THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO CLIMBING MOUNT KINABALU

Climbing Mount Kinabalu has always been in my bucket list ever since I got posted to Sabah two years ago. It was a personal achievement and ...

Climbing Mount Kinabalu has always been in my bucket list ever since I got posted to Sabah two years ago. It was a personal achievement and a notable highlight of the year while going through life in Borneo in the middle of a pandemic. And it definitely makes a perfect anecdote about my life in the East Malaysia!

Conquering the peak of Akinabalu is no easy feat. It’s doable if you have good health and moderate fitness level, but it’s challenging. Both mentally and physically. But once you made it to the summit and completed the entire journey from ascent to descent, it’s the most rewarding experience you have ever earned.

This was probably the craziest thing I’d ever done this year because our Mount Kinabalu trip was pretty much an impromptu challenge! If you have known me on a personal level, I absolutely need to plan things ahead, and sort out the details prior to carrying out something. We booked a month earlier before the climb and we had around 3 weeks to train and prep!

 

What you need to know before climbing Mount Kinabalu?

    • Mount Kinabalu is the tallest mountain in Malaysia and the highest accessible peak is the Low’s Peak (4095m).
    • Climbers are required to stay ONE night at Panalaban Base Camp (2D 1N climb). One Day Mount Kinabalu Climb permits are currently NOT Available. It’s temporarily suspended due to safety issues. (as of Dec 2020)
    • There are two summit trails - Ranau Trail(standard) and Kota Belud Trail (path less taken). (from Panalaban area to the Summit). Read more here
    • Climbers can opt to choose the standard summit climb or Via Ferrata.
    • Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, only 120 climbing permits issued daily by Sabah Parks as of 16 September 2021.
    • All climbers are required to engage a mountain guide.
    • No age limit for climbers! As long as you’re in good health status and fitness level or you have doctor’s approval if you are on any medication.
    • Best month to climb: February, March, April

Standard Climb vs Via Ferrata

Via Ferrata is a protected mountain pathway consisting of rungs, rails, cables, bridges that are installed on the rock face. The only difference from the standard climb is that Via Ferrata has a different and more scenic, yet challenging pathway when descending from the summit to Panalaban on Day 2. 

Via Ferrata is definitely not for the faint hearted with a fear of heights, as Via Ferrata Mount Kinabalu is certified to be the highest in the world! But if you’re up for a more challenging Mount K experience, you should definitely go for it. Because Via Ferrata allows you to enjoy the scenic view that are inaccessible via the normal descent route.

There are 2 types of Via Ferrata routes – Walk the Torq & Low’s Peak Circuit. Walk the Torq is designed for beginners, with the routes takes 2-3 hours to complete, while Low’s Peak Circuit is more on an intermediate level which takes 4-5 hours to complete.

Read more info here on Via Ferrata routes here to help you to decide which Mount K experience you’d like to have!


Track Route

For the standard climb, this is the trail route for the usual 2D1N climb packages. You may opt for the 3D2N climb package which includes an extra day at Kinabalu Park prior to the climb. Alternatively, you may plan on your own to stay a day earlier in Kinabalu Park or Kundasang area to acclimatize with the altitude before your climb.

Day1: Kinabalu Park-Timpohon Gate-Ascend Mount Kinabalu-Panalaban

Day 2: Panalaban-Summit Ascent to Low’s Peak-Laban Rata- Descend Mount Kinabalu-Timpohon Gate

The first day of the climb is basically the journey to Panalaban Base Camp. After a good rest, you’ll proceed to the summit attack on the next day, and subsequently the descent.

For Via Ferrata, you’ll be experiencing a different route from the summit to Panalaban, before descending.

Accommodation Options

At Km 6, you’ll reach Panalaban Base Camp at an elevation of 3,272 m where you’ll rest, freshen up, and spend the night before continuing your journey to the summit.

There are a few lodging options in Panalaban, each operated by different managements.

Laban Rata Rest House- operated by Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (SSL).
Largest accommodation on Mount K, thus Panalaban is sometimes refer as Laban Rata. Meals are served here for all climbers. Dorm style accommodation & private rooms with ensuite bathroom available. Options for dormitory are private dorm with attached bathroom or unisex dormitory with communal bathroom. Due to a cable damage in September 2009, all Laban Rata Dormitory Rooms and common bathrooms are now non-heated. 
Price range (in estimation) for accommodation & meals:
Private room RM 2.4 k for 2 pax. Dormitory: ~RM800 per pax
(as of Apr 2021)

 Pendant Hut- operated by Mountain Torq. Only for Via Ferrata climbers. It’s where the highest post box in the world (3,289 m above sea level) located! Private room for 4 or dorm style accommodation. You may purchase the Via Ferrata packages which includes accommodation and meals through Mountain Torq. 

you may send postcards from Laban Rata too!

 Lemaing Hut- operated by Sabah Parks. Only for Malaysians

Most affordable& for budget stay. Unisex dormitories with common non-heated showers. Room number will be assigned upon reservation. House 28 climbers.
Price range (in approximation): RM200 (accommodation & meals)

 Panalaban Hostel - operated by Sabah Parks. For Malaysians and international climbers.

Similar to Lemaing, it also has non-heated unisex dormitory bunk beds and a shared common bathroom. Has 2 blocks- Mokodau and Kinateki hostel. House 25 climbers each.
Price range (in approximation): RM400 (accommodation & meals)

 



Preparation

Booking

You may book it through a tour agent or simply book it yourself via website or email. We booked it directly with the management ourselves to save us from unnecessary agent fees. But if you do not want to go through the hassle of multiple bookings, going through a travel agent would be a better choice.

If you’re booking it yourself without going through tour packages offered by tour agents, you may begin with accommodation booking. Accommodation booking is performed directly with the respective operators. Accommodation packages usually include food as well.

For lodgings managed by Sabah Parks, you may book directly via their website: booking.sabahparks.org.my.

As for Laban Rata Rest House, you may book through Sutera Sanctuary Lodges via website, email, or walk-in their administrative office in Sutera Avenue.  Likewise, Via Ferrata can be booked via Mountain Torq.






Breakdown of Cost

How Much Does It Cost to Climb Mount Kinabalu?

Now that we have done the accommodation booking, let’s see what was next.

Kinabalu park Entrance Fee: RM3
Climbing Permit: RM50
Climbing Insurance: RM7
Mountain Guide: RM230 (for 4 of us)
Transport from Kinabalu Park to Timpohon Gate: RM17/way (for 4 people)
Climbing Certificate: RM 10.60
Porter:RM13/kg (from Timpohon-Laban Rata) one way

 (*Cost calculated for a Malaysian adult. For more information on the rates, kindly refer to the picture below)

All these fees need to be paid by cash in Sabah Parks on the day of the climb. Alternatively, you can opt not to hire a porter to carry your belongings because why not?

Our total estimated basic cost including accommodation and food was around RM700. Prices may be varying as there was a promotion when we purchased it. Be sure to check out their latest promo on social media pages so you’ll get the best deal.




Basic Packing List

Once you have settled your accommodation booking and know your estimated expenses for your climb, it’s time to start packing!

For starters, create a packing list tailored to your personal needs. You may refer to the essential packing list here  as your reference.

This was my personal packing list which was proven fundamental throughout my hike.

Big waterproof bag (for the porter)
Small hiking bag (hand carry)
Trekking pole
Rain coat/poncho
Hiking shoes with good grip
2 fast-drying shirts
2 pairs of track pants
2 pairs of socks (bring extra!)
Windbreaker/ waterproof jacket
Fleece Jacket
Uniqlo Heat tech Top
Uniqlo Heat tech leggings
Heating Pads (optional for those who can stand the cold)
Beanie
Gloves with good grip, better still waterproof
Sunglasses
Head torch & extra batteries
Knee guard (optional for stronk knees)
Towel, small towel
Toiletries- sunblock, toothbrush, toothpaste, wet wipes, insect repellent
Food- drinking water, isotonic drinks, chocolate bars/energy bars, medications
IC, some cash 




Equipment

If you’re an avid hiker, you probably own all the hiking gears and ready to climb any moment. If you made a vow to only climb Mount K and never climb any mountains after that, I suggest you to borrow hiking equipment from friends if possible, or you may purchase them and sell it later.

I purchased most of the items especially clothing. I’ll be sharing briefly on where I got the stuffs from at most reasonable prices in Kota Kinabalu.

Sports Direct Oceanus- this is basically heaven for outdoor and sports junkie in KK.  You can basically find most of the hiking or outdoor gear here such as trekking pole, clothing, gloves, backpacks, and many more. I got my running shirts and trekking pants here as well as my trekking pole. They do have sales promotions from time to time and sometimes you can get a really good bargain out of it. Alternatively, you can try checking out Tong’s Traveler Gear at Suria Sabah for windbreaker, backpacks although their products are a little shabby for me. You may also check out Decathlon for their affordable equipment as well as clothing and shoes, however I am a little skeptical with online shopping for outdoor gears, something I am not very familiar with (because there’s no physical store here in Sabah). Or if you don’t mind spending a little in investing on your future hiking adventures, you might as well just go to Montanic Adventure Store (Suria Sabah)!


 Uniqlo
Most of my outfits on the second day came from my own winter wear wardrobe. It’s crucial to wear appropriate outfits to keep you warm prior ascending to the summit as the weather can be very cold and windy with temperature as low as -3 Celcius. Uniqlo’s Heat Tech turtleneck top and Ultra warm leggings really did a great job of keeping me warm. Adding an extra layer of fleece jacket from Uniqlo also and top off with a windbreaker, and you’re good to go.

Daiso- got some heating pads or hand warmers, for extra warmth.  

Mr DIY- Head lamp & some extra batteries.
Shopee- found a pair of waterproof gloves with pretty good grip from Naturehike on Shopee. Be sure to place your order at least 2 weeks earlier!
Watsons- Got most of my travel sized toiletries here!

 

Training

Given that we had less than one month to train and prep our body for the challenge, this is probably not the right place to seek fitness prep advice from. It’s recommended to start training couple of months prior to your climb. You may start with cardio training like running, walking, cycling, swimming to build up stamina and endurance.

Bukit Padang hiking trail

I usually do home workouts since MCO begun. I increased the intensity and frequency of my work outs 3 weeks prior to the climb. If you’re training in Kota Kinabalu, Bukit Padang is the popular training spot among locals. That’s simply because its hiking trail is similar to Mount Kinabalu’s.

Aside from cardio, upper body strength training and core work out is important too as it will be beneficial during the rope climbing to the summit.

 


The Climb

It’s the journey to the top that matters

Kinabalu Park SSL

We stayed one night before the climb at Kinabalu Park for altitude acclimatization and also for convenience. The accommodation package in Sutera Sanctuary Lodges offered a morning breakfast set too. 

energy booster shot before our climb


The lovely breakfast set gave us an energy boost that we definitely need before kick starting our long adventure ahead.


Registration

The registration process was not exactly a smooth one. There were many large groups of climbers who registered together which lengthens the process. 

In addition to the long wait, there was no clear guide from the staffs on how to go about the whole registration flow. As we were booked through Sutera Sanctuary, we were required to register at two places- Sutera Sanctuary booth and Sabah Parks office.

at least we had a view of Akinabalu during our long wait.

After registration with Sutera Sanctuary to confirm our attendance for the accommodation, we received a packed lunch. 

weighing our bags for porter services

Then, we proceed to the Sabah Parks registration booth to fill up some forms and made payment for the permit, insurance, guide, transport, and porter at the admin office. We were given the ID tags to be worn at all times. The entire registration process took more than one hour which delayed our hike a little.


Day 1: Timpohon Gate- Panalaban Base Camp

Before we commence, our mountain guide briefed us about the general overview of the trail and journey to Panalaban. 

There are rest huts located along the route at every 1KM. They are equipped with toilets, untreated water supply, and seating area for climbers to catch a breath.

The journey for the first few KM was like walking up a never-ending flight of staircase. We stopped by at a few photogenic sites to take some photos as well as admiring the lush greenery of the tropics. We also stumbled upon the pitcher plant which is indigenous to Borneo.

Squirrels came to greet us at every rest point, eyeing our food perhaps. It’s advisable not to rest longer than 5 minutes to prevent body from cooling down, thus harder to regain momentum.

April was supposed to be the dry month, thus the best month to climb. But the weather was unpredictable and luck was not on our side. 

After we had our packed lunch at Layang-Layang Shelter at KM5, it began to rain. 

The routes became more challenging past KM5, never-ending steps turned into a rocky path. With the heavy downpour came in the middle of our hike, we were literally climbing up the cascading waterfalls. Every step taken was a resistance against the flow of rain water rushing into my shoes. (Get waterproof or water-resistant shoes!)

Reaching Panalaban base camp safely within 6 hours was hailed as a milestone achieved on the first day. It could have been earlier if it’s not for the bad weather. After all, it’s advisable to hike slow and steady for acclimatization and it’s also better to conserve energy for tomorrow’s peak ascent. On a positive note, we were able to enjoy the beautiful sunset view accompanied by a rainbow while enjoying a warm cup of tea at the elevation of 3272m above sea level!

We had our dinner after freshening up. Dinner time at Laban Rata was from 16 30 hrs to 19 30 hrs. The buffet style dinner exceeded my expectations. The array of food choices ranged from roast chicken to lamb, western and Asian options, and even vegetarian option upon request.

Lights off at 8pm to conserve energy I suppose, so be sure to prepare everything you need before that! We retired to bed shortly after that to get as much rest as possible before the summit attack at 2am.

 

Day 2: Panalaban to Summit

After gearing up with layers of winter wear, gloves, and headlamp, we continued our journey to the summit at 2am. It’s better to start early in order to meet the ‘’cut-off time’’ at Sayat-Sayat Checkpoint at 4.30am-5am and at KM8 at 7am.

The route to the summit was the most challenging. Apart from battling with the cold and chilly subzero temperature, I remembered struggling to climb the rocky mountain surface with the fixed hanging rope while struggling to breathe the thin air at high altitude.

It was steep and rocky along the trail to the summit. Nevertheless, it felt great to see the stars shining in the sky amid the pitch darkness of night. Whenever I looked up to the sky, it kind of gave me hope I need to keep going.

When I finally reached Low’s Peak, it gave me the most rewarding feeling of self-achievement and a great deal of satisfaction, lauding my own efforts.


The sunrise view from Mount Kinabalu was absolutely the best. Our mountain guide definitely knows the best photography spots at the summit.


Descent

After soaking all in the incredible feeling of being on top of the world, we began our descent to Panalaban. The sun had risen; hence the weather became really hot and sunny. UV rays were pretty strong up there, considering we were nearer to the sun. Be sure to apply UV protection and wear sunglasses. We reached Panalaban base camp and had our breakfast.

The descent was harder than expected. It started to rain from the moment we began our journey. The perpetual rain continued to plague us all the way to Timpohon gate. It was even more daunting and dangerous descending in the rain while carefully tread on the steep and slippery rocks. Walking sideways and zig-zag pattern with the aid of the walking stick really helped.

 Drenched with sweat and rainwater, it was the longest and most uncomfortable hike I ever had. Throughout the hike, all I could think of was getting into a nice warm bubble bath while sipping iced lemon tea after this ordeal.

 

The Aftermath

Treat yourself your favourite meal to replace those lost calories because you deserve it! Hydrate sufficiently with electrolytes and do some stretching or cooling down exercises. I soaked my feet with a bucket of ice water too. And got plenty of rest.

 

PRO TIPS:

(Coming from my personal experience) 

  • Bring extra socks (more than 2 pairs). You may need a change of socks especially after drenched with rain. In fact, it comes into handy in protecting your feet from the cold at night.
  • Bring 2 packs of disposable rain poncho. I had to reuse mine during the descent because I did not expect it would rain again on the next day as it was supposed to be a ‘dry’ month. Weather is very unpredictable up there, so be prepared.
  • Invest in a good pair of hiking shoes with water resistant properties. My Columbia trail shoes were not very suitable for climbing the rocky path at the summit trail. Not to mention that my shoes were literally collecting rainwater. Good news was there was a shoe drying service at Panalaban Resthouse! Not sure it is available all the time, but the service was great and very useful. Our shoes were dried before the summit attack.
  • Laban Rata no longer provides clean boiled water. You may bring your own drinking water or buy at Laban Rata. The price of getting a porter to carry 1 litre of water is same as the price of 1 litre water bottle at Laban Rata. But, there might be possibility the water bottles are sold out. 
  • You may pack enough energy bars but TBH, I only had one chocolate bar. I was feeling thirsty more than hungry.
  • Trim your toe nails to prevent nail bruise as a result of nail bumping to the shoes. I trimmed mine but one of my toenails was still bruised. I guess trimming will just reduced the risk of nail bruising.
  • It's better if you take medications as prophylaxis for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Dexamethasone works for me and I never experienced any symptoms of AMS. Consult your pharmacist to get the right medications and correct dosage!

HELPFUL LINKS:



together with our awesome mountain guide!


It was a victorious feat to climb the highest mountain in Malaysia and an unforgettable experience. Will I climb again? Well…. maybe for Via Ferrata.




Disclaimer: This blog article is written solely based on the author's own experience and personal opinions and should not be used as a standard guideline. Any information in this article should be cross checked with reliable sources and latest guidelines before using them at your own risk.







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