We were to climb Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in the Malaysian archipelago, and the 20th most prominent in the world. This was the part of our Borneo trip that the husband was looking forward to the most, and I the least.
The mountain has a series of routes to the top and the main trail is walkable with no climbing equipment required, so any reasonably fit person should be able to make it to the top. Despite this, I was more than a little concerned about making the summit as I am not known for my sporty tendencies nor feats of physical endurance.
We arrived in Kota Kinabalu early, having taken a flight from Kuala Lumpur. Bleary-eyed, we spent the day in Kota Kinabalu, mainly still trying to shake the jet-lag. We were going on an adventure tour with Intrepid Travel and it was here that we met our group. We had a great meal that evening in a local hall surrounded by restaurants, and left early the next morning.
On the way to Kinabalu we stayed with a local family in a small village, and from their home we had a view of the mountain. “It doesn’t look so bad,” I said to the husband. Then the clouds to the right rolled away and I realised that I had been mistaken as the actual summit was revealed, looming high behind the first hill. “Ah.” I said.
“That’s more like it!” the husband said, pleased. I glared at him.
Arriving in Kinabalu Park the next day we had the afternoon to walk around the trails at the foot of the mountain. The park was pleasantly cool and the hiking trails weren’t too bad. I had fun trying to spot pitcher plants hidden in the foliage. If you would like to visit Kinabalu Park, a World Heritage site, there are plenty of trails to keep you occupied for a day or two if you don’t want to climb the mountain.
The next morning we met our mountain guides, Sapinggi and his son Robbi. They had both been leading tourists up the mountain for years, and they gave us some advice about altitude sickness and what to expect on the hike. We would reach Laban Rata Resthouse, the last hostel before the summit, that day. We could then eat and sleep before getting up at 4am to reach the peak in time for sunrise. We’d then descend to Laban Rata for breakfast, and walk back down the mountain afterwards. So far, so straightforward. It would be a piece of cake. Right?
The trail to Laban Rata was 6km and mainly steps. The walk was actually really good fun. We took it slowly, not knowing if altitude sickness would affect us, and not wanting to over do it. The path was in good order and there were frequent rest stops where we could fill our water bottles. We used purifying tablets just in case as I am prone to getting sick when travelling. Little shrews scampered about our feet, waiting expectantly for crumbs.
The views as we reached Laban Rata were gorgeous and we stopped for a while to take in the scenery. Fewer trees grow at that altitude so the views were unbroken. Sunset soon followed and clouds swept across the foot of the mountain in front of us, so we retreated into the resthouse for dinner and sleep.
Sleep was not forthcoming however. We were in a dorm room and one of our companions snored incessantly and someone else’s watch kept beeping regularly. The inconsiderateness of it all! Eventually we got up and dressed warmly as the temperatures were close to freezing. We joined the throngs of other climbers and started on our way up.
The dirt trails finished at Laban Rata and we were now scrambling up bare rock. It was pitch black so we had brought head torches with us. In some of the steeper sections ropes were attached to the rock so you can pull yourself up. There were some hairy-looking sheer drops in places. We were with a couple of girls from our Intrepid group but both of them started to suffer from the altitude. We left one friend with Sapinggi and carried on, the husband helping our other companion. Slowly we carried on, our poor friend still suffering. After some time, Sapinggi caught up with us and said he would sit with our friends so we went on by ourselves, wanting to catch the sunrise.
A vast expanse of rock awaited us near the top, and we could see a pile of rocks upon which everyone was standing. One last scramble up these rocks was all it took; we had made it. The sun was now up and wisps of cloud floated around us. As we started to make our way back, Sapinggi passed with our companions; both of them got to the summit. We walked back down to Laban Rata with Robbi who had found us at the top.
Breakfast was very welcome indeed and everyone was in high spirits. The 6km back down was much harder for me than ascending had been as my knees basically gave out with 3km to go. But Sapinggi stayed with me the whole time, giving gentle words of encouragement, as I grumbled and wished that I was fitter.
When we reached the bottom (last of our group) we had lunch and said farewell to our guides and our porter, who had heroically carried most of our things up and down the mountain without complaint or even appearing to break a sweat. They had been great company and really made our trip up Kinabalu memorable.
Read about our recuperation from our climb at Poring Hot Springs here.
Know before you go
If you are backpacking in Borneo and not travelling on an organised tour please be aware that you must purchase your permits to climb Kinabalu in advance. Be wary of scam websites and touts. You must climb with a mountain guide.
There are several different packages available to choose from with varying length and difficulty. The Mount Kinabalu website has all the options and some discounts.
Ensure you take warm clothing, hiking boots and snacks. Water is available on the trail but it has not been purified, so take purification tablets with you.
Be wary of altitude sickness and stop the climb and descend if you feel unwell.
A sad epilogue
You probably remember the earthquake which struck the Kinabalu region in 2015. While reading about this we were horrified and saddened to learn that Robbi Sapinggi was one of the guides who was killed. By all accounts he died a hero, trying to save others on the mountain. Robbi was a fantastic guide, enthusiastic and encouraging; we were lucky to meet him, and send our heartfelt condolences to his family.