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KY travels – Climbing Gunung Kinabalu, the highest peak in Borneo

Posted: 04 Sep 2016 08:52 AM PDT

Earlier in the year, one of my colleagues sent out an email to the whole department mooting the idea of a group hike to Gunung Kinabalu, the highest peak in Borneo and South East Asia, I immediately msg Haze to check on her interest, and a few months later in late July 2016, we found ourselves at the foothill of the sleeping giant.

Kinabalu Park entrance & Pondok Timpohon, our starting point
Kinabalu Park entrance & Timpohon Gate, our starting point 9:40 am

First, let’s talk about the mountain and what one should prepare if you have the intention to scale all of 4096 meter. Here’s the check list of equipment that will be extremely helpful:

  • hiking stick(s), preferably a pair. This will aid in providing traction as well as relieve to the impact to your knees, especially on descent
  • water bottles or water bladder. It’s going to be a very long hike, you’ll need hydration, at least 2-3 litre
  • cloths for cold weather. Temperature at summit can be as low as a few Celsius, factoring in wind chill and you’re in for a treat. We find the down jacket from UNIQLO quite good for this application as it is very compact. You are also advised to bring at least a pair of long pants and maybe long john
  • snacks, packed lunch is provided with the package, but some condensed calorie such as chocolate or energy bar is helpful
  • hiking lamp or torch light. Head lamp is helpful as you may need to have your hands free for hiking stick or ropes on 2nd day ascent that starts at 2:30 am
  • hat & sunscreen. You’d want to protect yourself from getting sun burnt
  • gloves. Preferably 2 pairs just in case they get wet, doesn’t need to be very thick, you need them to protect your hands while grabbing the ropes, and also not have your fingers get too cold near summit
  • poncho/umbrella. Just in case it rains on you
  • extra change of cloths. It is a two day hike and it also may rain
  • ibuprofen. Taking 600 mg ibuprofen every 8 hours is shown to reduce incident of altitude sickness
  • a small first aid supply. Plasters, some bandages can be helpful

While these supplies are important, you are also advised to get it as light as possible. They get heavier and heavier every step you climb up, you can also hire porter to carry everything for you at a rate of RM 10 or so per KG (both up & down)

first stop was Pondok Kandis
first stop was Pondok Kandis 10:04 am

Secondly, you’re going to be needing some training. If you’re not already an avid hiker, you’re gonna need to get some practise hike before the Mount Kinabalu ordeal.

Many hikers used to go to Batu Caves to walk those stairs before Kinabalu hike, but whoever is now in charged of that public property seems to not be letting anyone do that anymore. Next best thing is going to places like Kiara Hills or Bukit Tabur if you’re near KL, or even better, Penang Hill. We did those places once each with quite a few gym sessions to get ready, and at the end wished that we had done more practise hikes.

Pondok Ubah 10:30 am
Pondok Ubah, 10:30 am

You can’t climb Kinabalu Mountain like you do with other hills. Permit and hiking guide are required for every climber. For that we signed up Amazing Borneo Tours. The package we got was as follow:

  • RM 1250 for Malaysian, RM 1630 for non-Malaysian inclusive of GST
  • includes 1 breakfast, 2 lunches, 1 dinner & 1 supper
  • 1 night accommodation at Laban Rata
  • return transfer from KK to Kinabalu Park, and Kinabalu Park to Timpohon Gate
  • mountain guide, climbing insurance, permit, & certificate

Haze and myself actually ended up renting a car and drove to Kinabalu Park ourselves since we had planned to stay at Kundasang after the climb while others in our group made used of the KK hotel transfer. I wonder if we could have gotten a slightly cheaper rate if we had stated that earlier.

Pondok Lowii 11:13 am, Pondok Mempening 12:21 am
Pondok Lowii 11:13 am, Pondok Mempening, 12:21 am

The journey from Kota Kinabalu starts at around 6am from the hotel. It takes some 2 hours or so to get to the main entrance of Kinabalu Park. We then got paperwork for climbing permit sorted out and collected our pre-packed lunch in paper bag.

Our group was then ferried to the Timpohon Gate (elevation 1866 m)to start our climb at around 9:33am.

Pondok Layang-Layang, 1:11 pm
Pondok Layang-Layang, 1:11 pm

The aim for first day is to get to Laban Rata (elevation 3272 m), which is about a 6 km hike of 1400 meter in elevation. Along the way there are quite a number of shelters, or Pondok. The shelters aren’t really equal in distance or elevation between one another, but provides a good place to catch your breath.

Pondok Villosa, 2:36 pm
Pondok Villosa, 2:36 pm

The shelters from Timpohon to Laban Rata (with our time of arrival):

  • Pondok Kandis, 1981 meter, 10:04 am
  • Pondok Ubah, 2081 meter, 10:30 am
  • Pondok Lowii, 1167 meter,  11:13 am
  • Pondok Mempening, 2515 meter, 12: 21 pm
  • Pondok Layang-Layang, 2702 meter, 1:03 pm (this is also where we had our lunch)
  • Pondok Villosa, 2960 meter, 2: 36 pm
  • Pondok Paka, 3080 meter, 3:21 pm

.. and finally – Laban Rata, 3272 meter, 4:18 pm

Pondok Paka, 3:21 pm
Pondok Paka, 3:21 pm

We actually split into two groups about half way with another group being a little faster. Our time posted is quite of quite a leisure pace with a lot of rest at the shelters, and some stops in between as well. Dinner at Laban Rata is served at 4:30 pm so we actually got there just in time.

we reached Raban Rata at 4:18 pm
we reached Laban Rata at 4:18 pm; food, sleeping place!

Dinner is buffet style and there’s plenty of food to go around. There’s also a small shop at the restaurant that offers bottled water, snacks, and even beer, at a price that’s quite a bit more expensive than in the city. A 1.5 litre of water was some RM 15 (or maybe a bit more), but I bet most of us won’t want to carry anyone’s 1.5 kg worth of anything up there for RM 15.

After dinner it’s a good idea to get some sleep before the 2nd day’s hike. Hostel style bunk bed is all you get, and we’re lucky to have a room with 6 beds for our group to enjoy our very own snoring symphony.

getting ready for summit try, 2:30 am
getting ready for summit try, 2:30 am

We woke up at 1:30 am for 2nd day’s hike. Buffet style supper is provided and we ate as much as we could in our sleepy state to get ready for the summit try.

Temperature at Laban Rata is already pretty cold at maybe 12-15 Celsius, so we put on our cold weather cloths and lights. I left a climbing stick in the room and to carry only one since I wanted to have a free hand for grabbing the climbing rope along the route.

by 4:53 am we reached KM 8.0, the last stop
by 4:53 am we reached KM 8.0, the last stop

The climb to summit is pretty different from the first day’s trail. It is a lot steeper and generally more hazardous, there are parts where you’ll need to grab hold of the climbing rope to help yourself up. It is also potentially more slippery when wet as some areas are just rock face without any steps or wide path like the first day.

To give you an idea of the difference in gradient, first day we hiked 6 km for 1400 meter in elevation, the second day it was 2.5 km for 822 meter. It is that much steeper.

reached the summit at about 5:45 am for sunrise
reached the summit at about 5:45 am for sunrise

We started the climb at 2:30 am and reached the summit just over 3 hours later. It was a gruelling hike as I was already quite tired from previous day’s climb. There are a couple stations for resting, and we also took a few stops closer to summit whenever we felt tired. It got really cold and windy, we had to took cover behind some boulders while resting.

Haze unfortunately decided to turn back some 10 minutes into the climb as she was showing signs of altitude sickness with very elevated heart rate. Ian had decided to stay back (as per planned) as he had made the summit a year ago. Thank you Ian!

Poul near the summit
Poul near the summit

Low’s Peak is quite a small are and gets rather crowded. We waited for our turn to take the all important I AM HERE ON TOP OF Mt. KINABALU pictures, stayed another half hour or so admiring the view before slowly making our way down.

there are areas where ropes are required
there are areas where ropes are required

The view going back down to Laban Rata was breath taking. You could see the whole of Kundasang and plenty of cloud around.

the view on the way down was breathtaking
the view on the way down was breathtaking 

The evidence from 2015’s earthquake was also very apparent. There were boulders the size of cars littered by the slope along the newly created path after the previous one was destroyed. Lives were lost during that day.

result of the earthquake, look at the size of this fallen boulder
result of the earthquake, look at the size of this fallen boulder

It was about 9:30 am when we reached Laban Rata, just good timing for another round of breakfast. All these walking really does work up your appetite, and it is a good idea to eat as much as possible to replenish all those spent calories. We then took a bit of rest before heading back down by around 10:15 am.

at this check point you also find the highest toilet in all of South East Asia
at this check point you also find the highest toilet in all of South East Asia

The journey down, was not nearly as demanding in a cardiovascular sense, was very punishing to our joints. My right knee (which suffered MCL injury before) started acting up about 70% down. Thankfully those hiking sticks provided some relieves.

Most coincidentally, we also met with an intern, Vinod who worked at our department a year ago. Hello!

we met with an ex-intern on the way down, also look at the porter!
we met with an ex-intern on the way down, also look at the porter!

Climbing Kinabalu Mountain was quite an experience, and one that I hope that we can do it again next year!

By the way, our pre-discussed contingency plan before climbing was that if anyone couldn’t make it, Ian was going to stay with the person, and if Ian was that person, I was going to stay with him. The reason being he had done it before, and I was the person who has more opportunity to try it again. You may not need to use this plan like we did, but it’s a good idea to have one.

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