in North BorneoComments Off on Kinabalu




Mt Kinabalu is the highest point between the Himalayas and PNG.


Mt Kinabalu in Sabah rises to 4095 metres, a lump of granite pushed up by a volcanic eruption about 10 million years ago, -and they say it’s still rising…but only 5 mm per year.
Geologically it’s young, but although there is never snow on it now, it has been covered by ice sheets in the past, the glaciers carving out the many pinnacles of its rugged summit.
Although it may be a mere infant, it’s by far the biggest mountain on the island of Borneo, the next being only just over half it’s height, Tamboyukon, about 20 km north.


So on a clear morning at sea it dominates the skyline, dwarfing the adjacent Crocker Range.
Naturally it’s craggy profile has come to also dominate the whole area, the nearby city of Kota Kinabalu and the lives of the Dusun people of the surrounding districts. It is a part of their traditional beliefs and mythology, a resting place for their souls; but more recently, it’s become their income. It’s now a major tourist attraction, people fly in from all over to climb it and visit the adjacent Kinabalu Park.

We were no exception.


The first recorded climb was in 1851 by an Englishman, Sir Hugh Low, who led a party of 42 people, jungle bashing and scaling steep rock faces on a 9 day expedition to the summit plateau, but the true summit wasn’t reached until 1888. Although Low wasn’t the first to make it to the highest point, the peak is named after him.
The mountain became truly open to the public to climb after the National Park was created in 1964 and a new route formed.. 
Climbing now it is not difficult from a technical point of view, the track up it is a comparative superhighway, it is just a long uphill slog, but it is high enough that the altitude can begin to show its effects. However, logistically it is more complex, for most casual visitors it has to be a 2 day affair, using a local guide and bookings made months in advance.
The exception is the annual mountain run held in October…(it’s tempting… if only I was 15 years younger) when the time for the round trip becomes just a matter of hours for the super super fit… the current record well under 3!

Although we booked 6 months in advance there were no places available for us to make the climb independently, that is, with just a guide,  the only way we could do it was with a tour group. However, in effect, that made little difference, -it was easier in some ways as transport was provided and as there were 6 of us, our climbing party ended up being just us with the guide.
Whether climbing as individuals or in, as we were, a tour package, there is little need to carry much other than warm, waterproof clothing and personal effects. Good  bedding and food are supplied at the accommodation on the mountain. Like taking the guide, it is compulsory to use it and the numbers on the mountain on any one day are limited by the number of beds available. 
We were taken from Kota Kinabalu city by minivan early in the morning to drive the 80 odd kilometres to begin the climb.



and were fortunate to have a great view of the mountain as we drove along the ridge before it. Typically, even by that time of day it is closed in by cloud,


and as we drew nearer that was beginning to develop, but not before we had been treated to a good look at the many peaks of the summit.


Just as the cloud closed in we were close enough to make out the white buildings of Laban Rata, the accommodation house high on the mountain and where we would spend that night, -or some of it…


At the Park Headquarters there is the registration desk, some lodges and eating places.



attractively landscaped and with many colourful native plants. Even there at altitude of 1550 metres the air is clear and crisp compared with the hot humidity of the flat-lands below.
We were allocated our guide for the mountain, Rony, like all the rest of them, is a resident of one of the local villages and employed for a couple of days a week guiding. He proved to be very good, -affable, patient, helpful, with a good knowledge of English -and very fit.
It is an efficiently run organisation and a very efficient process, the numbers on the mountain at any time are carefully monitored. We were each given individual name tags to be worn constantly.


A short drive up from the HQ is Timophon Gate where the road ends and the walk begins,


we set off into the mist, beginning the upward climb. The track is very well formed, with many steps to make it easier in the slippery conditions, but some of them are quite high enough to be challenging to the short-legged…
We were not alone, many other groups were setting off at about the same time, mostly Asians, but there were a few European faces among them.

It wasn’t long either before we were meeting people coming the other way, they had been to the summit that morning…some looked happy, but many seemed strained, footsore and often wearing sandals to ease their painful feet…-many wished us good luck as they limped on down!


We overtook many others and were passed by few, but the fastest making the climb were the porters;


also local villagers, who are employed to carry food and supplies to the accommodation houses higher up. They carried enormous loads in uncomfortable wicker baskets on their backs, often wearing only makeshift footwear. When we saw what they carried, it was all just for our comfort and going at a pace so much faster than ours, we felt truly humbled!
(Although there are helipads higher up it seems that helicopters are rarely used, manpower (and woman-power), is cheaper. We saw packages of bricks and building materials transported on the back of porters,  -and even,  -to our amazement a climber with suspected fractured ankle being ‘medi-vacced’, on a makeshift stretcher carried down all those steep steps by 6 stocky men…surely an ordeal for the carried, as much as the carriers!)

Weather-wise we were still being treated well, there was a little misty rain but soon we climbed out above the cloud and were again enjoying a sunny day.


The way continued steadily up


tiring, but not tedious, there was always plenty to look at.

When Low first climbed the mountain he was most impressed by the variety of plant life and as a botanist, he made many exciting discoveries, describing Kinabalu as a very special botanical environment and even to the non-botanist, without a garden, living on a yacht, the plant life is obviously different, the colours and variety quite special!

Where there is tree cover



there are the striking splashes of colour from the many varieties of rhododendron flowers, 


-even this little red heath-like flower, which grows more out in the open, is a rhododendron I am told.
Orchids are also a feature, many growing as epiphytes on the trees,


and many different little track-side flowers.


Perhaps most vivid though, as there are so many, are the red immature leaves of many different varieties of trees.



and ferns.


As it gets higher the vegetation changes with reduced tree height, as it becomes more alpine, but even lower down, in the areas of poor soil, where the trees become scrubby bushes, there are the pitcher plants,


for which Kinabalu is well known… -and they ARE fascinating…

(There was more than one reference to this climb coming to resemble a ‘Garden Club’ outing, but the plant life on this mountain is worth taking time to look at; -and worth writing more about later!)

The wildlife was far less evident, but that is no surprise as the track is far from quiet, no wild animals would stay around by choice.


The exception were the squirrels at some of the rest stops, attracted by discarded food of littering climbers.

Out of the trees in the alpine zone it was a clear day,


we had good views of the mountain above


although Sabah below, remained hidden behind  heavy cumulus cloud cover, a sign of the ‘2 o’clock-on-the-dot’ rain showers down there.


By mid afternoon we reached Laban Rata Guest-House at 3750 metres


where we took a well-earned break on the balcony in the afternoon sun,


-enjoying the hospitality, -afternoon tea and biscuits, then later, with sunset,


our early evening meal.
The food provided was good, tasty, and buffet style, there was no shortage.

We were to resume our climb at 2.30 am the following day; it seemed an impossible time to us, -our least preferred choice, -but it is routine doing this climb, as it ensures achieving the likely best time to be on the summit, that is, when the sun comes up and before the cloud cover forms.
Our bed for what remained of the shortened night was at Gunting Lagadan hut, a 5 minute walk on up the track. It is basic accommodation, but quite adequate, -if a little cold and for us, -noisy, from other guests. It proved to be a very broken few hours of sleep, none of us felt rested.
When 2am arrived and everyone arose it was disappointing to find, after the perfectly clear night it had been a few hours earlier, it was windy with light rain, -and cold!
It wasn’t easy to feel enthusiastic about stepping outside the shelter of the hut into the weather to continue the climb in torchlight, but everyone else was, so peer pressure forced us to do likewise and once underway, it became easier…
The climb from Laban Rata was all on exposed rock and ridges, there were many more steps to climb, they were often thin wooden structures, but unslippery and with good hand-holds.
The track remained steep up to Saya-Sayat Hut where in the darkness we had to show our passes for a final check, then it gradually levelled off as we reached the summit plateau. Crossing the plateau there were long, fixed, ropes marking the track, more than being needed for security, as the granite rock gave excellent foothold, -but at times where it was steeper, or the wind was stronger, it was useful to be able to hold on for support.
It remained bitterly cold, we all had total polypropylene cover, fleece tops, wind-proof parkas, hats and gloves, but still we froze, most of us with numb fingers and toes. Keeping walking slowly kept us sufficiently warm however, while our guide assured us that it wasn’t usually as cold as this, the unusually strong wind creating severe wind-chill.(Interestingly there was no ice on the small puddles, but the air temperature for us in the wind must have been well below zero)
He kept us moving at just the right pace to ensure that we kept warm, didn’t tire, and arrived on the final climb to the summit just as dawn was beginning to break…

There were a few there before us, well wrapped up in sleeping bags or shivering in the cold wind blowing over the peak.


We could see little from the peak, so soon abandoned the summit marker to others more hardy or still making the climb up


and moved back down a little, towards the ‘Ugly Sister’…


(the name of the distant peak, no reference to a member of our party!)  to relative warmth, explore the plateau and await improving conditions…

We were not to be disappointed. Although the sun never came out brightly there were sufficient gaps in the mist blowing over the summit to see the other peaks and be able to get some good, -albeit brief, -views out over Borneo.


We watched a steady stream of people moving along the way we had come up from near South Peak in the distance


following the rope markers, (not to be confused with the interesting white rock ‘tracks’ criss-crossing the relatively flat granite of the summit plateau)


an ant-like procession up the final ridge to Low’s Peak.


Across the plateau is St John’s Peak, almost matching Low’s Peak in height, and with (they say) an orangutan face painted on its north side…


and the Donkey’s Ears, aptly named for obvious reasons, a feature seen from all views of the southern side of the mountain.

Kinabalu is a mountain of 2 halves, the East and West plateaus, separated by Low’s Chasm and at Low’s Peak, we were on the edge of it.





This is a deep rift carved out by some long-time ago glacier, over 1000 metres deep and 16,000 metres long, it’s near vertical walls making it virtually impassable. (It has in fact only been descended once, in very dry conditions of 1998) To get to the Eastern Summit Plateau the route is completely separate, leaving the Low’s Peak track shortly after Laban Rata and not often used as the pinnacles of that side require technically difficult rope-work  to climb and the Park Rules on doing so are quite restrictive. Low’s Peak is however the highest of all peaks, -by a mere 5 metres…

As the weather cleared a little more we reascended Low’s Peak and joined some of the later comers for another photo opportunity in better conditions


(Well, if you’re Asian, naturally you have a hand-phone out to share the climactic moment with a friend, -despite the unsociable hour!)

Now we were able to see more out towards Kota Kinabalu


although still not enough to see the city clearly


but we had a better view to the northeast where we could make out the twin capes at the ‘Tip of Borneo’ in the very distance.
Our gap in the clouds was short-lived however, as they soon heaped up again on the peaks of the Eastern Plateau, across Low’s Chasm



then soon enshrouded us too, -our view of Sabah was over!

The experience certainly hadn’t matched that described in the tourist brochures, that is, of enjoying a panoramic view, resting after the climb, while watching Sabah awaken in the dawn sunshine… but it was better than it could have been…

Many people get to see nothing at all and at times the mountain can even be ‘closed’ by the weather conditions.
However, we had seen what we came for and if anything, the cold wind, driving mist and clouds had added to the moment, we were content to go down now.
It was a fast descent, giant steps down the rocky slope,


to the ropes at the brink of the summit


where it became necessary to slow down, take a little more care


and enjoy the view of the villages on the southern, (leeward and therefore at that time, still unclouded) side of the mountain.

At Laban Rata was a full buffet breakfast, we were by then feeling ‘like a little something’ so it was well received. It was also time to cautiously remove some of our clothing as it was getting a little warmer. However, the day never improved greatly, it rained for most of the 3-4 hour descent from there to Timpophon and our lunch.

It was our turn to look pained and for those poor people trudging up in the rain, to wish them ‘good luck’ …quietly pleased it wasn’t us doing so now…

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