Whether you are a nomad who prefers to move with a step-by-step itinerary or a traveller who goes with the flow, your trip to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo would most likely include a wish to climb Mount Kinabalu.
This majestic mountain in the National Park of Sabah welcomes both beginners and advanced hikers and climbers, and the only things that determine which route to climb are your physical conditioning, mental stamina and your travel budget.
Speaking of the latter, as we calculated in our post about seeing orangutans in Borneo independently, the eco-adventures in Malaysia can reach astronomical prices and climbing Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is not an exception.
Yet, Mount Kinabalu is one of the natural wonders you won’t want to miss in Malaysian Borneo, especially if you are into trekking and you don’t mind pushing the boundaries of your physical fitness.
The Kinabalu Park covers 754 square kilometers with Mount Kinabalu in the middle. You can either take it easy in the well-marked paths or opt for a challenge to climb to the summit (Low’s Peak) of Mount Kinabalu. Not enough adrenaline? Then you can choose the via ferrata route, which requires at least some basic climbing skills.
We do love challenges and we are big nature and adventures lovers, but to climb Mount Kinabalu up to the peak was out of the question for three reasons: our budget, our limited wardrobe and our fitness condition.
Officially, it is recommended that you climb Mount Kinabalu in two days so you can acclimatize yourself and rest before reaching the peak, which you will climb in time for the sunrise.
That was all fine by us, until the point when we were told the price for this adventure.
A 2D1N package of climbing to the summit costs 900 MYR/$283 per person. What does that include, you ask?
The package for one person:
15 MYR/ $4.66 – entrance fee
100 MYR/ $31 – climbing permit
7 MYR/ $2.17 – climbing insurance
33 MYR/ $10.27 – return transport Park HQ – Timpohon Gate
128 MYR/ $39.83 – guide for 1-3 people (for climbing the summit from the Timpohon Gate)
400 MYR/ $124.50 – 1 night (actually, just a few hours of sleep on a bunk bed in a dormitory, since you start the climb to the summit shortly after midnight)
The rest of the price covers meals: a packed lunch for the first day, dinner, early supper, breakfast and lunch back at the Park HQ.
However, we read a post from fellow travellers who got a cheaper option from a tour operator in Kota Kinabalu and it cost them 672.50 MYR/ $209.30 per person.
Well, we guess the fact that we arrived to Kota Kinabalu during the high season played a role in the pricing.
If you’re wondering whether there was a cheaper option, we are happy to say yes, there is! A one-day climb adventure is also available. Although the price is much affordable (202.50 MYR/ $63), as you don’t pay the night and the food, you need to be in excellent physical condition.
What to wear
The temperature at Low’s Peak can drop to 6°C/42°F, so apart from a sturdy pair of shoes, you’ll need to get your warm and windproof outfit ready as the weather on the mountain can change unexpectedly.
We travel light and the warmest top we carry is a fleece jumper and no long-sleeve t-shirt or wind-proof anorak, so we couldn’t risk climbing the summit with the clothes we had.
We asked at the Park HQ whether there was a chance we could rent any proper hiking shoes and warm clothes, but no luck.
Ready to climb Mount Kinabalu?
Well, not really! We are not lazy bums and we can wake up early easily, but the schedule of the one-day climb was far too tough for us. Morning call at 6 am, a shuttle to the Timpohon Gate (1866.4 m) from the Park HQ (1563.8 m) at 7 am, arrival at Laban Rata (3272.7 m) around 10 am, and at Low’s Peak (4095.2 m) by 1 pm. All hikers must be back at the HQ by 5 pm.
The whole climb takes around 8-8.5 hours, which requires coping with the altitude change much more quickly than if you would climb the mountain in two days.
What we did
Instead of climbing up to the peak in one day, (or 2 days like most of the people do) we decided to climb only halfway up to to the Layang Layang shelter. We took it all very easy and started our climb without a guide at 8 am. We knew we were going to hike at our own pace, have breaks when we felt like it, and go back whenever we wanted.
We walked up through a lush, humid rainforest for eight hours and saw how the climate zones changed with the nature around us, which transitioned from a tropical to a coniferous forest.
The steps made from stone and wood were quite steep, but all the way up we could hold onto a rail, which helped!
It took us about five and a half hours to hike from the Timpohon Gate to the Layang Layang shelter (2612 m), where the weather started to change rapidly. After a short break to wipe our sweaty faces and catch our breath, we started to descend.
We loved what we saw and enjoyed every single step up and down in the lush park, and were glad that our trembling, stiff legs forced us to stop and enjoy the absolutely stunning views and beautiful butterflies.
We were extremely lucky to encounter a few red leaf monkeys and a very special species of a mouse that was discovered just a few years ago.
We did not pay for the one-day package, which was tempting but not doable for us at that time, and we do not regret what we decided to do instead. For the two of us we paid only 63 MYR$19.60 to hike in Kinabalu National Park: 30 MYR/ $9.33 for the entrance fee and 33 MYR/ $10.26 for return transport from the Park HQ to the Timpohon Gate.
We climbed a lot, we sweated more than enough, got some mist and a light shower at the higher altitude, and were able to admire many new species of flowers, plants, and bonsais, too.
We saw animals in the wild and observed different birds chirping and butterflies flying around. We suffered from knee pain while porters ran briskly up the hills, even while carrying 40 kg of beers and coke cans for the tourists, and with dozens of cartons filled with fresh eggs.
We reached the Layang Layang shelter with a tiring yet rewarding feeling that you can only experience when you cope with the physical pain that proves that it’s your mindset that pushes you forward or breaks you down in a tough situation like climbing (or not climbing) a mountain.
Even if we didn’t climb Mount Kinabalu up to its peak we had an incredible experience that we recommend that everyone try.
Insider tips on how to climb Mount Kinabalu:
• Don’t overestimate your fitness, but don’t be discouraged from a walk in one of the oldest rainforests in the world, either.
• Bring enough water with you as there are no refreshment stalls on the way up to Laban Rata and you don’t want to pay a fortune for half a liter of bottled water once you arrive.
• Energy bars and chocolate are very helpful during and after the climb.
• There are shelters every half-kilometer on the way up to the peak where you catch your breath or use a bathroom.
• You can have breakfast at the small restaurant located near the parking lot before entering the National Park. They serve hot meals for reasonable prices and you can supply yourself with some energy bars and water.
• We suggest staying in a guesthouse outside the Kinabalu National Park to save lots of money. We stayed two nights at the Bayu Kinabalu Lodge in a dormitory room with two other friends for 25 MYR/ $7.77 per night per person. The room was clean and beds were comfortable.
To arrive there you’ll need to walk from the parking lot where the restaurant is down the road (back towards Kota Kinabalu) for about five minutes until you see the sign of the lodge on your left.
• To arrive to Kinabalu National Park from Kota Kinabalu, take a small shuttle from Pedang Merdeka Terminal in the direction of Ranau (costs 25 MYR/ $7.77/pax) or any bus heading to Sandakan. The journey takes about 2-3 hours, depending on traffic.
Have you ever conquered Mount Kinabalu in Borneo or any other mountain in the world that made you proud of yourself? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!