Mt Kinabalu, Malaysia

20 June 2024
Mt Kinabalu, Malaysia

I recently had the privilege of being invited to my friend's wedding in Malaysia, and while I was there decided to also climb its highest peak, Mt Kinabalu. This was my first time climbing a mountain outside of Japan, and I really enjoyed the experience!

Making it to Kota Kinabalu

Since Mt Kinabalu is on the island of Borneo, there are no direct flights from Japan. I took a connecting flight with a short layover in Korea. By the time I arrived at my hotel in Kota Kinabalu it was 1:20am and I was super tired.

After a solid 4 hours of sleep I was picked up just after 6am by a bus from Amazing Borneo, the tour company that I booked my hike with.

park hq
Seeing the peak of Mt Kinabalu from the Kinabalu Park Headquarters

The drive from the city to the park headquarters near the trailhead took about 2.5 hours. Here I got my hiking permit, a packed lunch and was introduced to my guide Randi. Although Mt Kinabalu isn't necessarily dangerous, climbing it is strictly regulated by the government so you are required to have a guide with you.

From here we were off in a short shuttle bus ride to the Timpohon trailhead. The standard route takes 2 days with an overnight stay at the Panalaban base camp at 3200m, before you climb to Mt Kinabalu's peak at 4095m. The first day is 1300m of elevation gain over 6km.

trail first photo

The first 2km up the mountain didn't feel too hard as it alternated between climbs and flat stretches, so I started off feeling pretty confident. But as we gained in elevation and it became more of a steep climb it grew harder and harder to keep the pace up.

trail hut
The first hut on the trail

Every 500m to a 1km there are huts set up with benches to rest at and toilets. There are squirrels as well, which at first were very cute but quickly became a menace. They will climb onto your lap unless you shoo them away.

squirrel cute
The squirrels were very used to humans
The bins have holes in the bottom so the squirrels can escape

At the 4km mark I took a slightly longer lunch break at one of the huts to let me acclimatise to the altitude. The packed lunch from the tour company was pretty decent, including roast chicken and vegetables, hardboiled eggs, an apple and cookie.

lunch break hut
The hut where I took my lunch break
There were porters carrying up supplies to the base camp. That's a lot of eggs!

From the final 2km we started to come above the trees, but there was also some ominous fog rolling in.

fog fog 2

Rain is inevitable on Mt Kinabalu, but with the sunny start I had my fingers crossed I would be spared on day 1. Unfortunately around the 5km mark it started to rain pretty hard. Luckily it was just before a hut, so I was able to quickly duck under the shelter and put a rain cover on my bag as well as a rain jacket.

rain refuge
The hut where I took refuge from the rain
porters again
I stuck with the egg-carrying porters most of the way up

The final 700m stretch was rough, especially when the trail started having markers in 100m increments. The distance between 700m and 600m felt so long.

700m to go

Especially with the rain coming down, stopping to take a break means you will get more wet, so I struggled through this last bit.

panalaban base camp

After 4 hours of climbing, the Panalaban base camp was finally in sight! All hikers must stop here for the night at an elevation of 3200m to acclimatise to the altitude. Luckily I didn't experience any altitude sickness up until this point, although it definitely did feel like it was a tiny bit harder to breathe.

the room
The dorm room at Panalaban base camp

I checked in and received a key to my room, which is set up with 4 beds. I ended up sharing with two women from Switzerland and Germany and one from Malaysia (who was also climbing solo like me). Since most people were still climbing when I arrived, I got dibs on the top bunk. I changed out of my wet clothes as well which felt really good.

room decor
Some slightly questionable decor

Compared to previous overnight hikes where I've had to bring my own gear (and sometimes a tent), this room felt luxurious with clean sheets and a mattress. The showers are cold (if you feel up for it... I certainly did not) but they even have electricity during certain hours if you want to charge your phone. They also have a free water dispenser to fill your water bottles with either hot or cold water. Free hot water is amazing when you're on a mountain.

From here I had a couple hours of downtime until they started serving dinner (buffet style) at 4:30pm and by about 7:30pm I was tucked in bed and ready to sleep.

The second day on Mt Kinabalu

On day 2 I was up around 1:30am - I wanted to sleep a little longer, but I developed a little bit of a headache, which is apparently a common symptom of altitude sickness. From 2am they start serving breakfast, so I had a light meal with some much-needed coffee and popped a couple of painkillers.

The good news was although it had continued to rain into the evening, I could no longer hear it pattering on the roof. I had my fingers crossed for good weather on my climb to the summit.

pitch black
We started climbing in the dark

With everyone rushing out at 2:30am to start climbing, my guide Randi recommended that we should start from 3am instead to skip the crowds.

lines up

Even with a delayed start, we did end up catching up to the main pack of climbers. Randi was awesome and did a great job of navigating us past them where possible, but we had to stop at times due to the traffic jam.

dark climb

The trail is a mixture of stairs and some climbs up steep rock with the help of a rope. It's a little bit slippery, but with proper hiking boots it was manageable.

After nearly 90 minutes of climbing in the dark, we reached the checkpoint hut. You need to show your hiking permit and have your name checked off before you can continue.

From here, the climb up is a little less steep, and you walk for over an hour up a really long slope. There's a rope if you need it, but it functions more as a trail marker more than anything. Since there's no stairs, and you can just continue to take tiny steps up, this part wasn't too bad.

peak light
As we got closer to the summit, I could see some head torches lighting up the peak

The final scramble to the summit of Low's Peak was up some steeper rock, and I was huffing and puffing to try and make it up by sunrise. There were already 15 or so people who had made it to the summit before me, but I made it early enough to not have to queue for a photo at the peak marker.

final climb
The summit is in sight!
me peak
Me at the highest point in all of Malaysia

The peak itself is quite narrow, so I made my way partly back down and then stayed a little while to get some pictures.

lining up
I just managed to beat a large group, who had to line up to get their photos taken

As the sun rose at 6am, I got my favourite shot of my entire hike - the sun hitting the nearby Alexandra Peak to create this gorgeous golden ring.

alexandra peak
Alexandra Peak, before the sunrise
alexandra peak golden ring
Alexandra Peak with its golden ring - it looked almost painted on

Although the trail up had been in complete darkness, with the sun having risen the descent back down to base camp had spectacular views.

st johns peak
St John's Peak
view down
lows gully
A view down into Low's Gully

Looking back towards Mt Kinabalu, I could also now get a clear view of the summit I had just climbed down from.

mt kinabalu itself
The peak of Mt Kinabalu

The other famous peak is South Peak, which actually features on the MYR 100 note.

south peak
South Peak
descent rope
tiny stream
We passed by all the people that were still climbing up

There was also a tiny stream that we crossed over on the way back. It was barely a trickle, but if it's still raining at 3:30am, they close off the trail to the summit entirely, as apparently water levels can get quite high and you have to wade through it. I'm glad that didn't happen today!

tiny stream 1

Finally the checkpoint hut comes back into view, which we passed in complete darkness just a couple of hours earlier.

checkpoint hut checkpoint hut 2

We then navigated our way back down the same set of steep rock and stairs.

descent 1 descent 2
descent lookback
Looking back at the stairs we had just come down
base camp in view
The base camp in view!

By about 8am I was back at the base camp, where they served a breakfast buffet complete with coffee machines (amazing).

coffee machines
Coffee machines on a mountain, the height of luxury

I took an hour break, and then we were back on the final 6km descent from 9am. It was great weather and sunny the entire way down. Descents can be a bit boring (especially when it's the same route back) but my spirits were raised by all the people I got to say hi to who were beginning their climb up.

orange 1 orange 2
look back mt kinabalu
Partway along the trail Randi told me to look back and I could see Mt Kinabalu!
final stretch
The final stretch of the trail had some boardwalk
one final climb
One final climb awaits you before you reach the end of the trail

After about 3 hours I reached the trailhead, had lunch, and by 2pm was on the bus back to my hotel in Kota Kinabalu.

trail end
The end of the trail - they keep the gate closed off to prevent hikers from passing without a permit.

Shortly after beginning the drive back it began bucketing down with rain. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the people still on the mountain, but also very glad to be off of it!

After a night at my hotel in Kota Kinabalu, where I finally got a full 9 hours of sleep, it was off to my friends wedding in Kuala Lumpur.

My legs were very sore the next day, and I had a (very uncharacteristic for me) lack of appetite for a day or so, which is apparently a symptom of altitude sickness. But otherwise I think the hike went very smoothly, and I'm very grateful for the experience!

Tips on preparing to hike Mt Kinabalu

The two things I would keep in mind are:

  1. Prepare for hot and cold weather - you will start your hike in summer clothes but with how cold it gets overnight you will need the extra layers for the base camp and the summit climb the next morning.
  2. Assume you'll get rained on - if you get soaked in the first day, having a spare t-shirt and/or pants to change into is a must. Otherwise the base camp does provide a drying service for 30 MYR. I also recommend a plastic bin liner inside of your bag to make sure your gear doesn't get wet (I find a rain cover for your bag is useful but never 100% effective). And I also made sure to put my valuables (passport, electronics) inside of separate ziplock bags.

Otherwise, climbing Mt Kinabalu is matter of stamina, and many people climb it without any hiking experience. If you don't prepare well, you're going to be in for a more miserable time, but with enough determination you can probably pull it off. I saw around 10 hikers near the summit having their hands held by their guide, basically being dragged up. You can also hire a porter to carry your backpack up for you, which makes the climb a little bit easier.

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