Jump-off: Mt. Kinabalu National Park, Sabah
LLA: 06°050’N 116°33’E; 4095 MASL
Days required / Hours to summit: 2 days / 7-8 hours
Specs: Major climb, Difficulty 6/9, Trail class 1-4 (8km)
It’s already been several months since our unforgettable trek atop Malaysia’s and one of Southeast Asia’s highest peaks, Mount Kinabalu. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, popular among seasoned climbers and enthusiasts, boasts of a lush tropical trail being situated at the heart of the Malaysian side of Borneo Island, particularly in the state of Sabah. To the locals, Gunung Kinabalu is a sacred place and is treated with spiritual importance. For local and foreign tourists alike, it is a natural abode to relax and to commune with nature. Indeed, Mt. Kinabalu is unmatched elsewhere for its natural features and biodiversity significance and therefore demands a worthy visit by curious and adventure-seeking visitors like us.
We are detailing our travel plan, which covered a year of preparations and reservations and perseverance to conquer this coveted peak.
As a couple, we have only managed to climb at least two mountains before, so we really don’t consider ourselves as mountain climbers. If there is such a thing as a social drinker, then we might fall under the circle of ‘social climbers’. So after scoring a seat sale ticket courtesy of Air Asia Zest to Kota Kinabalu (KK) and finding a suitable summer schedule, it became apparent to us, including two of our friends, to consider this challenge as part of our itinerary in KK. However, it was only until four months before our flight that we finalized our plan to make this a reality despite our physical, and most importantly, financial limitations. But the rest they say is history. Last April, we came, we saw and we conquered the mighty peaks of Kinabalu.
1. PRE-CLIMB ESSENTIALS
Booking for Mt. Kinabalu: The unwritten rule is that, given the deluge of hikers and climbers interested to go up the mountain, you should book ahead of time. Some blogs suggest up to six months before the desired schedule while some also claimed to have booked as walk-ins. In our case, we only decided to inquire on the reservations less than 4 months before and we were able to finalize our booking roughly 3 months prior to the climb. So your booking date really depends on the climbing season. Another consideration is that the Kinabalu Park imposes a limit to the number of climbers per day, so, again, it is wise to book early. It is also a must to check with authorities about local weather conditions prior to the scheduled climb. You can do this by emailing the Park/Tourism authorities or following their official social media accounts.
The next step is to decide where and what to book. The standard climbing package is 3D/2N. After a few searches online, we tried inquiring through various tour operators accredited by the Sabah Tourism Board and the Mt Kinabalu Park. We also tried one of the most reputable operators, Amazing Borneo, that offers a complete package including airport to park transfers. However, given our limited budget, we opted to try emailing directly Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, the exclusive operator of lodging facilities inside the Park Headquarters and the Laban Rata Lodge way up the mountain. Luckily, we received a prompt feedback and we found ourselves arranging the fees for the tour package, which covers the needed accommodations and the food. This package rate turned out to be the cheaper choice for us. Other required fees are to be settled at the Park Headquarters upon arrival.
Please take note that without the confirmed reservation, chances are, the Park would not permit you to climb. Despite initial setbacks, the Sutera personnel were kind enough to provide us the necessary details and assurances on our booking. There are two official trails in Mt. Kinabalu, the Timpohon and Mesilau trails, so please also make sure to clarify which trail you intend to try since these differ in rates. The summit is also reachable via ferrata, the rates of which differ from the usual hike. [Note: Due to the 2015 earthquake, the Kinabalu Park resumed hiking activities using ONLY the Timpohon Trail en route to the summit. The Summit Trail from Laban Rata is now called Ranau Trail. The Mesilau Trail remains suspended indefinitely.]
2. GETTING THERE
Mt. Kinabalu Park is strategically located about two hours west of Sabah’s capital city, Kota Kinabalu, which is also the gateway to Sabah’s popular beaches and surrounding attractions. Although many flights fly directly to Kota Kinabalu City, you can transit via Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore.
- Manila to Kota Kinabalu: From the Philippines, Air Asia Zest flies four times a week to Kota Kinabalu from NAIA Terminal 3. Cebu Pacific also services this route three times weekly via Manila. Travel time is approximately two hours. Although boat is said to be a cheaper way to reach mainland Sabah via the Zamboanga – Tawi-Tawi connection, taking the plane is still the most convenient and efficient, not to mention the lowest year-round fares among international destinations of Cebu Pacific. Air Asia’s dedicated arrival terminal is at KK Terminal 2.
- KKIA Terminal 2 – City Proper: The airport is very near the city enter. There are dedicated Airport Buses that ferry passengers from the KK Airport directly to key stops around the city proper and back. You just need to purchase the coupon (RM 5.00 / Php 60.00) at a designated counter right before the exit of the Terminal. In our case, we asked the driver to drop us at Padang Merdeka, where the van terminal going to Ranau is located.
- City Proper to Mt. Kinabalu Park Headquarters: Getting into Kinabalu Park using public transport is relatively easy. Good thing there were enough passengers already to fill the commuter van bound for Ranau via Kinabalu Park HQ around 1PM. Just let the driver know that you are alighting at the Park HQ. Upon reaching the park, proceed directly to Park Headquarters, where the reception area of Sutera Lodge is located adjacent to the entrance.
- Upon return to the city, there also public vans plying the route going to the city proper that you can flag down, however, only during day time. In our case, we chanced upon a van rental at the Park HQ to bring us to our hotel in KK at around 9PM.
3. WHERE TO STAY
Booking directly with Sutera Sanctuary Lodges comes with an accommodation for two nights, inclusive of full-board meals for the duration of climb.
Accommodation: (with Free Shuttle to/fro Hostel)
- Day 1: Kinabalu Park Hostel (2 pax sharing with Toilet)
- Day 2: Laban Rata Dorm (Non-Heated, 2 pax sharing with Toilet)
- Day 1: Buffet Dinner at Balsam Buffet Restaurant
- Day 2: Buffet Breakfast at Balsam | Packed Lunch at Balsam | Buffet Dinner at Laban Rata
- Day 3: Buffet Supper at Laban Rata | Buffet Breakfast at Laban Rata | Buffet Lunch at Balsam
- Total Amount per Person: RM 835.28 or approx. Php 10, 000 (Inclusive of Room Tax + Government Tax)
Climb Registration: Upon check-in, it is suggested that you register and pay the Park Fees: Entrance Fee (RM 15.00), Climbing Fee (RM 100.00), Insurance (RM 7.00) and Guide Fee (RM 150.00 for 3pax). Once confirmed, you will be given individual identification cards, which you must wear all the time before and after the climb. The rate for the two-way shuttle from Park HQ to Timpohon Gate and back costs RM 35.00 good for 4 pax. You can also opt to avail of porter fees and gears for rent (walking stick, headlamps) at minimal rates.
4. ITINERARY & EXPENSES
5. HIKING NOTES
- Regardless of your level of preparation and confidence, NEVER EVER underestimate the mountain. It is one of the most challenging climb average hikers can do.
- For more detailed climbing essentials for Mt. Kinabalu, please refer to the following: Important Tips | Things to Bring | Trail Map
- General considerations before attempting to climb are your physical and mental readiness in dealing with the challenge. As we are conscious with safety, it is a must to check with your doctors if you are fit to do the climb. It is a must to prepare physically by doing regular exercises (stairs/uphill walking or running). In our case, we did a pre-climb hike in Mt. Makiling a week before our schedule.
- It is also suggested to spend at least a day at the Park Headquarters before climbing to acclimatize. Even experienced climbers suffer from Altitude Sickness, hence, it is also ideal to consult a medical professional about the complications of altitude sickness. Some doctors give out prescriptions for meds to combat altitude sickness, which is certainly helpful.
- During the summit assault, DO NOT ever forget to bring enough water, trail food and any of your protective clothing/gears as this might affect your chances of reaching the summit. This particular oversight has taken its toll on us as we went short on water. Good thing our guide was generous enough to spare us some.
- It is better to wake up early and leave Laban Rata ahead of other hikers and groups to increase chances of reaching Sayat Sayat Hut, the last stop and conquering Low’s Peak, the highest point in the summit given the time limits imposed by Park authorities. You can consult with your guide on matters of time.
- Checkout time at Laban Rata is 10AM. Management may impose additional charge for excess time in the rooms, so better pack-up/ready your bags before the summit assault.
- When descending, please take extra care in negotiating steep and slippery trails as this may cause injury on your feet and knees.
- For preview of what to expect in the trail, check out these video accounts by Amazing Borneo and Philippines’ GMA Travel Show, Biyahe ni Drew.
- The best months to go climbing are the dry months from March to August. However, given the nature of the mountain, rain showers are usual occurrence whole year round.