Mt. Kinabalu

posted in: Borneo, Nature | 0

I arrived in Kota Kinabalu one day before my planned climb to give me a good night’s rest and a chance to acclimate before taking on Mt. Kinabalu, a mountain set on the island of Sabah in Borneo which holds the status of World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It is the 4th highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago and it is considered the 20th most prominent mountain in the world with an height that was first set at 4,101 meters, but was subsequently revised to 4,095 meters in 1997.

(View from my room before the climb)

Mount Kinabalu is part of Kinabalu National Park, but even this status doesn’t guarantee full protection of the surrounding habitats, considering logging permits were granted in 1984. I will come back to the logging issue in a later post. Between 5000 and 6000 species of plants (more than what can be found in North America and Europe combined), 326 species of birds, and more than 100 mammalian species – including orangutans – call home the national park (mountain and surroundings). Many of the plants are endemic, these include 800 species of orchids, over 600 of fern (among which 50 are endemic) and 13 of carnivorous pitcher plants (among which 5 are endemic).

(One specimen of a carnivorous pitcher plant)

After a good night’s rest it was time to prepare to tackle the mountain. I dropped my heavy bag at the park’s HQ (it costs RM 10 per piece) and carried only the necessary gear in my smaller daypack. While ascending the mountain, my guide told me this mountain was the highest mountain in South East Asia, you should know however that this fact is disputed – it’s all a matter of what you consider to be part of South East Asia.

(Starting point of the climb)

Talking about my guide. To climb Mount Kinabalu, you will be accompanied by a guide as is mandated by the regulations of the park. This guide is only there to escort you up the mountain, mine did not speak English and had no knowledge of first aid.

While climbing this mountain, I saw both slightly elderly people and kids. I found going up to be of average difficulty. Now some will tell you they went up like a breeze and some will say it was the most arduous trek they ever set upon. My point is, you can’t really tell how you will react to it until you actually start. The workers go up this mountain carrying beds and other things on their backs while… smoking. Yep. This being said, preparing for it would be a smart move. I didn’t… I decided to climb this pretty much as a last minute thing. Borneo was not on my list of countries to visit at the very beginning of my journey. I didn’t kown much about it.

(Little fellas who tried to sneak away with my lunch!)

The climb is divided in two parts. The first part brings you to the rest area where you will eat and try to sleep. This part is quite awe striking when you see the mist rolling on the flanks below you and you realize these are actually clouds. You have just walked through clouds. Yep. You are that awesome!

Now, as for settling in the cabin, I tried having a shower to wash the sweat that was freezing on me. I forced myself under the cold water, knowing that it was a necessary evil if I wanted to be able to get warm afterward. Not only was there no hot water, but there was no heating. So you should also know that the cold will most likely prevent you from being able to shut your eyes at night. I was freezing and had started having a fever and a runny nose. As I laid in my bunk in every layer of clothes I could find, I literally prayed this would be gone by morning as I didn’t know how if I could go further in this condition. Also, some Chinese were drinking and playing games all night in our cabin. At one point I did wish I could have joined them as it was not likely I would get to sleep anyway.

(First stop)

1h45 in the morning came quickly enough and it was time to finish the ascent. I got up, had  my first breakfast and waited for my guide. On went the headlamp and up we went in the dark. Thankfully, since I was quite fast, I made it to Low’s Peak (which is the highest peak) before most and I had the peak almost to myself for a while. You should know that when other climbers do get to the top they will not hesitate to push you aside to get their pictures taken with the token sign. The problem is that the peak is quite steep and rocky, it’s not exactly the place to push (you only realize how steep it is when the sun actually goes up).

(Low’s Peak at around 4 am, you can see I’m freezing)

When I went, it was too cloudy and there wasn’t really a sunrise to watch. This being said, the jagged edges of the mountain were quite a sight on their own. The cold (temperature of -1*C),  the thin air, the altitude sickness and the pushy tourist made me go down quicker than I had planned. How did I experience altitude sickness? I had constant nausea during the climb, but I pushed through it. I wouldn’t recommend it, as supposedly you can die from altitude sickness. Thankfully, it did alleviate and it got warmer as I hiked down toward the via ferrata starting point. I started feeling much better rather quickly.


(Via Ferrata)

I decided to do the longest via ferrata at 1,6 km and I didn’t regret it. It is the highest in the world, but not the hardest. If you can climb the mountain, you can do the via ferrata. That is, if you are not afraid of heights. If you are, you will really hate the suspended and Tibetan bridges.

(Tibetan Bridge)

I had my second breakfast (I love saying that, makes me feel like a hobbit!), a quick nap and then made my way down the mountain. The rain combined with descending the 3,000 or so uneven steps had me quite miserable. I was counting in my head at the end of the descent – I always count when it gets really hard, it’s like it brings my mind elsewhere. Coming down is a whole different business than going up. The last two kilometers, my knees were having such a hard time and had started to swell.

(Low’s Peak, which reminds me of Mount Doom. 
The picture isn’t so great as I was shivering quite a bit – 
a stabilizing lens can only do so much.)

By the end, I was wet and cold. I had my lunch, but nothing seemed warm enough for me. I sat with two guys from Hong Kong I had met during the climb. They pulled out disposable heating pads, joking they didn’t know how good they were since they came from China. I was so happy for even localized heat.

Then I sat down at the bus stop to wait for the bus that would take me to Sandakan. The hours passed and no bus came. As I was waiting for the bus, a Malay family asked me if they have a picture taken with me – like I was some sort of superstar because I was a Westerner. Once they were gone, I kept waiting for my bus. Finally, someone said that perhaps since it was a national holiday, no bus would be coming at all. You can guess this had me freaking out quite a bit as it was starting to get dark. Finally, a few hours later, when I was about to give up, a bus did come. I was on my way to the next part of my visit, to see jungles.

Well, this is it for today. If you wish to attempt the climb, I would suggest contacting one of the many providers who will get you your permit and will pick you up from the airport. Also, here is a quick list of what you should think of bringing:

  • Waterproof backpack
  • Trekking or running shoe with good grip
  • Warm clothing (Long sleeves shirt/Hiking pants/Long Johns)
  • Waterproof jacket/wind breaker (would be more comfortable than a disposable raincoat)
  • Extra clothing and socks (to change into if you get wet)
  • Small towel
  • Gloves and winter hat
  • Head torch
  • Personal toiletries
  • Refillable water bottle (1 litre would be enough as there are plenty of refilling stations)
  • High energy (I brought 2 chocolate bars and one small bag of roasted nuts, that lasted me the two days)
  • Medication such as headache tablets or altitude sickness tablets (I had both headaches and altitude sickness)
  • Toilet paper roll
  • Sun block lotion
  • First aid essentials like plasters and compression wraps
  • Insect repellent
  • Camera with water proof bag
  • Slippers
  • Plastic bags

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