There’s something about Mount Kinabalu — its awesomeness, its grace, its spirit — but it’s no wonder so many people are drawn to climbing Malaysia's tallest mountain. And the major drawcard of Mount Kinabalu is that it’s possible for someone with little or no previous mountain climbing skills to have a go.
Climbing this mountain is the main reason many travellers come to Sabah in the first place. It’s regarded as been a relatively ‘easy’ mountain to climb. However, don’t take the challenge lightly; you really do need to be prepared and have a reasonable level of fitness.
Since a major earthquake in June 2015 caused massive damage to the mountain trails and several fatalities, climb permits have been limited to 135 climbers per day, and a number of those are reserved for locals. Climbers are required to pre-book accommodation on the mountain, even if you’re fit enough to do the climb in one day.
Sutera Sanctuary Lodges manage most of the accommodation, both in the park headquarters and on the mountain. Mountain Torq operate a via ferrata climb and have their own accommodation on the mountain at Pendant Hut. Their bookings also make up part of the 135 climber limit. Both companies recommend that you book six months in advance (we don’t know what we are doing next week…) There is the off chance in low season that you can book last minute, but don’t count on it.
To maximise profit, Sutera Sanctuary Lodges usually sell a three-day, two-night package with one night staying in the park or at Poring, and one on the mountain. A two-day, one-night package only becomes available 30 days prior to the climbing date. It is good to spend two nights, as an extra night before the climb will help your body acclimatise to the altitude, and minimise your vulnerability to altitude sickness (AMS), though there is much better value accommodation outside the park. Two-night packages start at 890 ringgit, staying in dormitory accommodation for one night on the mountain and one night at Poring. If you can manage to secure a one-night package, prices start at 781 ringgit for a dorm bed at Panalaban, the mountain hut (previously known as Laban Rata). Mountain Torq sell overnight packages, but they are more expensive anyway, as they include the via ferrata climb.
With your accommodation booked, all other fees can now be paid on the mountain to Sabah Parks — cash only. Park entry fees (adult 15 ringgit; child 10 ringgit) are payable at the booth when you arrive at the park. Other fees are paid at the Sabah Parks office. Don’t forget your passport because you’ll need it to register for the climb permit (adult 212 ringgit; child 84.8 ringgit). Climb insurance is required, even if you have your own travel insurance (7 ringgit). All climbers must use the services of a registered guide (230 ringgit per guide). Guides can be shared with a maxim of five adults (the park will help you find others to share with). If you are climbing with children under 16, you must employ an additional guide for every two children. So, if you are one adult and one kid you will need two guides, and one adult with three kids, you’re required to have three guides. An ID card is issued, which you can hang around your neck — it’s your ticket to climb, so don’t forget it.
Now that your pockets are a lot lighter, it will be much easier to climb.
Porters are available. From the base to the mountain hut it’s 75 ringgit one way for a maximum of 10 kilograms, with extra charged on a percentage basis. From the hut to the summit, it’s 80 ringgit one way. Unless you are really unfit (why are you on the mountain?), it’s not that necessary to have a porter for the summit section, as you can leave most stuff at the hut. Using a porter for the main part of the trail frees you up to enjoy the walk a bit more and gives someone a job.
To kick off, you must be at Timpohon gate (1,866 metres) by 10:30, or you won’t be allowed to climb, and your expensive accommodation will not be refunded. Timpohon is 5.5 kilometres from the park headquarters, uphill. Most pay for transport, which is 17 ringgit one way per group of four climbers plus one guide. Add 4.50 ringgit per person if your group is larger. If you don’t want to carry your giant backpack, storage is available at park headquarters for 12 ringgit per bag.
At Timpohon gate, show your ID and you’re on your way. The new post-earthquake trail from Timpohon, the Ranau Trail, is about 200 metres longer than the pre-earthquake trail, and more challenging in parts. Previously an alternative trail, the Mesilau Trail gave climbers the option to climb up and down different ways, but has been closed indefinitely due to damage. From April 2016, an alternative trail from Panalaban to the Summit, the Kota Belud trail, will follow a westerly course ending at Sayat Sayat Hut (3,668 metres).
Almost every kilometre on the trail is a rest hut. Take advantage of these. Mount Kinabalu is a beautiful and rewarding walk, and you have all day. Most people take six to eight hours to reach Panalaban, but the slower you go, the better your body is dealing with the altitude. Drinking and snacking will help you acclimatise too. It’s the perfect excuse for chocolate for breakfast. The number one rule, however, is to keep hydrated. It may be cold and wet, but drinking water will lessen any negative effects of the climb. Some of the negative effects of altitude are feeling a bit bloated and feeling a bit, er, windy. All climbers are excused from burping and farting (that’s a local rule).
Ask your guide to point out pitcher plants, and the world’s tallest moss. Depending on the season there are some amazing flowering orchids and rhododendrons. Sometimes there are even edible berries. As you climb, the landscape becomes craggier and the trees shorten. The cloud forest with dripping mosses is quite magical. The weather on the mountain can change dramatically and quickly. Make sure you pack warm, windproof and waterproof clothing. We recommend something lightweight and breathable, rather than a plastic raincoat, as even when it’s cold you sweat when you are climbing. Waterproof gloves are a godsend, particularly for the summit section, where you’ll be handling wet ropes. A change of clothing is necessary too —you won’t want to be climbing a freezing summit in wet clothes.
Once you reach Panalaban (3,270 metres) you will probably feel a bit tired, even if you are very fit — the air is thin and the altitude may start to affect you. AMS can be deadly so if you don’t feel well, lower your altitude. This may only mean climbing back down a few metres, sitting for a while, and climbing back up.
Show your ID card and check in. The hot shower will be more than welcome, particularly if you’ve had a wet climb. You may not feel like eating and feel unexplainably sleepy. These are symptoms of altitude. Even if you don’t feel like it, eating will help you acclimatise. Off to bed early, as it’s an early start for the summit.
Climbers usually wake around 02:00, eat a light breakfast, and start to climb. You wont need to take much — just water, snacks, protective clothing, a small first aid kit and sunblock. Don’t forget a head torch — you’ll want your hands free for the ropes. Everything else you can leave at Panalaban.
In extreme weather the summit may be closed to climb. It’s very disappointing, and there are no refunds, however it’s only done with your safety in mind.
Past Panalaban, the landscape is dramatically different. Sheer granite and rocky boulders are what you will face today, with very few trees — it’s exposed, windy and cold. The new Ranau trail is very steep, with some sections of wooden stairs that get very slippery in the wet. Other sections you just have to haul yourself up by rope — not for the fainthearted. Here is where you’ll be thankful for the waterproof gloves. If you didn’t bring any, before the climb buy some rubber washing-up gloves, and wear them over ordinary woollen gloves — they are waterproof and they have good grip (stylish in orange or pink).
For the summit section, make sure there’s someone else in sight at all times. If you get separated from your guide or the group, wait until you can see someone else — all guides will look after all climbers, not just those they are assigned to. It’s easy to get disorientated, particularly when it’s foggy. Don’t wander off alone. When climbing rope sections, wait for the person in front of you to finish on a section, and ask people behind you to wait until you’ve finished. Slow and sure is best.
Sayat Sayat hut (3,668 metres) is the next checkpoint. If you are fast, it may be a good idea to take a rest here in the relative warmth of the hut — waiting at the summit for the sun to rise can be extremely cold.
The section above Sayat Sayat is almost all roped — use the ropes even if you feel you don’t need too. We’ve seen several people fall and get injured for being too gung-ho. Don’t panic when it starts getting light — you will still have time to reach the summit before sunrise, and if you don’t, the view is awesome from wherever you see it. At Low’s Peak (4,096 metres) (congratulations!), get the photos, but please don’t take your clothes off! This is a very sacred mountain for the local Kadazan Dusun, and your mountain guides lost several of their friends in the earthquake. Please respect them. And give other climbers a chance to get the summit shot too. Oh and eat a chocolate bar — you deserve it.
You’ll be surprised how much better you will feel as you descend. Some people find the climb down more challenging, however your head will feel clearer with a bit more oxygen. On the ropes, take it slowly and descend backwards, like a ladder. Check in at Sayat Sayat, then again at Panalaban. There’s time for breakfast, to pack up your things and start the climb down. Certificates to prove your awesomeness are available (and they’re quite pretty). They will set you back 10.60 ringgit and state how high you climbed. If you only made it to Panalaban, the cost is 1.06 ringgit. let your guide know if you’d like one, and it will be waiting at the headquarters.
Timpohon gate is the final checkpoint. If you have pre-arranged transport you can jump on the waiting bus (or wait a bit for one), otherwise it’s another 5.5 kilometres to the headquarters. Don’t forget to thank your guides and porters (tipping is appreciated). These guys do a great job in keeping climbers safe.
Buses to Kota Kinabalu or to Ranau and on to Sandakan pass by the front of the park, and can be hailed down. If you are heading to Poring, there are minivans from Ranau. Share taxis and private transport can be arranged inside the park.
Sutera Sanctuary Lodges: Block B, Lot 9, Ground Floor, Signature Office, KK Times Square, off Coastal Highway, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 487 466; www.suterasanctuarylodges.com.my
3 days, 2 nights — Poring/mountain: private room + dorm 1,190 ringgit; dorm + dorm 974 ringgit; Kinabalu Park/mountain: private room + dorm 920 ringgit; dorm + dorm 890 ringgit.
2 days, 1 night — mountain hut only: dorm 781 ringgit; private double 1,572 ringgit.
Packages include meals. Lower rates for Malaysian citizens.
Mountain Torq (for via ferrata): Suite 1-03 & 1-04, Level 2 Menara MAA, 6 Lorong Api-Api 1, Kota Kinabalu; T: (088) 268 126; email@example.com; www.mountaintorq.com
Kinabalu Park entry fee: Adult 15 ringgit, child 10 ringgit
Climbing permit: Adult 212 ringgit, child 84.8 ringgit
Climbing insurance: 7 ringgit
Mountain guide fee: 230 ringgit (1-5 climbers); (1-2 climbers under 16)
Porter fee: Timpohon—Sayat-Sayat: 75 ringgit one way (max 10 kg); Timpohon—Summit: 80 ringgit one way
Transport within park: 1-4 climbers + 1 guide: 17 ringgit one way; above 5 climbers: 4.50 ringgit per person
Locker: 12 ringgit
How to get there
From North Bus Terminal Inanam, all buses bound for Sandakan, Lahad Dat and Tawau will pass the park entrance (1.5 hours), but you’re better off taking a minivan (20 ringgit) or share taxi from Padang Merdeka Terminal. A private taxi from Padang Merdeka is 160 ringgit.
By Sally Arnold
Last updated on 2nd October, 2016.