When Kevin and I started discussing where to go after New Zealand, I immediately suggested Borneo. Years ago, I saw a documentary on Bornean orangutans and I fell in love.
I needed to see them!
Borneo is the third largest island in the world behind Greenland and New Guinea (excluding the continent of Australia). It is located in Southeast Asia and is shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, the Indonesian state Kalimantan, and the tiny nation of Brunei. It’s known for its beaches and ancient rainforests, and is home to many endangered species such as the orangutan, Proboscis monkey, Clouded leopard, and Pygmy elephant. In recent years, it has also gained attention worldwide for its rapid expansion of palm oil plantations contributing to the deforestation of its rainforests.
Borneo is also home to Mount Kinabalu. Standing majestically at 4,095m (13,435 feet), Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea.
The reviews of the hike of Mount Kinabalu are spectacular and we immediately decided to put it on the top of our itinerary in Borneo, especially since we were travelling with all of our hiking gear. From the reviews, it sounded like we were going to need it!
While the Summit Trail is only 8.5 kms (5.28 miles) to Low’s peak, the elevation gain is 2,230m (7,316 feet). That’s a 26% grade!
In comparison, the Mueller Hut Route in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand was a 20% grade. To date, that is the most difficult hike I’ve ever completed.
Remember my struggle with THAT hike? I couldn’t believe this was going to be MORE difficult.
Luckily, we were up for the challenge! I mean, how often do you find yourself in Borneo?
As there are only 135 climbing permits issued daily by Sabah Parks for safety reasons, we were extremely lucky to secure last-minute permits through the agency Borneo Calling. The three-day, two-night package includes permits, meals, transportation to/from Kota Kinabalu, accommodations, a guide, and a tour of Kinabalu Park prior to the hike.
It sounded like a great package and a great way to start our adventure through Borneo.
The drive into Kinabalu Park was approximately 2 hours from Kota Kinabalu. When we arrived, we checked in with the Park and presented our passports to finalize our permits.
After checking in, we continued to drive an additional hour to Poring Hot Springs for the start of our day tour.
We walked through the pools of the hot springs and took in the scenery. While many people appeared to be enjoying the pools, we decided to skip them. It was about 35C (95F) outside!
Frankly, a hot pool was the last thing we wanted to get into.
After viewing the hot springs, we headed to The Canopy Walkway. This was a short-circuit hike through the forest crossing multiple canopy bridges.
The short hike and canopies were a great warm-up for the hike. Although, I have to admit that canopy and swing bridges make me extremely nervous. I always think I am going to enjoy them until I am death gripping the weathered ropes moving quickly to get off of them…
When we returned to Kinabalu Park, we checked into our room at the Rock Hostel. Our package included a private room with shared bathroom facilities. The room turned out to be great and we were looking forward to a good night’s rest before the climb the next day.
After getting checked into our room, we walked back to the village for a hike briefing prior to dinner.
At the Park Office, the Ranger discussed what to expect on the hike and our process for the next morning. In summary, we were to expect a long, steep and challenging hike!
Well, tell me something I didn’t already know…
The next morning we woke up to beautiful blue sky. It was going to be a perfect day to start our adventure. We headed back to the village where we ate breakfast, picked up our permits and packed lunches, and met our guide Jimen (“Jimmy”) who immediately proved he could take excellent photos.
From the village, we loaded into the park shuttle for the 4.5km (2.8 mile) drive to Timpohon Gate where the trail begins.
Our first day was 6km (3.73 miles) climbing 1,407m (4,616 feet) to Laban Rata where we would spend the night. Jimmy estimated it would take us between 4-6 hours.
Before heading off, I looked up the trail and readjusted my bag. I was ssoo thankful for packing lightly considering the climb we had ahead of us.
Just then a couple of porters passed us.
Kevin and I stared at them in disbelief. Strapped with wooden boards on their backs, they were loaded with boxes of supplies for Laban Rata secured only by rope.
Where were their hip belts? My neck and shoulders ached just looking them. I have never seen hiking made so hardcore.
Finally, it was time to go! Passing through Timpohon Gate, we signed in with the ranger and immediately started our incline up the wooden steps. I pierced my poles into the ground with each step, pulling myself up one foot at a time.
So. Many. Stairs.
The trail was well maintained and setup with rest shelters every kilometre. We took a break at each shelter to catch our breath and rehydrate with water. Luckily, the majority of the trail was shaded from the sun which made the heat manageable.
As we continued to climb, we eventually peaked out of the forest and were rewarded with our first view.
We quickly ascended back into the forest and back to the wooden steps. Keeping my head down and focused, I couldn’t help but notice I was starting to slow down.
How many stairs HAS it been?
We eventually came to our last shelter before the final climb to Laban Rata. I took an extended rest and prepared myself for the last two kilometres.
Normally, two kilometres would be nothing. Today, it could be two hours!
While the wooden steps ended at the last shelter, they were replaced with steps made from dirt and rocks. Trying to stay positive and motivated, I continued to pull myself along with my poles attempting to keep up with Kevin.
Seriously, what was his secret? He acted like he did this every day!
Even Jimmy couldn’t get over how quick Kevin was….
Finally, after 5 hours we arrived at Laban Rata!
Situated above the clouds at 3,273m (10,738 feet), Laban Rata offers comfortable rooms and spectacular views.
We checked in, showered, and settled in the lounge for a buffet dinner. After enjoying the sunset, we all went off to bed.
The next morning our alarm went off at 1:30 a.m. We headed downstairs for a light breakfast before hitting the trail at 2:30 a.m.
The distance to the summit was 2.5km climbing 822m (2,697 feet). Jimmy estimated it would take around 4 hours to get to the summit.
It was going to be a LONG day….
Suited with headlamps, we set off into the darkness towards Low’s Peak. Now, don’t let the name deceive you as Low’s peak is not named after its height. Low’s Peak is named after Hugh Low, a British naturalist, who made the first documented ascent of Mount Kinabalu in 1851.
We were about to climb to 4,095m (13,435 feet). There is nothing “LOW” about that.
While the stairs became difficult at the end of our first day, they became particularly difficult for me in the morning. As we ascended the air began to thin. I eventually found myself winded and, at times, slightly weak. Although, I had to give myself credit. I was climbing a grade of 33% over 4 hours, starting at 2:30 a.m., at elevations I have never before climbed.
I thought I was doing pretty damn awesome.
Eventually, the stairs ended and we started to climb the face of the mountain. Following the white rope and Jimmy for guidance, we eventually found ourselves staring up at St. John’s Peak just as the sun was starting to rise.
We continued past St. John’s peak and began our ascent up Low’s Peak. Here, we stared east and soaked in one of the most amazing sunrises we have been fortunate to see.
As the sun continued to rise, our views continued to improve. Everywhere we looked was spectacular. I didn’t know how I was going to make it down the mountain but I was sure that any pain I was going to endure would be worth these views!
As the sun lit up the sky, we took advantage of the light for some incredible shots on the top of the mountain. It’s not everyday you get a sunrise like this!
We spent the next hour at the peak enjoying the view and taking pictures from every angle. Kevin and I quickly noted that our guide, Jimmy, was doing the same.
We agreed that when your guide, who has been working on the trail for 16 years is taking as many photos as you, it’s because we lucked out with one of the most amazing mornings on the mountain.
In other words, days like this don’t come every day!
Eventually, it was time to start our descent back to Laban Rata. We still had a LONG day ahead of us returning all the way back to the trailhead.
While the views from the summit were incredible, the views as we descended were equally amazing. Also, because our ascent was made in the dark, we were seeing the views on the way down for the first time.
As we descended toward South Peak (shown above), Jimmy took us off the trail to his favourite “secret” photo spot.
Honestly, how did we get so lucky with Jimmy as our guide. This man was a talented photographer!
For the next hour, we continued down the face of the mountain.
Eventually, the white rope, which guided us along the mountain, became a useful tool to descend safely down the steep terrain.
I know what you are thinking.
Yes, I have become super hardcore!
Eventually, we made it back to the Sayat-Sayat Hut Check Point. Here, we signed out confirming that we returned from the summit. This also confirmed that we were entitled to a colored Mount Kinabalu Climbing Certificate. The park issues two certificates: a black and white version for those that did not reach the summit and coloured version for those that did.
We wanted the coloured one.
As we continued to descend, we eventually saw Laban Rata in the distance and I was relieved that we were making some progress down the mountain.
As we stared up the mountain, we became fixated on a huge white chunk of the mountainside that fell near Laban Rata. To understand the scale of the chunk notice the size of the green-roofed Check Point in the photo.
We asked Jimmy about it and he confirmed it was a result of the 5.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked Mount Kinabalu on June 5, 2015. The earthquake caused the collapse of the climbing trail between Laban Rata Resthouse (3,272 meters) and Sayat-Sayat Hut (3,668 meters), due to large-scale landslides and rockfalls. Eighteen climbers hiking Mount Kinabalu were killed. Jimmy was just about to start the hike the morning of the earthquake.
The Malaysian government took it seriously, closing the climbing trail to gain higher safety standards and it reopened December 1, 2015.
After our 2.5 hour descent, we returned to Laban Rata for breakfast, packed up our bags, and checked out. It was a quick hour rest before heading back on the trail to complete the last 6.5 km down.
The descent is rough for anyone with weak knees. Jimmy convinced me to let him carry my bag as I struggled down the hill. I coped by walking sideways down the 1000’s of steps, and at times, backwards. Some how I managed to walk out of there on my own!
It was the most difficult hike both Kevin and I have completed in our lives, but it was also one of the most spectacular things we have ever achieved. Like I predicted on the summit at Low’s Peak, the views are worth every bit of struggle on the mountain.
There is something magical about hiking Mount Kinabalu that everyone should discover. Part of it is the mountain standing tall above clouds, and part of it are the guides, porters and other climbers you’ll meet along the way. While we have had some amazing experiences all over the world, this definitely landed near the top of our list!
So, what’s up next, Borneo?
Oh wait, the organutans!