Climbing Mt.Kinabalu

It's not just any old mountain

A little about Mt.kinabalu

Mt Kinabalu is a mountain in Sabah, Malaysia. It is protected as Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage Site. Kinabalu is the highest peak in Borneo's Crocker Range and is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago as well as the highest mountain in Malaysia. Mount Kinabalu is also the 20th most prominent mountain in the world by topographic prominence.

Low's Peak sits at 4,095.2 metres (13,435 ft) above sea level. Getting there can be challenging but it is climbable by a person in good physical condition and there is no need for mountaineering equipment at any point on the main route. Other peaks along the massif, however, require rock climbing skills.  


Getting to the start 

When climbing Mt. Kinabalu most people opt for the 2 day hike with an overnight stop at the breathtaking Laban Rata mountain hat 2 kms from the summit. This allows for a sunrise summit followed by a comfortable hike back to the park gates by mid-afternoon. However we decided to challenge ourselves and planned to hike the 8.7km to the summit and back again all in a day. It's an epic physical and mental challenge and if you are in the area I would highly recommend it. Myself and my fiancee completed the hike together, and as we are both in good physical shape and know our bodies well, we felt confident that we could safely complete the one day hike. There are however some dangers to doing this and we had to get special permission from the head park ranger Mr Richards. We could find very little information about completing the hike in one day, and were told to wait until we reached Borneo before seeking permission. The day before we planned to do the hike we arrived at our hotel near Kinabalu park and went in search of Mr Richards. He's a very experience mountain climber with an honest approach, and you could tell he had spent many many hours on the mountain (no doubt rescuing amateaur climbers who didn't pay attention to his warnings!). He sat us down and talked us through the worst case scenarios and why it's so risky to climb the mountain in one day. He showed us a video of what happens when it rains at the top of the mountain and this really brought home the risks involved in climbing the mountain. The weather can change very quickly and the downpours that happen regularly in Malaysia are not your typical European rain showers. We were doing the climb at the end of April when there is plenty of sunshine and thunderstorms are common. 

Once we had answered all his questions and proved to Mr Richards that we were both physically capable and had enough experience he gave us permission for a one day hiking permit...  It was almost 100% go, as long as it didn't rain. 


From Gate to Low's Peak

It was an early start with a big breakfast and a short taxi ride to the gate of the Borneo National park. There we met James our mountain guide (and all round amazing guy) around 7am. Only one problem, it had started to drizzle which meant that no one was allowed to start hiking. After a nerve raking 20 minute the rain had stopped completely and we had permission to start our ascent. 

The first 3 or 4 km was a mix of hard pack trail and natural steps carved out in the path. It was a comfortable walk and we had a good pace going. The thick green foliage created a canopy and keep us cool and protected from the morning sun. Writing this now, I can still remember how confident I was that we would reach the summit in record time.

After the 4km mark things started to get a little more challenging.  We had been on the go for 2 hours with only a few short stops. The air was getting thinner and beautiful vibrant colors had faded into pale greens and browns. The part was now more rock than sand and the step height had doubled. The sun however was now shining directly on the mountain which cave us a stunning view of the valley below. The views were absolutely breathtaking, with a mix of dense, rainforest-like areas one one side mixed with huge desert style clearings on the other.  

We arrived at Laban Rata Rest hut at 11am. It's only 2.2km from Low's Peak but for safety reasons they do not let anyone leave for the summit after 12pm. Alison and I took a few minutes to prepare ourself for the last push to the top while James checked the weather and got clearance to continue. Great news, two thumbs up from James ment we could continue our ascent. We packed up our bags and headed of on what would be the toughs 2.2 km hike of my life (so far).

We snaked our way through the gate that led us up the final ascent path. We were now at  3,270m and had another 800m to go. Nothing could have prepared us for those final few hundred metres! The terrain quickly changed from steps carved in the rock, to flat sheer rock face with ropes held by steel pins. The only thing I can compare it to is photos of the moon! The terrain along with the altitude forced us to reduce the pace. We were now traveling at 1km/h (although it felt much faster), the view was now remains of a moonscape and we here both physically and mentally drained. It was at this point that James had some helpful and encouraging word to keep us moving after all w still had to reach the summit, descend and be back at the main gate by 5:30pm. At the 8km make we could see the summit of the mountain. It was beckoning to us, we had not come this far just to quite now, but the last 0.2km felt like I had run a 100 mile race with a 10kg backpack on. Every step needed 100% concentration but we made it. 

ABSOLUTE ELATION! It's the only way I can describe reaching the top to Low's peak 4095.2m above the sea. And to have done it with my best friend was the cherry on the top. I will admit that it also may have had something to do with the lack of oxygen at that height coupled with fatigue but it felt good.

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We spent a good 20 minutes chilling and taking in the magnificent view and enjoying the fact that there was no one in south-east Asia higher than us.  Usually the summit is done at dawn with a group of other hikers, and we felt privileged to experience the summit with just the two of us. 

Sadly though the time had come for us to make our descent back down and we were against the clock on this on. We had to be an the main gate by 5:30pm which gave us just under 3 hours to do the 8.7km.   

We had to hustle and in the back of our minds was the knowledge that this would be tough on the legs and from what we had heard, our knees too. The ropes that are a huge challenge on the way up are a huge help on the way down, and by the second rope descent Ali had nailed abseiling and was loving it. We did a quick toilet stop at Laban Rata with the hope of finishing the descent in one go.   Then we were off! 

As we got closer to the finish our breathing became less labored and  pace increased little by little, although there seemed to be an infinite number of steps! At the 2km to go mark Ali's legs started to go, her knees were fine but after more than 2 hours of down hill the the muscles where exhausted, not too much after that my legs felt the exact same way. There weren't many options now, either suck it up and finish or moan and whine but either way we had to finish the last 500m. 

You'll be happy to know we sucked it up and finished strong and with smiles on our faces. It took just under 9 hours to do the summit and descent and we would have never made it without the help and expertise of our mountain guide James.


in the end

The climb and descent of Mount Kinabalu took us nine hours. It was exhilarating and I have absolutely no regrets after doing it in one day. In fact for those with a good level of physical fitness I do recommend attempting to complete the climb in a day, but please don't underestimate how physically demanding it will be. You have to be fit and have decent endurance. Both Ali and I are distance runners and had done plenty of mountain walking beforehand so I feel we were reasonably prepared for the climb. 

Also, be ready for some pain afterwards, our bodies ached in pain for 3 days following the clumb. I would recommend planning some slow easy walks and some swimming over the following few days, that seemed to help us.  I’m not entirely convinced that the water that is offered on the mountains is safe to drink (even though the guides say so) as we did have upset tummies afterwards. Word of advice, don’t drink the mountain water, bring more snacks than dried mangoes and be nice to the administrative staff.


What you need to know

What you'll need to know if you're planning to clime Mt.Kinabalu in a day:

1) Choose the dryer time of the year the travel to Borneo. March to may is recommended, we went in April.

2) Plan to arrive on the island 3 or 4 days before you want to climb. There are some fantastic rustic B&B's within walking distance from the main gate which are ideal and cheap and do amazing authentic food

3)You need to get permission from the head park ranger before you will be given insurance and a climbing permit. Be calm, curious  and polite when speaking to them. They are the experts and have been doing this for years. It's amazing how far politeness and respect go. 

4) Go early. There are only 10 day permits given out a day. Once they have allocated the days permits there is no negotiating.

4) Be in the right shape, it's not a technical climb but it is physically challenging. Bear in mind that the park ranger might ask you to prove that you are fit enough.

5) The prices do change but our cost:

  • 15 MYR - Park Entrance/ Conservation Fee

  • 100 MYR - Climbing Permit

  • 10 MYR - Insurance

  • 85 MYR - Guide (remember to tip well)

  • 18 MYR - Taxi to trailhead

6) Kit wise, comfortable shoes with enough grip will do. we did the hike in trail running shoes but boots are also ok. Wear light clothes but remember to bring layers, it can get cold near the summit. We started out in t-shirts but needed long sleeves at the top. A hat and sunglasses are needed due to the altitude - and even if it feels cold, wear sunscreen! Gloves are handy for pulling yourself up and abseiling down the rope near the peak. 

7) Bring a light and comfortable backpack. If you have a water bladder that fits inside even better.

8) Nutrition, keep it simple, fresh and natural. Fresh and dried fruit are the best, nuts are easy to eat as well. Try and say away from processed food and keep packaging to a minimum. Don't try any new foods or supplements on the mountain, as toilets are few and far between!

9)Arrive early on the day, you don't want to miss your opportunity to climb and nothing beats that feeling of being the first and only people at the summit.

I'd love to hear from you. If you're planning to climb please feel free to leave a question in the comments. If you've climbed Mt.Kinabalu in the past please let me know about your experience on the mountain.