We’ve talked about climbing Mount Fuji, as well as Mount Rinjani in Lombok. Today, let’s talk about the experience of climbing Mount Kinabalu. When is the best time for hiking? How difficult is the climb? What can you expect and how much will it cost? We’ll cover them and more today.
So, let’s start with the mountain.
Standing at 4,101 metres above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia, and the tallest in Borneo. Borneo itself is a very interesting island – it is the only one in the world that is politically divided between three countries: Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. Mount Kinabalu is located at the north of the island in Sabah, which is Malaysia’s territory. Its landscape is very beautiful, ranging from tropical rainforest at the base, to subalpine near the summit. The mountain and its surroundings are among the most important biological sites in the world. There are over 5,000 species of plants, 326 species of birds, and more than 100 mammalian species that call this space home.
Covid-19 update: With effect from 5 March 2021, only 100 climb permits per day will be issued by Sabah Parks until further notice. Travel to the mountain is limited to those currently in Sabah, whether local or foreign, or locals in another state who have obtained a special permit to return home. Other Malaysians and foreign visitors will need to wait for restrictions to be lifted before they can travel to Sabah and Mount Kinabalu.
How difficult is the climb?
Mount Kinabalu is not the easiest hike around, and you’ll need a base level of fitness. The route is easy to follow, but there are many, many, many steps which can get slippery when it rains. Sometimes the fog gets very dense and it can affect visibility too. The climate on Mount Kinabalu is also rather temperamental. The weather can literally change from hour to hour. Nights are cold, afternoons are muggy, and rain storms can come with any warning.
What can I expect?
The hike itself takes two days (one-day permits are no longer available). Before starting the climb, you will need to register with Sabah Parks at Park HQ between 7am to 10.30am. You must register by 10.30am. After this time, you will not be allowed to climb on the same day.
The hike will officially start at Timpohon Gate, and you will ascend to Panalaban to spend the night. This part of the hike will take between four to five hours. Expect to climb a lot of stairs within the rainforest, with the last two kilometers being steep and rocky.
You won’t be camping on Mount Kinabalu as there are accommodations available (more about them later). They’re clean and comfortable, but definitely don’t expect five-star facilities. The showers are brutally cold!
Day two will involve a very early start at 2am to ascend to Low’s Peak to catch the sunrise. Expect the final summit climb to take around three hours. The climb is very steep, which can be unnerving at times as you are climbing in the dark, but there are guide ropes around to help you.
Accommodations on Panalaban
There are four different accommodations on the mountain:
Laban Rata is the largest accommodation on the mountain and it’s where the majority of climbers stay. The establishment has become synonymous with Panalaban and it caters for non-Via Ferrata summit climbers (we’ll talk more about this later!) Dinner is also served here, even if you are staying at one of the other lodges.
The standard accommodation style on Panalaban is dorms. The smallest dorm at Laban Rata has four beds and the largest has ten. There are also three private rooms with heating and ensuite bathrooms, but they are often taken up. Not to mention that they also cost more!
Pendant Hut caters exclusively for those doing the Via Ferrata. There are three dorm rooms in Pendant Hut with 10 to 12 beds per room. They are also not heated, have shared bathrooms and no hot water. There is one 4pax private room available, but you will still be sharing a bathroom with others.
The newest accommodation available, Panalaban Hostel is run by Sabah Parks at a discounted rates. This makes it a very attractive option, and they can only house 30 climbers so they are often fully booked.
Next to Laban Rata is Lemaing Hostel, and they cater to Malaysian climbers only. They offer much lower rates than the general Malaysian packages, but spaces are limited to 25 climbers a day. Bookings open up a year in advance and are consistently sold out the same day!
All about the Via Ferrata
A Via Ferrata (‘iron road’ in Italian) is a mountain pathway on the rock face consisting of a series of rungs, rails, cables and bridges. The Via Ferrata on Mount Kinabalu is done after reaching the summit, and before you descend the mountain. You will be hooked to a harness to scale rock faces and navigate through various challenges. This is more like rock climbing and mountaineering than hiking, so only those who do not have a fear of heights or are willing to conquer them should attempt.
There are two Via Ferrata options on Mount Kinabalu: Walk the Torq and Low’s Peak Circuit.
Walk the Torq is the best option for beginners. It measures about 390m with 109m vertical traverse. The highest point is at 3,520m above sea level and this course will take about two to three hours.
Low’s Peak Circuit is more for experienced climbers and active individuals with above average fitness. The course measures 1.1km with a vertical traverse of 365m. The highest point is 3,776m above sea level, which makes Low’s Peak Circuit the world’s highest Via Ferrata! It also includes one of the world’s highest suspension bridges at 3,600m. This option will take about four to six hours to complete.
Can I climb Mount Kinabalu without a guide?
In short, no. You have to have a guide, with a ratio of one guide to five climbers. You can book everything on your own, book a package with everything included, or go through an agency which will be more convenient but cost more. The guide itself cost 230RM (~S$73) and it’s split amongst climbers.
If you choose to book everything yourself, here’s what you have to do:
- Book your accommodation on the mountain. You can do so via Mount Kinabalu’s official site or Sutera Sanctuary Lodges.
- Go to Park HQ the day before in the morning to book your guide.
- Arrive at the Park HQ on your hiking day, pay for your climbing permit, insurance, mountain guide, shuttle bus and park entrance fee.
- Meet your guide, hop on the shuttle bus, and start your hike!
When is the best time to hike?
The best time to climb Mount Kinabalu is between February to April, which is the dry season. Avoid October to January, as this is the monsoon season. Climbs to the summit will be cancelled in the face of heavy rains, and climbers have to descend after spending the night at Panalaban.
What do I need to bring?
- A good backpack that supports your back.
- Hiking boots. Make sure they’re already broken in!
- A windbreaker/waterproof jacket. You’ll want lightweight clothes that you can layer or remove easily depending on the climate.
- Clothes to sleep in.
- A change of clothes for the second day. Ideally ones that can keep you warm! It’s cold up there.
- Water bottle. Goes without saying!
- Snacks. Some trail mix and energy bars are great.
- Wet wipes. There is no hot water for your shower at Panalaban, so many people wipe down with wet wipes instead.
- Toilet paper. It’ll be handy to have some when you need to go during your climb.
- Eye mask and ear plugs. Sleeping dorm style means there’ll inevitably be some noise.
- Headlamp. You’ll be starting your second day in complete darkness, so having some light and keeping your hands free is essential.
- Plasters. Just in case you get blisters!
- Some cash to tip your mountain guide!