opinion these are essential if you want to save your knees on the way down.
Rain poncho: if you want to kind of stay dry and protect your pack full of stuff.
Gloves: you’ll want gloves for the rope sections of the climb.
Hat: we only had buffs but they did the job, it’s cold and windy on the way to the summit.
Headlamp: you will need this for your climb to the summit because it is a 2am start.
Water: you can buy water at Laban Rata rest house (a bit pricey) so you only need to pack enough for your first day of climbing. Had we known this we wouldn’t have carried two days worth of water on our backs.
Don’t underestimate altitude sickness, some people were barely affected, some people like me were struggling, and we happened to see one poor girl that had to be carried down the mountain on the back of a porter.
Where we stayed near the park entrance: J Residence