In all my stupidity I thought I could just fly into Kota Kinabalu and climb the mountain without bookings of any kind. But the limitation of accommodation on the mountain (mainly at Laban Rata), makes it necessary to book well in advance. And the park rules is pretty simple; no bed, no climbing permit will be issued.
Mount Kinabalu (4095m) in Borneo Malaysia, is the highest mountain between Himalaya and New Guinea, as well as in Southeast-Asia. The walk through several ecological zones, from dense rain forest to barren non-vegetated granite makes this a very spectacular hike. The entire area is, not surprisingly, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Arriving Kota Kinabalu
I arrived Kota Kinabalu Oct 27 and shortly after i hurried into the Sutera office in Kota Kinabalu. To my big disappointment I was not able to get a bed at Laban Rata before Oct 30. I had to pay 65 RM for a dorm-bed in a non-heated hut. I stayed away from the expensive packages on offer (including food etc), because I planned to bring a lot of biscuits and buy some of the meals on site, which is possible even though most people are not aware of this, and buys a complete package in advance.
Alternatively one can also book accommodation via internet (www.suterasanctuarylodges.com) which is highly recommended.
In Kota Kinabalu I stayed in Summer Lodge (www.summerlodge.com.my), a nice place to hangout and meet other travelers. It was approx 60 RM for a single room including breakfast. Bedbugs reported in some of the rooms, but fortunately I got a clean one.
Getting to Park Headquarter
It will be rather expensive to charter a taxi on your own from Kota Kinabalu to the National Park HQ (2 hours), so I walked down to the old bus-station, where long-distance share-taxi can be found (the ones with yellow roof). Ask for the Ranau taxis, they will drop you off at the HQ entrance, which is only 100 metres from the main road. I paid only 18 RM, and the car filled up with locals in some few minutes. If you charter your own taxi expect to pay at least 150 RM.
At the HQ-office I paid the national park fee (15 RM), climbing permit (100 RM), insurance (7 RM) and a guide (80 RM) for the next day. All this is mandatory, so the hike will surely not be free of charge. Forget to sneak into the park without a permit or a guide, because there are at least two checkpoints in the park.
There are rooms and dorms at the HQ (also run by Sutera), but cheaper options can be found outside the park (2+ km). I opted to stay in the park (Grace Hostel) in a dorm which was approx 70 RM including breakfast. That is ridiculous expensive for a dorm bed, but it turned out to be a really good investment. I met 3 other travelers there, who wanted to share the guide with me. So instead of 80 RM, I was now down to 25 RM in guide expenses. Sandra from Germany as well as CJ and Nicholas from Australia, also turned out to be great company.
Hiking to Laban Rata Hut
After the breakfast buffet, we headed over to the nearby HQ office where we picked up the guide and got numbered badges to hang around our necks. From the HQ (1570m) we took a bus to Timpohon Gate (1866m) which is the start of the trail. By now it was already late morning (9am) and it was turning uncomfortable hot, even at this elevation. We sticked together as a group most of the time, and took a short rest at almost every shelter along the route. People coming down told us about a low success rate, many people sick/tired and only 30 of 150 summiting even in perfect conditions. A surprisingly low rate, but truth to be told, there were a lot of young school-kids from Malaysia contributing to the miserable statistic.
The shelters usually had a toilet nearby, and also water (but not treated!!!), so it's a good advice to bring all water from below. We carried 2-4 liters each. Nicholas also brought a UV-stick, which can treat a liter of water in 1 minute. A smart little thing to bring. I carried purifying tabs but never used them (2 liter was more than enough water for me anyway). Treated water is available free of charge in Laban Rata Resthouse, as well as mineral water to affordable prices.
Even off-season the trail felt crowded. It was mostly cloudy so the summit was rarely seen during the day. A little bit more than halfway, we arrived the lunch stop. While the others brought their special Kinabalu lunch-pack (which is included in the package price), I ate snacks and chocolate. It took us 5 hours to reach Laban Rata Resthouse (3273m), certainly not a great pace, we just walked slowly to enjoy the surroundings. While CJ and Nicholas checked into their room in Laban Rata Resthouse, Sandra and Lyngve had to walk an additional 50 height-metres to reach the non-heated hut (10 minutes extra). But as soon as we had taken a shower we went down again to Laban Rata Resthouse, where the four of us spent the rest of the day chatting and eating in the cafe. The sunset was nothing less than spectacular, and we just hoped the good weather would continue through the night and next morning.
A night climb to the summit
Sandra and myself woke up shortly after 2 a.m, starting to prepare for departure. I could see a lot of stars outside, which was a very good sign. Nicholas and our guide showed up earlier than agreed. Unfortunately Nicholas had forgot his badge (permit), and had to walk down to Laban Rata Resthouse again. He returned after 15 minutes, and we started to walk around 2:50am. We had plenty of people in front, and even more people behind us, as we climbed the stairs and fixed ropes in darkness. The dry rock slabs provided better grip than expected, and it was very easy going. The fixed ropes were hardly needed at all, in such good conditions.
Halfway we arrived the checkpoint, and the badge had to be shown. Above the checkpoint, it was really easy going on the low angled slabs. It was getting colder and more windy, and the stars had surprisingly disappeared from the sky. We penetrated a cloud shortly after, which so densely covered the entire mountain above 3800m. It was still pitch dark, but I already knew this would spoil the sunrise. We reached the summit at 5:20, more than half an hour before the expected sunrise. We took photos, put on warmer clothes and sat down waiting for the sunrise. But there would be no sunrise at the summit. We spent about 1 hour, before we decided to go down again. Happy to have reached the summit, but very disappointed not to have seen the sunrise and the spectacular views of Borneo from the summit.
Leaving Mount Kinabalu
We arrived Laban Rata shortly before 8 am. I packed my stuff and ate some snacks. I was in a hurry to reach the bus to Sandakan, so I left the others at Laban Rata around 8:30. I partly walked, partly ran down the steep trail and stairs. It was 10:00 when I reached the Timpohon Gate, and I was lucky to only wait 10 minutes for the mini-bus to take me to the Park HQ. There I hurried down to the bus stop along the main road. I managed to change my wet (and probably smelly) t-shirt, before the bus arrived 10:30, happy to not disgust the other bus passengers too much. Five hours later I reached Sandakan, still early in the day, and ready for a completely different activity (Orangutan spotting).