It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves. This is true for many travelers, and my decision to climb Mount Kinabalu, on the far north east of Malaysian Borneo, meant overcoming one of my biggest travel issues: My complete inability to plan anything ahead of time.
Mt Kinabalu stands at 4,100 metres. It is a World Heritage site and the highest mountain in all of Borneo. To help preserve the natural beauty the government decided to cap the number of visitors to Kinabalu each day. The rules also state you cannot climb yourself, and have to do with a guide or organised tour group. These kind of rules do not sit well with travelers like me who lack the foresight to know what they’re doing more than a few days in advance. As you can imagine I struggled to book this particular adventure.
I arrived in the town of Kota Kinabalu with no plans other than to climb this beast. It was a fairly quiet town and I didn’t want to stick around any longer than I needed so went about asking in tour shops. When I asked for spaces on tours the next day, most people laughed, and the best I got offered was a spot in two weeks, which was no good for me. I was about to give up when, as if by luck, the last shop I tried had a place for me, for the next day! It was expensive, but I was delighted. In your face forward planning!
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu
I was picked up pretty early the next morning, introduced to the rest of my group and driven a few hours from the town to the base of the mountain. The drive there was pretty memorable, the altitude increasing as the mountain’s majesty came into view. We signed some papers, were given some very basic lunches and were on our way. We had one guide between about 6 of us, and as we didn’t really stick together I barely saw him on that first day. The route was pretty simple, there was no way you could really get lost and the guide did feel a little bit superfluous, but rules are rules I guess.
The first day was quite a tough climb. We trekked about 6km, up through the clouds to a cute little guesthouse nestled into the mountain side. The view was stunning, particularly at sunset, and they fed us very well which was good considering how much we’d each paid for this trip! On the way to the guesthouse we were constantly passed by porters carrying luggage, food, drinks and heavy looking generators. I asked our guide about them who told me these guys do this every day, making numerous trips, carrying on average 40kg each way each time. I kinda felt bad for them, that seemed like pretty tough work, so even though there was a fully stocked bar at this guesthouse I limited myself to just one sunset beer, out of sympathy for the porters!
I got a fairly early night as we were up again at 2am to try and reach the summit before sunrise. I smashed about 5 cups of coffee, threw on some warm clothes and joined the hordes of climbers heading up. This was a really tough climb. There was only 2.7km from here to the top but the air was getting very thin by this point, it was dark and some sections were so steep you needed a rope to pull yourself up. Not everyone in our group made it, but knowing how lucky I was to get a last minute spot on this there was no way I was going to give up. I got to the peak, tired but satisfied. I arrived at that beautiful time just before the sun rose when the sky begins to glow. I found myself a sweet little spot to watch as the sun came into view and sprayed orange light across the side of the mountain. Everyone was silent, simply enjoying the moment. I felt quite very peaceful and content. As the sun rose further you could see the famous ‘sea of clouds’ below like a bright white carpet. I’d been this high before but had never seen anything this spectacular.
The Long Walk Down Mt. Kinabalu
After taking a million photos I decided it was probably time to make my way back down. Even though we’d done the climb up over two days, the walk back had to be done in one go. I guess going down is easier.
I set off but kept getting distracted by beautiful scenery I’d missed on the way up due to darkness. There were numerous peaks, some impossibly sharp, piercing up into the sky. There were also a number of crystal clear lakes, glowing blue in the sun’s low light. These all made for fantastic photo opportunities and also made me fall pretty far behind schedule.
As a result the walk down became more of a jog down, which my legs paid for the next day! We had another great day of weather for the descent though and the views were just as incredible. It really showed why this is such a popular spot for travelers, and thankfully completely justified the rather expensive price tag. I made it down, just in time for the bus back to town. I was given a certificate to say I’d made it, but really all I wanted was a shower and a beer…both of which I had as soon as I got back to Kota Kinabalu. Both of which were definitely well earned.
Price for Hiking Mt. Kinabalu
This varies but expect to pay a minimum of $250USD. This will be for a two day tour and will include all your transport to the mountain, your overnight accommodation, all food, minimal water, your guide and park fees. It does not include snacks and beers at the guesthouse, plus you should allow a bit extra to tip your guide and porters. Three day tours, and possibly longer are available too, if you are a little slower.
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What to take for climbing Mt. Kinabalu
- Hiking boots
- Hiring pants/jacket
- Thermal undergarments
- Head Torch
- Warm hat
- Your own snacks for extra energy
- Money (for beer/snacks)
- Water (this can be replenished at the guesthouse)
- Basic overnight toiletries
You can hire porters to take your luggage up for you, but spare a thought for them and try not to make your bags too heavy. You really don’t need much at all.
Insider Tip: BOOK IN ADVANCE! I got very lucky to get a last minute spot, the trips can fill up as far as 3 months in advance. Email around as many tour operators as you can, the price can vary pretty wildly for the exact same package, but you will undoubtedly get a discount if you are in a larger group.
Overall, I had a great time and despite the steep price tag, the views that I saw and the experience in itself was well worth it! As soon as you get down the mountain, consider heading to Poring Hot Springs as you soak in the warm rock pools. Perfect way to end a rather exhausting climb.
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