Scaling the mysterious, misty and mighty
4.095m / 12.285 feet Mount Kinabalu
Standing at an impressive height, Mount Kinabalu is a classical trekking peak.
Some believe that it’s the highest in South East Asia, but Myanmar’s Hakakabo Razi and Irian Jaya’s Carstenz Pyramid are both higher (and far more technical peaks). It is "only" the highest peak in Borneo.
It is a vast and rainy massive and perfect for a hike. Persistent rain and all-enveloping clouds left us with thoughts of trekking in Scotland, Wales or even Lapland in autumn.
Location: Sabah, territory of Malaysia on Borneo, during August
We visited during off-season late August, and less than half an hour after leaving Kota Kinabalu, the “capital” of Sabah in northeast Borneo Island, the stegosaurus-backed Mount Kinabalu came into view, promising a real tropical adventure.
Arriving at the park HQ we organized right on the spot accommodation, climbing permits, and the compulsory booking of a guide. We found no need to book in advance, neither did we opt for the 4N/3D or 3N/2D trips that was sold in Kota Kinabalu as well as in the park HQ. Instead, we tailored our own programme and decided to do the trip in 1N/2D as we had good levels of fitness that particular summer (after climbing several volcanoes in other SE Asian wildernesses).
The first leg was from the Timpohon Gate up to the Laban Rata hut, where we continued all the way to the summit. We saw several primitive shelters on the way for small acclimatization breaks. We reached the summit after 11 hours of hiking. The ascent to Low's Peak, which is the final 3km of the climb, was quite steep. The summit climb involved long sections of steep wooden steps, followed by smooth granite slabs with plug-in ropes. We had caught the periphery of a typhoon centered on the Philippines and torrential rain turned these slabs into slippery waterfalls, so we pulled ourselves up using ropes. At the near-freezing summit, we had mixed clouds and sun as the clouds cleared momentarily. We had good views at several moments and descended to the Laban Rata Hut for a good night’s sleep. The next day we went slowly down.
Even though we came prepared, the temperature at the top and the very volatile nature of the weather came as a bit of a surprise to us. We were happy that we had brought with us warm clothes (thermal, fleece, waterproof), a good headlamp and supplies of high-energy food. It was a good experience although quite wet.
For travels in the vicinity or Borneo and in Malaysia, check our trips sites to the Malaysian Islands, Palawan or Sulawesi. For other great climbs in SEA, check our obsession with climbing volcanoes in Indonesia.
Selected pics from the hike:
Kinabalu Mountain is located in Sabah on the top part of Borneo
Off the coast of Malaysian Borneo are several interesting islands and national parks, among these Pulau Labuan, Pulau Tiga, and the Tunku Abdul Rahman NP.
As we came directly from a few months of traveling in remote parts of Indonesia, we needed a bit of R&R before the climb, and hence we spent 4-5 days of island hopping amongst the five islands in the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Parks. We did also several excellent dives here.
We found that the easies and cheapest way to reach the HQ near the Kinabalu mountain was to charter a minivan in Kota Kinabalu. The mountain is only 50 km inland.
Easily Sabah's largest and most popular natioal park, the 754 sq km Kinabalu NP offers outstanding scenery and habitats. At 4101m, Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the mighty Himalaya and New Guinea. And it is still growing in height.
We started the trek at 6 AM in the rainforest at the base of the mountain. Escaping the heat and humidity of the coast was nice, and the climate was agreeably cool. The first part involves trekking through tall dipterocarp rainforest with huge trees with buttress roots.
In the early days of trekking, the difficulty of Climbing Mt Kinabalu lay not in the ascent itself, but in getting to the the mountain's base through the trackless and dense jungle.
After leaving the rainforest zone, at 900m we reached a different forest zone charcterized by numerous oaks, laurels and chestnuts, but also several light passes through the canopy, allowing the growth of a dense ground cover.
Above 1800m, where annual rainfall can reach more than 450cm, there is a distinct transition to dense, stunted rhododendron forest. The climb is uphill 99% of the time. It is unrelenting steep in places, yet it is easy with several built-in staircases on the lower parts.
On the windswept slopes above Laban Rata the vegetation is stunted and clings to niches in the granite, while the mountain becomes increasingly bare of life. Crossing the sheer Panar Laban rock-face was especially beautiful.
The trail got even steeper as we approached the summit, and eventually it disappeared altogether on the vast, near-vertical fields of slippery granite.
Towards the end, thick ropes are used to haul ourselves up the granite sheets.
It's hard work, yet very satisfying.
Past Sayat-Sayat, more desolate rock-faces and hoisitng awaited us. Thick veins of quartz could be seen stretching as straight as painted lines on the racock-face.
The mountain is usually soaked-in and clear days are rare. We had however several fine views as clouds came in and out of view.
Hans, Jakob, Niels, and Anders on the summit at 5 PM on a very cold days after 11 hours of non-stop hiking from the very base of the mountain.
The weather got even worse on the way down, but we manged to get down just before nightfall.
This is the place to rest and eat hot soup after (of for most people before) the ascent.
The next day, we nearly ran down the mountain and spent a few days on the hot spring complex in Poring, which is just next to the park entrance. Here, steaming, sulphurous water is channelled into several pools and tubs.
There are several interesting walks along forest trails near Poring to the Kipungit waterfalls, Langana waterfall, and bat caves. We were lucky to encounter a rafflesia, the world's largest flower, during one of our forest hikes.