Mount Kinabalu - Highest Mountain in the Southeast Asia

Everyone in Malaysia knows about the mysterious Mount Kinabalu. The closer that one journeys towards its famous jagged profile, which is often wreathed in feathery clouds, the better one understands the meaning the mount has for the local Kadazan and Dusun People: Aki Nabalu; or Reserved Place of the Dead. On the forbidding peaks were said to be the spirits of the tribes dead ancestors, and no-one dared climb to the top to disturb them.

The Summit of Mount Kinabalu
The Summit of Mount Kinabalu

Where does the name of Mount 'Kinabalu' come from?


Another origin given to the name seems less likely, and is probably more recent. Kinabalu was though to mean Chinese Widow, 'Kina' being a corruption of China and 'Balu' a dialectical word for widow. The story goes that a Chinese prince came to Kinabalu in search of a giant pink pearl guarded by a ferocious dragon. 

He married a local Dusun woman, but on finding himself homesick for his native land, he deserted her and returned to China. For the rest of her life, his poor wife wandered aimlessly on the mountain until she turned into a stone. You will see her of you climb to the peak.

In spite of the taboos and myths surrounding the mountain, Hugh Low, a young British officer, was still keen to reach the top. Climbing Mount Kinabalu in 1851, Low was accompanied by a local chief and his guides. 

Struggling through the intense tangle of vegetation, which covers the lower slopes of the mountain, Low eventually reached the summit plateau, but owing to a faulty barometer, was unable to locate the true summit. 

He made a second unsuccessful attempt in 1858. The honor of reaching the small peak marking the summit (4101 meters) went to naturalist John Whitehead, who named it Lows Peak after the earlier climber.

The mountain is said to be growing still at half a centimeter a year. Relatively young, its jagged crown was sculpted by the last ice age, about 9,000 years ago. Although Kinabalu Peak is below the snow line, it grows cold enough here in August for ice to form in the rock pool at the base of the summit, and snowflakes sometimes fall.

Low's Gully of Mount Kinabalu
The Low's Gully of Mount Kinabalu

The Lows Gully of Mount Kinabalu

Dropping away 1,800 meters straight downwards is the terrifying Lows Gully, its name being a typical piece of British understatement.

To get to the top, one does not have to spend days cutting through tropical rain forest before reaching the granite slopes, unlike Lows first ascent. Well-laid trails with steps and rails made of wood help today's climber ascend and descend the mountain in just two days.

Accommodation is available both at the peak headquarters and on the mountain slopes. Mountain accommodation is mostly basic hunt with sleeping bags for hire and cooking facilities, with the exception of Laban Rata, which has a restaurant and centrally-heated rooms. 

At the headquarters, accommodation ranges from hotel to chalet to dormitory-styles sleeping. There are also two restaurants and a shop that sell basic food supplies for climbers. In the main administration building, there is an exhibit detailing the mountain flora and fauna; in the basement is a film about the park. 

Laban Rata, Mount Kinabalu
Laban Rata - The Rest-house of Mount Kinabalu

Head to Mount Kinabalu

The easiest way to reach Kinabalu Park from Kota Kinabalu (the capital of Sabah) is by minibus, leaving frequently from 7.00 am onward from near the town Padang Merdeka. The trip takes a little 2 hours and the driver will turn off the main road to drop traveler at the park entrance. 

A large bus leaves for Ranau at 8.00 am daily, but is slower and drop passengers off about 50 meters form the entrance of the park. It is also possible to book a package tour through any tour operator.

Before leaving the city you should book accommodation at the Sabah Parks Office. Also stock up on food if you want to do your own cooking, as the shop at headquarters is limited mainly to noodles and chocolate. Other useful equipment includes a hat and gloves, as it can be extremely cold on the summit, and some kind of waterproof garment to protect from the frequent rainfalls. 

If possible, leave most luggage at a luggage storage area at the headquarters. The air is thinner on the mountain, and even the lightest pack can feel very heavy after a while. A torch is also useful for the final ascent, which starts long before dawn. 

On the way to Kinabalu Park, you will pass through Tamparuli, 47 kilometers north of Kota Kinabalu. Less than a kilometer past this town, say goodbye to the level ground as the road begins to ascend the foothills. Although the landscape is often swathed in cloud, the mountain cant be far away because ear begin to pop.

Arriving at the Base of Mount Kinabalu

On arrival at the reception, park rangers will confirm bookings, including the huts on the mountain. Maps, books, souvenirs and films are available at the souvenirs store. You might choose not to climb the same day you arrive, so make yourself comfortable in your accommodation, acclimatize to the cool air, check out the exhibition center with displays on the park and the mountain, and explore the fascinating Mountain Kinabalu Botanical Garden near the administration building.

Mountain Botanical Garden at Mount Kinabalu
The Botanical Garden of Mount Kinabalu

Although Mount Kinabalu is one of the easiest mountains to climb, it is foolish to hop straight from the office and onto a plane, and then run up the trail. Some regular exercise is recommended before climbing, so that’s you won’t come off the mountain a wreck of cramps, headaches and fatigue.

Just before the trails begins, there is a rather forbidding notice placed by the park authorities, listing ailments not recommended for those intending to climb the mountain: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, chronic asthma, heart diseases, arthritis, anemia, ulcers, hepatitis, muscular cramps and epilepsy. 

Climbing 1,500 meters in one day from the power station above the headquarters to Panar Laban hut does take inordinate reserve of strength and zest for those who lead a sedentary life. Although experienced and intrepid climbers have climbed the mountain in a day, most people have an interest no just in getting to the top, but in fully experiencing the views, and the areas flora and fauna. 

Attached to the headquarters, but not directly employed by them, are a team of local guides, who for a fee will accompany visitors up the mountain. If interested in the mountain flora, you should be sure that your guide is knowledgeable and also speak passable English.

One of the personalities of Kinabalu is Awok, a Dusun Women barely 1.5 meters tall, who chews betel nut, rolls her own cigarettes and presides over no less than 15 grandchildren. She is one of the mountains posters, her size belying her strength. 

Into her wakid basket slung on the back, she stuffs a heavy knapsack, camera equipment and cans of food, and strides up the mountain trail, leaving unburdened climbers straggling and huffing far behind.

Porters like Awok are hired at the park headquarters and will carry luggage as far as Panar Laban hut. Here they stop and wait for your exhilarated but exhausted faces to appear following morning before beginning the descent. Fees depend on how heavy your luggage is; anything over 10 kilo-grams will cost more.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu in the Morning
Climb the Mount Kinabalu in the morning to enjoy the fascinating sunrise

Climbing up the Mount Kinabalu in the Morning

From the hut, climbing begins at 7.00 am; make sure you have a bar or two of chocolate in your pocket, not a luxury but a necessity here, giving instant energy for the climb and the cold. You should also bring some headache tablets; as you will be climbing to a great height very quickly, you may suffer from headaches because of the altitude.

Passing the welcoming gate at the power station (with the slogan of Selamat Mendaki - Happy Climbing), the first steps lead downward into a small, lush valley with a waterfall. After the waterfalls, the climb begins, at firstly gently, later steeply through tropical rain forest.

All around are some of the parks 1,500 species of orchids, clinging to mossy trees trunks and surrounded by swinging vines. Steep and arduous stairs leading ever upwards are happily spaced out between gentler paths. 

Small rest huts and viewpoints are positioned all the way up the trail to give the out-of-breath climber an excuse to stop and admire the view. Don't bother to bring water, as there is pure mountain water available at all rest stops.

At 1,300 meters, the vegetation on either side of the trail begins to change from lowland rain-forest into oak and chestnut forest together with temperature plants, such as ferns and small flowering plants.

Proceeding up to the next level of vegetation, one has the feeling of growing larger the higher one climbs. The trail began with huge trees towering above; now the trees have shrunk and you are almost the tallest thing in the landscape. 

At 2,600 meters, the biggest plant is but a small gnarled tree, twisted and bent and wrinkled by the mountain air. Although small, some are believed to be more than 100 years old. The soil is poor here, and lichens cling desperately to the little trees.

Shorter Plant are seen at higher point of Mount Kinabalu
At the higher point of Mount Kinabalu, plants are shorter and less trees can be seen

The soil disappears altogether at 3,300 meters and the granite body of the mountain reveals itself. Only sedge, grasses and tiny alpine-looking flowers, cling to the rocky crevices where a bit of soil might remain.

Just when you thought you'd left all civilization far below on the trail now a hazy ribbon in the afternoon mist, you arrive at a series of huts and the rest-house where you will spend the night.

A leisurely climb should get you here by around 2.00 pm. At Panar Laban, you can retreat into the cozy Laban Rata rest-house. There is a simple restaurant, as well as warm rooms and hot water. A little further up the slope is Gunting Lagadan Hotel which has dormitory rooms, sleeping bags for hire, and a basic kitchen equipped with cooking utensils and electricity.

Once you've stop climbing, you will begin to feel the cold, so even if you don't feel like eating, have some hot soup and filling food. You will now be able to rest and think about your achievement so far but alas! The path you so strenuously climbed has been lost in the mountain mists.

If it isn't raining, some climbers rest here briefly and then continue climbing for another one and a half hour to Sayat-Sayat Hut, which allows for a later rising time the following morning. 

Nigh Sky View at Sayat-Sayat Hut at Mount Kinabalu
The beautiful night sky-view that you don't want to miss at Sayat-Sayat Hut

The Night at Mount Kinabalu

Many climbers find it hard to sleep on the mountain because of the thin air and the headaches caused by the altitude. Yet, you will need to go to sleep extra early to be able to struggle out of a bed at 2.00 am (your guide will wake you). 

Take a hot drink before starting the climb around 3.00 am. If you have a thermos flask, heat some water and fill the flask with sweet tea fir a reviving drink at the summit. Don't forget to stuff dome more chocolate into your pocket and bring your raincoat. Other than cameras, everything else can be left at the hut for retrieval on the way down.

Soon you will be climbing rock faces of granite in pitch black as you hold onto the rope systems that guide the way. The steepness of the incline is difficult to gouge in the dark, though, and the granite slopes can be slippery after a night rain. 

Summiting the Mount Kinabalu

With an early start, you will be laboring up the slabs of granite with the peak in sight just as the skies begin to lighten. Here the granite rock, bared to the winds, in crumbling and broken, but at last Lows Peak rises up. 

The sun rises over the horizon like a brilliant apricot, the landscape absorbing the morning light. On a clear day, the lights of Kota Kinabalu and the coast and then the outlines of Tunku Abdul Rahman Islands are visible.

Summit of Mt Kinabalu
Once you at the summit of the Mount Kinabalu, all the tiredness just went off and it's time to celebrate your glory!

Venturing a look down into the depths of Lows Gully, the views is awe-inspiring. This does indeed seem a place for spirits, for a few mortals could long endure the harsh weather that sweeps away the offerings of sacrificial chickens and eggs, tobacco, betel nut, sirih leaves, limes and rice left here by the Dusun. 

Depending on one's guide and the strength of his beliefs, he may decide to make offerings while you are gushing over the landscapes beauty. The guide may also be carrying personal charms: special pieces of wood, human teeth and other items with protecting properties.

Way down from the peak of Mt Kinabalu
The way down may be much difficult due to the steep and slippery on the mountain surface after the night

The Way Down from Mount Kinabalu

The decent can be more leisurely, especially by climbers still glowing with success of having reached the summit. After collecting belongings from Panar Laban, one continues down through unique vegetation, such as the pitcher plants, that may have been missed on the ascent. 

Many climbers find the way down harder than the climb up, for the relentless steps leading over downwards soon turn firm legs into jelly.

On arrival of the park headquarters, you can rightfully claim your badge commemorating your ascent, only for sole to those who have made it to the top (your guide can act as witness). 

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