Mount Kinabalu: dizzying heights

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Mount Kinabalu 3

Foreboding slabs of moonscape granite, ethereal wisps of cloud in the foothills below, and a sky streaked with ribbons of orange and pink are revealed as the sun rises at Low’s Peak. Situated at 4095.2 metres above sea level, this is the summit of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo, and is the highest peak in the Malay Archipelago.

Climbing this magnificent mountain is more than possible for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. Since it is imperative to travel with a guide, it is a perfect introduction to altitude trekking, for first-time tourists as well as hardcore backpackers.

Most people choose the two day package, costing around 1000RM (£150-£200), which includes three meals and a night’s sleep at the basic but comfortable Laban Rata guesthouse, private lodging in which a room must be booked as part of the cost of trekking up the mountain. The cheapest option is to book a room through the Laban Rata website (Sutera Harbour, or Sutera Sanctuary Lodges), rather than through any of the many tour operators in the capital city, Kota Kinabalu. The bigger the group you can gather, the cheaper the cost, because the cost of the guides (as well as transport to and from Kota Kinabalu) can be split between you. Some may prefer the one day trek, costing only around 250RM for the day, but requiring the gruelling commitment of reaching Laban Rata in less than three hours. If this is not achieved, you must abandon and return to the park headquarters, with no refund. If you do manage to reach Laban Rata within the time limit, you will rest only briefly and then continue to the summit, but the guide may still ask you to abandon at any time. Although this challenge may sound appealing to fitness enthusiasts and budget travellers, it is worth noting that there are few places available for the one-day trek, so arriving the day before to bargain in person is advisable. In addition, a dome of cloud covers the top of the mountain almost every afternoon, smothering views and bringing disappointment. For this reason, it is likely that the views available to a two-day trekker will be better than to a one-day trekker, as the different groups arrive at the summit from 5-6.30am and 11.30am-1pm, respectively.

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The National Park is home to many unique species of plants and animals

At the National Park entrance, you sign in with your ticket and passport details. Next, you meet your guides, and get driven 5.5 kilometres up the road to the start of the route, Timpohon Gate (1866 metres above sea level). This first day involves a steady walk of 6km up to the Laban Rata guesthouse. The 6km takes around five hours, depending on the fitness of your group, as the path is relentlessly steep and the air is constantly thinning. The temperature is far cooler than in Kota Kinabalu, just 100km away. The terrain is ever-changing and rich in colour; a cool cloud-forest, with pitcher-plants beside the path, gives way to a surreal scrubland, with eerie fog that muffles the sounds of the mountain wildlife.

Out from the mist looms the first building to be seen since Timpohon Gate. The huge signpost outside Laban Rata is the propeller of one of the helicopters that carried building materials for the guesthouse up the mountain. The post celebrates your achievement of climbing to 3272 metres above sea level; you will certainly have earned a rest. After dumping bags in the simple yet comfortable dormitories, and sighing with relief as the walking boots can come off for a few hours, many people head straight down to the canteen where at 4.30pm, dinner is served. All parties commit themselves to a thorough carbo-load, as well as making sure not to miss the opportunity to try different Malay cooking.  The Wintermelon soup is nose-scrunching; the Nasi Goreng (“fried rice”) is stomach-warming; the banana fritters satisfyingly greasy; and the Sabah tea refreshing.  At 6pm, many people retire to their bunks, with alarms set for 2am.

Night-time at this altitude is often cold, so make sure you take plenty of extra layers. Bedding is provided but is not exactly cosy- spare socks and thermal under-layers are the best extras to stuff into the backpack. The early (early early) start is designed so that parties can reach the top of the mountain for sunrise, and can get back down to Timpohon Gate by the end of the afternoon.

After another buffet-style meal, all groups have left Laban Rata by 3am. Entering a world of pitch black darkness with temperatures approaching freezing, multiple layers of clothing including a waterproof and windproof layer are essential. You then continue your ascent as part of the slow, steady stream of people (the entirety of the Laban Rata guests) snaking its way up the mountain in the night. The path is frustratingly narrow for a long while, so for the more ambitious parties, leaving Laban Rata as early as the guides will allow might be a useful tip. Although a steady pace is advisable, making the top in time to see the sun rise requires pushing the pace a little, so starting in front of the slower groups is recommended.

Mount Kinabalu 2The 2.7km ascent from Laban Rata to the top of Mount Kinabalu is relentlessly steep. Over 800 metres of vertical height is gained in the 2.7km, giving a staggeringly high average gradient of around 30%. Huge slabs of granite loom from out of the dark, and the ropes anchored to the rock are a welcome aid to ascent. The scramble slows everybody’s progress, leading to the inevitable queues below. The guides show incredible expertise, their tattered sandals humiliating leather walking boots as they navigate up the rock with no use for the ropes. In the dark and the cold at 3am, this thrilling haul up the rock face is the point at which the adventure truly hits home.

The last section is slow, hard, and steep, and to varying degrees you will began to feel the effects of the altitude. Most people only suffer light headaches, breathlessness and nausea; you are unlucky if you are actually physically sick. The sun rises as you leave the ropes behind to pick a route across a sprawling granite plateau, perhaps 500 metres from the summit. The newly revealed panoramas across Borneo are an incredible morale booster, and urge the pace to be lifted as Low’s Peak becomes visible in greater clarity every minute.

The last kilometre’s challenging average gradient of 25% is deceptive. Most of the ascent in this kilometre is comfortably gradual, but the final 100 metres to the top of Low’s Peak rises dramatically out of the steady slope of the granite plateau. These last 100 metres take up to twenty minutes to drag yourself up. Literally breath-taking.

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The imposing peak reigns over the city of Kota Kinabalu

It is a dream-like moment, reaching the top. It is 6am and something monumental has been achieved. As the sun rises behind Low’s Peak at the summit of Mount Kinabalu, the shadow of the colossal mountain stretches 100 kilometres away, brushing over the sleeping city of Kota Kinabalu and plunging its peak into the South China Sea. The biting wind, the spectacular views across the entirety of Northern Borneo, and the shaky feeling of tired legs, all creates an adrenaline-packed memory. The rising sun makes smiles infectious, and everyone’s fatigue is momentarily forgotten in this world of granite giants.

You may stay at the top for as long as you can stand the cold, before you begin the 8.7km descent back to Timpohon Gate. Breakfast at Laban Rata at about 9am fuels you for the descent, which feels refreshingly effortless compared with the upward struggle. The descent is fast, and sooner than expected, the cloud-forest near the base of the climb appears before you. Many groups will be back at Timpohon Gate by the early afternoon.

The next day, back in Kota Kinabalu, many people’s legs feel like dead weights. However, the mountain’s jagged peak looms over the city, a constant reminder that every moment of pain is worth it for the memory of having conquered Malaysia’s famous mountain.

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