12 Things You Must Know Before Climbing Mount Kinabalu

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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.

The sunrise is stunning, even if you’re not on the summit.

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.

This is the checkpoint you have to get to by 5am.

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”.

You will see plants you’ve never seen before. Bring a fully charged camera and power bank.

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