Climb Mt. Kinabalu (Borneo, Malaysia)

In Malaysia I spent my whole time in Borneo or as I like to say I got stuck there. I never thought I would spend 3 weeks there but the 3rd largest island in the world sucked me in and required time. I didn’t even get to all 3 countries on the island but I made it overland from Kuching to Sandakan by bus/ferry only missing Indonesia. Kuching I liked so well I returned (by air) and I stayed the longest right outside Mt. Kinabalu Natural Park.

When I researched Borneo, Mt. Kinabalu was a must do thing for my visit. After reading about it though I learned that permits sell out way ahead of time so the idea of climbing Mt. Kinabalu faded pretty quickly. Unfortunate since I basically start researching about a country as I am about to arrive or upon arrival (long-term travel only). When I got in the area though I still decided to go stay by the park…at least I could escape the heat for a few days and wander some park trails.

View just past the park entrance 😀

When I arrived to the hostel, I stayed a few days but with all the hype from the other travelers, having walked the trails and had the owner ask if I planned to summit I finally asked to see if I could get a last minute permit to climb Mt. Kinabalu. 

The owner of the hostel was great at setting it all up and said I might have a spot in a few days. Some lodges are allotted spots allowing clients to also go through them but my hostel was sold out. Low and behold there is the possibility through cancellations which is how I would eventually get my spot. In fact I almost went the very next day I’d asked but finally the last person of a group did confirm.

In the end, it took 2 days to actually get the permit, which is wicked quick for being so spontaneous on such a visited mountain! The extra 2 days at the hostel was just enough to allow me some time to explore beyond the mountain summit. 

What I read said to at least do the trails in the park if you couldn’t secure a summit permit so the first day I did just that. At the entrance I paid the 15RM ($3.5 USD) daily fee and off I went exploring. I walked the trails for hours hidden among the trees and in search of any animals, unusual plants, creatures and birds that crossed my path which eventually lead me to the trail head for my future climb. I even took one trail that was closed just because and had to turn back because rain water had thrown the path down the cliff. I turned around but instead of going all the way back I found another trail I could make my way up to…ha ha in the end I did a full circuit through the park and was only on the park road for a bit. Lovely day spent in the forest! I didn´t see much of anything but know the area is teeming with tons of birds, cool insects, plants and flowers….guess that is what happens if you aren´t the first in the park…

Another day I borrowed the motorbike and headed to see a waterfall 30 miles away (in Poring) and hiked again :). The place I stayed literally allowed me to borrow instead of rent the motorbike as another perk to getting a permit through them so I was plenty happy. Actually a tad nervous to use at first because in Malaysia they drive on the left side of the road and this was my first left sided motorbike experience…lol really no biggy once I was on the road. Plus with all my months of Oceania cycling and driving on the left it was a breeze. This nervous feeling I find happens often when I encounter a new-ish experience…mental confidence get´s to me for a moment…you know first timer anxiety, yes even on simple things. In the end this driving experience really made me feel like I had solidified or passed the motorbike driving test for real.

The waterfall was worth the trek by the way. Beautiful and with few tourists except at the hot springs and small waterfall located basically at the entrance. 

The trail was a bit moist still from all the rain which got me worried about leeches given I was wearing shorts (hot and humid is Borneo). I passed only one couple along the entire trail and they confirmed my worry advising me that they had seen plenty of leeches and to watch out. I now found myself checking every 10 minutes…especially after I passes wet spots on the trail. I did find some on me but they only ever made it to my shoes which I would quickly flick off. Most were teeny tiny but the 1 bigger one that got on my shoe I found to be very quick and smart…he seemed to know the drill for getting blood and survival. 😉

Besides the somewhat difficulty in getting a permit I also debated the cost. The hike was 2 days minimum, doable in 1 day but they only let you do that once a year, racing up to the top. Most do 2 days but 3 days was an option and I would have loved to do the traverse Via Ferrata on the way down but that was over 1000$!  Just for 2 days you can pay up to 600$, all dependent on what company you go through. I payed on the lower end but still thought costs were very high! I felt better knowing lodging, all meals and even the motorbike were included for me in my permit cost. Sure shows you that costs truly are high when all these other costs were included, given I stayed 4 nights with them. I even tried to pay for the extra nights I had before committing to climb Mt. Kinabalu and going through them because usually a night before and after is included in the permit process with them but I had 2 additional…any who I was happy. 

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu is very popular in the region and only 165 permits are given a day which is great to know they control the trail damage in this way. My group consisted of 3 guys from Singapore and the guide, this was my second time meeting Singaporeans who climb and when I later visited their country I saw why. Even if they only have a small island and few hills, Singapore was the most active nation I had visited on my whole trip, the whole country felt made for exercising and there were always tons of people doing sports everywhere! (Japan and Senegal were right up there too)

When finally with the permit we headed into the park, met our guide and began hiking…around 12:00 pm (noon). The first day is a relatively short hike to the base camp (6km) so I of course took advantage and went for a run in the morning. (yes, it was uphill ha ha) What I didn´t know was that this run likely prepared me for the hike in an unknown way…also interesting was that I met people hiking who actually saw me do the run that morning. The run was also a great plan because the early hour meant I happily got to see the mountain crisply and without clouds.

The summit hike on Mt. Kinabalu was overall quite challenging, especially on day 2. It was 2.75km up and after summiting you would do 8.75km all the way out of the park. Hikers were told to go in boots and with several layers. Of course I was unprepared but the hostel had clothes for their hikers to borrow…I think I grabbed gloves and a hat….meanwhile the guides used shoes called Kampong Adidas which were like plastic Asics Tigers or Crocs but local….no clue how they could use them hiking but they said they were perfect for tropical rain storms and had enough grip…they were fashionable and seen everywhere on the trails.

The base camp was very nice. There were a few lodges, mostly dorm rooms but privates were also possible though more expensive. The views, if the mountain allowed for it, were awesome from here! It was significantly much cooler at base camp, for obvious reasons, and dorm life was ok until 10:30 pm when a guide must have told a group to nap and wake up by then and get ready. Absolutely stupid and horrible because that meant they were awake talking and showering (cold water…brr) until 2 am when they finally went down to the mess hall for breakfast #1….meanwhile the normal people like those in my group tried to sleep until 2 am hoped out of bed and changed quickly (not skipping breakfast #1 of course). The goal was to start at 3 am and indeed we did…as well as all others.

The route up was mainly staircases until you arrived to the rock face and then it was obviously rocks…a flat inclined rock face detailed with white ropes placed to aid hikers trek up the mountain. All this then add the hefty climb in altitude…some 1000m (3,280ft) over 3 miles…ouch! I just kept hiking, passing a lot of people because I was taking fewer breaks as I went up and people let me pass. As I got higher I did slow and catch my breath…the higher up, more frequent. I enjoyed my breaks to looked down and see tiny lights fading off along the trail as it was still so dark. I was also glad I wasn´t stuck in line going up the mountain. It was single file with few areas to pass and a mix of all levels of hikers. In fact my group was down there somewhere with our guide. The day before I was with my group most of the day. One of the boys would usually keep my pace and we would stop and wait for the others along the way. There were not nearly as many hikers encountered the day before on the trail, likely due to the time we started…which was perfectly fine with me and it was very enjoyable to get to know my group.

The summit was straight up, all smooth rock face and ropes. I would huff and puff arriving to the end of each rope, stop, catch my breath, look down, warm my hands after grabbing the wet freezing rope and then continue. I kept doing this, didn´t see anyone close but knew one person was ahead of me. I kept pushing on to try and see them. As I turned and looked down the mountain at each break of the ropes in front of me I saw the lights of others climbing up like ants illuminating the forest but much farther away now. I was all alone, it was quiet and very peaceful. Then I turned and continued until the summit, the last 100m or so you had to scramble a bit. I arrived…still alone, I couldn´t believe it, there was no one ahead like I thought. I was the first of the day up to the top…not the first female but the very first person!

I got to enjoy the moment and take in the achievement for about 5 minutes in the dark before the next hiker arrived. We congratulated each other, took photos and continued to enjoy the time with the few of us awaiting sunrise and the arrival of others. Luckily it wasn´t very windy at the top so I wasn´t too cold. I wore just a light jacket actually in 3C degrees – some time later I did added the rain jacket. Once a steadier stream of hikers arrived we moved away from the summit and the now Instagramable fan fare. Turns out the hiker after me used to be a mountain guide at Mt. Rainier, my hometown mountain, and plenty of other mountains which made my achievement feel extra special.

Sunrise was actually stunning and completely made up for the originally thought high cost of hiking to the summit. I must have stayed 2 hour at the top, almost until the last of the hikers strangling through the check point and until cooler air set in forcing me down for warmth. You only had a specific window of opportunity to summit because the clouds come in early and conditions/visibility worsens. Heading down was quick and breakfast #2 was very welcoming. I did see my group at the top but really we re grouped at the mess hall :D.

Everyone in my group made it, but I did meet a few who didn´t make the cutoff time at the check point but they like all hikers were just as proud of the morning‘s achievement! With that sunrise it was hard to not be happy since it is never a guarantee being in nature. Others I met at the hostel did not get that clear window I did. It was really hit or miss.

Sunrise on the smooth rock face was great as the warmth of the sun took over, it uncovered all that was around us, the valley far below, the trail we took up, a crater no one saw until daylight and the steep and long shadows only morning light (evening as well) cast from each object in it´s path. The hues in the valley in the sky to compliment. Simply beautiful.

It took 2 hours to reach the summit of 4095m -13,435 ft (at my roadrunner speed lol), 1.5 hours to get back down to the base and finally 2 hours 40 all the way out…with breaks and a down pour on the last 1.5 hours (mountain trail total of 8.72 km). Everyone felt bad for those just starting up the trail. We actually stopped and tried to wait it out on the way down but realized after 40 minute that it was best to continue through the rain…there was less and less room at the halfway spot as hikers arrived from both directions seeking shelter under few covered areas. Oh and I believe the route up to the base was around 4 hours for the group, give or take.

Having completed climbing Mt. Kinabalu I highly recommend doing it. It is a unique climb, with quite a bit of scenery changes on the way up, well maintained paths and a nice challenge. All levels of hikers can do so, a bit of physical fitness definitely helps and obviously I recommend going through Jungle Jacks where I stayed…maybe just letting them know before arriving and not following my bad super spontaneous example. Their place is very comfy/cozy, friendly, peaceful, literally across from the park and food was delish. Oh and they have lovely dogs, while I was there they had puppies! If not at Jungle Jacks there are plenty of other options in the area worth staying a few days to enjoy this beautiful area if not to hike the mountain at least escape the heat in Kota Kinabalu (nearest city – Sabah side)…ha ha. I hope who ever goes gets to see the amazing sunrise and experience the trails of this lovely National Park on the fabulous Island of Borneo…


Blog on Brunei click here.

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