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.