At 4095m high, Mount Kinabalu is South East Asia’s highest mountain and a UNESCO World Heritage Site dominating the 754 square kilometres of Kinabalu National Park. It is well-known for its amazing botanical and biological species, being one of the most ecologically diverse sites in the world. The first recorded ascent of Mount Kinabalu’s summit plateau was made by Hugh Low in March 1851. Since then, many explorers, adventurers and tourists alike have successfully scaled the mountain.
On my recent volunteer expedition to Borneo, a group of four of us ascended and descended the mountain over two days, staying overnight at the Laban Rata Resthouse, located at 3,270m. Stretching 9km from the start point to the summit, the trek isn’t too far a distance; yet its steepness and technical difficulty shouldn’t be underestimated. Though there is little need for special mountaineering equipment, climbers do need to have a good level of fitness and be ready for the challenge!
You also have to watch out for signs of altitude sickness, common symptoms of which include headaches, nausea and dizziness. Though the likeliness of such symptoms occurring are minimised by the one-night stay half way up the mountain, which helps hikers to acclimatise before the final part of the ascent.
After a two-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu, we arrived at Kinabalu Park Headquarters, were given an identity tag each and were transferred to our start point of Timpohon Gate (5.5km away from Kinabalu Park, at an altitude of 1,866 metres).
The first stage of the trek was to walk 6km from Timpohon Gate to Laban Rata. Though we were walking for no longer than five hours, this was one of the most intense and physically demanding days of hiking I have experienced. I had a feeling it would be a challenging climb due to the elevation we were to cover in such a short space of time, but I didn’t expect quite so many thousands of steps! Around every corner, the steps would just keep on going. The fatigue in my legs was relentless! However, the six shelters situated at regular intervals provided opportunities to take regular breaks.
Another factor was the weather – it started off cloudy yet pleasant in the morning, but later in the day the rain came pouring down. When we arrived at Laban Rata, not only were we physically exhausted, but every inch of our clothing was soaked. For a while, we were even worried that we wouldn’t be able to make our summit attempt, as our guide explained that adverse weather conditions sometimes make the route too dangerous, thus rendering summit attempts impossible. However, much to our relief, we were later given the all clear.
The food at Laban Rata was great. We had a buffet dinner consisting of soups, rice, meat dishes, vegetables and an array of mini desserts. We spent the late afternoon and evening eating, playing scrabble, writing our journals and chatting. The perfect way to re-energise for what would be an even bigger challenge that night…
Probably due to nerves and excitement, I only managed two hours’ sleep at most. But when we woke up at 1am, I was too excited to worry about feeling tired. We dressed quietly, packed only the essentials we would need for the final stage of our ascent and made our way to the communal area for some breakfast. It felt rather strange eating breakfast at 1:30am in a room with over 100 fellow hikers… but brilliant at the same time!
At 2:30am we set off from Laban Rata to climb the final 3km up to Low’s Peak. My runner’s mind would think, ‘You can run 3km in 15 minutes, this shouldn’t be too hard!’ But can the distance be compared in that way? No. The final ascent is steep and technically difficult, requiring a great deal of concentration and motivation. Plus, you’re climbing in pitch darkness, the path lit only by head torches and the moon. Complicates things a bit!
The path began with a long stretch of steep wooden steps, which had to be climbed in single file. The terrain then changed to smooth slabs of rock, with guide ropes to hold on to as you climb. At this point it really did feel like an adventure! As we eventually reached the summit plateau, the slabs became flatter and the guide ropes disappeared.
For me, the psychologically challenging aspect of this final ascent was not knowing which peak was the summit. As I trudged further along the plateau, more peaks would come into view through the darkness… until I finally saw a particularly high peak with flashing lights on the top. The relief I felt at that moment! I could tell that was Low’s Peak and from then on I felt a renewed determination to get there before sunrise.
This last stretch was a case of good old mind over matter. Just… Keep… Going.
At one point I came across a lady sat down looking entirely demotivated and gave her the encouragement she needed to get moving once more. The people you meet along treks such as this make the journey so worthwhile. People from across the world have their own reasons for climbing mountains, yet we are all united in our common goal of reaching the summit and discovering what we are capable of.
After walking for nearly three hours, my group made it up to the top of Low’s Peak around 5:30am, just in time for sunrise. It was fairly cloudy on summit morning but the sun shone through to create a magnificent sight. To experience being at the highest point in South East Asia watching an incredible sunrise with like-minded adventurers, it had all been worth it.
Brrrrrrr! After around twenty minutes of resting and taking photos at the summit, we all suddenly became cold very quickly, so started heading down. Once the sun was up, we were able to see the summit plateau in a whole new light, quite literally! Seeing the clouds, surrounding peaks and guide ropes in daylight really made us realise what we’d achieved.
We descended the guide ropes and wooden steps, eventually arriving back at Laban Rata where a wonderful second breakfast was waiting for us! After eating and packing up, we began the rest of our descent down to Timpohon Gate. Along the way we passed the hikers on Day 1 of their trek, many of whom we chatted to about the ascent they would tackle that night. The atmosphere along the trail was friendly and encouraging, with all those heading down saying ‘Good luck’ to those climbing up. The jovialness and team spirit was palpable and inspiring.
Later on in the day, we were faced with the biggest rainstorm I encountered in my two months in Borneo. We thought we’d faced the worst of the rain the day before, but it seems I was mistaken! After seeking refuge in a shelter for about twenty minutes (with about fifty other hikers!) my group decided to simply go for it and brave the weather. We were drenched within ten seconds of leaving the shelter, but we were on our way to the end. The rain barely let up and upon reaching Timpohon Gate we were each given a huge, multi-coloured umbrella to shield us from the rain. Rather ironic, don’t you think?
After enduring horrendous weather conditions and climbing more steps than I care to remember, we had conquered Mount Kinabalu. A fantastic experience had with great company, of which I’ll have fond memories for years to come.