Mind Over Matter – Conquering Mt. Kinabalu

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”

– Moslih Eddin Saadi

Hello to those at home!

Climbing Mt. Kinabalu six days after climbing The Pinnacles was perhaps not exactly ideal, however, attractions are in close proximity here especially these two, the former being located near the main entry/exit point in Sabah/Borneo and the latter, the closest attraction to the Sarawak/Sabah border.

I planned as much as I could for the climb but I still found getting precise and recent information somewhat difficult. The government website has so much information, price options, add ons, where to stay, etc and it can be quite confusing. In the “Dirty Details” for this section I will outline the exact costs, how to keep them down by sharing them with other travellers, accommodations and transportation info to and from KK as well as towards Sandakan for those heading South.

When I called the night before it had been suggested to me to arrive at Park Headquarters at 7am the day of my climb and this would increase my chance of joining other single climbers and defraying the costs of the guide and transportation to and from Timpohon gate where the majority of climbers begin. Climbers can also do an extended version of the climb, in fact, beginning close to Aril’s hometown in the Mesilau Valley.

I arrived at the base of the mountain and the area in front of Park Headquarters was already buzzing with groups milling around, many in their serious climbing wear. Climbing this mountain, and likely overcoming any sort of challenge is often a question of mind over matter. I imagine for many this began at home with training for the climb. I had considered it when I read how difficult it was going to be and that it is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia but it didn’t happen. For some decking themselves out in the hottest mountain climbing gear aided in their motivation. For others finishing the climb was important because their friends or family had done it and they couldn’t go home without doing so. Whatever it may be, whatever works for you, let it assist you in accomplishing your goal. You may also find it reassuring to hear that out of sixty climbers our new group of five “friends” was in the top seven to reach the summit. An Aussie named Josh climbed up in jeans and a simple hoodie in runners with no socks. I hadn’t exercised in forever (except for the Pinnacles which was definitely to my detriment) and Kevin, a Brit is a skydiving instructor but that’s the extent of his physical activity. Your mind will get you up and down the climb – all the other things are just add ons.

The benefit to staying at a hostel five minutes from the mountain is that you’ll find other single climbers to join with. I was added to a group of two, Katy and Kevin who had met at such a hostel and we shared a guide and transportation costs. I stored my large backpack at HQ; we grabbed our boxed lunch and meal coupons and were driven to the starting point. Let me just say that I had no idea what was to come and my brother Andrew had told me that The Pinnacles was harder so I wasn’t feeling intimidated. As I climbed I soon wondered whether Andrew had done The Pinnacles after the mountain where as I was doing the reverse, his statement would then make sense to me.

The first section of the climb is six kilometres of stair climbing; this translates into doing the stair climber at the gym at a difficulty of 6-7 for 3.5 hours. Signs point out every 500 metres and there are approximately five rest stops along the way for bathroom breaks but no drinking water so you need to add the weight water you’re taking and your clothing/outerwear/toiletries etc that you need for the night. Many take anywhere from five to eight hours to reach Laban Rata, where you sleep for the night. My advice is to truly take whatever time you need to do it, find your own rhythm, do not feel pressured by whomever you are with and get into your groove. Your glutes will be firing on all cylinders, your calves will be screaming at you, and your quads be threatening to go on strike. You think you’ll never get there and when you’re 500 metres away and can see your rest stop for the night your knees will have already been buckling for a kilometre so that last staircase is murder. To add insult to injury just when you want to relax with a cold beer the cost of soft drinks, alcohol and snacks are exorbitant so you’ll likely stick to water until you switch to the hot tea and coffee they put out during the dinner buffet. Definitely bring food for the climb, I had protein bars from home and the lunch is far from good so you may want to pack something if you’re able to. Malaysians LOVE their white processed bread so you’ll be getting three sandwiches with what passes as sandwich meat and processed cheese, two hardboiled eggs and some bananas. The buffets on the other hand are pretty good with a wide variety. Overall I’d rate the food a 3/5.

Laban Rata is situated six kilometres up the mountain with another 2.72 kilometres to the summit. The view is gorgeous with a waterfall running next to it and after a hard rain fell there was some beautiful photos taken of the other peaks peering out from the clouds. The temperature while climbing falls one degree Celsius every 500 metres and although many climbing and descending were wearing full gear, long pants and shirts/jackets, I was very glad to be wearing shorts and a tank top; the day we climbed is was pretty warm. On the descent I was fine in shorts and a long sleeved shirt. Currently there is no electricity at Laban Rata so paying for a room with heat gets you nowhere. It was freezing up there and you’ll be sleeping in your long pants, layers, hat and gloves. Showers are cold, many, myself included go without one but they do give you a towel if you do want to take one. The bed is made with two heavy wool blankets, one of which I took with me to the summit while we waited for the sun to rise. I encouraged a fellow traveller from Germany who only had shorts to also do so and boy, was he thankful! Note: There is a luxurious accommodation option at the bottom of Mt. Kinabalu.  At the halfway resting point there is one as well but note it is the more luxurious option of the two at the halfway point. It would not be considered luxurious to most standards.

Kevin, Katy and I befriended Gen and Josh and we sat there until 7pm laughing so hard, a definite release from the peril that was our climb. Gen, a doctor from Singapore was doing the climb as a practice run for the Climbathon two days later; my hat off to him. All sixty climbers went to bed early so we could rise at 2am for a 3am departure to reach the summit. Waking to the pitch black was difficult especially with your legs beginning to burn and knowing some of what was to come. We had our breakfast buffet, the first of two, and we were off. Now, the day before was brutal but what was to come was unbelievable and at times excruciating. 

First off let me say that if it is raining hard the climb will be cancelled which will be very frustrating because you’re putting yourself through agony the day before to see the sunrise at the top of the summit. If it is cloudy, misty or light rain you may get up there and not see much, which will also be frustrating. You begin climbing in the dark at about 3am, almost everyone has headlamps, some with flashlights. You’ll want a headlamp, as you’ll need to keep your hands free for the rope section. The climb is much like the day before except it is freezing, at points the wind is howling, and we were lucky to have our light rain turn into a light sleet. You will climb almost vertically up the rock face of the mountain using ropes and the wind will push you while those who are stronger and heavier grab onto the same rope pulling you down. Hold on tight. You’ll want two pairs of gloves or one that won’t get wet from the ropes. My fingers felt frostbitten and took a while to warm up, my gloves were soaked and I went through two pairs. I thought for a moment that I was in the Himalayas and when discussed later, we all agreed that we had no idea what we were signing up for. I’d advise reading the Lonely Planet’s Borneo guide on the Mt. Kinabalu climb if you’d like to read an accurate and amusing description of what you’ll experience and feel at each kilometre. It’s pretty bang on. The interesting part of it all is that on your descent at about 6am you’ll see what you had climbed and how dangerous it can be. An older man almost died in front of us on the descent and I and my friend Katy both fell/slid in one particularly precarious spot. Our guide told us the minimum age for the climb is 7 years old but I wouldn’t dare subject my children to it until they were 16+ and I personally think it’s a decision they should make on their own.

But…after all said and done, the reward was there. We froze, huddled, shivered and whimpered at 12,900’ waiting for the sun to rise but when it did, well, if there is a heaven I’m hoping that’s the sunrise I’ll be watching. Add the Mesilau valleys and well Borneo may indeed be as close to heaven that we have on earth. The ascent to the summit took us 2.5 hours, often I thought I might not reach it in time for the sunrise but then I’d look down from where I came from and saw the trail of lights climbing up the mountain and realized that many people were behind me. I am proud to say that I reached the top #7 out of 60 people and had I not done The Pinnacles I may have been the #1 girl (sorry Katy, lol) and in the top 5. Another fantastic accomplishment and we added one more when we made the descent from Laban Rata in just over two hours when many made it in three and a half. In fact, after breakfast we napped for one and a half hours and arrived at the bottom five minutes after the groups that had left immediately after breakfast; definitely something for us to be proud of. If I don’t go home and get myself into shape then I’m the real loser here. 

My last thought of the climb goes out to the elderly porters who climb up to Laban Rata daily with the linens, supplies and food that we require. They must be 60+ years old and from what we saw they do it every day, up and down. I also think of the camera crews from around the world filming the Climbathon and the athletes themselves. The crews we met ascending during our descent had no idea what they were getting into and I advised them to get a porter for their equipment during the ascent to the summit at 3am. I felt so badly for them and hope they were getting some serious overtime pay. And to the male athletes, well, making it up and down in two hours and twenty-two minutes just can’t be humanely possible. Same goes to the women who do it in three and a half hours. Our total climb time over two days was eight hours with a massively needed fourteen-hour break and sleep.


Would I recommend it? Yes. Am I glad I didn’t know what I was getting into? Yes. It may be the hardest thing you ever do, although, my girlfriend Zoe says I am now ready for childbirth. Uh oh.

What Was Spent In This Post: Mt. Kinabalu Climb RM522 (Meals – 2b/2l/1d, dorm accommodations (4/room) and insurance -RM 7), water RM3, luggage storage at base of the mountain RM10, buffet breakfast at base of the mountain RM45 (should have had a protein bar), shared transportation to and from Timpohon gate RM11, shared cost of the guide RM43, disposable rain poncho at Laban Rata RM10.

Total: RM 644 / CAD $200.69

Just over three weeks into my trip, 27 days to go. Miss you. Xo


3 Responses to Mind Over Matter – Conquering Mt. Kinabalu

  1. Amazing pics and views .. while you re connecting with mother nature in its purest form….im in middle of manhatten staring at 6 computer screens while brokers are screaming prices. This sucks!

    2 snaps to u rockstar!


    juan October 26, 2011 at 8:53 AM Reply
  2. Well done and well written!

    hormiga33 October 28, 2011 at 7:12 AM Reply

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