Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain on the island of Borneo. Kinabalu stands at 4095m above sea level and is reported as a two day hike to the summit of Low’s Peak. With a week in Borneo to climb Kinabalu, get amongst the jungle and savour the beaches meant for an action packed adventure on this the third largest island in the world.
Staying in the Lupa Mesa Jungle camp it was about a 30 minute hike out to Poring Springs to reach our hire car. We had befriended Pheobe, a volunteer from Lupa Mesa. Phoebe hitched a ride with us to the entrance to Kinabalu National Park to continue her travels and volunteering. At the Kinabalu National Park gate we met our local guide Dashant. Mount Kinabalu’s summit trail is a well marked track that you could easily navigate on your own. Still, ascents on Kinabalu are regulated so one must book in advance. It is also mandatory to have a guide. Part safety measure, part local employment service.
Trail markers indicate it is 6km to the settlement at Laba Rana. Laba Rana serves as the base camp for Mt Kinabalu summiteers. It is a steep 6km scaling over 1200m in vertical height. The trail begins to climb almost immediately. Stairs heading upwards into the low lying clouds. We quickly reach a cloud forest giving an eerie and mystical feel to the ascent.
At the 4km mark we stop briefly for lunch. A packed lunch provided by Dashant as part of our trek booking. After lunch the trail got steeper and more rugged. Large boulders and craggy tree roots to add to the ordeal. At this point we began passing climbers returning from the summit. These descending hikers had summited Kinabalu that morning and were now heading down and out of the park the same day, as most do. These guys looked in good spirits for having been up since 2am!
Arriving into Laba Rana, we headed to the main lodge. A four-storey cream building that housed most guests ascending the mountain. We were ushered into the cafeteria to go over details for the next day. A 2am ‘supper’ is held with the aim to be on the trail by 2:30am. A common theme these early morning departures for mountain ascents. The objective always being to to reach the summit for sunrise. We had also planned on doing the Via Ferrata descent which includes a series of cables and wire ladders down a sheer rock face.
We got a lesson on basic rapelling and abseiling in preparation for the Via Ferrata descent before heading to our allotted dorm room. We had a 2 bunk dorm which seemed unoccupied other than us. It was also away from the main lodge. It was super peaceful and quiet with a perfect view of the sheer face leading up to Mount Kinabalu summit. It had begun to rain quite heavily into the evening and torrents of water were pummelling down the rock face. Spectacular to look at. We just hoped the rain departed by morning.
Mount Kinabalu Summit
Waking for 2am is always going to be a little confusing for the circadian rhythms of the body to comprehend. So I can be excused for waking an hour early thinking it was 2am instead of being 1am. It wasn’t until I was lacing my boots that the penny dropped. Another hour wrapped in my sleeping bag wasn’t too hard to take.
At 2am proper the storm had blew out and the sky was sprinkled with stars. We should be good for the summit! A light breakfast before we embarked on the trail. Most fellow hikers were under the same instruction and meant there was a steady line of head torches winding up an otherwise dark mountain. Being halted from rushing up the summit was a blessing in disguise. At 3200m ascending slowly is definitely advised.
Despite the hour, and the altitude, it was relatively warm. So jacket, beanie and gloves were not needed initially. It wasn’t long before we reached the first of the roped sections. Once reaching the exposed granite section of the trail a white rope leads all the way to the summit. This rope both serves as a navigational aid and climbing support on the steeper sections.
It is still very dark. The only view being what is illuminated by our head torches, often just the back of the next hikers boots! Once above the tree line and on the exposed granite the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Now focus on breathing was required in the thinning air. In the distance a small cluster of head torches indicated where the trekkers were already gathered on the summit. Secretly, we were glad we were still on the trail. Keeping warm by walking rather than shivering on the summit.
A boulder field appeared shortly before the summit requiring some technical clambering. However very soon we were standing in front of the wooden sign that marked the summit. Tucking behind some rocks out of the wind we devoured a Mars Bar as a summit reward. We made it!
The sunlight was beginning to appear, casting an amazing view over the valley below as the lights of the city of Kota Kinabalu fade out to rays of sunshine. The higher peaks caught the earliest rays illuminating their dominance over the others. A cool looking shadow of Mount Kinabalu was cast on the western horizon opposing the easterly sunrise.
Halfway down on the descent we met at the checkpoint for the Via Ferrata. We got into our harness and helmets before being ushered along a short trail headed for the edge of the sheer cliff. A short briefing before making our way to the first of the fixed lines and clipping in. It was a bit awkward at first traversing down a steep granite slope. the cable providing little assurance of safety as it was possible to fall some 10-20 metres before the cable would arrest our fall.
Along with being affixed to the cable by harness we were also attached to our fellow climbers by a fixed rope. So it involved moving in convoy like circus elephants. The Via Ferrata was however a good way to descend and the views off the cliff were spectacular. At some points the abseiling had us swinging freely across the granite face.
Back in Laba Rana we collect our things and grab a late breakfast at the lodge. Then followed the 6km hike down to the National Park Gate. After the summit the trail seemed to drag on forever. Throwing caution to the wind we began to run down, fast! Our dutiful guide Dashant, who had been at our side the whole way, yet not done a great deal, was for the first time under pressure to keep up. For some of the ascending hikers we must have looked like a pair of crazed lunatics with our arms and legs flailing about laughing our way off the mountain.
Upon reaching the end of the trail we were out of breath and legs buzzing. Deshant bid us farewell with a simple shake of the hand and formal presentation of our official summit certificates. So we survived Kinabalu but now we were to really to take our lives in our hands. We were about to meet Oliver…
About The Author
Ever since venturing out the back gate into the bush as a kid, I've had a curiosity to escape and explore as often as I could. It's fair to say that my curiosity has continued to grow instead of fade as the years go on. It eventually came time to turn a few scribbled notes into some legible stories and travel tips for anyone with a similar curiosity as me.