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.