When there's a mountain there, we just have to climb it, and Mt Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo was one of those accessible peaks that we had been keen to conquer for some time. So when we once again found ourselves in Southeast Asia it seemed like the perfect time to check the Mt Kinabalu climb off our list.
We headed to the mountain the day before to acclimatize and do some practice hiking before the big climb. Most tour companies include transport from KK in their packages, but we decided to save some money and have the flexibility of traveling on our own schedule by getting one without.
Booking your Mt Kinabalu Climb
We booked directly with Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, who manage the accommodation on the mountain, hence why it was the cheapest – by far at the time. It is still the cheapest option out there but the biggest downside is that you have to get to the mountain from Kota Kinabalu on your own, which can be a little bit of a hassle.
Due to a lot of changes that have been happening with climbing policies and increased competition among third-party tour operators, as of 2017, we highly recommend taking a look at some of the all-inclusive packages on offer, especially if time is important to you, to see if paying a little bit extra is worth not having to worry about arranging your own transfers.
We have done a massive update on our ‘Climbing Mt Kinabalu on a Budget' post that includes a list of tour providers you can consider and their 2017 pricing.
How to get to Mt Kinabalu from KK
For those who prefer to go with the cheapest option (without transfers), a bus or shared taxi can get you to the mountain in around 2 hours from KK (Padang Merdeka) for just 25 ringgit. Click here for a full explanation on how to get from KK to Kinabalu National Park (including shuttle bus timetables to/from the airport). A regular, private taxi is also possible but may cost several hundred ringgit, depending on what you can negotiate.
Where to stay at Mt Kinabalu
As we went to the Kinabalu Park area ahead of our climb date, we needed to arrange accommodation in addition to the mountain accommodation that was already booked as part of our 2D1N summit climb. Getting accommodation outside Kinabalu Park will help keep costs down as the accommodation inside can get pricey.
We stayed at Kinabalu Mountain Lodge, a 5-minute drive from Park HQ. Please note that this is an affiliate link. Using it does not cost you anything extra – it just lets Hostelworld know that we referred you, who in turn give us a small commission that helps us keep the information on this website free for everyone. We appreciate your support.
When travelling to Kinabalu Mountain Lodge from KK or from Kinabalu Park HQ/around the local area, tell the bus or taxi driver to drop you off at “Haleluja” – they will all know what you are talking about. The lodge is a hilly 1km walk from the main road, but is beautifully located. This post includes more information about the lodge and also information about taxis to Kinabalu Park.
Entering Kinabalu Park
Entry to the park costs 15 ringgit for non-Malaysian adults and you are free to walk the lower parts of the mountain without a guide or special permit. Head to the office at Park HQ for a trail map. While doing preliminary hikes isn't necessary to complete the climb to the summit, it is a nice introduction to the park terrain and the lower trails offer an excellent alternative for those not able to complete the full climb but wanting to experience a lot of what the park has to offer. Entry to the park on the day of the summit climb is usually included when you book through a tour operator but be sure to check.
Registration process at Kinabalu Park HQ on day of climb
You begin the summit climb between 8am-10am. The cut-off time for starting the climb is 10:30am, so best to go early and not have to rush. You are required to register at Park HQ where will receive an ID tag which you must wear throughout the climb. You'll need it for check-in and check-out at the Laban Rata resthouse (mountain accommodation) and to pass through the checkpoints. If you don't have them already, you'll also pick up your meal vouchers, and then collect your packed lunch from the restaurant. Once you have met your guide, you'll take transportation together (van or bus) to the starting gate.
We must say that we were really impressed with the organization of the whole process. Everything was looked after and each step was quick and efficient. Do factor in some time at Park HQ, however, for this registration process and to travel to the gate as you can't just start climbing as soon as you arrive.
Starting the Mt Kinabalu Climb – Day 1
Here we are at Timpohon Gate, it is the main starting point and is currently the only one open (as of January 2017). Our guide, Asli, was only 16 years old! The sign behind us says “Happy climbing”.
The first day of climbing covers 6km through a mostly forest environment. Expect stairs and some rocky terrain. The final kilometer of the first day is the steepest and most difficult and will see you emerge above the forest canopy and into an almost bonsai-esque landscape that reminded us a lot of Japanese gardens.
Laban Rata resthouse and meals
The name of the resthouse on the mountain is called Laban Rata and is located at the 6.0km mark (3,300m). You can check-in from 1pm. We began our climb at 9:30am and reached Laban Rata at 2pm (total of 4.5 hours). There are several lodgings up there so you may not be staying in the Laban Rata building itself, but it is where you check-in and have meals in any case. We stayed at Gunting Lagadan which is about a 10-minute walk up from Laban Rata – slightly inconvenient as you have to go up and down for meals, but nothing to really complain about.
The lodgings themselves were better than expected, especially considering it's on a mountain with limited resources. We stayed in a four-bed dorm. The bathrooms were good and there is a shower should you wish to brave the cold water. Bedding is provided but there is no heating in the rooms so word of advice: bring clothing suitable for cold mountain weather. We slept in thermals, snow jackets, gloves and beanies. Bring a change of clothes to sleep in/for the second day of climbing. You'll be drenched with sweat from Day 1 and even if you do hang your clothes to dry while you sleep, they won't dry in the moist mountain conditions by morning.
The buffet style food at Laban Rata far exceeded our expectations and was surprisingly varied considering all the ingredients have to be carried up by porters. The evening meal on Day 1 is served from 4:30pm-7:30pm. When we went at around 5:00 it was difficult to get a seat, but it quietened down some time after. So if you want to avoid the rush, be in the restaurant early or perhaps wait for the rush to die down. Limited snacks can be bought at Laban Rata but at an elevated price. If possible, bring all your energy snacks with you as you can't buy them along the way except at the starting gate and Laban Rata. Bring water just for the first day though as you can fill up your water bottles during meal times at Laban Rata and will save you from lugging unnecessary weight.
After dinner most people head to bed early to save their energy for the early morning ascent to the summit. Supper is served from 2am-3:30am. We suggest starting in the earlier part of this bracket so you are not rushed to get to the summit by sunrise. We also recommend not over-eating. While you don't want to start on an empty stomach, you don't want to be really full either. It will just make you lethargic and sick. If you have ever tried going to the gym after a big meal, you'll know what I mean. Bring some sugary snacks (we brought chewable jelly candies that were easy to keep in our pockets) for that quick surge of energy when your body needs it.
Mt Kinabalu Summit Trail – Day 2
A flashlight is essential for this part of the climb. A headlamp is preferable as you'll need both hands for climbing during the ropes section. The first part of the ropes section was the most mentally challenging for me. It won't come as a shock to anyone who has read about our bungy jumping experience in Japan, that I am scared of heights. And there were a number of moments when I was honestly really scared. The feeling that you are hanging off the side of a mountain with only your own bare hands to hold you is somewhat terrifying.
I still have mixed feelings about the dark. On the one hand, it helps because you can't see the drop down. On the other hand, it can make it worse because you just imagine this horrible plummet to your own death. What really helped me though was just concentrating on what little rock I could see with my headlamp before me and channeling my energy into each step rather than allowing the whole situation to consume me. And how beautiful do the lights look coming up the mountain side?!
You should note that as of December 2016, there are now two trail options from Laban Rata – the New Ranau Trail and the Kota Belud trail. They both meet at the Sayat-Sayat Checkpoint for the final ascent to the summit. More information about the trails can be found here.
Reaching the Mt Kinabalu Summit & The Descent
Overcoming any fears you may have and the stunning view you get as a reward are what make the whole experience worth it. We had a bit of a cloudy morning so we don't have “that sunrise shot”. But we have lots of others to remind us of our achievement.
After sunrise and a few quick photos, we started the descent, in daylight this time.
Once you get back down to Laban Rata, you can enjoy “second breakfast” and check-out, before continuing the descent back to Timpohon Gate. While we had great weather during our climb to that point, the skies decided to open and unleash a steady flow of torrential rain for most of the way down, turning the rocky paths into miniature waterfalls and makeshift rivers.
The rain was so heavy that we don't have any photos as we are sure our cameras would not have survived. Bring sealable bags for camera gear to prevent damage in the event of heavy downpours. We had waterproof pants and jackets as well as covers over our backpacks which luckily Hai had the foresight of cutting from our main packs before the climb.
Unfortunately, there's only so much water anything can take before it is no longer waterproof though, so despite our best preparations, we, our bags and basically all our stuff in it were drenched. Due to the very slippery conditions, the climb down, which under usual conditions would take less time than up, ended up taking us exactly the same amount of time as Day 1.
When we saw the waterfall that we remember clearly from the beginning of the climb (an actual waterfall, not one that had formed on the way down), we knew that the finishing line was just around the corner. As we came up the last stretch, we grabbed hands and ran up those last steps towards the “You are successful climbers” sign.
Fully soaked, it was an uncomfortable bus ride down to Park HQ and meal at the restaurant. It took a number of days for my body to recover and every time someone would look at me strangely, I'd feel the need to explain “Dari gunung” (I've come from the mountain). They would often reply with “I can tell” or “I can see the pain in your face.” But just like that first game of the sports season, that pain passes soon enough.
Next stop: Mt. Kilimanjaro!
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