Mount Kinabalu is an Asian icon. Rising at just over 4,000 meters, this tricky pinnacle tests even the fittest of hikers and is a bucket-list check mark for many on the Malaysian-Borneo adventure path: the avid nature lover, the skilled mountain hiker, and…those of us who simply think that we can mountain climb and wish to give our calves and thighs the ultimate of workouts. I don’t know where the idea came from. I think it was one of those “rainy-day-flipping-through-the-Lonely-Planet” kind of brainstorming ideas. Nevertheless, we wound up on Mount Kinabalu, hiking our way to the tippity-top of a cloud covered summit.
Our climbing day started off at sunrise when we caught a shuttle bus for the 90 kilometer ride from KK to the Kinabalu National Park’s headquarters. We left the bulk of our traveling gear at our guesthouse in KK and simply carried only the essentials – water, energy snacks, dry socks, an extra shirt, rain jacket, toothbrush, small med kit, and a flashlight – all double wrapped in plastic bags of course. Bedding would be provided at our overnight stay in Laban Rata so there was no need to carry a sleeping bag- a godsend because carrying two liters of water took up much of our daypack space. Unfortunately, I chose to start the day with a sore throat and nasty cough and also had to fit a supply of throat lozenges and fever reducer in my pack. Always an adventure, right?
Mount Kinabalu arrangements – The shuttle bus dropped us off at the National Park’s main gate, directly near the visitor’s center. We had no problem paying our fees and arranging for a mandatory guide. Although the trail is quite well marked, the Kinabalu officials require everyone to have a guide, regardless of hiking experience. A guide can have a group of up to eight hikers, and though we could have hired our own guide for our group of three, we simply asked a few other hikers that were waiting in line if they wanted to join our group and split the cost. In the end, there were four other spunky hopefuls in our group, all of whom were in their twenties and eager to test their fitness levels on Mount Kinabalu. Danson, our 25 yr. old guide, claimed that he hiked Mt. Kinabalu mountain at least three times a week and had calves the size of grapefruits to prove it. This would obviously be just another walk in the park for him. He explained that park guides were simply a precaution for the more dangerous, second day of climbing, and Danson was extremely valuable for his words of encouragement and knowledge of the flora and fauna along the trail. Our total fees broke down like this.
- Round trip shuttle bus from KK to Kinabalu National Park = RM20
- Entrance fee = RM100 (for non-Malay adults)
- Hiking guide = RM100 (distributed between 7 individuals)
- Insurance fee = RM7
- Night at Laban Rata = RM20
With our hiking group arranged, shoelaces tied and water bottled topped off, we set off at a jolly pace at about 10:00 a.m. Most hikers take about 5-6 hours to cover the first 6 kilometers to Laban Rata Base Camp. Here, we would rest and acclimate to the altitude until 2 a.m. It was necessary to begin the 4 hour hike to the Kinabalu summit just after midnight in order to “hopefully” see the sunrise. The entire two day trail covered 8 kilometers (mostly straight up), and each kilometer was well-marked with either a sign, a small hut with rain water taps, or a somewhat semblance of a bathroom…kind of.
Happily, I survived and can now check off Mount Kinabalu from my own bucket list. Though the trail wasn’t always easy going, especially with a fever and strep throat (as it turns out), looking back, it was a mighty fine journey. Join me along my hike!
KILOMETER 1: Kandis Shelter – I’m not feeling too bad! The sun is warm, the birds are chirping, and there is some beautiful scenery along the well-tread path. We passed Carson Falls a short while ago and stopped for a short photo opportunity. It was really gorgeous, lush and very “jungle-ish.” Our group is fun and we are laughing and joking along the way. I think the day should pass fairly quickly. La, la, la……
KILOMETER 2: Lavii Shelter – Okay, not quite as easy as I had hoped. Perhaps I spoke a bit too soon. There are a gazillion slippery steps and my thighs are not pleased with this sudden explosion of arobic activity. Several people have passed us on their reverse trip down the mountain and, I must say, they look absolutely exhausted and…hungry. A few manage to give tight-lipped smiles and half-hearted “good lucks” as they stumble their way to the bottom of the trail. Maybe they are just the out of shape ones? As we hike higher, my once sunny sky turns gray and threatening. Oh dear god, please don’t rain.
KILOMETER 3: Mempening Shelter – Who was I kidding? This is tough. The rain started about 1/2 a kilometer ago, and the trail is either muddy or completely covered in water. The only thing missing is the leeches….wait…what was that on my leg? My raincoat turns out to be a semi-waterproof windbreaker, and I’m already soaked to the bone and shivering. The only way to stay warm is to keep moving up, up, and up. The hours are still ticking by, but we have three kilometers left to go. Did I mention that these last three kilometers are considered the hardest of all? Whose great idea was this anyway? Ugh – my throat hurts.
KILOMETER 4: The rain is coming down in sheets, and I’m struggling to see the trail in front of me. At times the path is so steep that we have to use ropes to help pull ourselves up the waterfall muddy slopes. By now, the group has drifted apart, and I’m trudging along with some Japanese tourists. We are all wearing the same weary, but determined, expressions. My fellow treking partners keep giving me sympathetic looks as I sneeze uncontrollably and bend over in coughing fits. I try humming christmas carols to take my mind off of the relentless climbing. I want my mom.
KILOMETER 5: Villosa Shelter – The sight of this simple tin shack in the middle of the rain storm is a knight in shining armor. I usually spot the rest stops several hundred meters before reaching them as many are built right along the mountain ledge. I can’t stop long enough to rest properly because it is much too cold and my legs will never start moving again if I try to sit down. I stretch my quads and think about curling up into a ball to cry. Instead, Liz and I share a chocolate pair and a few handfuls of nuts. Where is a hot tea when you need it most?
KILOMETER 6: Laban Rata Resthouse – I don’t recall much of this last kilometer. I think I’m in such a feverish state that my mind blanked out and my body went on auto-pilot. I remember catching a glimpse of Laban Rata about an hour ago. I could see it high on the hill in front of me for a fraction of a minute before the clouds came to cover it again. Everyone I see along the trail is simply concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. At least I’m not the only one that is miserable and wet. Keep going……
LABAN RATA RESTHOUSE: 3:00 p.m. – The huts are unheated and we are only given one somewhat smelly blanket. My entire body is numb and I can only think about stripping off my soggy clothes and pulling on my dry set from my backpack. We huddle under our blankets after grabbing a bite to eat and try to catch a few hours of sleep before our midnight climb. Our group will meet again at 2 a.m. for the climb to the summit. There is a waterfall outside our hut that tries to lull me to sleep. My chattering teeth, on the other hand, keep me awake.
Sleep….is…impossible. 9 p.m. – I just spyed a rat scurrying along on the windowsill. I pull my stocking cap on hoping to conserve some body heat and wait for the hours to pass. The sound of the waterfall outside our door is soothing, but it is still too cold to be comfortable. Liz’s alarm goes off at 1:45 a.m., and we urge our aching limbs to roll out of bed. Although we didn’t carry many clothes with us, we dress in everything that was still dry – three shirts, jacket, lined pants, and two pairs of socks and open the door to a black, black night. The pouring rain had finally lightened to a nice drizzle, and a heavy fog rests on the rocks. Luckily we can leave our bags at Laban Rata and pick them up on the way back down. We have 2 1/2 kilometers to climb this morning, about a four hour climb to the summit if we hike at a steady pace.
KILOMETER 7: This is straight uphill. I can’t see anything around me except for the constant glow of flashlights leading up the mountain in front of and behind me. I’ve lost feeling in my fingers and have to keep switching hands as I try to hold the flashlight on the trail in front of me. (Bring a head torch!) The endless stairs finally give way to cliff edges that we have to tip toe along. One wrong move and we could quite possibly plummet to the bottom of the mountain. Not kidding!! We did have ropes to hold, but they were difficult to grasp with frozen fingers. The early morning rain has made everything slippery and several people stumble along the way, causing the rest of us to gasp and hope for the best. Nobody is hurt so far. I hug the edge of the wall as close as I can and creep along the edge as we slowly move upward. I’m almost thankful that it is pitch black outside. If I had been able to see the rocky cliff edges and the bottomless pits below us, I think I may have been a bit worried.
I see lights!!! Hoping it was a rest stop, I am disappointed to learn that it is just an official office. We have to check in at this station before completing the final 2 kilometers. Everyone is given a whistle along with instructions on what to do in case we loose sight of the rope. Really?
KILOMETER 8: There is nothing to walk on except slippery granite rock which we shuffle along…very….slowly. It is much too cold for any plant or animal life up here. Altitude sickness has already hit several hikers and many pass me on their way back down to base camp, too sick to continue.
Somewhere along the way, I loose track of my group. I can only see the faint glow of flashlights in front of me. Of course, my own flashlight chooses this exact moment to die and I’m left in cold blackness. It’s freezing. I look around me at the bleak landscape and can see my breath in front of me. “Somebody? Anybody?” Luckily, an Aussie guy with a nifty headlamp comes upon me and I join him for the rest of the climb.
This must be what people feel like in Alaska….they are obviously crazy….
SUMMIT: We pass the 8.5 mile marker. Only 200 meters to go! Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that we will be able to see a fantastic sunrise this morning. The rain is still coming down and the cloud cover is much too thick for the sun to peak through. The final 100 meters is ladderlike. We try to scale the sharp rocks quickly, but having frozen fingers, legs, and toes makes the final ascent difficult. Finally, I reach the summit and am greated by an icy blast of wind and a view of thick, white clouds. We made it!!! I see Liz and we pause only momentarily to take a photo and are soon on our way back down. It is too cold to stay on the summit for long and there is nothing to see except a sheet of white haze.
Mount Kinabalu descent – Although I was expecting a break from the aerobic activity, the climb down is just as tough. At the begining, we spend a large majority going backwards down the granite rock, holding onto the ropes for support. We manage to get by with only a few close calls, falls, and bruises before arriving at base camp. The clouds part of a brief minute and we snap some photos of the landscape in front of us. It was really impressive so I imagine that the view from the summit would have been wonderful.
Our bags are waiting for us so we quickly pack and set off for the remaining 6 kilometer descent. Going up the steps was hard, but coming down was just plain painful as all of the pounding went straight to my knees. Needless to say, the 6 k walk down did not go quickly and, by the time I arrived at the check in station, I was ready to collapse and not move for several days.
We did it!! Resting at the bottom of the mountain and looking upwards at what we had accomplished felt rather nice. It was impossible to believe that we had actually climbed to the top of the massive mountain in front of us. It looked amazingly huge.
We had to wait around the park for several hours until our shuttle arrived to take us back to the KK. By that time, my joints were stiff and I had trouble climbing the stairs of the bus. The walk to our hotel took 1/2 hour and I don’t want to explain the process of climbing the four story staircase to our hostel room. Let’s just say that we were funny enough that the staff had to encourage everyone else to come out of their rooms and watch us.
I didn’t move very fast for the following two days. As we hobbled around KK town, we received amused glances from the town’s locals. They just smiled and said, “Mt. Kinabalu, huh?” We said yes and then hobbled along.
Tips: Bring a head torch – it will come in handy during the second day. One bottle of water is just fine and you can easily refill it along the way. Dry socks, mittens, a stocking cap and a fleece will save your sanity.