Do it, do it, do it. Go climb our country’s highest mountain, Gunung Kinabalu. You will love it and love yourself for it.
For many, this could be the first time you will feel truly proud of your country. To see how heart-achingly beautiful it actually is. I even shed a tear at the sheer beauty of it. I just got back from hiking up the 4,095-meter mountain, and while I didn’t make Kinabalu’s summit, called Low’s Peak (I’m definitely going back to do the job properly!), I learnt a few things that I think those who are planning a climb may find useful.
1) Please consider staying two nights Laban Rata, which is your first stop (est. 3,200m above sea level or asl), instead of the one night many climb packages will sell you. The typical climb package, like the one I booked, involves staying one night at or near the Kinabalu Park headquarters (1,520m asl) on the first night after you land in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, one night up at Laban Rata, and a third night back down in Kota Kinabalu. This itinerary is extremely tight. Here’s how it goes:
- Day 1: Land in K.K. and drive two hours to Kinabalu Park HQ, stopping for lunch along the way. Stay the night.
- Day 2: Start from Timpohon Gate, the start of the trail (about 5km drive from Kinabalu Park HQ and 1,800m asl) and hike the 6km distance to Laban Rata. This could take anywhere between four hours (if you’re super fit) or 7 hours like me, to much, much later. Our guides told us stories of people who even arrived at Laban Rata at midnight! After arriving, you need to eat almost immediately (“dinner” is served at the only restaurant there between 4.30pm and 7.30pm), wash up as best you can (I did a wet wipe job) and sleep or get some rest in bed by 9pm. This is because you have to wake up at 1am to get ready to hike to the summit. You won’t be able to sleep that early, you’ll only get about four hours of sleep, you’re basically sharing carbon dioxide with seven other people at least (if you take the dorm option that most people do. I went with seven of my friends) and you’re uncomfortable from just having had dinner. No. Rest. At. All.
- Day 3: Wake up at 1.30am, have “supper” and start hiking at 2.30am toward the summit, about 2.5km away. You have to try and make it by 5am to the Sayat Sayat checkpoint (3.700m asl), otherwise they don’t let you go on up to the summit (Low’s Peak), which is another 1.5km away from Sayat Sayat, which will take about an hour depending on your speed. Why do they have a deadline? This is where it gets frustrating: Because you only booked a one-night stay at Laban Rata. You see, they want you be able to go up to the summit and make it back down to Laban Rata by 9am so you can eat breakfast and check out by 10.30am (they charge you RM100, we were told, if you are late), and then start your hike back down to Timpohon Gate before 4.30pm. They charge you RM15 (for the guides) for every extra hour after that. The guides also need their rest, guys.
Now, this itinerary is alright if you’re very fit or if some biological or genetic condition enables you to do it, if you’re just damn lucky, or if you just want to rush up to the summit and come and down and say “Yay, I climbed Mount Kinabalu”. This is unlike me, as I like to take my time, take lots of pictures and enjoy the view. So because I walked according to my pace, I only reached Sayat Sayat at 5.30am.
The guard there knows I’m a Laban Rata one-nighter (yes, people working everywhere on the mountain have some sort of magical communication system that enables them to know everything about everybody), and he knows I’m a slow hiker, so he wouldn’t let me pass. He didn’t think I’d be able to make it down to Laban Rata by 9am. I understand that he’s just looking out for my safety and is just following instructions, but it’s extremely frustrating when I was just half an hour away from the cut-off time, and knowing that I could definitely have gone up to the summit and return to Laban Rata on time because I’m a fast downhill hiker and also mainly because of the check out issue.
So, the next time I go, I am staying two nights in Laban Rata. That way, I can get a good night’s rest on Day 2, and take my time walking up to the summit without having to rush for the Sayat Sayat checkpoint deadline. If I still want to make it for the sunrise, then I’ll start the hike up with the rest at 2.30am, and take my time coming down.
After the summit, I can come back down to Laban Rata and chill the rest of the day, enjoy the spectacular scenery there, get some sleep, rest my muscles and check out after breakfast the next day to start the hike downhill to Timpohon Gate. Even my hike guides (who have about 50 years of experience between them) told me that’s what I should have done. They said many people don’t summit when they do the one night package, and that two nights is a “gerenti summit”.
2) They don’t serve you water at the meals at Laban Rata. This is a new thing, although they have water pipelines going up the mountain. I wanted to carry 2 litres in my water pack plus one small 500ml bottle. My bag ended up being super heavy. So I took only 1 litre plus one small bottle. I finished the 1 litre by Laban Rata and used the small bottle for the way down, plus got some sips from my friends. The water up there costs RM5 for one jug. But still, just buy the water from up there la. Don’t carry more than 1.5 litres up.
3) Don’t rely on staircases. You know all those pix you see of the new staircases they built after the earthquake? Looks easy, right? Well, they probably only make up about 25% of the 8.5km trail. The rest are rocks and rock faces and rocky trails. And the trail goes on an incline 90% of the time. The guides can corroborate this. Very few flat stretches or downhill “breaks”. Be prepared to climb all the way.
4) Kinabalu is tough. Most people will tell you that Gunung Nuang in Selangor is tougher than Kinabalu. Pfftt… Nuang’s 5km road has uphills and downhills. Kinabalu is uphill almost all the way. Nuang is only 1,400m plus high, and Kinabalu is 4,095m high. Big difference. The elevation gains you make are higher, there’s altitude to deal with and it’s freaking cold. But, somehow, Nuang has a much more menacing feeling to it than Kinabalu, which I felt welcomed me.
5) That said, I would still recommend training at Nuang (Pangsoon route, ya, not via Janda Baik) and doing lots of stair climbs. Oh, and start running, which I promise to do before I make my second attempt.
6) I, personally, will never ever stay at the Laban Rata Resthouse dorms again. It is a hovel. There are two Ladies’ toilet cubicles and two shower cubicles for the whole floor (each floor has several 8-, 10- and 12-person dorms with bunk beds). Dorm rooms. My bed smelt like someone had farted under the blanket. No heating. No water heater. Extremely cramped. Ugh…I will book way ahead and stay at either the private rooms or the 6-person private room which has attached bathrooms, water heaters and heating. The food sucks, too, but even if you stay somewhere else, you have no choice but to eat it; it has the only restaurant at Laban Rata. And someone in our group and another guy we met got diarrhoea. Make what you will of that, but I’ll be very selective about what I eat there the next time I go.
7) All the guides look out for you, even if they are not your guides. They are probably the best feature of the mountain. Talk to them. They have stories to tell, about the earthquake, mountain lore, past climbers, plant and animal life.
8) Don’t worry, there are toilets every 1km on the way up and they’re cleaner than any public toilet in Semenanjung, k. So don’t stop yourself from drinking enough water. Bring toilet paper or wet wipes.
9) Don’t look down. Those rope climb stretches you see in all the photographs? Looks dramatic but the rocks are actually not that steep. At least the ones before Sayat Sayat. After that, I heard it is steep. People who are afraid of heights, listen to your guide, focus on your guide, tell him you’re afraid (they will instruct you where to place every step) and don’t look down. My sister-in-law, who made it to the top, is also very afraid of heights but she proved that if you have the will to do it, you will do it.
10) Hiking snacks. Don’t bring too much. My snack pack weighed 1kg (raisins are heavy and so are fruits but bring bananas. Power bars and nuts are light). I ended up only eating my walnuts and almonds. That’s all you need. Luckily I dumped my extras with the porter. The porter charges are RM13 per kilogramme. Worth. Every. Ringgit.
11) Do bring a power bank if you want to stay connected (there’s 4G all the way up to the summit. The authorities installed towers for Celcom and Maxis after the earthquake). We could only find two outlets in our dorm (there were eight of us) and you want power in your phone to take pictures from Laban Rata to the summit and back down. The stretch between Laban Rata and the summit is the most beautiful.
12) So, once again, go. Face the humbling experience that is climbing Mount Kinabalu. I promise you’ll never say you regretted it.