Ever imagined yourself climbing a mountain in Borneo? No? Why not?
Weeks of preparation and excitement had led to this: today was the today I would climb Mount Kinabalu. And, glimpsing the majestic peak for the first time in its beautifully luscious setting of Kinabalu National Park in the (Malaysian) Sabah region of Borneo, I knew this would be a deeply affecting experience.
At 4095m above sea-level, Mt Kinabalu stands proudly as South East Asia’s highest peak surrounded by a vast area of dense flora and fauna. If the actual climb is a little intimidating, you can still drink in the beauty on one of the stunning nature walks.
With a 90% success rate for climbers reaching the summit, the climb is usually considered an achievable feat. And that attracts a huge variety of people – dedicated climbers, holidaymakers, backpackers, older people and families with children. But do not be fooled into thinking this means it is easy. While you can rock up with little or no preparation, it is wise to have reasonable to good fitness.
After taking a few shots for the photo album, I’m introduced to two fellow climbers – Japanese couple Maya and Ton – and our guide. Having feared we’d be matched with an athletic type, I’m relieved to meet the aptly-named Eater, a friendly, rotund, middle-aged Malaysian woman. She tells me she does the climb two or three times a week, which makes me feel better – if Eater can nail this mountain so frequently, I should be able to!
We start the 6km walk up to Laban Rata, where we’ll stay overnight before tackling the summit. The steps aren’t particularly user-friendly for the vertically-challenged and my thighs get a thorough workout. I thank the hours I’ve spent on the step machine. At 35C, I am pretty much sweating enough to fill a small bucket and, like most others, we stop at each kilometer mark for a breather. As my muscles become more and more sore, I marvel at the numerous Malay men dancing up the mountain in their sandals and carrying all manner of things – one with calves of steel has three 65-litre backpacks tied to him. Another carries gas canisters on his back. Without genuinely expecting it to happen, I joke we’ll probably see someone carrying a door up. And, yep, we do. To think I’m struggling with just my small backpack!
But the increasingly amazing views are an engrossing distraction from the tiredness, as are the beautiful plants, flowers and cheeky squirrels after our food. Because I booked through a tour company, I’m given a welcome packed lunch of fruit, boiled eggs and cheese spread sandwiches. And, spurred on by my injection of poor man’s Dairylea, I push on ahead. Eater stays with Maya and Ton. This initial section is billed as taking between three and seven hours, and I’m pleased as punch to make it to Laban Rata in just over four. We’re above the clouds here and the view is already awe-inspiring; pinks and reds move in as the day diminishes. Although the sharp drop in temperature prevents any lengthy amateur photography efforts.
Laban Rata is a welcoming, homely place with great staff, good food, brilliant photos and inspiring quotes – the perfect place to make you feel ready for the summit. All the rooms are shared dorms and I’m sharing with a lovely Malay man, who knows he is significantly overweight but is fiercely determined to succeed.
There’s no hot water available this high up, putting the length of my shower at 14 seconds. I will never forget how cold the water felt. But there’s an air of excitement over a plentiful, tasty dinner, and we’re advised to retire early – alarms will be set for 1.30am. Surely I won’t be able to sleep at 6.30pm? I start to read … but am asleep inside 10 minutes.
There are not many things that will get you excited about waking up at 1.30am – but the summit climb is one of them. There’s a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation at camp – everyone is smiling and wishing each other a good climb. And after the earliest breakfast I’m ever likely to have, it’s time to don layers, attach head torch, pull on gloves and head out into the pitch dark with Eater.
Our ascent begins fairly easily with stone or wooden steps paving the way and a pleasant temperature. As we’re now more than 3000m above sea level, altitude sickness lurks. It is common to feel light-headed or have a headache, both of which stop after descending slightly and waiting for around 10 minutes. Along the way, inspirational stories spill from the climbers, their motivation for tackling the challenge pushing them on even as they near completion. I spend most of the climb with a particularly inspiring Australian lady, Heather, who beat cancer two years previously but isn’t letting her chemo-ravaged lungs stop her.
After about 90 minutes, the rock face starts to become sheer. It’s time for ropes. The extra exertion and the altitude and the increasingly cold temperatures mean digging deep. But then climbing a mountain isn’t supposed to be easy. Taking a few moments to slow my hammering heart, I smile back at the 500-climber-strong snake of lights. This is tough, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else at this moment.
The last part of the climb is grueling – there’s a wickedly icy headwind and zero shelter. I’m informed it’s -2C, but it feels more like -20C. Pulling my hoodie and waterproof so tight only my eyes are exposed, I grit my teeth and make the final push. With numb hands and sore legs, one relieved and happy climber makes the summit. And I know, this is where the cliche comes from. I feel on top of the world.
The sunrise is incredible. A multitude of terracotta hues spill slowly over the horizon, bathing the mighty Kinabalu in a new dawn. Huddling in a small hole and sitting on my hands, I try to ignore the cold and take in the moment. But soon the cutting wind becomes unbearable; I make a hasty retreat back down the rope line to a more civilized temperature zone from which I can still marvel at the awesome terrain. Jagged rocks, jutting peaks, deep crevices – it’s how I’d imagine exo-planets to look. As I descend to Laban Rata digesting the awesome sights around me, I pinch myself. I’ve just climbed a mountain. A big one!
Back at Laban Rata at 7.30am, it’s time for a totally guilt-free and delicious breakfast of French toast, pancakes, eggs and – of course – a caffeine fix. The mood is tired but happy – for most it’s the first time they’ve completed a summit. And the sense of achievement is awesome. Most choose to tackle the remaining 6km descent straight away to head off ever-stiffening muscles. But, for me, the lure of a few hours’ kip was too much. Mistake. It takes a mammoth effort to resurface at 10am for check out, and there’s no more avoiding the final part of my challenge back to ground level.
Muscles tight, I set off with Eater who blessedly gives me walking sticks. She’s trying to put her six children through school by taking climbers like me up the mountain. Her husband’s income alone isn’t enough. She is matter of fact about their difficulties. It strikes me, not for the first time, how huge the chasm is between our worlds – and yet we have these special moments. Sharing stories and connecting with someone from an entirely different culture; they never fail to open my eyes a little wider.
After a kilometre, we join father and son Pete and Jeremy from Britain. Jeremy has titanium rods in his spine. Best not to recount why. Each kilometre gets tougher for him, each step more painful than the last. But seeing this man push through the pain barrier makes me plough on when every one of my leg muscles and both hips are screaming. My screams are nothing to his.
After four-and-a-half hours of focus and drive, we enter the last stretch, exhausted and motivating other climbers to keep going despite some barely being able to walk. The final 100 metres are a somewhat cruelly placed incline, but mercifully the downhill steps have finished. Climbing the final steps to the finish feels like magic and torture in equal measures. I’ve done it. Elated, I pose for my ‘I did it’ photo, walking sticks in the air, and cannot stop smiling.
I did the climb for charity, and proudly handed over the 300GBP in donations I’d raised to a wonderful charity called Hope for Children.
Climbing Mt Kinabalu was a truly brilliant experience. The feeling of achievement unbeatable. If you do one thing today, add this climb to your bucket list.
Helpful Tips for Your Climb
- Book in advance – some people come to this area just to do the climb but leave disappointed when the dates are fully booked.
- It is easier to arrange your climb with an operator but you can book independently if you prefer by arranging your bed with Laban Rata and paying the national park entrance fee on arrival.
- The standard 2-day/1-night package should cost around 1000RM. Many operators will charge more; I found Borneo Global Backpackers helpful.
- It is often a good idea to stay close to, or inside, the national park the night before your climb to help acclimatise (staying outside is much cheaper).
- If you book a 3day/2nt tour, the first night is simply the cost of accommodation at the national park. Most people book a 2day/1nt trip and take the 90 minute transfer from Kota Kinabalu on the morning of the climb.
- Guides are compulsory, you cannot climb alone. You can share the cost with others if you are in a group but not part of an organised tour.
- Bring warm clothes and gloves – a must if you’d like to keep your fingers.
- Bring a head torch; you will need it for the summit climb.
- Walking shoes are preferable (esp. during rainy season), but you can use trainers with good grip.
- Bring sugary snacks – you’ll appreciate that Snickers bar!
- Use walking sticks for the descent.
- Stay overnight nearby once you have descended – give your muscles a chance to recover.
- Take lots of photos!