About travel, holidays and hotels in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
Sunday July 1st 2012

Climbing Mt Kinabalu

My definition of an adventure is anything that you are experiencing either for the first time or something that does not occur to you everyday. Something that is outside the norm. This is a very open definition, and allows you to have an adventure everyday. It makes life more interesting.

A few years back, we organized a trip to climb Mount Kinabalu. Two, actually. My friend and colleague took one group of 10, and one week later I lead another group of 12 up the mountain. This was my second trip up Mount Kinabalu. Most of people in the group were staff from our company including some friends, and all of them have not gone up Mt Kinabalu before. The group I lead spent 3 days, 2 nights on Mt Kinabalu, giving us plenty of time to hang out together and have a good time. This was before Sutera Sanctuary Lodges took over the management of accommodations in Sabah National Parks. So the trip cost less than RM 100 per person, and we made our bookings 2-3 weeks in advance. This is no longer the case now.

Tompohon Gate
Tompohon Gate

The Starting Point
We assembled at Park Headquarters at 9am, where we were assigned our guide, porters and badges. We were transported to Tompohon Gate by coach, which was a good ways up the mountain from headquarters. The porters are legendary for their speed and endurance, and we lost sight of them within the first hour. The guide stayed with the slowest of the group, which included myself. The first part of the journey is a jungle trek, which is normally hot and humid but most importantly, dry. It was April, the start of the dry season, which is a good time to climb the mountain.


The route is well marked, and it is pretty impossible to get lost. Unless you fell down a ravine, which is also pretty impossible to do. But my backpack nearly did. That was because I had to stuff other people’s jackets, and other stuff into my pack. What can I say, there were more girls than guys. So I ended up carrying lunch for 5, a small backpack (from a girl), a huge jacket (yet another girl). It’s a good thing we engaged a porter, otherwise the hike up would have been a killer for me.

I have always said that climbing Mount Kinabalu isn’t that tough. Any reasonable fit and healthy person can do it, and the reason is because you can engage porters to carry your stuff. If you had to carry everything yourself, you can expect a 50% drop in the people climbing Mt Kinabalu. In the 70s, you had to do it yourself, but when I first climbed the mountain in the 90s, almost everything is arranged. There is a restaurant at Laban Rata, where you spend the night, there are hot water, sleeping bags and showers.

About every kilometer up, you will come to a rest point, where there is a hut and a tank of water collected from the mountain. I climb with a small water bottle and tank up at these spots, where the water is cool and fresh.

The hike up comprises of steps, cut into the trail, and further on, where it gets rocky, it looks like a natural stairway. There are some side trails where you can go off, but most will elect not to. The climb up comprises of a million steps, and never seem to end. Imagine climbing 5 km worth of steps, it just goes on and on. In the meantime, you can take in the beautiful view while you are catching your breath, or stop to chit chat with other groups going up or coming down from the mountain. Since the most popular question is,”How far more do we have to go?”. It is common for those coming down to give words of encouragement.

Mountain Steps
Mountain Steps

It took me about 5 hours to reach Laban Rata. By that time, I had 3 cameras slung around my neck, plus another tiny, girly bag. But boy, were we glad to reach Laban Rata. It is 3pm and fog had started in. We got everyone settle into the dorm-like accommodations, and spent the afternoon just laying around. Then around 6pm, we settle outside to watch the sun go down. While we were chatting, we met a all girls soccer team from Wales. They were wondering if they would wake up in time for the morning climb. Not to worry, I said, it sounds like a troop of elephants when everyone gets up at 2am. By 7pm, it was fully dark, and we hit the sacks. I don’t know about the others, but boy was I cold. Kept waking up, and looking at my watch. Cold as it was, I would rather be out walking then to lie there. Mount Kinabalu isn’t that high but the altitude does affect people. Your appetite goes off, you have trouble sleeping and some people end up with headaches.

Climbing In The Dark
At 2am, we had a simple cup of instant noodles, and off we went. Most Sabahans aren’t used to the cold, and it’s tough to get started. We were on the steps again, this time with a torchlight in hand, and wishing the person in front would just move faster.

Soon, we got to the rope section, you put away your torch and use both hands on the rope. I am always glad that it is dark because I am not very good with heights. For some reason, we always stop at the rangers’ hut. This time, we stopped there, freezing our nuts off for half an hour. I never did find out why we stopped. I could see other groups moving on up the mountain. From here on, you are walking on rocks, the mountain is granite after all.

It happens every time. Someone in the group always breaks down and need assistance. This time it was a girl, and the cold had gotten the better of her. She just laid on the rock and cried. In the end, the guide basically pulled her by her arm, and dragged her up the mountain. Every time he let go, she would just laid on the ground again. In the end, we took turns hauling her up. Would you believe she was all preppy again when we reached the summit, and she had no problem getting down the mountain?


The climb up to the summit takes about 3 hours, all done in the dark, exposed to the wind. Everyone will get to the summit in time for sunrise, and it can get crowded. But it is a nice feeling to be up there, with friends and the wonderful view. After we had taken some photographs, we headed down. Now that the sun is up, you realize just how big the mountain is. I wished I had the time to explore a little, and maybe try another peak. After all, there are 13 peaks, with such names as Donkey’s Ear and Sister’s Peak. The peak that people climb is the highest peak called Low’s Peak. Perhaps surprisingly, Low’s Peak is one of the easiest to climb. Some of the other Peaks require technical mountaineering skills.

Going Down
Going Down

The view is absolutely gorgeous as you head back to Laban Rata. On the descend, you get to see when the rope section is, and you will be glad the climb was done in the dark. But then, now you have to go down the ropes. Relax, it only looks bad, like you are going to fall off the mountain. Just keep a good grip on the rope and you will do fine. The guide who was with us actually walked down most of the rope section without using the ropes! There he was letting it all hang out, while some of us couldn’t even change our hand-holds without going weak-kneed.

Gorgeous View
Gorgeous View


The Long Descent
Once you get back to Laban Rata, it’s time to pack your bags and go to the restaurant for your breakfast. We met a group of Japanese senior citizens starting out on their summit climb. Wow, I still think about that group. We found out from our guide that the oldest person who made the climb was a Japanese man in his 70s, the youngest was a babe in arms, less than 12 months old from Europe.

We started the long walk down at 10am and this time, we had the breath for conversation. I met a couple from Peninsular Malaysia at the 1km point. It was almost 2pm and they had only just started the climb. It’s no big deal except they were quite obese and were already struggling. At that time, I wished them the best and hope they managed the climb. By 2pm, we reached Tompohon Gate and there was a coach waiting to send us back to Park Headquarters. While it wasn’t as tiring going down, it was tough on my knees and feet. By 3pm we were on our way back to Kota Kinabalu.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is an experience. It was great to be on the mountain, and being part of nature. Being on the mountain helps you sort out the clutter in your mind, and leave everything else behind. I got to turn off my handphone for 3 days, not have to worry about anything at all, and just being with a group of people with the same intentions. It was great!

Photography Tips

  1. Remember to bring batteries.
  2. Learn to operate your camera before setting out.

In the days before digital cameras, I’ve met a couple who forgot to bring films. And they flew in all the way from Johor, Peninsular Malaysia. I’ve also met people who ran out of batteries. A friend of mine over-exposed all his summit photos, and set his camera speed too low and ended up with ghost images. It’s easier with digital cameras now, but some people always manage to get it wrong.


Conservation Rules Apply
Take Nothing But Photographs, Leave Nothing But Footprints.
Mount Kinabalu is a World Heriatge Site.

Map Of Mt Kinabalu Route
Map Of Mt Kinabalu Route


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6 Comments for “Climbing Mt Kinabalu”

  • Janice says:

    Hi, thank you for your wonderful post. Its a great encouragement and I would love to try to scale to the peak :)

  • adrian says:

    Hi Janice, thanks for dropping by and I hope you will make the climb one day.

  • ken says:

    Great website!

    We are doing it on this coming sunday!!



  • adrian says:

    Way to go, Ken!

  • von says:

    we are climbing in july and all sorta freaking out now!!! oh well, we started practicing too.. do we really need good trek shoes?

  • adrian says:

    Hi Von, get some really good hiking boots or trainers. Use a comfortable backpack to carry your lunch and things. Also a good idea to include a windbreaker or a rain gear.

    Bring your dinner and breakfast with you. You probably won’t have much of an appetite and you’ll be sleeping early. You will be glad for something simple like instant noodles at 2am in the morning.

    Things you need for the summit: a balaclava or woolen cap, gloves, warm clothes, water bottle, and flashlight. Bring a windproof or waterproof jacket, it’s cold up there and you don’t want to be wet as well.

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