Climbing Mt. Kinabalu – Malaysian Borneo

Mt. Kinabalu - the highest mountain in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia

Mt. Kinabalu – the highest mountain in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia

Hello, Namaste and welcome to another edition of Far East Adventure Travel The Podcast brought to you by Far East Adventure Travel Magazine. Camel Trekking in The Thar Desert, Bishnoi Village Safaris and Kagbeni, Nepal, Crossroads To The Upper Mustang and Annapurna Circuit all in the latest issue on the iTunes Newsstand. To subscribe simply go to the app store, search far east adventure travel and download the app. Or go to, click on the App Store icon and subscribe.

Hi, this is John Saboe the publisher of Far East Adventure Travel Magazine just back in Taiwan after a trip down south to Sabah, one of two states in Malaysian Borneo.

When most people think of Borneo, orang utans, proboscis Monkeys, and headhunters come to mind but I was there really with the purpose of climbing Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia. I did see so much more and met some of the friendliest people in South East Asia.

To climb Mt. Kinabalu most people start from Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah. From there it is about a 3 hour drive to Mt. Kinabalu Park. Everything must be arranged in advance. Most people including myself book a package through one of the local tour operators. The prices are pretty much the same across the board.

One resort controls most all of the accommodations on or near the mountain including Laban Rata, the guesthouse you must stay at in order to summit Mt. Kinabalu. No camping is allowed. The only other option to avoid the costly stay on the mountain is to do a one day summit, which in my estimation if you are a good climber in great shape is a minimum 12 hours. I really don’t recommend this even if you are in amazing shape and you are only allowed to do this solely on the discretion of the park rangers. I also believe they are thinking of eliminating this option.

For a two day one night standard stay you are looking at about 1400 Malaysian Ringit, about $440 USD. If you want to approach the mountain from a different trail that is more scenic and in my opinion much more enjoyable you can take the Mesilau route from the Mesilau resort which you can do over 3 days and 2 nights. A good option to get used to the cooler climate at a higher elevation before you start the trek. That package currently comes in under $1700 Ringit or about $530USD. In these packages all of your transportation costs from Kota Kinabalu and return should be included along with all of your meals.

Is it expensive? Yes I think so. The only other way you can do this by possibly cutting the costs are to book the permits yourself, which is definitely more complicated, has to be done I believe well in advance, and you still in the end have to book a bed at Laban Rata. If you really want to climb Mt. Kinabalu, I’d recommend you book the package.

Also keep in mind the busy season is the summer so a good option if you can is to book a few months in advance. I was lucky enough to find an operator that had someone cancel a couple of weeks before the date I requested so I was able to get the package and dates I wanted. I checked with another operator and they had nothing available around the time I wanted. This was with 2 weeks notice.

Now that you know what’s involved and the costs is it worth it? In my opinion, yes. It’s a great experience, the views are absolutely out of this world, you are on the roof of the 3rd largest island in the world and if the skies are clear you can see right through to the Philippines. At the top the mountain it’s a lunar landscape done in granite with dramatic spires and mini peaks, almost giant looking teeth. Low’s Peak, the highest one on the plateau is where you will make your final ascent.

It is not a technically challenging climb but does require some scrambling up some of the granite and some rope use along this section. This is all done in the dark as you will probably start your ascent from Laban Rata around 2:30am to reach the summit in time for the sunrise.

If all goes well with your day and climb you won’t think about how much you paid. However, if you catch a bad patch of weather, and it’s possible, you could be disappointed. The afternoon I arrived at Laban Rata I met some people that were heading down the trail after being turned away by rains and wind that kept them from summiting at sunrise. I found out later that some people from that day were able to summit later in the morning, before heading down.

So it’s a high altitude mountain, the summit reaches 4095 meters or 13,435 feet. The weather is unpredictable and quite often the mountain is socked in by clouds in the morning. Go in with an open mind, and “I’m going to have a great time and enjoy every moment” attitude and you will have a great memory.

Remember whatever happens it will be a great memory. Sometimes the best stories are made when things don’t go as planned. I’ll never forget a quote from Yvonne Chouinard, the founder of the Patagonia Company, “ the adventure doesn’t start until the shit hits the fan”.

I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep the night before I was to summit Mt. Kinabalu. In a small hut with 5 other people trying to get some rest, for me, almost never happens. The snoring, in all tones and noise levels. Like trying to sleep in a patch of elephant seals, it wasn’t going to happen.

I got up out of my lower bunk around 1:30 to head down to the main Laban Rata building for some breakfast, or supper as they called it. My guide Anwat met me at 2:30. We decided to wait around a bit. Leaving at that time, knowing we would have a pretty good pace would probably put us at the summit a little too early for sunrise forcing us to deal with the exposure from the winds that morning.

We started moving up the trail just before 3am. People with varying age and fitness levels will attempt a summit of Mt. Kinabalu so the crowd of about 150 is spread out. We moved up through the lower crowds at the start of the steep stairs that eventually lead to the granite slopes. This is where the ropes begin and at times are handy for making your way up the rock.

The winds were strong and it felt like a push at times moving up the granite. The cold temperatures that the winds brought pierced through my shell jacket and wool base layer. I only had one more layer in my pack and I was saving it for the wait for sunrise at the top. I knew if I kept moving I would manage to stay warm enough to keep going. A few people had stopped along the path of the granite slopes hunched over for a break. I didn’t want to stop even though I knew I had plenty of time before sunrise.
The lights from headlamps became a giant string of Christmas lights up and down the slopes eventually trailing off to a few that were already close to summit.

Anwat and I had made it to the bottom of Low’s Peak, the final summit up the shark tooth shaped granite slope of the mountain and it was still dark. We found a cluster of rocks that gave us a little shelter from the strong winds and hunkered down for a few minutes. My teeth were chattering so I broke out my mid layer jacket and I was shaking as I zipped everything up. We waited around for about 15 minutes.

Finally the go-ahead from Anwat, it was time. It was just before sunrise. The last 10 minutes of climbing to the top seemed effortless, it was does when you can see the prize. Finally at the top of Mt. Kinabalu. There wasn’t much room to move around as there were people moving in for their photo op. with the official Mt. Kinabalu sign and elevation in the shot. I moved in quickly knowing their would be more crowds coming up Low’s Peak soon. Once I got my shots I moved down the peak to take more pictures of the glorious sunrise and take in the view of Sabah and beyond.

I was full of energy, and I honestly felt child-like jumping up and down for the camera and running down the granite slopes. Climbing and hiking have always been more than just an activity for me. It’s my temple, a place no matter where I am that I can find my moment and just be. I love the feeling of perspective high up there, the sense that I’m small and just a particle in this world. The connection is powerful and addictive. I certainly found my fix and space that day on Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo.

Camel trekking in The Thar Desert, travel advice and stories from the great desert of India in the latest issue of Far East Adventure Travel Magazine on the iTunes Newstand. Go to the app store, search Far East Adventure Travel, download the app and subscribe. Or go to, click on the App Store icon and subscribe.

That’s it for this week’s edition of Far East Adventure Travel The Podcast. Next week more adventures in Laos, Until then this is John Saboe, thanks so much for listening, Namaste and safe travels.

About the Author John Saboe

I am a broadcaster, photographer, writer and videographer with a passion for travel throughout Asia. I love making connections and engaging with people. I am spiritual and seek adventure wherever I go.

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