An extensive guide on EVERYTHING you need to know about climbing Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in Borneo, Malaysia. From cost to logistics and everything in between.
If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I recently traveled to South East Asia. Specifically Borneo, Malaysia to climb the tallest mountain in the country, Mount Kinabalu.
Aside from being the tallest mountain in Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is located in Kinabalu Park which is a Malaysian National Park. Mount Kinabalu draws tourists from around the world and over 20,000 people summit the mountain annually. Notice how I said summit, not climb. Many more attempt but don’t make it to the top (more on that later).
Today, I am sharing my experience climbing this mountain and everything you need to know before you decide to attempt it yourself.
Planning Your Trip
One thing to note right off the bat, this hike is not for first time climbers. For example, 3 people in my group of 6 did not make it to the summit because of how they felt after the first day.
It’s an amazing climb and the sunrise summit is WELL WORTH the difficulty of the ascent, but to make it as enjoyable as possible for yourself, I reccomend training and familiarizing yourself with high peaks. It will still be hard either way, but so much less of a shock to the system if you adequately prepare.
As a World Heritage Site, you are required to get permits to climb the mountain. As guide is also necessary as well. Some people wait until the day of their climb and chance being able to find an available guide in the park itself. But to me, that’s not really worth the risk especially if climbing the mountain is a MUST DO for you (which it is for most outdoor enthusiasts visiting the area).
I suggest booking a guide through a tour company. I booked through River Junkie and had no issues. The cost was about $400 USD (~1500-1700 ringgit), which is pretty standard for a 2 day, 1 night summit of the mountain. It covers your permit costs, entrance to the park, two guides (depending on your group size), accommodations for 1 night, and food. Depending on the company, the packages may be slightly different (for example: having to pay out of pocket for food or having to pay a supplemental fee if you’re traveling solo. River Junkie also has 3 day, 2 night climb for those wanting to do the climb at a slower pace. But overall, I believe this climb is meant for a 2 day summit and I wouldn’t reccomend this climb to inexperienced hikers given the elevation and terrain (more details on this below).
Preparing and Packing
Do you very best to pack light and yet be prepared for the different conditions you will experience on the mountain. At the start it will be very hot 80-90 degrees F, so obviously you want to be wearing light, breathable, sweat wicking clothing, as well as sunscreen. A hat and sunglasses are essential as well.
Some of the mountain is shaded, while the second half of the first day is pretty exposed. Given the heat and the level of exertion this climb requires, you will definitely be sweating a good amount. Once you reach your Day 1 accomodations, you will notice a change in temperature and can expect cooler temperatures from there on out.
Your second day will begin in the middle night and it will be very cold compared to the day before. It will only get colder as you head towards the summit because it is very windy at the top and very exposed. Keep in mind you will be summiting in the pitch dark because you’re aiming to get there for sunset so that adds to the colder temps. A headlamp is a necessity and if you don’t have one you will need to rent one when you first enter the park.
My biggest advice is to pack layers that you can put on when you reach the summit. You’re unlikely to get too cold while ascending since you’re sweating and exerting yourself. But once you’re at the summit, taking pictures, and waiting for sunrise, it’s pretty freezing. A jacket is needed, as well as a hat gloves, and lighter layers underneath.
Another FYI, the weather can change at a moments notice being that high up and sometimes trips are completely cancelled due to rain. So it wouldn’t hurt to have a waterproof layer or at least a rain poncho to throw on in case you’re hit with unexpected precipitation.
Other gear I reccomend:
waterproof bag for electronics (in case of rain)
pills for altitude sickness (if you deal with that issue)
If you book with a tour group, they will provide you with a full list of items to pack, but these are just a few things I think are MUST HAVES.
You can find some more of my favorite hiking gear here.
On the first day, you will climb a little over 6km and reach your home for night high above the clouds at the Laban Rata Resthouse. Depending on what you’ve booked, you will stay in a dorm-style room or a private room. The resthouse holds 77 people and will most likely be fully booked. Once you check in you can go to your room to rest or shower. Note: THERE IS NO HOT WATER AT LABAN RATA. I knew this going and was still shocked at just how freezing the shower water was. Not fun at all but a shower is totally necessary after the day’s grueling climb.
Make your shower quick and head to the communal eating areas for a buffet style meal. The staff is really great and accommodating at Laban Rata. The meal will include some local staples as well as some foods from around the world if you want something a little more familiar. My group had things like different kinds of sauteed meats, vegetables, noodle dishes, rice, spaghetti and red sauce, breads, soups, and fresh fruit to choose from.
You’ll likely head to bed early because you have to be up between 130 and 3am the next morning to begin your summit.
Another thing to note is that the rooms are not heated, so the layers you packed for climbing will come in handy here as well.
Your next meal will be served before you head out to summit between 2 and 3am. I was not hungry at this time, but most people had a little something to fuel the remaining 2.5km to the summit. Options included: toast, cereal, pancakes, fruit, noodles, and more.
You’ll return one last time to Laban Rata after you summit and have one last meal (actual breakfast) before checking out and beginning your 6km descent.
The Climb Itself
Day 1 will begin very early in the morning depending on where you’re staying. You will arrange with your tour company to pick you up (another perk of booking with a tour company) between 5-7am at your accommodations in Kota Kinabalu (the nearest major city). Then you will drive ~2 hours to Kinabalu Park. The drive is scenic and you definitely feel the change in elevation pretty quickly.
Once you get to the park, you will go with your group and guide to the parks department office and get your passes. The passes are on lanyards and you have to keep them on and have them showing for the remainder of your time in the park. They have your name on them and the day you began your climb…sadly you have to return them after your climb. 🙁
You’ll begin your climb around 9 or 10am. At this point you’ll start off as a group with a guide in the front and back, but as you get going the group ends up breaking up a bit depending on people’s speeds. On average it takes about 5-6 hours to get to the resthouse for the day.
There’s a lot to see as you climb. It’s a very busy mountain and you will see DOZENS of porters and workers going up and down the mountain carrying loads bigger than themselves. There is no other way up the mountain than to climb it, so all the supplies that the rest houses need have to be delivered by hand daily. The workers are often carrying loads that are two times their body weight and strapped to their heads. It’s really an incredible sight and I don’t know how they do that all day long everyday.
During your climb there are “rest areas” every km or so. Most have bathrooms, but I recommend bringing a little bit of toilet paper with you and hand sanitizer. There are also potable water springs to refill your bottle as you climb.
The climb is very steep and very slow going. So take your time and rest when needed. Crazy enough, you’ll see a lot of people taking smoke breaks. HA!
You will get to Laban Rata sometime in the late afternoon and then have sometime to rest before dinner is served from 4-730pm.
Go to bed early because you’ll be up early to begin climbing to reach the summit for sunrise. Even though you only have 2.5km to go, this final part is much harder than Day 1. It’s steeper, more exposed, has rope climb areas, and “danger zones” where falling rock and rock slides are common place.
Your headlamp is essential here because it is PITCH BLACK. I reached the summit after about 2.5 hours, which is a little quicker than most, and because of that I had to wait at the top for sunrise. There actually isn’t much room at the actual summit to wait since it’s a very small area. So if you’re keen on waiting to see the sunrise, I reccomend going back down to the 8km marker where it’s much more wide open and grabbing a seat to watch the color show.
It gets pretty freezing up there, especially if it’s windy like the day I climbed, so that will probably be the catalyzing element that gets you to start heading back down. The climb down is a little scary because of the steepness and your guide will reccomend you go down backwards on the rope climb parts. The temperature gets a little warmer as the sun begins to rise and you descend.
You’ll make it back to Laban Rata between 7 and 930am for breakfast before you have to check out at 10am. Then you’ll begin your 6km descent. Hiking poles are a necessity here to save your knees. Your descent will likely take 3-4 hours depending on your pace.
Once you get back down to the bottom with your group you’ll return your lanyards to your guide, have lunch, and then split up to head back to your individual accommodations.
Other Things to Note
- Porters are an option if you want someone to carry your belongings and make your climb easier, but personally I don’t recommend hiring one. First of all, as I said above, I would not attempt this climb unless you are used to hiking with a load and carrying your own belongings. Personally, I think the added difficulty is part of the experience and the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel afterwards. Secondly, in these situations, if you pay a tour company for a porter, the chances of that money ACTUALLY making it to the person who will be working incredibly hard for you are slim to none. Instead, only pack the essentials and take responsibility for your own things.
- LNT: LNT refers to the hikers/backpackers/environmentalists/outdoor enthusiasts tenant of Leave No Trace. What this means is that you try to leave the land you’re exploring as close to it was before you got there. No literally, staying on worn paths, not taking anything with you. I am noting this because Kinabalu Park was one of the CLEANEST national parks I’ve ever been in. The park staff obviously does a really great job of cleaning up and making the LNT principles well know. So if you do this climb, let’s keep it that way!
Have you ever been to Malaysia?
Do you enjoy mountain climbing?
Is climbing Mount Kinabalu something you’d be interested?
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