Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia

Over the Easter Weekend 2019, the Ambling Rose team tackled a 2 day, 1 night Mount Kinabalu summit climb. We joined a group of 12 others, friends & family for this gruelling challenge. Mr D had done no training prior to the climb, I had been training hard but worried more about how I would respond to high altitude. Mount Kinabalu’s summit is 4,095 meters (13,435ft) above sea level, making it the highest mountain in Malaysia. I had never been at such a high altitude, probably the highest was just under 2,000 metres in NZ.


lets rewind almost 4 years ago when we were going to first climb Mount Kinabalu. One month before we were to fly over, an earthquake in Malaysia occurred on the 5th of June 2015. The earthquake tragically killed 18 people on the mountain & closed the damaged  mountain trail. Hence we took on an alternate jungle trek of 12kms hard slog in thick forest, steep difficult & muddy terrain. I slipped & fell almost at the 10km marker breaking my ankle in 4 places. It took 5 hours or something like that for the guides to get me out (though it felt much longer than this).  I was still determined to come back one day to tackle the mountain climb – unfinished business – and so here we were – back in Kota Kinabalu, boarding a bus to Kinabalu Park, 2 hours out of the city.

Friday sees us a 2 hour bus trip out to Kinabalu Park, where we register for our climb, receive our climb permits that we must wear around our necks. We are at 1,585 metres already as we stay the night in gorgeous lodge accommodation to help climatise to the higher attitude. It is much more cooler & pleasant with an abundance of flora & fauna. Even if one did not want to climb the mountain, the area here would be very pleasant to stay a few days, walk the many smaller trails around the area, visit the poring hot springs or see the worlds largest flower. Or just relax in the lodges which are so cosy & relaxing in themselves. Mr D got carried away the first night, drink after drink after drink! Some of the group were in party mood, others just wanted an early night as the next day was going to be hard. Hence Mr D got to bed quite late & in a merry good mood!

Saturday morning started early with getting up & dressing for the climb. Making sure backpacks had all required items needed. No one had slept much, either too excited to sleep or because high altitude can cause sleep deprivation. The backpack requirement is not too heavy between 4 & 6kg. You need to equip with enough water as no water availability on the way up. Snacks, warm gear for the summit & headtorch for the dark morning climb. You can also pay a porter to carry your extra gear up. We had breakfast in the restaurant, a buffet of hot & cold food, collected our packed lunches & away we went in the bus. The bus took us 20 minutes further along to the starting point called Timpohon Gate at 1,866 metres.

The hike starts with a descent down steps which the next day would see us all cursing before the finish. We pass the beautiful Carson Waterfall, then the climb begins! A steady constant ascent 6kms upwards & upwards with a few breather short sections of flat ground. Wooden steps, carved out gravel steps, large tree root steps, Boulder steps, large rock steps of uneven sizes & shapes. The sweat pours out of the body instantly. There are shelters along the way to have a break at. Benches to sit at, sometimes a table, and flushing toilets. And always squirrels everywhere trying to steal our food. The porters & workers make the climb look easy as they go pass us carrying huge heavy & bulky uncomfortable loads on their backs. I guess they have to bring all their supplies up to the huts on foot.

Luckily I had been training but even so, this climb was tough. Mr D started off well but soon, soaking in sweat, was starting to slow & look tired. The climb is definitely mind over body. At one point or many points, we all thought about stopping & returning back down, but the will to keep going was stronger than our bodies. I stopped ahead of Mr D at Layang Layang Shelter. Here there were two shelters with tables & seats with a separate staff hut. I sat to take my lunch as it started to rain – good timing! Mr D laboured up a short time later to have his break. We must be almost at 4kms over half way now. It was getting colder & wet. Temperatures were changing, the terrain was changing. As we went higher up no views could be seen as it was a total white out.

I popped open my trekking umbrella as we continued after lunch – the idea a lot of others also had! Here, people were descending back down from being up at the summit that morning. It was frustrating at times as the path wasn’t wide enough at times so one had to wait to let others through. Or being stuck behind a group going up slower than yourself. The steps are kinder up to here, where they go up a notch in difficulty. Large uneven steps & tree roots, slippery in places. I was at my usual pace & passed Mr D whom had hit the wall. He just stopped on the steps & gazed off into the distance with a vacant look in his eyes. He looked beaten, defeated. I encouraged him to keep going. Mr D looked at me saying “I’m stuffed. I can’t do this. My legs feel heavy”. Somehow but his mind won as he continued upwards. I had set off on my own taking a break at the next Shelter – Villosa, before the 5km mark. I felt good but tired. Mr D emerged just as I continued onwards, plopping down on the bench in exhaustion. He was regretting not doing any training beforehand. “If I was fitter, I could enjoy this. Wish I had trained so it would be easier.” Mr D also carried a daypack with no hip belt so he was taking the weight all on his shoulders & the pack wasn’t comfortable to carry. Not ideal for hiking up a mountain with.

I continued onwards & wouldn’t see Mr D until at our accommodation. The rain had stopped as I traversed the last km which was the worse & hardest. Huge boulders made up the trail. And with the higher altitude, I was slowing right down. For the last half km it was a very slow progress. I would go 5 or 6 steps, stop, breathe, rest, repeat all the way to Laban Rata Resthouse – our accommodation at 3,273 metres. It had taken me 5 hours to get there as I gratefully went inside the main seating room out of the cold & fell on a chair for awhile. Mr D came in an hour later, struggletown, but determined, he had made it, all our group had made it. He was wet & cold as it had started raining again before he arrived. The first day completed, the second day would be the hardest. We shared in a dormitory room with 3 bunk beds on the ground floor. The toilets wouldn’t flush, one had to manually fill the toilet cistern with water to flush as they didn’t automatically refill. The lights would be off due to power saving during the day with power coming on in the early evening. My head torch was for the summit climb, it also came in handy for using the toilet in the dark! The shower consisted of a large tub of ice cold water with a scoop. Many smelly tired hikers could not care for an icy cold wash but I got the task quickly done, actually feeling better afterwards. I then put on all my warm clothes & rested with my legs up the wall. Mr D decided he only had enough energy to collapse in his bed still with his sweaty clothes on.

There was no alcohol for us that day, too tired, all we wanted was water, electrolytes & a hot cuppa. Buffet dinner was served to the 100 odd hikers there from 4 to 7.30pm. An array of meats, rice, potatoes, vegetables & soups. The room smelt of smelly BO hikers that hadn’t washed. Our guide we had to rouse from his slumber to debrief us on the next days climb. By 6pm, we were all tucked up in our beds. We set the alarm for 2am as we were to set off by 2.30am to continue the climb to the summit for sunrise. Sleep eluded us. Excited? Altitude affected insomnia? Or the banging & crashing noises going on upstairs? We were up before the alarm anyway, getting dressed at 1.45am Easter Sunday morning. For the summit, you leave most your stuff in your room, taking a small bag or waist bag for water, warm clothes, beanie, snacks, camera & gloves.

We had an early morning buffet breakfast at 2am before setting off with our guides. In fact, our guide took off with our group without Mr D & I, but we quickly caught up to them. We had 2.8kms of climb to the summit. Up we went in darkness, a long trail of head torches in the dark, going up steadily over multiple ladders & steps. We were tired & took our legs a little while to warm up. With up to 100 people going up, it was a slow long train. This was good as it forced us to go slow, but frustrating to stop & wait then go again all the time. Some fast people would push pass us to get ahead. The stench of hiker BO was strong as we were all bunched together, & not everyone had an icy shower wash the previous day. 😏 We reached the checkpoint shelter with heaps of time to spare. Sayat-Sayat at 3,668 metres. The cut off time being 5am. I got there just after 4am & waited as Mr D had fallen behind again. We show our climbing permits & our names get ticked off the list. Then the last stretch to the summit begins.

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By now it is easier to see, the impressive jagged mountain walls can be made out. We are now traversing along open bare granite rock. We are above the clouds, above the tree line. Only small tuffs of grass grow out of the rocks in places. A thick rope goes all the way up to the summit, of which you are meant to hold onto. But the weather was perfect. The surface not slippery so most people walked alongside the rope, sometimes using it where the ascent was too steep. We continued to climb, most people now slowing right down, they would walk a ways, stop, sit down, rest, continue again. Mr D was hitting the wall, he walked 5 steps, stopped for 5 breaths, then walked 5 steps, he continued this pattern the whole way while trying to breathe in enough oxygen.

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I was coping very well, not feeling affected by the altitude at all. I felt strong, I practiced my deep breaths, exhaling all the air from my lungs & inhaling as I walked, a tip that is recommended. I would stop & wait for Mr D to catch up, speaking positive reinforcement to him. By the time my head torch shone on the 8km sign, I was keen to get to the summit. I could see the orange glow coming up behind the mountain top of the impending sunrise & needed to get a wriggle on to catch the sunrise at the top. Not spotting Mr D close behind, I took off on my own. Passing many tired slow going hikers. The scramble up the last 100 metres being the hardest. I started breathing more heavily  by this point, pushing my body that felt weary now, upwards, using the ropes over this treacherous part. My Morton’s neuroma in my left foot woke up, sending pain through the ball of my foot & toes. I made it just in time! Squeezing amongst the others up there to watch the sun burst through. It is truly magical being up above the clouds, the views spectacular. The temperature freezing as I quickly added extra layers on for warmth.

Mr D made it too eventually. He looked totally shattered as he climbed on up next to me, sitting down needing space to rest quietly, snapping if someone dared wanted him to pose for a photo.😂 We did go up to summit point with the sign in front of it for our mandatory summit photos. Called Low’s Peak, and marks the 4,095 metres height. We had others pushing in front of the queue, this made Mr D more irritable as he snapped at the queue jumpers. You couldn’t stay up too long as you got too cold. The descent down being most tricky. My Morton’s neuroma continued to piss me off as pain would flare through my foot each time I stepped on it.

The gently sloping granite rock was easier to walk down then up. Once we passed back through the checkpoint, I made the mistake of using the toilets there. All of them in appalling condition with unsightly brown spatters up the bowls with lots more nauseous looking brown horrid sitting in the bowls. Needless to say, I did not stay long. We didn’t realise the dangerous climb going up in the dark, but it was perilous in places going down. Some granite rocks were very steep at almost 60 degrees slope as I hung onto the thick rope tightly & slid my way down. It was a tough descent back to Laba Rata, not getting back until after 9am. But the sun was out & warming up, the skies clear showing the clouds below us & Laba Rata Resthouse.  Mr D came in while I was eating my second breakfast. The insult now was that we had to collect our gear & head all the way back down. We were exhausted from the summit climb, my knees already hurting from the descent. Now we had to descend another 6kms?!! The shop had run out of water bottles for sale. Lucky I had enough water. Mr D was concerned he didn’t have enough. In fact, half the stuff on their menu list was unavailable. 🤔

We had to depart by 10.30am & start the long descent down the same way we came up. Already by now the clouds had swirled in blocking all views. That last km which became our first km going down was still a bastard. It took me awhile to complete the first km trying to traverse the big boulders. Each km after that got easier & quicker. Mr D was slow, saying he would take 6 hours to get down, 1 hr per km! So after a km & a half, I had left Mr D behind, not seeing him again until Timpohon Gate. My knees hurt more as I kept pushing on, there was no enjoyment, just wanting to finish & sit down, to not go down one more damn step! I passed many people heading up, some looking wiped out early in the climb. At one stage my foot slipped & I landed on my butt. I just got back up & continued. It took me 4 hours to get to the bottom. Mr D turned up an hour later. We had done it! 13 out of 14 people in our group had successfully made it to the summit & back down. And there were no injuries, we did well! Mr D climbed Mount Kinabalu when he was 12 years old. He returned & proved he could do it again at 66 years of age, with no training. He had done well, but not without repercussions. After the climb, my thigh muscles were tight & sore. I couldn’t walk properly for two days. On the third day, the pain was gone & I was back to normal. Mr D had major trouble with his knee. As a result of pushing his legs too hard, it aggravated his knee which caused considerable pain until he returned home & got it seen to. We ended up back at the restaurant in Kinabalu Park & enjoyed a late afternoon lunch with beers before returning to Kota Kinabalu.

Mount Kinabalu – ticked off the bucket list!🤛🏻👍🏻🤗

About the author AmblingRose

We are keen hikers based in Perth, Western Australia. We have hiked 7 New Zealand multi-day walk trails, the 800km Camino Frances in Spain, the Cape to Cape in WA, Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, Malaysia. We have hiked sections of the 1003 km Bibbulmun Track in WA with plans to complete an end to end this year in Spring, 2019.

All posts by AmblingRose →

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