In late September last year, I spent two weeks travelling around Borneo with my family. One of the first places we visited was Kinabalu Park where my brother and I went climbing Mount Kinabalu. We spent two days getting to the summit and despite being the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it became one of my absolute best travel experiences.
With its 4095 metres, Mount Kinabalu is one of South East Asia’s tallest mountains. It’s part of the mountain range Crocker Range situated in Kinabalu Park and is by far the national park’s biggest attraction. Each year, thousands of people climb to the summit and on a partly cloudy and warm September day, it was our turn. We went on a two days/one night tour with Mount Kinabalu’s official tour operator – their most popular option.
Before the climb
Climbing Mount Kinabalu is challenging, and the mountain guides and staff care a lot about you and your safety. Thus, you need to register and fill out personal and health information at the Kinabalu Park’s headquarter before you’re allowed to enter the mountain. At the headquarter, you will also meet your mountain guide who will assist you on your way to the summit.
At 8 am on day one, we signed up for registration and met our mountain guide. Prior to the climb, we had tried to figure out what would be smart to bring on the mountain and despite the poles, ski gloves and head torches that we had received the night before, we looked very amateurish compared to most other people we met at the headquarter. They were wearing warm clothes and professional hiking gear that my brother and I subsequently agreed would have been nice to bring.
The beginning of the climb
After the registration, we went into a minibus and drove to the official entrance, the Timpohon Gate. From there we started the ascent to the summit of Mount Kinabalu with a single night at Panalaban Base Camp to look forward to first. Panalaban Base Camp is located six kilometres from the Timpohon Gate, which don’t sound like much. But with its location approximately 1500 metres higher up, you don’t need a fine degree in math to understand that the hike is very uphill.
In the beginning, you walk through a tropical rainforest and pass a little waterfall and several nice viewpoints. It’s not very steep but it’s important to take it slowly anyway and take lots of water breaks to avoid dehydration and early exhaustion.
As you move higher and higher up, both the trails and the nature around you change. During the first two kilometres, the trails are a combination of dirt trails and stairs, but they slowly evolve into rocky trails and steeper and more challenging stairs that continue all the way to base camp. The nature changes from tropical forest in the beginning to a more rarely flora with several plants being unique for this area.
After the first two kilometres, we experienced that our legs began to get sore and we were getting a little exhausted. We managed to keep a fine pace anyway but were overtaken by several porters that time after time fascinated us. The porters, both men and women, young and old, carried heavy building material like tiles and steel bars and cumbersome containers of water, watermelons and even eggs etc. to supply the base camp.
After around 4,5 hours of hiking, we finally reached the Panalaban Base Camp.
Staying at base camp
The Panalaban Base Camp is made up of a few houses, and we checked in at Laban Rata Guesthouse where we had booked a night at one of their two private rooms – the rest of the rooms are dorm rooms.
Afterwards, we went for lunch at the Laban Rata Restaurant. At present, it’s the only restaurant at base camp and thus, everyone meets and spends time there. My brother and I sat there for a couple of hours and played cards and relaxed.
In the late afternoon, dinner was served and after that, we went to our room to get some sleep.
The last part of the climb
On day two, you will wake up at around 2 am so that you’ve time to get ready and have breakfast before you start the last part of the climb at around 2.30 am. The reason for the early start is for you to reach the summit of Mount Kinabalu in time for sunrise.
We were informed that the first out of the last three kilometres would be the hardest one – hundreds of steep steps and sometimes some rope to pull yourself up if the mountain was too steep to make stairs. In addition, you walk in complete darkness with the light from the head torches being the only light. Safe to say that this part isn’t very pleasant. And because it was raining a bit during the first hours of the night, we also had to be aware of the slippery surface, making it even more unpleasant.
However, we managed to move uphill slowly, but the higher up we got, the harder it was to breathe. The air was really thin, and we were aware of altitude sickness that can occur at these heights – typically above 2400 metres. The day before, we had met a few people descending the mountain that told us they didn’t make it because they felt sick. Both my brother and I felt a little dizzy but otherwise, we were fine, and we continued.
At 5.45 am, the clouds that had been on the sky for the whole time started to disappear, and the sun was about to rise.
Standing on top of Mount Kinabalu
At 6 am, we reached Low’s Peak – the summit of Mount Kinabalu 4095,2 metres above sea level just in time for sunrise. Let me just say that it was absolutely magical!
Everywhere you look there is a new and stunning mountain view. We took some time to enjoy it but were affected by the freezing winds that we definitely weren’t dressed for – my brother was wearing shorts… Despite the cold, we managed to quickly take off our gloves and take lots of photos.
We spent around thirty minutes on the summit and even though it was awfully hard to reach Low’s Peak, it was totally worth it. The feeling can’t be explained but has to be experienced – magical is probably the best way of describing it.
The long journey back
The downside of climbing every mountain is that you’ve to walk down again when you’ve reached the summit. And despite being challenged during the ascent, the descent became the hardest part for me.
However, the first part to base camp went fine. And both my brother and I found it interesting to see the landscape that we had no clue about when walking uphill in complete darkness. We were quite amazed by how steep some parts of the mountain were.
It takes around 1,5 hours to walk downhill to the base camp – the same distance that takes approximately 3,5 hours to walk uphill. When you reach base camp, you will get something to eat and have some time to relax before it’s time for you to walk the last part to the finish line.
The last six kilometres from Panalaban Base Camp to Timpohon Gate weren’t easy for me. On the first part of the descent, my shoes felt too small and my feet started hurting. Despite the short rest at base camp, the pain was instantly back the moment I put on my running shoes. And for every step I took during the descent, it got worse.
I quickly realised that this part would be the hardest for me, but there was no way around – I had to get down. To relieve the pain, I tried to walk on the outside of my feet and despite helping, it eventually made my hips hurt. When there were three kilometres left, it got so bad that I had to use the poles as crutches. Things didn’t get any better when it started pouring, as it can only pour in a rainforest…
Reaching the finish line
At around 2 pm, we finally reached the finish line at Timpohon Gate completely soaked, relieved and exhausted.
It was a surreal feeling to reach the finish line. I was so happy and proud of myself for having done what I just did and giving myself the amazing experience of climbing Mount Kinabalu. At the same time, I was so exhausted and affected by the pain in my hips and my feet that I swore I would never climb a mountain again.
I’ve later changed my mind. I believe that climbing Mount Kinabalu is totally worth the struggle and if you’re keen on a great adventure, I think you should climb the majestic mountain. Make sure to be prepared and bring the right gear, appropriate clothing and not least shoes that are big enough though.
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