My Mt Kinabalu Experience – Climbing South East Asia’s Highest Mountain
Updated: Nov 4, 2018
At 4,094m tall (just under half the height of Everest), South East Asia's highest mountain Mt Kinabalu stands prominently in the region of Sabah on the island of Borneo around 80 km east of the capital Kota Kinabalu. I attempted the overnight trek to the Low's Peak summit in July last year. A crazy combination of bad weather, altitude sickness and an insanely quick, steep climb made the experience one I'll never forget.
During my time in Borneo I joined this 11-day Geckos Adventures tour. National Park regulations mandate that all Mt Kinabalu climbers be accompanied by a registered guide and only 135 climb permits are issued per day so it made sense to join a tour that incorporated the Mt Kinabalu climb in order to secure a permit and a guide.
The trek runs as a 2-day, 1-night climb where climbers take the first day to trek 6km to an overnight resthouse at 3,272m and then begin the climb to the summit at 2:30am the next morning with the goal of watching the sunrise from the summit before climbing all the way down again.
Prior to beginning the climb, our group stayed overnight in accommodation at the Mt Kinabalu National Park headquarters. The next morning we began our climb at the Timpohon Gate, at an altitude of 1,866 metres. The trek was uphill all the way and navigating the uneven stairs while passing descending hikers took a lot of energy. Unfortunately, the weather wasn't on our side either. It was drizzly and cold but we were able to take frequent rest stops at each kilometre marker
While the distance to Laban Rata resthouse from the Timpohon Gate is only 6km, it is a gain of1,400m in altitude which is a very significant amount for such a short period of time!
Passing returning hikers at the beginning of the climb
The whole way porters (who sometimes carry more than 35 kilograms of supplies on their backs back and forth several times a day) were continually passing us as they brought supplies to/from the resthouse - there was even one carrying a massive steel beam up the mountain!
The last section of the climb to Laban Rata was definitely the hardest. As we progressed higher the landscape changed dramatically. The jungle and small rocky stairs gave way to exposed rock and large boulders. The higher we climbed, the more aware I was of the effect of the increasing altitude. It got harder and harder to breathe and I developed a throbbing headache. On the last kilometre it got to the stage where we would climb ten steps, then stop to catch our breath, then ten steps, then stop, as we slowly progressed to Laban Rata.
A brief moment of good weather towards the end of the first day
After around 6 hours (and many stops) we reached Laban Rata Resthouse at an altitude of 3,272m! We had accommodation at Laban Rata for the night and would begin the summit attack at 2:30am the next morning in order to reach the top by sunrise (as by mid-morning cloud cover obscures the summit views). Luckily there was a pretty decent buffet dinner waiting for us and a bed to get some well deserved rest.
Before we went to bed we were briefed on what would happen the next morning for the summit attempt. Our guide warned us that heavy rain or strong winds may close the summit access and if the weather was deemed too bad at 2:00am we wouldn't be allowed to summit.
Reaching the goal of day 1: Laban Rata resthouse
Our group at Laban Rata Resthouse, 3,272m
I could really notice the effect of the gain in altitude. I had a headache and when I walked to the toilet, just down the hall or even when I rolled over in bed I would have to pause, and concentrate on my breathing to catch my breath. I barely got any sleep at the resthouse (also an effect of the altitude). Outside I could hear the rain absolutely bucketing down and I lay awake for most of the night hoping it would let up so we could at least attempt the summit.
3:00am in the morning, preparing for our summit attempt
At 3:00am we were given the all clear to be able to start our summit attempt. There were a few from our group who weren't even able to attempt the summit as they were feeling so altitude sick.
Our group slowly trudged up the stairs one-by-one - every step higher required more energy than the last. We climbed for what seemed like forever. Everyone was feeling the effects of the altitude. A couple of people vomited and we were stopping every couple of minutes to catch our breath. The higher we climbed, the more the wind picked up and the rain got heavier. Surprisingly, on the side of the mountain at 3,500m above sea level in the pouring rain and raging winds my $5 Target rain jacket didn't hold up very well and I was soaked and absolutely freezing!
When we reached 3,500m our guide told us that we would have to turn back. The checkpoint gate before the summit had closed - it would be too dangerous for us to continue climbing up the open rock face and have climbers returning from the summit trying to climb down at the same time. It was disappointing as I was determined to get to the summit, no matter how horrible I felt but it was clear that in this weather there wouldn't be a sunrise and the conditions would be increasingly dangerous the higher we climbed.
So, we were forced to return to Laban Rata for a buffet breakfast and begun our descent down the mountain mid-morning.
Our group on our descent down the mountain
Descending down the mountain
The descent was much easier, although tough on my knees, and we made it to the bottom in less than 3 hours.
The sign at the end of the climb
Although not making it to the summit is something that will always bug me, my experience climbing Mt Kinabalu was unforgettable and I really enjoyed the challenge. The challenge of climbing at high altitudes was something I'd never experienced before and I was really proud of myself for pushing myself to my limits and getting as close as possible to the summit.
I'm thinking Mt Kilimanjaro should be the next challenge!...