Standing at 4,095 m above sea level, Mt. Kinabalu stands proud as the tallest hike in Malaysia, and the 9th highest peak in South-East Asia. Located in the renowned Kinabalu National Park, it is a haven to various species of flora and fauna unique to the region, among them orangutans (which literally translates to ‘forest people’ in Malay) and the Rafflesia flower.
Prior to a climb on Kinabalu, you’ll have to make a booking 6 months in advance. This is for a multitude of reasons; among them being the horde of eco-tourists that frequent the area all year long, the scenic climb itenary provided by the guides (which will be covered in detail), and the extremely limited space on a base camp that’s 3289 m above sea level.
For a start, travel to Kundasang, and you’ll find a decent selection of cozy home-stay places or hostels to put up the night before the climb. Alternatively, one can also choose to put up the night in one of the dorms by the foot of the mountain, but that’s gonna cost you a little more. As a side note, do be sure to convert your currency to lots of local Malaysian Ringgit if you plan to travel around Sabah in general, as the state itself is mostly a mountainous jungle region.
You’ll be required to wake up at 7-9 am on the morning of the ascent. Fuel up by the buffet that the park accommodation provides if you’re staying there. The same does not apply if you stay off site, but by all means one should carb-load, fill up your glycogen stores, and bottle plenty of water, because the trail up is a long one. Get ready to bust out your towels and walking poles, stuff your rucksack with snacks, water, and a healthy dose of insect repellent; because the tropical climate is HOT, amplified by the local humidity.
When everyone in your party is gathered, you’ll be picked up by a van that will take you and your company to a gate.
Beyond this gate, the trail begins. Your target is the base camp at 3290 m above sea level that goes by the name of Laban Rata (literally translates in Malay to flat plain). The trail to the destination stretches a distance of 6 km, and you will have the majority of an entire day to reach there. While the trail itself is relatively easy compared to many other mountains, its the aforementioned heat and humidity that gets people. As with all hikes, pacing is vital, perhaps even more so with mountains in this part of the world, so do(n’t) mega-sprint up the mountain faster than Usain Bolt suffering mega-diarrhea.
To motivate us folk who have been conditioned for instant gratification, the park keepers have so graciously placed signs like these along the way to keep you motivated. It’s like getting lost in a city, only to have your guide constantly remind you that “we’re only 5 minutes away”, except that these signs are placed at 500 m intervals. If you need a distraction from your aching legs, the local flora and fauna is a good option. Just don’t wander off the trail and you and your legs will be fine.
At the 3 km mark onward, the trail you’re on transitions from rainforest to rock and dirt.
This is the part where your hiking poles come in real handy, as your shoes may have been caked with dirt from the earlier part of the trail. The flora changes subtly, too, with tropical rainforest giving way to sub-alpine plants. Personally, the transitioned flora felt like a disconnect from the tropical rainforest below, but I digress.
Along with the terrain and fauna, the hot humid climate ameliorates with altitude. Soon enough (past the 5.0 km mark on the trail), the temperature is significantly cooler (~14 degrees celsius), at this point you’re close to base camp. If it rains when you’re in this region, my advice from experience is to pick up the pace. Rainfall here can make the ascend slippery and slow your progress, not to mention the possibility of hypothermia if exposed to the elements long enough.
When you see the two flag poles with the Sarawakian and Malaysian flag waving in front of a mess hall, that’s when you’re at the end of your 6 km hike. Congratulations, you’ve arrived at Laban Rata.
“YOU’RE NOT PREPARED” (thanks Illidan), was a thought that echoed through my head by the 4.5 km mark on the trail.
Sporting a pair of trainers and literally sprinting up the mountain faster than Usain Bolt with diarrhea, I finally suffered a cramp just before the 4.5 km marker along the trail. Not a leg-immobilizing, hike-threatening one, but one similar to having your genitals go numb from far too much sex in one night. I must have repeated the word f*ck at least 50 times.
Anyways, extensive stretching, 300 ml of water, and a pack of yellow M&M’s did the trick to get me going, but then again I had an idea. I do not ever recommend this, but if you’re as willing to go ahead with it as I was, then proceed all the way to base camp and the summit barefooted.
For the curious, here are my stats as tracked by my fit-bit.