Mt. Kinabalu is a mountain on the island of Borneo in the state of Sabah, Malaysia. With an elevation of 4095.2 meters (13,435 feet), it is one of the highest mountain in Southeast Asia and the highest in Malaysia. It is the 20th tallest mountain in the world by topographic prominence. This mountain is the principal focus of Kinabalu Park, Malaysia’s First World Heritage Site. For these reasons, it is one of the most popular bucket list destinations in the world.
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu is expensive. The Sabah Park safety regulations require all climbers of Mt. Kinabalu to be accompanied by a licensed mountain guide from the local Mountain Guide Association. The ratio is at least 1 mountain guide to a maximum of 5 climbers for people aged 16 years old and above and 1 mountain guide to a maximum of 2 climbers for those who are younger than 16 years old. One day climb permits are currently not available. If you plan to climb the mountain, it will take a minimum of two days. Only 135 climbing permits are issued per day so it is advisable to book your climb in advance for at least a month.
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu Package
You can climb Mt. Kinabalu independently, or you can avail of a climb package from one of the tour providers in Sabah. If you are climbing independently, you need to book a bed at Laban Rata independently (you can book through Agoda), book a guide, pay Sabah Parks entrance fee and get a climbing permit. Although climbing independently is much cheaper, getting a climb package from a reliable tour provider is more convenient. They will take care of everything you need, will pick you up at your accommodation on the day of the climb, and will bring you back to your accommodation after your climb.
I availed my 2D 1N Standard Climb package from Downbelow Marine and Wildlife Adventures. While searching for climb packages, I came across Wyatt Maktrav’s blog. According to the blog, Downbelow Adventures has the cheapest price. I first inquired from them last February. They are very responsive in email. However, it was still seven months before my trip to Kota Kinabalu so I decided not to book yet. Then last June, they emailed me that they were having a flash sale. I got my 2D 1N Standard Climb package from them for MYR 1630 (around USD 394).
Package includes 1 night accommodation at Laban Rata Resthouse (dormitory bunk bed), return shared land transfers from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabalu Park, internal park transfers, shared mountain guide, climbing permit, entrance fees, insurance, certificate for the mountain climb, lanyard souvenir and meals during and after the climb.
Before the Climb
On the day of the climb, we were picked up by the Downbelow Adventures driver at our accommodation in Kota Kinabalu at 6:30 AM. There were three of us climbing that day- Ong, a Malaysian working in Singapore and Ben, a New Zealander. We were transferred to Kinabalu Park HQ. Travel time to Kinabalu Park is less than two hours. Upon arrival, the driver sorted out our climb permits and we were asked to sign a waiver. Then we were given a climb ID and our packed lunch and met our guide Roger. Afterwards the driver took us to Timpohon Gate, the starting point of the hike. Before starting our climb, one of the staff from Downbelow Adventures talked to each of us over the phone to give us encouraging words and to wish us luck.
The Ascent to Laban Rata Resthouse
We started our climb at 9 in the morning. It was raining when we climbed so we had to be extra careful as the trail was slippery. The route was easy to follow. For the first day, we had to walk 6 kilometers to Laban Rata Resthouse. The trail consists of never ending stairs made of wood, concrete or boulders. It was very exhausting, especially when carrying a backpack. At every kilometer there was a shelter with a comfort room. There were also helipads along the trail in the event of an emergency. Most part of the trail was covered with trees. Somewhere after the 4.5 KM mark, the wind was much stronger and it was much colder.
The trail map of Mt. Kinabalu. Source: https://www.mountkinabalu.com/map/mt-kinabalu-trail-map
The last kilometer before reaching Laban Rata was the most difficult part. It is long and tiring and seems never ending. The hike to the rest house takes about 4-6 hours. It is highly recommended to not climb too fast to reduce the risk of altitude sickness.
Laban Rata Resthouse
After a very exhausting climb, Roger and I reached Laban Rata at 3:40 PM. Laban Rata, located at 3,272 meters above sea level, is the accommodation at Panalaban base camp for climbers doing the standard climb. When I got there, Ong was already there eating noodle soup. He arrived at the rest house at 3:00 PM. Ben already had a nap. He got there at 1:30 PM.
After checking-in at Laban Rata, I was provided with a clean towel. Inside the room, slippers are provided. Ben, Ong and I shared a room with two bunk beds. The shower room is shared. There is a separate shower room for men and for women. There is no hot water in the shower room. The water was very cold. I attempted to shower after the climb but my feet got numb once it got wet so I decided not to continue.
At 4:30 PM, we went down to have buffet dinner and before 6 PM, we were already in bed ready to sleep. We had to sleep early because by 2 in the morning the following day we had to wake up to eat buffet supper and continue with our journey to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu.
However, when we woke up the following day, it was still raining hard. We were ready to continue the climb at 2:30 AM but were advised to wait for another hour and see if the weather will improve. Unfortunately at 3:30 AM, the weather was still the same. The park ranger announced that because the trail to the summit was too misty, the rain and the wind still too strong, they will not allow climb to the summit that day. All of us were sad because we were eager to reach the summit but they had to do it for our safety. We had no choice but to go back to sleep. At 7:20 AM we woke up to have buffet breakfast, then start with our descent.
Before descending, we decided to look around Panalaban and take photos. The rain already stopped. We finally got to see how beautiful the views are at the top.
We descended around 8:45 in the morning. The weather was very nice. Not too hot and not too cold. Going down wasn’t as exhausting as going up. It was much easier. At first I was able to take pictures of the trail. But after about three kilometers, I started to feel my knees getting weak. It’s like it’s going to break any minute. I concentrated on going down and tried as fast as I can to reach Timpohon Gate. I reached the gate at 11:50 AM, and Ben and Ong were already there, resting. They reached the gate at 11:20 AM.
At the Timpohon Gate, the driver of Downbelow Adventures was already there waiting for us. Before taking us back to Kota Kinabalu, he first took us to Balsam Buffet Restaurant for our lunch. After having lunch, a staff from Downbelow Adventures again talked to each of us over the phone to ask how our climb went.
I had a very nice experience climbing with Downbelow Adventures. Our climb was organized well. They have very accommodating and friendly staff. Our guide Roger had been very patient with me. He stayed with me and assisted me all throughout the climb as I got left behind because I walked slower than Ben and Ong. And their driver was the best. He was very hospitable and polite. I highly recommend Downbelow Adventures for your Mt. Kinabalu climb. They have very outstanding service and have the cheapest climb package.
- There is no road that goes up to Panalaban. Imagine how they built the resthouses. All the materials they used were brought up by the porters. I guess this is the reason why climbing Mt. Kinabalu is expensive.
- I’m not sure if it’s true, but someone said that if you get tired during the climb, you could ask a porter to carry you for MYR 700 (~USD 170) per kilometer.
- Only people who are from the surrounding community of Mt. Kinabalu can become mountain guide. If you want to be a guide, you first need to marry someone from that place. These people belong to the tribe Kadazan Dusun.
- Have enough sleep before the climb. The climb is not an easy one so you need enough rest prior. I only slept less than 6 hours the night before, and during the hike I felt really sleepy and tired.
- Don’t bring too much during your climb. Bring only what you need. The water at the rest house is icy cold, you won’t be able to shower so don’t bother bringing shampoo anymore. Soap, toothbrush and toothpaste is enough. It’s very hard to climb with a heavy backpack. I thought my backpack was just light but once we started with the hike, it felt really heavy. Somewhere around KM 3.5, I decided to let our guide carry my backpack for a fee because my back hurts so much already. The standard price is MYR 130 (around USD 32) per backpack.
- Don’t bring thick towel and slippers anymore. These are provided at the rest house.
- Bring enough drinking water with you. Water at the rest house is very pricey. A 500ml bottled water costs MYR 7 (around USD 1.7)
- Bring high energy food such as chocolates, biscuits and sweets. Fox’s candies provided me enough energy during my climb.
- Use waterproof backpack or bring a waterproof cover to keep the things inside your backpack dry.
- Wear hiking shoes with good angle support and a good grip. Better if it’s waterproof. If not, wear waterproof socks.
- Wear lightweight clothing and layer up so you can put on and take off layers as you sweat.
- Bring waterproof jacket or disposable raincoat.
- Bring change of clothes (thermal if possible) and extra socks for sleeping. It’s very cold at the rest house at night even with the blanket provided so bring something that can keep you warm during nighttime.
- Trekking pole is very useful. In case you avail your climb package with Downbelow Adventures, you can rent a trekking pole with them for MYR 25 (around USD 6).
- Bring gloves, ideally thermal and waterproof.
- Bring also warm hat, beanie or balaclava mask.
- You might get a headache due to the elevation or extreme cold. A headache tablet like Panadol may come in handy.
- Don’t forget to bring your passport and put it in a waterproof bag. You need your passport during registration.
- If you can, better if you use waterproof pants, just in case it rains during your hike.
- Although a personal accident insurance is included in the package when climbing Mount Kinabalu, the value is limited and the claim may take up to six months. I highly recommend that you get a separate comprehensive personal travel insurance. Something might go wrong during the hike or during the trip, and it’s better if you are protected. I got mine from World Nomads for USD 35.50 for the five days that I was in Malaysia. To know more about World Nomads travel insurance, check this link.
- Believe your tour provider when they tell you to prepare three months prior to your climb. You don’t need to be super fit. But it helps if you train for endurance. Do cardiovascular exercise at least twice a week.
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu is very difficult. It was so difficult that during the hike, I was having second thoughts if I will still do the Everest and Annapurna Base Camp trek in the future. I even considered retiring from hiking when I was struggling to reach Laban Rata. My whole body was sore for 4 days after the hike. But I did it! I don’t regret doing it. The view at the top was amazing. And I think I burned more than 1000 calories during the climb. It has been a very nice experience, something I will never forget. And by the way, this is not a sponsored post and I’m not an affiliate of Downbelow Adventures. I was just a satisfied customer so I am recommending them to you.
So that’s it. I hope this helps in your preparation for your climb to Mt. Kinabalu. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I will gladly answer it. And I hope I inspired you to climb Mt. Kinabalu too.
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