While Malaysia often doesn’t get as much exciting travel press compared to its other ASEAN neighbours, many forget that it’s not just Penang, KL, and Peninsular Malaysia that make up the country. The Malay states of Sabah and Sarawak are part of the wild island of Borneo, and it’s here that you’ll find Mount Kinabalu, which at 4,095 meters is the highest peak between the east end of the Himalayas and Puncak Jaya in West Papua. The mountain and the 750 square kilometre national park around it is a stunningly beautiful place, and well worth the 2 day climb up to its alpine summit, certainly one of Southeast Asia’s premier adventure travel highlights.
Mount Kinabalu was first climbed in 1851 by the British colonial Hugh Low, who reached the summit plateau with a local Dusun guide after three weeks of forging their own trail through the jungle from the base of the mountain. However, Low never made it to the true summit due to exhaustion, and it took another 37 years before zoologist John Whitehead stood on Low’s Peak. These days, the summit of Kinabalu is far more attainable, but it is still a long slog up from the bottom and brutally taxing on the knees, quadriceps, and calves. While the main route up is not difficult, it is equivalent of getting on a Stairmaster for six hours a day, so best to be prepared.
It’s not just the amazing views from the top that lure visitors to Mount Kinabalu. The forests below are home to some of the highest plant life biodiversity in the world. Some 5-6000 plant species are found in the varied climactic zones that make up the mountain environment, from tropical rainforest jungle down at the bottom all the way up to the frozen alpine zone conditions found at the summit. At least ten percent of all of these plant species can be found nowhere else in the world. Along with this variety can be found over 600 species of butterflies, 300 types of different birds, and another 100 or so mammals. Endemic carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plants, rare orchids, and the world’s largest flower rafflesia are just some of the jungle flora to be found.
Compared to trekking in Europe or North America, the going here is pretty cushy, as there is no need to carry a tent, sleeping bag or food, not to mention that filtered drinking water is available in water tanks next to shelters which line the route every kilometer or so all the way up to the Laban Rata hut, a comfortable climbing lodge nested under the main peak up at 3,200 meters, providing heated dorm rooms, buffet meals, and hot showers. Additionally, porters are also available for those who want them, almost all are members of the local Dusun people, and a large percentage of them are women, with the earnings they make going into their families and the local community.
It still takes a lot of stamina and sweat to scale the mountain though, as the path climbs an endless series of built stairs up past wild ginger, orchids, ferns, and the occasional Nepenthes rajah, the largest pitcher plant in the world, a giant plant that can hold over three liters of water in its basin and has even drowned rats in its conical bow!
From the humid jungle below, one eventually emerges into an alpine zone, where stunted shrub branches lie bent over by the wind, usually shrouded in dense mist which covers the higher reaches of the peak by mid afternoon. It’s here that the Laban Rata hut is found, surrounded by gnarled pygmy trees that are over 100 years old, and where trekkers take a rest before attempting the summit.
It’s only two kilometres from the hut to the summit, but they take over three hours, much of it clambering over huge granite blocks that have some steep sections. While not technically difficult, there are ropes to hold onto, and as most climbers set out at 2-3am in order to see the sunrise, there is no light save for a long queue of headlamps. Additionally, the altitude up here gets pretty thin and many trekkers start feeling out of breath, the first symptoms of mild altitude sickness. It’s usually very windy and cold up here, requiring fleece jackets and good outerwear, quite the opposite of the shorts and t-shirts worn in the steamy jungles below.
It’s all worth the effort though. From the summit plateau there are tremendous views of the surrounding Crocker Range peaks silhouetted against the colours of the dawn and rising sun, and on clear days, one can see all the way to the China Sea. The granite rock up here is beautiful, and for those who want even more adventure, the mountain tourism commission here has set up a via ferrata climbing cable system on some more challenging routes, where guides lead novice and more advanced climbers up stone walls equipped with cables that they can clip into from the safety of a harness. Regardless of route choice, it is now required to have a guide on every route on Kinabalu, but even couples and individual travellers can join up down below to go as a group with the required local guide.
For the truly masochistic, the Kinabalu Climbathon takes place every October. Italian Marco De Gasperi holds the record for this crazy mountain race, reaching the top in a sickening two and a half hours, and then back down in another hour!
Do note that while Mount Kinabalu was effected by a severe earthquake that struck the area earlier in 2015, the climbing route has been repaired and reopened as of September 1. There is a permit and quota system in place on the mountain, so make sure to make advance bookings before heading out. The Kinabalu Climb Booking Centre handles all arrangements: www.mountkinabalu.com .