Hiking Mt Kinabalu – Malaysia

It is possible to summit Mt Kinabalu in one day. Mt Kinabalu, located on the island of Borneo, is the highest peak of south-east Asia. Guides are mandatory and only six people are allowed to complete the hike each day.

Situation and history

Mt Kinabalu is situated in its own national park. The high altitude means cooler temperatures than the surrounding areas making it a pleasant area for hiking. The peak itself is a large fractured rock massive that juts out above the surrounding forest.

Trail notes

The ascent to the summit can be broken into two main sections: the lower section from the trail head to Laban Rata hut and the upper section to the summit.

Timpohon Gate (1850m) to Laban Rata (3270m) 6km (2 1/2hrs): The trail meanders through thick forest as it starts its ascent from the trailhead. The path is generally in good condition but there are several very steep rock sections and the trail can get slippery in the rains. The gradient is steep and the vegetation thins noticeably at Laban Rata.

Laban Rata to the summit (4100m) 2km (2hrs): The trail follows vegetation for a time before roped routes take you out onto the rock escarpment. The trail does not feel as steep in this section however the continued climb on the inclined rock is very tough on your achilles and calf muscles as they are overstretched constantly. There is short steep scramble over boulders to reach the peak itself. The thin air in the top section makes walking slow and tiring.

Return to the base via the same route (4hrs).

Planning your trip

The one day version of the walk takes from 7:30am to 5pm with little in the way of breaks. This option is cheaper, faster and more challenging than the two day alternative. The drawbacks are you need to be very fit and the afternoon rains may either prevent you from completing the ascent or shroud your view of the summit. There are only six spaces available each day so make sure you call the park office in advance or prepare for disappointment if you arrive the night before. You must register at least the day before the hike because guides need to be arranged and the hike leaves at 7:15am. There are a plethora of charges such as guide fee, park fee, transport fee etc. that total about NZ$100/pp.

The two day version of the walk is far more popular. Typically you walk the first afternoon to Laban Rata in the trail then attempt to summit for dawn.

Starting elevation: 1850m
Summit elevation: 4100m
Total ascent: 2250m
Trail distance: 8km (each way)
Average gradient: Very steep 1:4

Trail Grading

Well maintained walking track with some rocks and muddy sections lower down. The upper section is on inclined rock with ropes to hold for support.

Gear

The trail is largely in cloud forest so be prepared for rain. Cold can be an issue on the final stretch to the summit. Hiking poles will be an asset. Pack as light as safely possible as every gram counts on the one day ascent. Sturdy shoes are an asset on this walk.

Access to and from the hike

The park office arranges transport to the trail head for a nominal fee. To reach the park office you can drive or take a mini-van from Kota Kinabalu. It is possible to overnight inside the park office but if you are budget conscious then consider some of the slightly dilapidation accommodation a short walk down the road from the park.

Navigation & Facilities

Navigation is not a problem with a clearly defined track and a compulsory guide.

There are several shelters en route including flush toilets and picnic seats. Fresh water is available from pipes at regular intervals on the lower section allowing you to carry little water yourself. Laban Rata sells wildly expensive food and drinks that have been carried up by porters.

Safety

You are with a guide and there are several shelters en route so most emergencies are likely to be manageable. Main risks include slipping in the wet, dehydration and altitude sickness.

Flora and fauna

Cloud forest with bromeliads and other exotic flora. Keep an eye out for monkeys at the park entrance in the morning and for squirrels at the shelters along the trail.

Other Resources

We found the Lonely Planet Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei  adequately covered a description of the 2-day version of the  trail and nearby attractions. Instructions on transport from KK were limited as was coverage on budget accommodation outside the park boundary. The current edition is available here

We did not find any maps of the trail available for purchase.

 

Our experience

Day 1 (Preparation)

Off to Mt. Kinabalu! We thought the trip to the National Park would be straightforward but we traipsed around 3 bus terminals at opposite ends of the city before finding a van near where we started (taxi area near Australia Place) that would take us to Mt Kinabalu. Happy to be underway we headed off up the hills in a back of van sharing tips with an American volunteer who was teaching English in a village near the mountain. Apparently there are a lot of ‘unofficial’ immigrants from Indonesia who work on farms and unfortunately their kids can’t go to school (if you don’t pay tax you don’t get access to state education); the volunteers work at schools for these kids to try and break the illiteracy and poverty trap. From his local knowledge it sounded like the mountain was clear most mornings but the rains came in regularly around lunchtime, he also mentioned cheap accommodation just outside the park down the main road and that he had yet to see a mosquito at the elevation of the National Park.

We arrived at the guiding centre and were very lucky to get the two ‘last’ spots for the next day’s climb. Super stoked that this all worked out we duly paid our guiding and park fees (about NZ$100 each) and got sorted for the early morning start. A roadside dinner was perfect for carbo-loading on fried noodles. Accommodation within the park boundary is government regulated and ridiculously expensive (circa NZ$100/pp for a dorm room at the base) so instead we found the cheap accommodation about 100m down the main road 60 MYR ($25) for a private double.

After nightfall we wandered back up to the park entrance and wandered through some forest watching fireflies and hunting for nocturnal animals. Mt Kinabalu was bathed in moonlight and we spent some time taking long exposure photos of the peak and the mist moving on its flank.

Mark spent a restless night listening to rats and worrying about the large bag of ripe bananas next to the bed. The door to the indoor/outdoor ‘ensuite’ had a gap you could pass a cement bag through so the room was far from insect or rodent proof. Susan had earplugs and therefore a great rest, only finding out about the rats in the morning.

Day 2 (The climb!)

We rose with our alarms at 6:30 had a quick shower before Mark had a head start ordering scrambled eggs at the diner for breakfast. We turned up at the park entrance at around 7:15 which is when we were told the office opened. Our guide was already waiting for us and was quite worried that we were starting so late? This was the first indication to the seriousness of the time checks that would plague us for the remainder of the hike.

The Mt Kinabalu climb is highly regulated, everyone must pay park entrance fees and a guide is compulsory. A guide is assigned when you book so we had one guide for the two of us just like the other 4 who were doing the one-day ascent that day, so we had 3 guides for 6 climbers. The Mt Kinabalu climb is recommended as a 2 day hike, the first day hiking to a refuge Laban Rata at 3,270m where you stay overnight and hike to the summit for sunrise. This sounded great but required booking through a tour agency – for several hundred dollars per person. We like hiking but this seemed like an exorbitant amount. Several blogs mentioned climbing it in one day. We didn’t realise until starting off in the morning that only 6 slots per day are allowed for the day climb.

We caught a van ride from the park entrance to the start of the trail – which shaves off a nice 7km or so. On route our guide explained to us that we were starting very late and risked not meeting the first time check. We needed to reach Laban Rata by 10am or else we couldn’t continue to the summit. This was one of the conditions we had signed off on the day before – not realising that it would taken that seriously – who takes a stopwatch on a hike?? To put the challenge into context Laban Rata is the point that climbers reach at the end of the first day of the 2 day hike. Our lonely planet book suggested 6hrs as a suitable timeframe. It was now after 7:30am – so we had just under 2 and half hours to make it! We started off at breakneck speed. Susan got out of breath early on and was too concerned to take a proper rest so pushed through the climb sweating and puffing. We caught up to two of the other day climbers (two Chinese guys) who were at a similar exhaustion level. Only by a bit of helpful pushing did we make it to the hut with about 4 min spare. Yippee!!!

“10 min break” the guide happily said and then added “the next check point is to summit by 1pm or we turn back”. So much for the relaxed rest! We considered our options. After a bit of moral support and healthy competition from the exhausted Chinese guys we decided to give it a shot. The time limit was more generous and everyone looked knackered. So we journeyed onwards and upwards – taking it at a more leisurely paced really helped. We steadily climbed up stairs through leafy foliage then out onto misty rock face. At this point the guides explained that if it started raining the rock would be too slippery and we would need to descend – we hadn’t been told this before but could see the slope would become treacherous after rain. This higher rock section is where you can do the high wire climb or Via Ferrata. The air was getting noticeably thinner at this altitude and there were several steep ascents on the rock face where a rope was needed to get traction. We were slowing right down as altitude took over – every few steps Susan needed a breather to keep going. Just as all hopes of seeing the summit were fading the cloud broke and we could see the last hundred metres in brilliant sunshine – a real incentive. We reached the top in sunshine and could see dramatic views across the low lying cloud. The excitement of reaching the summit was immense! We relaxed for 30 min or so before we were encouraged to descend.

The descent felt positively great – each step meant more oxygen and closer to the end. We saw a lone hiker who had decided to break the rules and summit by himself. I noticed the guides locking the iron gate behind us as we reached the hut so this guy was going to find it hard to get back down.

We had a final time check of finishing by 5pm. This didn’t sound too bad given the previous deadlines. Our guides left us alone pretty much to hike back down apart from helpfully pointing out flora, such as insect eating bromeliads, and politely answering questions. The flora itself was not unlike that around Ohakune in New Zealand – cool air and lots of tree ferns. We passed lots of the two day hikers and porters who were on their way up. The porters never ceased to amaze – some carrying umbrellas in the rain and others were wearing jandals. Amazing balance given how rocky the terrain was (we were glad for hiking boots). It had now started a steady drizzle and we made steady progress but had pretty stiff joints – our guide lent us his Leiki poles which really helped. Even though we thought we were doing ok we had to run the last 10min as the 5pm deadline loomed. Just as well as the big park gates were about to be locked up. Exhausted and so happy to finish. Susan put on the ‘tears of joy’ scene at the bottom gate just as the next load of intrepid hikers arrived for the night – they looked mortified seeing the state of us.

The reason the walk had been so challenging was a combination of the altitude, which we hadn’t acclimatised for, and the gradient. The trail only covers 8.72 km horizontal whilst managing 2.3km vertical; this 1:4 gradient makes the walk more of a Stairmaster than a conventional ascent.

The trail itself was well marked and the guides were there for ad-hoc information, time checking, and some local job creation. It was our first walk with a personal guide and whilst the function of the guide was a bit redundant it didn’t hurt to have someone patiently coaxing us on. I don’t know why we couldn’t have started an earlier (the two day version starts at about 3am from Laban Rata!) and finished an later but I suspect park bureaucracy has something to do with it.

We kicked back to our roadside diner and then to our accommodation where we summoning the energy to change rooms to one with a nice deck and no animal holes. We enjoyed beers on the deck and as the light faded we watched a tree shrew (not a rat) emerge and play on the roof of the accommodation below.

We met the lone hiker at the bottom – sounded like he had been fined – just the park entrance fee, and had walked the entire 23km in only 5 hours (you can’t take a van at the start if you are breaking the rules) which was really impressive. There is apparently a Mt Kinabalu climbathon which had some incredibly quick times for the entire 23km circuit including a 3rd placed kiwi women (Anna Frost) whose time was a paltry 3hrs 40min – truly inspirational; the most hair raising part of the race must be the decent where reckless abandon must take hold. It would be easy to wreck an ankle or knee on the way down.

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