Sabah holds no more impressive sight than Gunung Kinabalu (Mount Kinabalu), 85km northeast of KK and plainly visible from the west coast. Revered as “aki nabalu” (home of the spirits of the dead) by the Kadazan/Dusun, it’s 4095m high and dominates the 750 square kilometres of KINABALU NATIONAL PARK, a World Heritage Site renowned for its ecology, flora and geology. Although there are other hikes within the park, the prospect of reaching the summit fires the imagination of Malaysian and foreign tourists alike.
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Preparing to climb Gunung Kinabulu
Preparing to climb Gunung Kinabulu
Climbing the mountain has become a must-do in Borneo itineraries. For the thousands of people who come here annually to haul themselves up, the process is made easier by a well-defined, 8.5-kilometre-long path that weaves up through jungle on the southern side to the bare granite of the summit.
Despite its popularity, it’s a very tough trek and not to be undertaken lightly. Even given perfect weather conditions, there’s a remorseless, freezing, final pre-dawn ascent to contend with and it’s quite possible to suffer from altitude sickness and not get to the top. Bad weather can also scupper an ascent, or at least make it a pretty miserable experience.
Don’t undertake the challenge unless you are fully prepared with suitable clothing and in good general health. If you suffer from vertigo then you shouldn’t have a problem on the route up to Laban Rata (where there’s foliage to hide any drops), or even for the summit ascent (since it’s in the dark), but the way down from the summit may cause you problems.
If you want to do the climb in just one day – an option only available from tour operators based in KK – then you can substantially cut costs. This does, however, mean an exceptionally long and tiring day on the mountain, while the view from the top will almost certainly be obscured by clouds by the time you get there. Getting a permit for a day-trip can also be difficult. All in all, it isn’t really worth it.
For the vast majority of visitors, therefore, ascending and descending Gunung Kinabalu takes two days. The standard route begins at the park HQ, two hours from KK and 1588m up. It’s possible to arrive on the morning of the climb, but spending the previous night in the area is a good idea; it gives time to acclimatize and means you can make an earlier start in the morning. Climbers then have to spend a night two-thirds of the way up the mountain in huts at Laban Rata, allowing for a final dawn ascent.
The accommodation on the mountain is often booked up long in advance, although tour operators in KK may be able to offer a package at short notice for an additional fee; you can also call direct in the hope of a cancellation. Avoid booking packages with overseas tour operators, which can work out a lot more expensive.
What to bring
Essential items to carry with you include a torch (preferably a headlamp), headache tablets, suntan lotion, energy boosters (such as nuts, fruit and muesli bars), and a water bottle (there’s unfiltered but drinkable water along the trail). Wear waterproof shoes or hiking boots with a good tread, and bring a few layers of warm clothing for the summit; the Laban Rata resthouse has a few jackets for rent, but you need to call ahead to reserve one. Most guides do not carry first-aid kits, so it’s best to bring your own.
The morning of the climb
Get to the park HQ as early as possible: the last group usually sets off by 11am, but ideally you should be here by 9am, in order to reach Laban Rata before the hot water runs out in the showers. Call in at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges reception to confirm your place at Laban Rata, then go next door to the Sabah Parks office to pay the various fees.
Besides the climbing permit, conservation fee and insurance, you must pay for a guide. All those charges are mandatory; some climbers also opt to pay for a porter (maximum load 10kg). If you’re alone, ask whether you can join another group for company and to save on the guide fee. Lockers and a safe room are available at the HQ to deposit valuables or even your pack.
Gunung Kinabulu: the climb
Gunung Kinabulu: the climb
Conquering Gunung Kinabalu today is far easier than it was in 1858, when Spenser St John, British consul-general to the native states of Borneo, found his progress blocked by Kadazan “shaking their spears and giving us other hostile signs”. Hugh Low, then British colonial secretary on Pulau Labuan, had made the first recorded ascent of the mountain seven years earlier, though he baulked at climbing its highest peak, considering it “inaccessible to any but winged animals”. The peak – subsequently named after Low – was finally conquered in 1888 by John Whitehead.
Here we detail the Timpohon trail to the top as it is by far the most popular, although a longer and quieter route up, the Mesilau trail, starts 17km east of the park HQ, and offers a greater chance of spotting wildlife.
The first day
The summit route begins with an optional but time-saving minibus ride (25min; RM16.50/vehicle) to the start of the Timpohon trail. The day’s climb to the mountain huts at Laban Rata takes between five and seven hours, depending on your fitness and trail conditions. Roots and stones along the trail serve as steps, with wooden “ladders” laid up the muddier stretches. There are regular rest shelters with toilets along the path.
To Layang Layang
The air gets progressively cooler as you climb, but the walk is still hard and sweaty, and you’ll be glad of the water tanks and rest point at Layang Layang (2621m), three hours into the climb. Around this point, if the weather is kind, incredible views of the hills, sea and clouds start to unfold below you.
To Laban Rata
At just above 3000m, a detour to the left brings hikers to Pondok Paka, a large overhanging rock that was the site of overnight camps on early expeditions. It’s a further 6km to Laban Rata, which lies at 3272m. The final 2km, dominated by large boulders and steep slippery rock surfaces, are demanding even for the fittest, particularly considering the lower oxygen levels. The rewards are the view of the mighty granite slopes of the Panar Laban rock face, plus the promise of reaching your accommodation.
The second day
Most climbers get up at 2.30am for the final ascent, although those who are particularly fit might leave slightly later to avoid getting to the summit too long before sunrise.
To the summit
The trail crosses the sheer Panar Laban rock face, past the Sayat Sayat hut and onwards to the summit at Low’s Peak. Although ropes, handrails and wooden steps help in places, it’s a stiff climb at the very least. You’ll also be doing it in pitch darkness so headlamps are an advantage and a powerful torch a must. Climbers should also be aware of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
After the final push, the beautiful spectacle of sunrise at Low’s Peak will rob you of any remaining breath. Remember that it’ll be bitingly cold, so bring very warm clothing for that brief photo stop at the summit.
Descending from the mountain
After all that toil, it’s back to Laban Rata for a hearty breakfast – prepare to be shocked when you see the sharp drops along the trail, which were not visible in the dark. Then it’s time to head back down to park HQ, which usually takes three to five hours. As your leg muscles ache from the relentless downhill trudge – which is likely to get worse the next day – take a moment to reflect on the fact that the record time for the annual Kinabalu Climbathon is just over two and a half hours. That’s up and down.
Kinabalu flora and fauna
Kinabalu flora and fauna
If you dash headlong up and down Gunung Kinabalu and then depart, as many visitors do, you’ll miss out on many of the national park’s riches. Its diverse terrains have spawned an incredible variety of plants and animals, and you are far more likely to appreciate them by walking some of the lower trails (see Around the park headquarters) at a leisurely pace.
Around a third of the park’s area is covered by lowland dipterocarp forest, characterized by massive, buttressed trees and allowing only sparse growth at ground level. The world’s largest flower, the parasitic – and elusive – Rafflesia, occasionally blooms in the lowland forest. Between 900m and 1800m, you’ll come across the oaks, chestnuts, ferns and mosses (including the Dawsonia – the world’s tallest moss) of the montane forest.
Higher up (1800–2600m), the cloudforest supports a huge range of flowering plants: around a thousand orchids and 26 varieties of rhododendron have been identified, including Low’s rhododendron with its enormous yellow flowers. The hanging lichen that drapes across branches of stunted trees lends a magical feel to the landscape at this height. It’s at this altitude, too, that you’re most likely to see the park’s most famous plants – its nine species of insectivorous pitcher plants (Nepenthes) whose cups secrete a nectar that first attracts insects and then drowns them, as they are unable to escape up the slippery sides of the pitcher.
Higher still, above 2600m, only the most tenacious plantlife can survive – like the agonizingly gnarled sayat-sayat tree, and the heath rhododendron found only on Mount Kinabalu – while beyond 3300m, soil gives way to granite. Here, grasses, sedges and the elegant blooms of Low’s buttercup are all that flourish.
Although orang-utans, Bornean gibbons and tarsiers are among mammals that dwell in the park, you’re unlikely to see anything more exotic than squirrels, rats and tree shrews, or conceivably a mouse deer or a bearded pig if you’re lucky. The higher reaches of Gunung Kinabalu boast two types of birds seen nowhere else in the world – the Kinabalu friendly warbler and Kinabalu mountain blackbird. Lower down, look out for hornbills and eagles, as well as the Malaysian tree pie, identifiable by its foot-long tail. You’re bound to see plenty of insects: butterflies and moths flit through the trees, while the forest floor is home to creatures like the trilobite beetle, whose orange-and-black armour-plating lends it a fearsome aspect.
If merely walking up to the summit isn’t enough of a challenge, then Asia’s first via ferrata – pathways of rungs, ropes, rails and planks running along sheer cliffsides – may provide the adrenaline rush you are looking for. It’s exhilarating stuff with some incredible views, yet it’s safe because you’re always clipped onto something. Of the two routes, one is suitable for anyone over ten years old, the other has a minimum age of seventeen.
Located close to Laban Rata, the Mountain Torq centre also runs climbing and abseiling courses. Participants can arrange to stay at the Pendant Hut instead of at Laban Rata.