Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Borneo

Mount Kinabalu is the centrepiece of Kinabalu National Park, which lies two hours from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state. 4,095m at its summit, known as Low’s Peak, this is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago and one of the highest in Southeast Asia. As you ascend you’ll pass through several climactic zones and your guides will have you pace yourself to minimise the risk of altitude sickness.
Due to steep gradients inhospitable to forestry and farming, the mountain and its surroundings are enormously biodiverse. There are between 5,000 and 6,000 plant species in the area, including orchids and the carnivorous pitcher plant; to put that in perspective, that’s more than there are in Europe and most of North America, combined! Add to that some 320 species of bird and over 100 mammal species and you can understand why the mountain has been awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO.
Climbs begin at the national park headquarters, immersed in lowland tropical forest. There are numerous self guided trails around through the foothills, which less experienced walkers may prefer. And of course climbing Mount Kinabalu, whether you’re part of a small group tour or on a tailor made trip, can easily be combined with time in Kuala Lumpur, tours of Sabah or Sarawak, and seeing Borneo’s most famous residents, the orangutans.

What does climbing Mount Kinabalu entail?

The most important thing to note here is that although Mount Kinabalu is not a technically difficult climb – you won’t need any specialist mountaineering equipment – it wouldn’t be wise to underestimate the physical exertion necessary. It’s uphill all the way, with steep stone steps of varying sizes, and ropes for assistance at the summit. Practising some hill walking beforehand will come in very useful.

Only 130 climbers are allowed on the mountain every day, and you require a permit, which is another good reason to travel with a holiday company that will ensure this is arranged on your behalf. They will also take care of the mandatory accredited guide, often drawn from a local Dusun community, Sabah’s largest ethnic group. The Dusun believe that Mount Kinabalu is the sacred resting ground of their spiritual ancestors, and take great care that the mountain is respected.

Porters may be included in your package, or hired for a supplement, so that you can get by with a daypack, and you will certainly not regret the decision. It’s a four- to five-hour trek from the Timpohon Gate (where walks start) to Laban Rata (where most people stay the night before a sunrise attempt on the summit), after which you can spend the rest of the day acclimatising. Not having to carry a heavy pack will make that so much more enjoyable.

What to pack

It’s essential to pack warm layers, as temperatures range from 3°C to 12°C in the main climbing season between June and September. However, small group trips operate from March and finish in December, when it can get as low as - 4°C and there may be snow at the summit. Temperatures can plummet at night. Waterproof gloves are also recommended, and will come in handy for roped walkways. You will need a hat, sunscreen, a head torch for a sunrise climb, a waterproof jacket and definitely a good pair of walking shoes or boots. Energy snacks and earplugs are also worth packing.
Lastly, ensure you purchase travel insurance that includes this kind of activity, and it’s also advisable to speak with your tour operator beforehand to find out what alternative arrangements are available if you don’t feel like tackling the mountain on the day.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Mount Kinabalu or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Sunrise on Mount Kinabalu

Most climbers aim to catch the sunrise, which means staying overnight on the mountain at Laban Rata. You’ll sleep in a basic hut in bunk beds, sometimes in mixed-sex dorms. An early night is essential as you’ll be up at 3am, which is why bringing ear plugs is highly recommended.

The final ascent takes between two and four hours. You will be walking in the chill early morning darkness, and since the path is narrow in places and there may be many people ahead of you, bottlenecks are likely. As well as helping with the cold, gloves will be useful here to prevent rope burn.
Once you get to the summit, you may be waiting for some time for the sunrise, and it can get exceptionally cold up there, but any discomfort will be worth it for the stunning panoramas you will eventually be rewarded with, the Bornean jungles in one direction, the glistening South China Sea in the other. You’ll have time to snap a few photos – expect to queue for the best angles – before heading back down pretty much straightaway, as this day can involve up to 11 hours of walking.
Many people consider the descent to be the most arduous part of climbing Mount Kinabalu, as fatigue and stiff muscles begin to set in. For this reason you might want to consider an itinerary that takes you straightaway to soak your muscles in the sulphurous Poring hot springs, or back to Kota Kinabalu where you can take a speedboat out to an offshore eco-resort, and relax on the beach. But wherever you pitch up afterwards, the sense of achievement will be amazing.
The sense of achievement on returning made the pain of it all pale to insignificance
– Edell Morrow
“Pack really warm clothes for the mountain (thermal underwear is a must), make sure you've done some hill walking before you go, be prepared for really basic accommodation, take a sleeping sheet with you.” – Caroline Stone in a review of our Borneo and Malaysia holiday

“The highlight of the trip was climbing the mountain. It was a tough climb but was well worth it to see the beautiful sunrise, not to mention the spectacular scenery every step of the way. The sense of achievement on returning made the pain of it all pale to insignificance.” – Edell Morrow in a review of our Sabah holiday
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Travelmate Holidays Sdn. Bhd.] [Topbox: Mahosadha Ong] [What to pack: Travelmate Holidays Sdn. Bhd] [Sunset: algenta101] [Edell Morrow review: Chris Wary]