What: Mt. Kinabalu is Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. It contains 5,000-6,000 plant species, 326 bird species and 100+ mammals, making it one of the most important biological sites in the world. More info can be found here at Sabah Park’s Mt. Kinabalu page if you’re interested in learning more.
Where: Mt. Kinabalu is located in Malaysia. Before researching Malaysia a bit, I didn’t realize Malaysia is split into two regions: 1) Peninsular Malaysia, connected to Thailand and where Kuala Lumpur is located, and 2) Eastern Malaysia, which is on the huge island of Borneo and is also shared with Brunei and a part of Indonesia.
Elevation: The peak of Mt. Kinabalu rises an impressive 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) above sea level. This makes it the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea.
Get There: Elicia and I had 9 days in Malaysia, and our itinerary looked like this: Arrive: Kota Kinabalu, Sabah for 2D > Kinabalu Park 2-3D > Sandakan 2-3D > Kuala Lumpur 1-2D and fly back to Yeosu, Korea. Along the way we’d scuba dive, island-hop to check out beaches, climb Mt. Kinabalu, hang with orangutans, cruise the famous Kinabatangan River for tropical wildlife, and take in Kuala Lumpur. We didn’t have a concrete plan to follow; instead, we allowed flexibility in our schedule with little to no reservations for anything. This enabled us to research as we went and find the *best* places and things to do along the way! Be sure to check out Elicia’s amazing blog check out all we did in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur (KL).
We had a great flying experience with AirAsia. They are Asia’s premier discount airline and have been recognized as the best of the ‘cheap guys’ five years in a row. They have several flights into KL, within Malaysia, and beyond. And they are CHEAP. Sure, there’s no complimentary beverages, rent-a-blanket for $3, and maybe an inch or two less leg room, but these are commodities we’re able to forget about when we look at how much $ we saved on airfare.
From Kota Kinabalu (KK), we took a taxi at 5:00pm for 75 MYR ($25 USD) and arrived at Kinabalu Park by 7:00pm on Sunday night. We would have preferred to take a bus headed towards Sandakan, and it probably would have been cheaper, but we missed the last bus so taking a taxi was the only option left that late in the day. I think we scored a great deal, as we found out typical taxi fares to Kinabalu Park from KK are usually 100-150 MYR ($33 -$50 USD) for the two hour journey. Taxi fares, along with many other things in Malaysia, have negotiable prices so be on the lookout and don’t be afraid to ask for the best price or haggle a bit (within reason). Therefore, I’d suggest sharing a taxi with others, or leave KK early enough to ride a large, comfy bus.
Staying There: Once you leave Kota Kinabalu, you’re out in the wilderness/sticks/boonies. Thankfully, there are a handful of places to stay within walking distance of Kinabalu Park. Sure, you could stay within the park by booking with Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (SSL) but we found the prices to be a bit outrageous. Instead, through research, we stumbled upon Kinabalu Moutain Lodge and booked two nights there. We were pleased to discover that the lodge was a large wooden sanctuary nestled beneath Mt. Kinabalu, deep in the jungle. Rooms were nice-sized, 90 MYR per night for private room ($30 USD), warm showers, free breakfast/coffee, and delicious dinner upon pre-ordering for a very reasonable price. There wasn’t wi-fi and we didn’t have a breathtaking view of the mountain, but the kitchen/lounge and deck are quite nice, the on-site staff are helpful. Overall this place exceeded my expectations and I’d highly recommend it before and/or after you hike Mt. Kinabalu. Best of all, it’s located 1.5Km west of the Kinabalu Park entrance, allowing us the opportunity to walk to and from the park in approximately 20 min.
Hiking Highlights: Elicia and I broke the mold and hiked Mt. Kinablu in one day instead of the typical 2D/1N pilgrimmage hikers take, stopping 2/3 the way up at the popular (and expensive) Laban Rata for a short rest before summiting pre-sunrise in hopes of getting cloud-free views from the chilly summit. We wanted to hike Kinabalu in one day to save time and money (hiking accomodations through tour groups are really expensive and waiting at the pre-dawn summit with 100+ other people for a few hours for the sun to rise wasn’t necessarily our cup of tea). Furthermore, we found traces of evidence on blogs that suggested it is possible to hike in one day. There’s pro’s and cons to each strategy, but the reality was that the Laban Rata accomodation was all booked up for our available dates 2-3 months ago, so that made our choice pretty easy: Mt. Kinabalu in one day, please! Yes, hiking Mt. Kinabalu in one day is possible, and I highlight the dirty details and a few tips how to arrange and complete the hike in one day in a follow-up post, located here.
The alarm went off Tuesday at 5:30am, it was dark and cold (yes, cold!) outside, and our bags were 90% packed for the day. We were checking out of Kinabalu Mt. Lodge, so our items needed for climbing were in Elicia’s backpack and everything else was stuffed into mine, which we’d keep at the Park HQ while we hiked. After all, we were looking at a 17.6 Km, 8-10 hour hike with an eleveation gain of 2200+ meters. No extra weight was allowed in the backpack I’d be sherpa-ing up the mountain, but we brought plenty of snacks, water, two ‘to-go’ lunches from the restaurant across from Park HQ, and extra layers as we heard it’d be cold near the top.
We arrived at Park HQ at 7:05am after picking up our ‘to-go’ lunches. As previously mentioned, we stayed at Kinabalu Mt. Lodge which is about 1.5Km away, so walking took some time. Upon arrival at HQ, we filled out all the necessary paperwork for permits and insurance the day before, Monday, but after an anxious five minute search, the kind desk workers couldn’t locate our paperwork and badges which should have been ready. Argh. So, we quickly scribbled our info again, were issued our badges and assigned a guide, which is mandatory for every group of climbers. We then dropped off my backback full of non-hiking essentials and arranged a round-trip shuttle up the 5.5Km road to start at Timpohon Gate (1,866m), the spot where nearly every hiker begins his/her trek up the steep 8.8Km trail to the top. We shared the shuttle with a particularly fit gentleman from Japan and his guide. We were the only two groups climbing Kinabalu today in one day.
We were in a bit of a time-crunch and anxious to start because the cutoff to arrive at Laban Rata is 12:00pm and the summit is 1:00pm. Anything later and the weather becomes sketchy, so you’re not allowed to continue, no questions asked. Our guide Johny told us that we’d have to sustain a good clip up to Laban Rata to make it in 3 hours or less if we wanted a shot at the summit. I trusted his expertise, especially after he told us he’s been to the summit 800+ times!! Nearly all of these were 2-day trips though, with the overnight at Laban Rata. Today would be different. Johny, Elicia and I were (fingers crossed) going to reach the summit and come back down all in one day. With all the rain this area gets, we prayed for clear skies and for the rain to stay away, as today would be our only chance to climb Mt. Kinabalu. Yesterday, it poured rain much of the morning, leaving much doubt in mind that we’d stay dry today while we hiked.
We left Timpohon Gate at precisely 7:40am. Could we have started any earlier? Not really. We would have liked to begin at 5am or 6am to give us a bit of a time cushion, but the Park HQ opens at 7:00am and they won’t let you start any earlier. The 5.5Km shuttle ride to Timpohon gate takes time, so the best you can do is have the paperwork filled out ahead of time (and have it not get lost) and get the first possible shuttle as close to 7:00am as possible. BUT, we were now on the trail at 7:40am and we were happy. Happy, a bit nervous, anxious, and excited, that is. Maybe even a little scared. The mountain was huge, and I know from experience that at 10,000+ feet and higher, the air gets thin and I slow down considerably. This summit was at 4,095m (13,345 ft) and the last time Elicia and I were at any decent elevation is when we climbed Mt. Hallasan in Jeju in June, and that was a mere 1950m, the highest point in South Korea. A quiet mood of determination set in as we started tackling the trail at a sustainable, brisk pace.
The first couple of Km’s went smooth and were relatively uneventful. Maybe 20-30 steps were flat, the rest were pretty much straight up-hill, just like in Korea. Elicia led the way, I chased her, and Johny stayed 10-20 meters behind us, which I assumed to either give us some privacy or to psychologically make us think we were going fast, like we were leaving him in the dust. Either way, few words were spoken between Elicia and I as we were conserving all our energy for the challenging task ahead. It felt like we were making good time. I purposefully did NOT wear my watch. I wanted to keep my eyes on the trail and the prize, not my time-teller on my wrist. After all, this was vacation and I wanted to enjoy it, not get caught up in the time or worry about pace, etc. like it’s easy to do in a race like Ironman.
We arrived and started hiking without a concrete plan and goal, other than to shoot for the summit and make it down in one piece. Within the first hour or two, however, our plan came into existence: take a short 3-5min rest at each of the seven huts before Laban Rata to drink and eat a bit. We both needed the rest. This trail is definitely hard work, every step of it. Without my watch, I’d ask Johny the time every once in a while to get a vague idea if we were going to make it to Laban Rata before noon. Johny said we were doing good, but we must continue to ‘hurry’.
Our plan worked! It seemed like a huge accomplishment and relief when we finally reached Laban Rata. It took us exactly three hours, so the time was 10:40am now. Not too shabby! We told Johny we wanted 10-15 minutes to each lunch and relax a bit after he tried to entice us to take a 5-7 minute break… it was often unspoken, but I could tell he was nervous about making it to the summit before 1:00pm, the cutoff. He knew his stuff, our pace, and the trail ahead, so I trusted his judgment and enthusiasm to continue as quickly as possible, while still enjoying the journey. We never felt rushed or pressured by him, so that was good. It was our journey and our climb, and he made us feel confident in our ability to reach the summit with his subtle hints and encouraging updates.
Again, Laban Rata is where most people stop on day one. They typically start at 8:00am to 10:00am and make it to Laban Rata between 11:00am and 3:00pm to eat dinner, relax, sleep, and then reach the summit the next morning. Now that we were there, boy oh boy that plan sounded good. I wondered if they had any cancellations and if there was a room available. I knew we couldn’t stay, but deep-down I just wanted to rest for an indefinite amount of time. I didn’t want the schedule anymore, and to be honest, I almost didn’t want the summit any more. I think the altitude was getting to me! It felt amazing to sit down and relax for the few hundred seconds that we did.
We were tired. Drained. The altitude was kicking in, we were at 3,270m (10,730 ft) already, so only 800m or so until the summit. Sounds easy, right? Wrong-o. Johny told me the toughest part is yet to come. We thought, well that’s just super! At Laban Rata, we each thought to ourselves about turning around, and I was scared to say it, but it would have been tough to hike to Laban Rata and turn around all in one day, let alone trying to go for the summit. My legs were already heavy and thoughts about stomping downhill for 2-3 hours made me cringe. Thinking about climbing even more seemed silly, but that’s just what’d have to do. We would have to earn this, one step at a time.
Shortly after 11:00am we gathered our stuff and reluctantly headed out the door of Laban Rata and started climbing. I had my reservations about our ability to get the summit, especially when we were greeted by hundreds of stairs that escalated basically straight up. I remember Elicia commenting on how each step was somewhere near hip-height for her, certainly higher than her knees. The stairs didn’t go out, they only went up. I remember in math class that slope = rise/run. For a while, it seemed as though there was no run, meaning, it was like we were climbing straight up to the summit.
The rainforest started to gradually disappear before Laban Rata and the landscape of trees and jungle was slowly replaced by slate rocks and occasional forage that grew between the rocks. The higher we went, the vegetation became more and more limited.
Heart was pounding. Legs were starving for oxygen, and the lungs were desperately trying to deliver, but the air was simply too thin. Shortly after we passed the check point, things got really difficult. I remember Elicia and I counting 20 steps out-loud, together. Then resting until we had control of our breath. Then 20 more steps. More rest. And 20 more. This continued for what seemed like forever. The nature of the climb turned from difficult to unforgiving – the slope was outrageous, the altitude couldn’t hold good oxygen, and my legs were screaming at me.
Do you remember that Japanese man we shared the shuttle with to Timpohon Gate? Well, we saw him and his guide happily descending the mountain right at the 8.0Km mark. We only had 0.8Km to go! It was very energizing to see big smiles on their faces. They had been to the summit, and now they were enjoying warmer air and the descent, something I so desperately wanted. I had a new sense of drive and commitment to reach the summit. There was no turning back now, not after we’ve made it this far! Johny said it was a little passed noon, so we had enough time to reach the summit along as the weather continued to allow and our bodies continued to move uphill. I thought to myself, only 30-45 minutes of pain, then we can turn around!
Elicia and I made eye contact, the first time probably since Laban Rata where we ate lunch. We were both so tired. I gave her a hug and said, “babe, we can do this!” and then give her a kiss. Suddenly I was charged up with energy and my legs felt light. I caught my second wind. Thankfully, so did Elicia. We slowly trotted along, uphill of course, knowing we had less than 1/2 mile to go. We had summit fever. We were anxious to get to the top and begin our journey downhill. We were determined to do it!
We stayed on the summit for about five minutes, which was about four minutes too long. It was extremely cold, windy, and damp. No rain (thankfully), but being in shorts and a light jacket, I was severely under-dressed. We picked up a nice fleece jacket, a hat and gloves for Elicia to wear the day before, so she stayed pretty toasty. Unfortunately, we had no view from the summit. Visibility was probably 10-20m due to the extremely thick cloud cover. All this, but reaching a summit has never felt so good! I couldn’t feel my hands or face (I think my smile was frozen that way) and it was approaching 1:00pm, so it was time to come down asap! Overall though, we got extremely lucky with the weather. The rain stayed away, providing us a great window to complete the ascent. I started thinking about Laban Rata again and how much I wanted a hot cup of coffee! Ah, it couldn’t come soon enough.
We successfully navigated the ropes course, climbed down all those stairs and finally made it to Laban Rata.
We ‘took our time’ coming down the mountain. We weren’t in a rush anymore, so we stopped at most of the seven huts for a quick break to eat and drink more. It was getting warmer and warmer, so we started working up a sweat again. On our way down, we saw tons of people negotiating the difficult sections on their way to Laban Rata for the night… we wished them luck and gave them encouragement, we now know just how difficult it all is! Eventually, the people climbing up came few and far between, and soon I was convinced it was only us on the trail, continuing to make our way back to the gate where we started at 7:40am this morning. What a long (and painful) day it has been!
What a day it had been. I was extremely proud that we did it one day, something I envisioned to be a bit easier than it actually was in reality. All in all, I was thankful we had great weather. It would have been a different experience had it been 10-15 degrees cooler, more wind, and raining while either going up or down. It would have made it more difficult, that’s for sure. Our guide, Johny, was awesome. His silent support was great, a perfect companion to a perfect day. Together, we had our doubts about making it to the summit and back, but we learned that literally this is a journey that is accomplished step by step. It was slow-going near the top, but we kept moving the most important direction, and that is forward. It was a great accomplishment to make it to the top given its difficulty and generous window of cooperative weather. Total hiking time was 9 hours and 10 minutes to cover the 17.6 Km trail.
With the day winding down, we grabbed dinner at the restaurant across from Kinabalu Park HQ, then grabbed a bus to Sandakan area to continue our travels through Sabah…