I’m sitting here with aching legs but a sense of satisfaction – just two days before writing this I ticked off a big item from my bucket list – I spent my birthday climbing Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Malaysia.
Mount Kinabalu is situated on the island of Borneo, and the highest point, Low’s Peak, is 4095m above sea level, much higher than I had ever been before. I am not a mountaineer of any description, with my previous mountain climbing experience limited to Mount Lofty. Never heard of it? That’s no surprise really if you don’t live in Adelaide, Australia, because although it is the highest peak in the Mount Lofty Ranges just outside the city, at a mere 727m above sea level, it just doesn’t rank in any list. Many Adelaide locals use the hike from Waterfall Gully to Mt Lofty as a fitness challenge, as I have done myself in the past.
Comparing the two is almost impossible. Apart from the obvious difference in height, Lofty has a nice smooth path, with a few flatter sections for recovery. It’s made for weekend hikers and has hundreds, if not thousands of people use it every day. Cover the whole path with uneven rocks, tree roots and steps, climbing continously, and you are getting closer to the type of path that meanders up Kinabalu. Knock down all the trees near the top leaving an exposed rock face, in places so steep it needs a rope to pull yourself up, then suck all the oxygen out of the air – well, you get the idea! I always thought Lofty was difficult – it does has some really steep sections. I would be breathing hard by the time I reached the top, and my legs were always sore for a day or two, but I had no idea. My Mount Kinabalu climb was so much harder, really tough!
Now I’m no couch potato. I must admit though, that while travelling for the last ten months my fitness routine has not been the same as it would be at home, and trying all the new foods means my eating hasn’t been as good either. But if you suggested a 15km walk or a 5km run to me now, it still wouldn’t phase me. In the last couple of years I have completed some longer challenges such as a 35km walk (in less than six hours) and a half marathon, both while battling a stress fracture in my foot.
So what made me want to do something crazy like climb a mountain? I first came up with the idea five or six years ago. I was planning a holiday but was unsure of how long my work would let me have off. While I was waiting for the decision I planned three holidays – if I was granted three weeks it was Vietnam, two weeks was Borneo and one week was Hong Kong. Part of the Borneo trip was to climb Mount Kinabalu. I got three weeks holidays, we went to Vietnam, and Mt Kinabalu was put on the back burner.
Fast forward to about six months ago. We were already part way through our gap year, and I was chatting to my youngest daughter MacKenzie about joining us in South East Asia for a couple of weeks. After discussing and discounting a few countries, we landed on Malaysia. To add to the mix, she would be with us for my birthday. Since I’m not a “things” kind of person but rather about “experiences” and this birthday I was 45, I wanted to do something memorable and challenging. Before I changed my mind, the Mt Kinabalu climb was booked.
And I would have changed my mind if I hadn’t booked and paid! About a month before the climb I made the final payment and started to read a little bit more about it. My first reaction was “OMG what have I done?” Seasoned climbers were saying it’s one of the hardest things they have ever done. I saw someone say it was harder than Mt Kilimanjaro, which is a three day hike. Others said they missed the cutoff at the top and didn’t make it up the last section. Even more people talked about altitude sickness, how cold it was and the miserable pouring rain. WHAT. HAD. I. DONE?
Climbing Mount Kinabalu
As the morning of the climb dawned, we were already on our way! I had butterflies in my stomach about what was to come. We were picked up from our hotel in Kota Kinabalu and driven the ninety minutes to the Mount Kinabalu National Park head quarters. We filled in the indemnity forms and stored our luggage, while being introduced to our guides. We also hired hiking poles, and I strongly recommend everyone does this. I was unsure at first if carrying a pole would be more of a hindrance than a help, but by the second day, I was so glad I had it.
We then jumped back into our van and went off to Timpohon Gate, the official start to our climb at 1866m above sea level. Almost immediately we were going up. We were cheerful and energetic, and soon passed the 500m mark, and not long after got to 1km. There are signs along the path to help with keeping track of how far you have covered. By 1km I was already puffing, but my legs were still okay. The path is rough. Irregular steps are cut into the rocks, tree roots are frequent. Sometimes we were scrambling over beds of rocks, other times climbing uneven wooden steps. The only constant was the continous upwards slope. It was cold when we started, but soon we were warm, and not much longer after that we were removing layers and smearing on sunscreen.
About each kilometre there is a small wooden hut for shelter. We rested at each one for about ten minutes, having a drink and snacking to keep our energy up. At the 4km mark we had a 30 minute stop. Here we ate the lunch that had been packed for us, but the main reason for this stop was to check how we were going for altitude sickness. Our guide explained that this gave time for our bodies to acclimatise a little more to the height. It also gave our guides time to check how we were feeling, and to look for signs that their people were potentially going to fall victim further up the mountain. About now I was feeling hypersensitive, to every ache and pain I had. I had read rececently about a young girl in the US dying from altitude sickness relatively quickly when climbing a hill about half the height of Mt Kinabalu.
Apart from tired legs though, I was feeling okay, so on we went. It was here that Simon and MacKenzie left me, and I wasn’t to see them again until I reached the rest stop at Pana Laban. From here on in I was on my own, and it got hard. It was literally one foot in front of the other! Don’t stop, just keep moving forward. I had decided to go at my own pace and not rush because this was only the first leg. I knew the hardest parts were still to come.
While I was struggling along, the many porters on the track cruised past me. These guys (and girls) are just amazing. Everything that is needed to keep at least two hundred people happy at the Pana Laban camp has to be carried up on the back of a porter. They carry up to forty kilos each, and it is simply awe-inspiring to see them pass by as though the were carrying nothing and were walking on flat ground. I noticed many of them were wearing t-shirts celebrating marathons and fun-runs and other endurance events. I can see why that would be easy after doing this climb day after day.
As I eventually rounded the bend and saw a glimpse of building in the distance my heart soared. I was nearly done! At least for now. Simon and MacKenzie were waiting for me, and we all walked the last bit together. I didn’t notice it at first, but it eventually dawned on me that they did not have their backpacks on. MacKenzie had raced up the last section, and had checked us into our room and dropped off her gear before even Simon got to the top. Oh, to be young and fit!
We now had a few hours to rest up before we tried to get some sleep. Pana Laban is a basic bunk house. Our room (and all the others I saw, but I didn’t see them all!) consisted of four bunk beds. The bathrooms were functional, but there was very limited hot water. In fact, I could not get hot water to work at all, so made do with a quick wash of my hands and face, figuring I would just fit in well with all the other unwashed people. I did not hear or see a single person in the shower – I’m guessing no one wanted to brave the cold water.
How we all smelt was the least of our concerns. Instead it was our legs we were thinking about. While all I wanted to do was sit still and rest, I knew that wouldn’t be the best thing, so a couple of times I walked around outside just to move. We were now up at 3273m above sea level, and it was cold outside. We were above the cloud level, and as the sun went down we could see all the way out to the sea!
The sun going down was a sign to us that bedtime was approaching. We were sharing our four-bunk room with another guy from Austria, and by eight o’clock, we were all tucked up in bed and trying to get some sleep. Unfortunately not everyone was playing fair this night, and there were a whole bunch of people who decided to stay up and not sleep. In a wooden bunkhouse, this was not ideal. Our guide in the morning was particularly annoyed. The guides’ rooms are directly underneath the common room, and they had people thumping around above them all night!
Our alarm went off at 2am, and we were all up and dressed in the multiple layers we needed for the ascent to the summit in the dark. A meal they called “supper” was served, but I could barely eat. My body is just not used to food at that hour. The nerves I was feeling about the summit climb did not help.
As soon as we could we were off. At first the dark was disorientating, and navigating with my headlamp was hard. Our guide wanted us to stick together, but soon it was apparent that Simon and MacKenzie were in a much better state than I was, so he let them go ahead. Already I was feeling the depletion caused by the hike yesterday, the irregular meals and lack of sleep. This was going to be a long morning. After a couple of minutes our guide realised he had forgotten to tell Simon and MacKenzie something, and hurried off after them. I trudged on by myself. I actually preferred it this way. I stayed at my own pace, willing myself to be fast enough to not miss the cut off at the last check point.
I got there at 4:30am, with half an hour to spare. I was so jubilant. It felt like I had already conquered the mountain. But there was still about 1.5km to go. And on the other side of the check point the trees disappeared. The landscape was now exposed rock and the rope climbs started. There were short sections where ropes were needed so that we could pull ourselves up the slope. Our ever-nimble guides scuttled up the bare rocks beside us, carrying our hiking poles and encouraging us along. All the climbers called out to each other “keep going!”, but I was in a world of my own. It literally was step by step.
Not once though did I consider quitting. I was getting to the top of this mountain if it killed me. I was struggling to catch my breath at this altitude, and my legs were barely obeying me. My mountain guide even gave me an out, by saying I didn’t have to climb the last section, we could get a better view of the sunrise from a nearby ridge instead. I was determined though, so up the very last section I went. This part was almost climbing on hands and knees over huge rocks. It was here I met Simon and MacKenzie coming down. It was too cold for them to stay at the top, and there really wasn’t a lot of room anyway. I said I would meet them at the check point and kept plodding along.
And then – I was there! Or at least as close as I was going to get without tackling a few other climbers who were taking their myriade of selfies on the very top rock. I was within five metres of the summit sign when I sank down onto a rock, resting my legs and sheltering from the freezing wind whipping over the peak. I had made it! I was sitting at 4095m above sea level, on my birthday, watching the sun brighten the sky. I had missed the sunrise, but I had seen the colours on the way up, and knew it was amazing.
Just as I was contemplating the journey back down, my guide came over. He had been talking to another guide who also had a climber who was having a birthday, and soon a cake emerged and we were both posing with it for what felt like hundreds of photos. Everyone milling around saw what was going on, and as the day went on, I had birthday greetings from many strangers along the path.
I had been told in advance that getting down was the hardest part, and looking back I have to agree. The first section back to Pana Laban was steep, exposed and really hard on the knees. I eventually met up with Simon and MacKenzie, and we walked the rest of the way together. It was then that I learnt that MacKenzie’s phone had gone flat in the cold and she had taken no photos of the sunrise at all. I had hardly taken any photos because I had asked her to do it – now we had not very many at all. Oh well, we have our memories (and a certificate!).
We had a bit over an hour at Pana Laban, checking out from our room and grabbing some breakfast. It was now I started to hear some of the stories of the track (while I was climbing I was just oblivious to my surroundings). Our roommate had powered past us really early on in the climb. He was fit, and said he often did this sort of climbing. Simon told me he saw him vomiting on the path. He had fallen ill to altitude sickness! I was so surprised to hear we had beaten him back. Altitude sickness really does not discriminate, and even the fittest can get sick. We were lucky that none of us felt ill.
It was about now that I decided that if anyone asked me, I would recommend the 3D/2N package, unless they were really fit, because I was dreading the climb back down to Timpohon Gate. We dawdled along the first kilometre or two, chatting to others who were coming up, nursing our legs and generally taking our time. It soon occurred to me that we were taking way too long, and at the rate we were going we would still be on this mountain when the sun went down. So we hustled along, every bone and muscle aching, every step a painful reminder of what we had just achieved. Our guide rested up, chatting to others on the path, then quickly caught up to us just in time for the next rest break. This part of the trip was long, tedious, painful, and absolutely no fun at all – which is why I would say take an extra night at Pana Laban to rest, eat at proper times, get your energy back and walk down the next day.
Eventually we reached the steps leading upward to the Timpohon Gate. There were about twenty steps, and all my will was gone! It was all I could do to make my legs go up them, climb into the van and start the trip back to Kota Kinabalu. I knew even then I was going to be so sore for the next few days, but still, in between the grimaces of pain, I had a big smile on my face, so happy with my achievement, climbing Mount Kinabalu.
Tips for Climbing Mount Kinabalu
So now that I have told you how hard it is you are off to make your own booking right? Well before you do here are some more tips.
- Book early. At the moment there are only permits issued for 130 climbers per day. This used to be more, but a 6.0 earthquake hit the area in 2015 and some of the accomodation is still being rebuilt. Since everything has to be carried up the mountain by hand, rebuilding is a laborious job. (Note: there was another small earthquake in March 2018 only two weeks after our climb. I am not sure if any further damage was sustained, but no one was hurt and the path was opened again two days later)
- You will need to train. I suggest the stairmaster at the gym or finding some stairs to run up and down for, oh, an hour at a time should be a good starting point.
- Pack high energy snacks, and actually eat them. I think this was half of my problem. I didn’t feel like eating, and I probably should have forced myself to eat a few more high energy snacks on the trail.
- Carry as little as possible. I can’t stress this enough. Even a few kilos on your back gets really heavy when you can’t lift your feet anymore.
- Get a hiking pole. We hired one each from the Mount Kinabalu Park Headquarters. It cost us 10MYR each but they were worth their weight in gold.
- Bring ear plugs. They are tiny so don’t take up much room, and if you are a light sleeper like me, they will come in very handy. I was so wishing I hadn’t left mine in my bigger pack stored down at the park headquarters.
How to get to Mount Kinabalu
The nearest airport is in the city of Kota Kinabalu, about 90 minutes drive from the Mount Kinabalu Park Headquarters where you need to sign in for your climb. There is accomodation located nearby, so if you are not doing a package tour from Kota Kinabalu, I would suggest staying out near the starting point to allow you an early start and more time to rest at Panan Laban.
Public buses run throughout the day from Kota Kinabalu. Ask around at the bus station to find the next one that is going past as there are varous routes that do so. The cost should be around 15MYR.
Of course if you would like to avoid the need to find your own transport and accomodation, buy a Mount Kinabalu climbing package like I did.
Booking a 2D1N Mount Kinabalu Climbing Package
I knew time would be short, so I decided to book a package with transfers out of Kota Kinabalu. My search brought me to Amazing Borneo tours. Their packages are on the higher end of the scale in terms of price, and you can spend even more by adding on porters and private accomodation. We went with their basic package. This included transport to and from Kota Kinabalu, all climbing permits, a private guide for our group, accomodation at Pana Laban and all meals. Overall I was impressed with their service. Communication before the climb was timely and accurate. The information they gave me was comprehensive, and I knew exactly what to expect and what I needed to bring. Our guide, Joe, was amazing! Since I was nearly always last in our group, I spent a lot of time with him! He was patient and encouraging and at no time did I feel pressured to hurry up.
Amazing Borneo can also offer last minute dates at cheap prices if there are still some available. If you haven’t booked well in advance but would still like to do the climb, check out their website to see what days are available. They also cater for those who would like to do the via ferrata course.
*Note – I do not have any sort of sponsored or affliate relationship with Amazing Borneo, I am recommending them simply because I had an easy, stressfree and enjoyable climb with them.
What to Bring
Amazing Borneo have a great list on their site of exactly what you need to bring. Keep in mind that you will have to carry it, unless you want to pay for a porter to take it up for you. Make sure you do not skimp on the warm clothes, no matter how hot it is below. When we reached the summit it was below zero and very windy. When I got down I noticed I also had some minor sunburn from the heat on the lower sections. We were lucky to not have rain, but we heard from climbers going down as we went up they had a full day of rain on their way up and it was miserable. Be prepared for that eventuality too. (I did notice that some people hired warm clothing at Pana Laban. I don’t know how much they have available there so I wouldn’t rely on it, but it could be an option to check it as soon as you get there if you think you need something warmer.)
I did not take any altitude tablets with me – in fact I did not know they existed before I started the climb. It was only when I heard others discussing them that I realised. While I am not a medical professional, I would strongly recommend speaking with someone who is about these tablets and considering if you should take some with you. I saw the effects of altitude sickness, and it really doesn’t look pretty. It can also be life threatening, so definitely worth reading up on it before you go too.
Now just go – it was the hardest physical challenge I have ever faced, but I am so glad I did it!
You’ve come all the way to Kota Kinabalu, why not combine climbing the mountain with another activity? Click through to see all the possibilities.
Click here to read my blog post about the other things we got up to during our visit to Malaysia.
Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.