Nearly twenty years ago, I read an account of climbing Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu and although I can’t recall where I read it, I do know that it fueled a burning desire to follow in the author’s footsteps. I’ve never been entirely sure why as I didn’t exactly enjoy hiking at that point in my life. Yet ever since, I’ve wanted to summit Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain. So when I planned a trip to Borneo, getting in the hike was at the top of my list. With a limited number of climbers permitted on the mountain each day, I had to schedule everything else around when I could secure a permit. And I have to say, it was well worth the hassle of revising my agenda.
In Malaysian Borneo’s eastern state of Sabah, Mount Kinabalu is a majestic peak standing high above its surroundings. Often shrouded in cloud, it’s common to not see the top for weeks at a time and rain can fall any day of the year. With an altitude gain of about 2,230 meters, there are twelve climate zones on the mountain which means a huge variety of flora and fauna along the path. Although admittedly, I watched my feet most of the time.
Lately, I’ve been fielding loads of questions about climbing Mount Kinabalu. Like me, many travelers to Borneo want to watch the sunrise from the summit, willing to endure wobbly legs and sore knees for the remainder of their holiday – or at least a few days. If you’re thinking of hiking Mount Kinabalu as part of your holiday in Borneo, the rest of this post is for you.
How Hard Is The Climb and What’s it Like?
If you’re reasonably healthy and generally active, the climb may be harder on the mind than the body. If your idea of a strenuous workout is walking the aisles of Tesco, this might not be for you. The trail involves a painful amount of stairs, a few areas where a little rock scrambling is warranted, and many places to pause for breath.
Here’s how the climb breaks down:
- Start at 1,866 meters
- Cover 6km on the first day and check in to the dormitories at an altitude of 3,261-3,289 meters.
- Day one takes an average of 4-6 hours.
- Day two begins at the time you’re assigned when you check in to your dorm on day one, typically 2:30-3am.
- Climb 2.7km to the summit at 4,095.2 meters. Ideally arrive in time for sunrise at 6am (close enough to the equator that there isn’t much fluctuation with that time).
- Descend to the dormitories at the 6km mark for food and to collect your larger pack before heading down.
- From the 6km point, it takes most people 3-4 hours to return to Park HQ at the base.
Traffic jams happen but in most places the trail is wide enough to pass. Along the way, you’ll find shaded areas to rest, toilets, and taps with mountain spring water. Treating the water before drinking it is recommended. All climbers must have a guide and if anyone in the group is under the age of 16, you will be required to have multiple guides. Children as young as age 5 have been known to do the climb.
If you ask, a good guide will set the pace for you. If you don’t, he’ll bring up the rear of your group and let you wear yourself out or dawdle as you wish. I recommend doing the first hour or so at your natural pace to let your guide get a sense of your level of fitness. When you stop for a break, ask him to take the lead. Speaking of breaks, it’s important to allow your body to adjust to the altitude so even if you have the energy to carry on, rest when you reach the rest points!
Anyone who is reasonably fit, has no major health problems, and has the mental stamina to make the climb can hike Mount Kinabalu. Guides have stories of people not reaching the summit until well past sunrise and finishing the descent at midnight. I’ve met people who couldn’t walk properly for two weeks after the climb and many who spent the day after summiting in bed or flopped on a beach. For the generally active person, it’s probably fair to expect about 3-5 days of sore quads.
What’s the Weather Going to be Like and When is the Best Time to Climb?
Rainy, sunny, cloudy, misty, hot, cold, and ever changing. Plan for all of it as there’s a very good chance you’ll experience myriad weather patterns. If the wind or rain is too strong at the summit, you won’t be allowed up on day two. If you wake at 2 am to the sound of rainfall, don’t give up hope. The rain may stop by 3 am and the path will open. You may still get a sunrise at the summit. If your guide tells you to hurry up or to turn around, listen and do as he says. Many of the guides have climbed the mountain hundreds of times and they know the warning signs for a storm. Winds can blow at 120km/hour and rainfall can be torrential. No one wants to be caught in that.
Historically, March and April are the driest and best months to climb but these days, it’s anyone’s guess when you’ll get a sunny morning and when you’ll have a soggy slog.
What’s the Via Ferrata and Should I Do It?
The highest via ferrata in the world is atop Mount Kinabalu. This “iron road” is a series of pegs, cables, and rails that allows people to pass along stretches of mountain they otherwise couldn’t. There are two circuits in use at the moment and another under construction. The Low’s Peak Circuit takes an average of 3-4 hours dropping 1.2 km from the 7.5km mark. Walk the Torq is a shorter option beginning at the 7km point and ending at the same spot as the Low’s Peak Circuit. Climbers booked into the Via Ferrata stay in a designated hut and have a different meal schedule on day two to accommodate the prolonged descent time.
If you’re racing back to Kota Kinabalu after the climb – whether to catch a ferry to Gaya Island or because you have an early morning flight the following day to Sandakan or for any other reason – skip the Via Ferrata. If you’re caught behind a slower group, you will have no choice but to wait. It could easily be twilight by the time you reach the base of the mountain.
On the other hand, if you have time and you’re up for the adventure, it can be an incredible experience. When the weather is clear, the views as you look down the rock face and turn outwards are stunning. The physical challenge of using your upper and lower body to navigate the course and then descend the mountain as your legs turn to jelly is pleasantly exhausting if you’re into that sort of thing.
Must I Really Plan My Borneo Trip Around Climbing the Mountain?
Yes. There are exactly the same number of permits as there are beds on the mountain and some of those are reserved for Malaysians. For peak times such as March-May and July-August, permits are often secured a year in advance. Once you decide you want to climb the mountain as part of your holiday and you have a window of dates for the trip, the first thing to do is secure your mountain permit. Everything else will need to fall into place around that.
What Else Should I Know?
Loads, actually. Which is why when you book the climb with Fleewinter, we give you a handy guide full of tips, packing list, and other things you might want to know. For example, if you have a local SIM card in your phone, you can get a signal on most of the mountain and yes, there are places to charge your phone at Laban Rata. Aside from the practical bits, there are a few things to be aware of.
The mountain is considered sacred to the indigenous Kadazan Dusun people who believe it to be the resting place of the dead. Local guides and signage remind climbers that hiking the mountain is to be done with respect. Climbers are asked to not swear at or curse the mountain and when a group of foreign climbers stripped naked at the summit in 2015, they were jailed, fined, and deported. Disrespecting the local customs and rules is no joke in these parts.
A few weeks after that incident, the mountain changed forever. A 5.9 magnitude earthquake shook Mount Kinabalu, killing 18 people. Buildings were destroyed, the “donkey ears” peak is no longer, a trail was closed, and safety precautions were increased. There are new buildings in place now including a room for a family or small group and rebuilding continues.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu is an amazing experience and one I won’t soon forget. It is both humbling and uplifting to sit above the clouds, watching the sky change colors. Knowing that you reached the summit on your own two feet and that you will live to tell the tale.
If you’d like to know more about climbing Mount Kinabalu as part of a trip to Borneo, please drop me an email. I’m always happy to talk about the climb, Borneo, and travel in general. I’m even happier when I can help you experience it firsthand!