Weekend Getaway: Mt Kinabalu
by Marc Nair, 30 Sept 2018
Mt Kinabalu feels like the mountain everyone can climb. It’s easily accessible from the Sabahan capital town of Kota Kinabalu, can be scaled overnight and at an elevation of 4,095m, is the 20th most prominent mountain in the world.
Back in 1851, when Sir Hugh Low, a British colonial administrator and naturalist ascended the mountain, he did it without stairs cut into the side of the rock, without handrails and certainly without shelter stops every few hundred metres. He took nine days to reach the summit plateau, traveling in a group of 42 people. It was a stupendous effort. It was also the year that Low’s wife of three years, Catherine, died of a tropical fever, so maybe he climbed the mountain as a cathartic exercise.
Today, there are loads of travel agencies all angling to provide a complete package to climb Mt Kinabalu. You can even do it on your own, but its a lot more troublesome to get the permits and the guide and book the guesthouse. I went with River Junkie, and I must say the entire experience was smooth and their advertised prices were among the most competitive online. And if you go in a group the cost is even lower.
Generally, most people spend a night in Kota Kinabalu before and after their trip. Kinabalu town is sprawling, but the centre itself is tiny and is very walkable.
It is slowly being consumed by large shopping malls and condominiums, which are encroaching onto a rather rundown series of narrow streets of low-rise commercial blocks. The town lacks the historic charm of Kuching or Melaka, but nevertheless has a particular attraction of its own, largely due to a waterfront that gives way to a gorgeous sunset and a series of open-air seafood restaurants.
I opted to eat at El Centro which was supposed to have the best tacos and margaritas in the state. I wasn’t disappointed. There’s also a large number of bak kut teh shops cloistered together, so if that’s your thing, then you’ll be spoiled for choice. The malls are ho-hum and the markets are interesting for street photos, but other than that, Kota Kinabalu is more of a waypoint, a transit stop from which you head to the mountain or further inland by bus or an internal flight.
Mount Kinabalu is really a damn long uphill walk. Only an approximately 50m stretch near the summit requires both hands to hold a rope to scale a near vertical section. Other than that, it’s one foot in front of the other all the way, which is a shame, because Mount Kinabalu National Park has been recorded to have over 5,000 different species of plants and animals. I don’t think I saw more than five, though.
Not everyone who attempts to scale the mountain reaches the summit. Many stop at the Laban Rata guesthouse, which is 3,353m and takes about 6 hours from the Timpohon Gate, which is already at 1,829m. On our way down, we met some people whose guides were carrying their backpacks. Their walking sticks were really walking sticks, and they were six hours into the mountain but only halfway to Laban Rata. And it only gets harder. Really made me wonder why they were doing this at all. This isn’t a walk in the park or some tourist attraction. Maybe they did underestimate the mountain or figured that modern tourism means that nothing is really inaccessible in a globalised world. They would be lucky to get up to the guesthouse by sunset to look out on that globalised world!
The climb is strenuous, but not impossible. Climbing 40-storey HDB blocks was a good way of training, but the altitude does get you eventually. It really depends on how fast you want to go.
The landscape changes rapidly with the altitude. You start off in dense rainforest, move to a cloud forest and then a far sparser vegetation, shrub-like and that’s where the granite of the mountain’s core shows through.
By mid-afternoon, we were safely ensconced in Pendant Hut where climbers who are doing the additional Via Ferrata are housed. This is an additional route across the face of the mountain with a harness looped onto a cable. There are two routes, one a lot longer than the other. I was booked into the shorter one, called Walk The Torq. The Via Ferrata promises some spectacular views (weather permitting) without the risks of unprotected scrambling and climbing.
But despite being relatively easier, Walk The Torq is still about an hour and a half long, and there’s the mountain to climb down afterwards, so I didn’t want to walk off more than I can chew.
The weather up on the summit is always changeable, and the forecast was for thunderstorms, but looking out into the night sky after dinner, it was clear, and cold. A jacket is essential for the summit climb, in fact, I would suggest layering, because you’ll get increasingly warm as you walk, even in the wee hours of the morning.
We woke at 2am to start the summit climb. It seems quite excessive to spend just under 3 hours to ascend 2.75km, but in reality the altitude really cuts into your stamina. Its pitch dark and so there’s no view to speak of, so all you can do is follow the tinny headlamp in front, hold on to the rope and keep on going.
Early light was already breaking across the sky when we hit Low’s Peak. But we were in time for the sunrise. It was swift, and spectacular. A cloud bank rolled in soon after, but not before I managed to get off a few shots. We also had to head down pretty quickly to make the Via Ferrata timing, so we couldn’t sit around and soak in the sunrise, but the clouds on the way down made for some very stunning images. It was like a moonscape, with the wide swathes of granite, the barren rock and the various peaks of the mountain rearing in the near distance.
Eyes are as narrow as a shifty mobster but hey, this is me after making it up the mountain on no sleep at all!
The Via Ferrata itself was relatively easy, if a little troublesome, because of the constant need to loop yourself from one cable to another. But the views were indeed magnificent, and there’s nothing quite like letting yourself hang off the face of the mountain, with nothing between you and the distant treeline a few thousand metres below! I can only imagine the adrenaline rush that free climbers get from these shenanigans.
But after all that, it was time to head back to Pendant Hut for a breakfast of toast, beans, eggs and sausages before the long descent. I would say walking down is harder than walking up, simply because the knees bear the brunt of the constant clumping down the mountain. But we made it in just under four hours, with shaky legs and full hearts.
Mt Kinabalu is great for an adventure weekend, and because of its proximity from Singapore or mainland Malaysia, its very easy to get to. But Sabah is more than just the mountain, and I do plan to return to check out River Junkie’s other destination packages to the Danum Valley, Maliau Basin and Orou Sapulot.
Photographs taken with the Fuji X100F. I was carrying a Tom Bihn S19 backpack.