Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

Mount Kinabalu Kota Kinabalu

After weeks of preparation and excitement, today is the today I will climb Mount Kinabalu!

Set in the beautifully luscious Mount Kinabalu National Park in the (Malaysian) Sabah region of Borneo, my first glimpse of this majestic peak does not disappoint.

At 4,095m above sea-level, Mt. Kinabalu stands proudly as South East Asia’s seventh highest peak (although the Malaysian Authority of Tourism likes to tell people that it’s the highest!), surrounded by a vast area of lusciously dense flora and fauna. If the actual climb is a little intimidating, you can drink in the beauty on one of the stunning nature walks.

At the start of the Mount Kinabalu Trail
At the start of the Mount Kinabalu Trail.

With a 90% success rate for climbers reaching the summit, the climb is deemed an achievable feat. This fact attracts a huge variety of partakers – dedicated climbers, holidaymakers, backpackers, older people and families with children. Do not be fooled into thinking this means it is easy!

Whilst you can rock up with little or no preparation, it is wise to have a reasonably good degree of fitness.

After taking a few shots for the photo album, I’m introduced to two fellow climbers – Japanese couple Maya and Ton, and our guide. Fearing we’ll be matched with an athletic type, I’m relieved to meet aptly-named Eater, a friendly, rotund, middle-aged Malaysian woman. She tells me she completes the climb two to three times per week, which increases my confidence – if Eater can nail this mountain so frequently, I should be able to!

The Mount Kinabalu Summit Trail.
The Mount Kinabalu Map of the Trail to the Summit.

We start the 6km walk up to Laban Rata, where we’ll stay overnight before tackling the summit. The steps aren’t particularly user-friendly for the vertically challenged, and my thighs are given a thorough workout. I thank myself for the hours I’ve spent on the step machine. At 35 degrees, I am literally sweating enough to fill a small bucket, and like most others, we stop at each kilometre mark for a breather.

The steps up to Mount Kinabalu, Borneo
The steep steps up to Mount Kinabalu, Borneo.

As my muscles become sore, I marvel at the numerous Malay men almost dancing up the mountain in their sandals carrying all manner of things – one man with calves of steel has three 65ltr backpacks tied to him while another carries gas canisters on his back. I joke we’ll probably see someone carrying a door up at some point, and sure enough, there is. I’m struggling with my small backpack!

The increasingly amazing views provide a good distraction from the tiredness, as do the beautiful plants, flowers, and cheeky squirrels after our food.

As I booked through a tour company, I’m provided with a much-needed packed lunch of fruit, boiled eggs and cheese spread sandwiches. Spurred on by my injection of poor man’s Dairylea, Eater allows me to go on ahead while she stays with Maya and Ton.

This initial section takes between three and seven hours, and I’m pleased as punch to arrive at Laban Rata in just over 4hrs. Being above the clouds, the view is already awe-inspiring, as pinks and reds begin to move in to mark the diminishing day. Sadly, the sharp drop in temperature prevents any lengthy amateur photography on my part.

Laban Rata is a welcoming, homely place with great staff, good food, brilliant photos and inspiring quotes – the perfect place to make you feel ready for the summit. All the rooms are shared dorms and I’m sharing with a lovely Malay man, who tells me that while he knows he is significantly overweight, he is fiercely determined to succeed. I love his positive spirit.

Freezing but Happy!
Freezing but happy!

Being so high up, no hot water is available and this determines the length of my shower at 14 seconds! I will never forget how cold that water felt! There’s an air of excitement over a plentiful, tasty dinner, as we are advised to retire early and to set our alarms for 1.30am. Not believing I’ll be able to go to bed at 6.30pm, I start to read, only to fall asleep within 10 minutes!

Waking at 1.30am for the summit climb, I immediately feel the sense of excitement and anticipation at camp – everyone is smiling and wishing each other a good climb.

After the earliest breakfast, I’m ever likely to have, it’s time to don my many layers, fix on my head torch, pull on my gloves and head out into the pitch dark with Eater. Our ascent begins fairly easily with stone or wooden steps paving the way and a pleasant temperature.

Climbers on Mount Kinabalu in the early morning.
Climbers on Mount Kinabalu in the early morning.

As we’re now over 3000m above sea level, it is usual to feel light-headed or have a headache, both of which right themselves after descending slightly and waiting for around 10 minutes. It’s fantastic to talk to other climbers along the way and discover their motivation for tackling the challenge. I spend most of the climb with a particularly inspiring Australian lady, Heather, who beat cancer two years ago but isn’t letting her chemo-damaged lungs stop her.

After around 90 minutes, the rock face starts to become sheer and it’s time to start pulling myself up using ropes. The extra exertion combined with the altitude and increasingly cold temperature means digging deep.

But then climbing a mountain isn’t supposed to be easy. Taking a few moments to stop my heart hammering, I smile back at the beautiful snake of lights created by some 500 climbers. It may be tough but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this moment.

The last part of the climb is gruelling, mainly due to a wickedly icy headwind and zero shelter. I’m informed it’s -2 degrees but it feels arctic to me! Pulling my hoodie and waterproof so tight only my eyes are exposed, I grit my teeth and make the final push.

With extremely numb hands and sore legs, one relieved and happy climber arrives at the summit – as clichéd as it sounds, I feel on top of the world! The sunrise is incredible; a multitude of terracotta hues spill slowly over the horizon, bathing the mighty Kinabalu in a new dawn.

Huddling in a small hole and sitting on my hands, I try to ignore the cold and take in the moment. After a few minutes, the cutting wind becomes unbearable and I make a hasty retreat back down the rope line to a more civilised temperature, where I can marvel at the awesome terrain.

Jagged rock formations, jutting peaks, deep crevices – it’s how I imagine other-worldly planets might look. As I descend to Laban Rata digesting the awesome sights around me, I pinch myself. I’ve just climbed a mountain. A big one!

Jagged rock formations, jutting peaks of Kinabalu.
Jagged rock formations and jutting peaks of Mount Kinabalu.

Arriving back at Laban Rata at 7.30am, it’s time for a totally guilt-free and delicious breakfast of French toast, pancakes, eggs, and a much-needed caffeine fix. People I talk to are tired but happy – for most, it’s the first time they’ve completed a summit climb, and the sense of achievement is awesome.

Most people choose to tackle the remaining 6K descent straight away to avoid stiffening muscles. With the lure of a cozy bed just too much, I opt to crawl back under the covers which although pleasant at the time, is perhaps not advisable! It takes a mammoth effort to resurface at 10am for checkout, but there’s no avoiding the final part of my challenge back to ground level.

Muscles tight, I set off with Eater who blessedly provides me with walking sticks. She tells me that she is doing these climbs to subsidize her husband’s income, which helps put her six children through school.

She is very matter-of-fact about the difficulties they have, and it strikes me, not for the first time during my travels, how huge the chasm is between our different worlds.

These are special moments – sharing stories and connecting with someone from an entirely different culture; they never fail to open my eyes a little wider.After a kilometre, we join father and son Pete, and Jeremy from Britain, the latter of whom has titanium rods in his spine following a horrific accident. Each kilometre gets tougher, each step more painful than the last, but seeing this man push through the pain barrier makes me plough on when every one of my leg muscles and both hips are screaming. There is no shortage of inspiring people to find throughout this hike.

Kinabalu Park Certificate
You deserve a certificate!

After 4.5 hours of focus and drive, we enter into the last stretch, exhausted and motivating other climbers to keep going despite some barely being able to walk. The final 100 metres consists of a somewhat cruelly placed incline, but mercifully, the downhill steps have finished. Climbing the final steps to the finish feels like magic and torture in equal measures. I’d done it. Feeling elated, I pose for my ‘I did it’ photo, walking sticks in the air, and cannot stop smiling! 

As I’d completed the climb for charity, I could now proudly hand over the 300GBP in donations I’d raised from kind-hearted friends and family to a wonderful charity called Hope for Children. They can be found on the Just Giving website should you wish to also fundraise for this worthy cause.

Climbing Mt Kinabalu was a truly brilliant experience, and one I will never forget – the achievement is just an incredible feeling. If you do one thing today, add this climb to your bucket list.

Helpful Tips for Climbing Mount Kinabalu!

  • Book in advance – some people come to this area just to do the climb but leave disappointed when the dates are fully booked.
  • It is easier to arrange your climb with an operator, but you can book independently if you prefer by arranging your bed with Laban Rata and paying the national park entrance fee on arrival. The standard 2-day/1-night package should cost around 1000 RM. Many operators will charge more; I found Borneo Global Backpackers helpful.
  • It is often a good idea to stay close to, or inside, the national park the night before your climb to help acclimatise (staying outside is much cheaper). If you book a 3day 2-night tour, the first night is simply the cost of accommodation at the national park. Most people book a 2 day/1 night trip and take the 90-minute transfer from Kota Kinabalu on the morning of the climb.
Mount Kinabalu from the ground!
Mount Kinabalu from the ground!
  • Guides are compulsory; you cannot climb alone. You can share the cost with others if you are in a group but not part of an organised tour.
  • Bring warm clothes and gloves are a must unless you want your fingers to fall off!
  • Bring a head torch; you will need it for the summit climb.
  • Walking shoes are preferable (esp. during the rainy season), but you can use trainers with a good grip.
  • Bring sugary snacks – you’ll appreciate that Snickers bar!
  • Use walking sticks for the descent – you’ll be grateful for them.
  • Stay overnight nearby once you have descended – give your muscles a chance to recover.
  • Take lots of photos! You will want to remember this experience.
Donna Jackson

I love adventure, jumping in headfirst and doing something new and exciting. Travelling has enabled me to do so much I still pinch myself. From swimming with turtles to rock climbing, from diving with whale sharks to climbing mountains and volcanos, from petting tigers to sleeping in the jungle, I never get tired of everything Southeast Asia has to offer.

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