A Quick Guide To Climbing Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
The majestic and awe-inspiring Mount Kinabalu is one of the premier destinations for thousands of visitors to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo each year. Kinabalu National Park, a designated World Heritage Site, boasts an estimated 4,500 species of plants which includes 1,500 species of orchids, 77 of which are endemic to Kinabalu, Nepenthes pitcher plants, and the Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world. The Park also supports 289 species of birds and 290 different types of butterflies.
Besides being the highest peak in Borneo and the whole of South East Asia (between Irian Jaya and the Himalayas to be exact), and the youngest non-volcanic mountain in the world, Mount Kinabalu is extremely climber-friendly and compared to other much lower mountains around the world, Mount Kinabalu is an ideal first mountain for novice mountain trekkers to conquer.
The standard climb up Mount Kinabalu is via the Kinabalu Summit Trail at Kinabalu National Park (~1,560m above sea level). The first ascent is from the starting point at Timpohon Gate, about 4km or 30 minutes drive from the Kinabalu National Park Headquarter.
If you prefer to start the ascent on Day 1, it is advisable to arrive at the Park late morning the latest or else, depending on the weather, the Park may not allow you to do the first ascent due to hazardous condition (i.e., the fog may be too thick by late evening causing visibility problems and/or the trail may be extremely slippery).
Most climbers prefer to stay overnight at Kinabalu National Park upon arrival to not only acclimatize to the altitude but also to enjoy the magnificent flora and fauna at the Park before the 'assault' on the next day/morning.
The first ascent is from Timpohon Gate just after the Power Station up to the mid-summit Laban Rata Resthouse (or more popularly known as the 11,000 ft or ~3,873m). You will first follow the crest of a narrow ridge that dips down onto the main slopes of Mount Kinabalu itself. A little further on, you will reach a scenic waterfall known as Carson's Falls, named after the first Warden of the Park. Don't forget to take a sip and fill your water bottles with the fresh natural mountain water.
Conservatively, it should take a normal fit person an average 5-6 hours to reach Laban Rata. Participants at the annual Mount Kinabalu Climbathon competition went all the way up to 13,400ft (4092.5m above sea level) and back in 2 hours. But it is not really about how fast you can reach the top. It is about the experience of trekking pass different vegetation zones from Oak and Chestnut to mossy and eventually to alpine type of vegetations, and observing the rare and exotic flora and fauna on the way up.
Besides the heated Laban Rata Resthouse, the other option for climbers is to stay at the unheated mountain huts. There is actually another accommodation option at the so-called VIP Lodge, which is more expensive compared to the others and also, more difficult to secure (i.e., only two such units available).
After a short night rest to recharge your battery, the second and more grueling phase will commence early morning on Day 2, at about 2 am to 3 am. The second ascent will be from the mid-summit all the way to the summit, which is called Low's Peak, named after the British colonial officer Sir Hugh Low, supposedly, the first person to conquer Mt. Kinabalu.
The ascent should normally take a few hours but it is much more challenging than the initial ascent due to the thinner air near the summit. But near the peak on the granite portion of the ascent, there will be a thick nylon rope laid down to mark the route so that climbers will not get lost in the fog. You can use this rope to pull your tired body up.
Although, to reach the summit is already an achievement, it is best to target, if possible, to reach the summit just before sunrise to catch the awesome sight. If you reached too early, it will be too freezing cold to wait too long for the sunrise. On a good clear weather, the sky seemingly turns from black to red then orange and finally gold as the sun appears. When daylight breaks, you will truly feel that you are standing on top of the world. You can see as far as Kudat and even Sandakan if the weather permits.
One important tip is to make reservation early. Given the popularity of the Mount Kinabalu climb nowadays, it is advisable to book at least 3-4 months in advance (or even much earlier during the peak season usually around mid-year) to avoid any disappointment.
This is mainly due to the limited accommodation at the mid-summit (i.e., Laban Rata Resthouse, Mountain Huts or the VIP Lodge). In the event that there is no accommodation at the mid-summit, the climb will not be possible as strictly stipulated in the National Park's rules and regulations. Additionally, a mountain guide is compulsory.
In essence, Mount Kinabalu is relatively an easy mountain to climb. There is not much risk of acute mountain sickness at the first phase of climbing. Given climber-friendliness of the mountain, conquering the mountain must be high in your list of "activities to do" if you were to visit Sabah. For the average fit person, a visit to Borneo will not be complete without conquering Mount Kinabalu.