Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo in South East Asia is an awesome mountain towering over the surrounding jungles at a height of 4,095m. It sits within the Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is home to a myriad of botanical and biological species covering a number of distinct eco-regions from the lower semi-tropical jungle up to alpine environment close to the summit. Having climbed some of the Mesilau Trail earlier this year I finally decided it was time to attempt the summit so at the end of October, and luckily coinciding with a full moon, myself and a few others travelled to Kota Kinabalu for the 2 day climb.
To climb Mount Kinabalu there are two trails you can take; either the Timpohon Trail from the main park Head Quarters or the Mesilau Trail which is somewhat longer at 8km. The Timpohon Trail which runs from the Kinabalu Park Head Quarters up to Laban Rata resthouse is 6km long, which doesn’t sound long but the gradients are steep (from 1,564m at park HQ to 3,272m at Laban Rata) and the terrain extremely rough and rocky making it a tough climb in around 5 hours or more.
Our base for the climb was Magic Mountain, where I had stayed on my previous trip to the area. Run by Peter Achleitner and his wife Lily this guesthouse close to the park HQ, under the east ridge of Mount Kinabalu, offered comfortable rooms and more importantly some great home cooking including home baked bread, cured ham and bacon, salami and locally grown herbs and spices. A great way indeed to prepare for our climb and of course to rejuvenate our bodies post-climb. Peter is a great source of local information and offered us plenty of excellent advice and recommendations for our stay. He also keeps a good collection of wine and some excellent German beer which was greatly appreciated on our return after the 2 days up the mountain.
We decided to take the shorter Timpohon Trail route (a wise decision in retrospect!) and after arriving at the park HQ, where we registered, were transferred to Timpohon Gate to start our climb at around 9:30 in the morning. As you climb on Day 1 towards the Laban Rata resthouse at 3,272m you pass through varying types of vegetation from large tropical trees at the lowers levels to small shrub-like trees and alpine plants at the higher elevations. In many places you are walking through mist and clouds.
Laban Rata is the main accommodation hut on Mount Kinabalu at a height of 3,272m and is the usual overnight stop used by climbers prior to doing the final ascent to the Low’s Peak summit. There are a number of private rooms but the bulk of the accommodation comprises 6-man dormitory bunk rooms. A restaurant offers breakfast, dinner and supper. Due to cable damage, apparently back in 2009, the dormitory rooms are unheated and there is no hot water but luckily we had clear weather for our climb so arrived at Laban Rata dry. We arrived at around 3pm in the afternoon after the 6km up from the Park HQ in time for an early dinner at 5:30pm, in bed by 7:30pm and then up by 2:00am the next morning to make the final push on the summit.
From Laban Rata resthouse to the summit of Low’s peak, the highest point of Mount Kinabalu, is a steep trail of 2.7km rising a total height of 823m. Leaving Laban Rata at 2:30am in the morning, after a few hours of rest in a 6-man dormitory, the first portion of the final summit trail consisted of hundreds of steep steps rising up through the last of the vegetation. Moving up using just the small beam from your headlight and trying to suck in the thin air as you struggled with the gradients is a tough experience. We were lucky that it was a full moon which illuminated the whole mountain creating a surreal experience. Soon we reached a steep granite rock slope where we then had to use ropes to assist us climbing up till we reached the final rest hut, Sayat Sayat, at 3,668m. From here to the summit was a steady steep slope over the large granite slabs of rock. I struggled with this last section as by now altitude sickness was causing me to gasp for breath and required frequent stops to regain my breath and get the heart rate down. Just after dawn at 5:50am I completed the last steep scramble up the rocky peak and reached the summit for a magnificent view over the other mountain peaks of Kinabalu and down to the coastline of north Borneo where we could see the lights of Kota Kinabalu and the sea.
Low’s Peak Summit
As you sit on the summit you see the other peaks of the mountain including, Alexandra Peak, St John’s Peak, South Peak, Donkey Ears Peak, Ugly Sister Peak, King Edward Peak and Tunku Abdul Rahman Peak. Just to one side of the summit is the heart wrenching sheer drop down Low’s Gully which is an 1,800m deep gorge on the north side of the mountain, one of the least explored and most inhospitable places on earth. In 1994 two British Army officers were severely criticised after having led a party of 10 adventurers that required extensive rescue efforts from both the RAF and the Malaysian army. Five members of the party were trapped for 16 days and did not eat for five days before being rescued. The breakaway party of five successfully completed the world’s first descent of the gully in three days.
Low’s Peak to Laban Rata The euphoria of reaching the summit was soon dampened by the thought that I had now to climb down that day all the way to the park HQ. So after only 15 minutes or so at the summit I started the laborious and difficult way down initially to Laban Rata for breakfast prior to the gruelling 6km down to the park HQ. Going down was difficult given the steep slopes and the need to be ultra careful. One slip or mistake could be dangerous; the last thing you needed was a silly ankle strain or worse at this height. Going down I had the opportunity now to see and photograph the magnificent mountain peaks which we could now see clearly in the early morning light. We reached Laban Rata at around 7:45am and by then my legs were shaking and feeling like jelly.
Laban Rata to Park HQ After a good breakfast and a rest it was time to make our way down the long 6km to the park HQ, again being ultra careful about our footing as the large boulders and sharp rocks could have caused a nasty injury had we fallen. Again we passed through a great deal of cloud and mist which helped to cool us. One of the strange sights I saw was the cloud and mist hitting the small stunted trees and then condensing on the leaves causing rain to fall – on one occasion I saw a tree in the middle of the trail and it was raining just under the train as you passed – amazing! We eventually reached the park HQ at just after 2pm in the afternoon – we had been walking now for around 12 hours since the early start at 2:30 am. Probably the hardest bit for me was the last 50m as this was an uphill section to reach the Timpohon Gate and by that time I had reached “The Wall”. However it was a great feeling to complete this climb and after some lunch and a much needed (and expensive!) beer I was feeling good again. We collected our certificates and then headed back to rest prior to our return to KL. To put this climb into perspective a notice at the end of the trail highlighted the record times for the annual mountain race up Mount Kinabalu …. I still cannot believe how it can be done in this time!
One of the most amazing things we saw during our 2 day climb was observing the many porters transporting goods up and down the mountain. Everything needed up at the Laban Rata rest house at 3,272m on Mount Kinabalu needs to be transported up the mountain using the local Dusun porters; food, drinks, dried goods, cooking materials, plumbing materials, water tanks, electrical equipment, bedding, linens, etc. These local porters are a wonder to see as they slowly but surely pass you with their heavy loads carried on a simple wooden backplate with string shoulder straps and head strap,as you struggle up (or down) the slope. There are even women porters who are incredibly strong and some of the loads these porters carry can be 30 – 50kg or more. One amazing sight I saw on our descent from the mountain was being passed by a porter carrying a small Asian lady down the mountain who obviously had made it up but could not make the descent. The cost of this is service is apparently around RM300 per km. It crossed my mind at the time that perhaps I should have considered that!