Mount Kinabalu – What it’s Really Like to Climb Borneo’s Highest Peak

My lungs are burning as I gasp for breath in the thin mountain air of Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. 

I have been climbing for two hours in the darkness and I ask myself repeatedly, why am I doing this?

Climbing Mount Kinabalu in Borneo

My husband Dave has talked me into conquering Mount Kinabalu, Borneo but I am having my doubts.

Am I actually capable of making it to the summit of one of South East Asia’s Highest Peaks?

Where is Mt Kinabalu?

forest view of mount kinabalu borneo
What it’s like to climb Mount Kinabalu

This 4095-meter (13,431 feet) mammoth mountain is a 2-hour bus ride from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo’s northern province.

As we ride along the winding mountain road, its unmistakable figure comes into view.

The dark jagged rock of Mount Kinabalu is a sharp contrast to the lush surrounding jungle and it’s an intimidating sight rising out of the deep valley. 

My heart races just a bit faster and a burning question creeps into my mind.  “Am really going to climb that tomorrow?”

Left alone on the side of the road, we haul our packs onto our backs and walk anxiously towards the Mount Kinabalu park headquarters to book our trek.

Booking the Climb up Mount Kinabalu

hike mount kinabalu
Hiking up Mount Kinabalu

It is an easy task to secure a spot on tomorrow’s climb. The park staff takes care of everything. 

Just tell them that you want to climb the mountain, and they supply the guide, sell you your permits and book your rooms.

After signing our waivers, we settle into our cozy dorm to organize our packs for the two days ahead.

We managed to piece together hats, gloves and jackets, by accepting handouts and frantically shopping in Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia’s mainland.

We feel ready to face the near freezing temperatures of Kinabalu’s summit.

The Mount Kinabalu Climb

tree clouds trek up kinabalu mountain borneo
Up in the clouds

The first day of our Mount Kinabalu climb starts at 7:30 a.m. We meet our guide and the other members of our group for the first time.

A minivan takes us to Timpohon Gate at the base of the mountain where our journey begins.

Our climb up to Mount Kinabalu’s Summit lasts for two days. Within the first 5 minutes; I am already exhausted. 

My small daypack weighs heavy on my back as porters whiz by.

They carry giant barrels and cumbersome loads to supply the resthouse of Laban Rata at 3500 metres. 

It makes me appreciate the high cost of bottled water.

Mount Kinabalu is Steep

our guide on Mt Kinabalu
Slowly coming down

Mount Kinabalu’s face is a steep grade and climbing the high steps is a struggle, but the views make it all worthwhile.

A wondrous sit of rolling mountains of dense jungle under a vibrant blue sky blanketed with fluffy white clouds greets us.

Upon reaching Laban Rata; our resting spot for the night, we gratefully relax until dinner at sunset.

Mount Kinabalu stretches above the clouds and we bask in the heat as we laze on the warm granite rock.

Sunset on Mount Kinabalu

mount kinabalu camera and dave
Dave taking a photo of sunset at Mount Kinabalu

The sky is ablaze with fiery reds and pinks illuminating the clouds pillowed below.

We are near the top of Malaysia on South East Asia’s highest peak.

The mood is festive.

But there is no staying up late or partying. The summit push starts early and we need all the rest we can get.

What to Pack for Mount Kinabalu

mount kinabalu climbing
Surveying the view

The temperature plummets during the night and it is a fitful sleep with anticipation for early in the morning.

We should have packed more layers. Borneo may be hot, but it is cold at altitude.

Be sure to pack hat, gloves, mid-layer and a good windproof/waterproof jacket.

Hiking boots are a must and a buff or scarf is a good idea as well.

Pack sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses too.

The Mt. Kinabalu Summit Push

mount kinabalu deb
Deb on the mountain

Bundled in layers, our group meets at 3:00 am to set off in the frigid air. 

It is a struggle and I find it difficult to catch my breath, but a bottleneck on the first set of wooden steps forces us to keep a slow pace climbing in single file.  

But soon, I find my rhythm. As if in a trance, I steadily climb the mighty Mount Mountain for another 2 1/ 2 hours.

Mount Kinabalu’s sheer granite face becomes near vertical as we gain altitude. 

I pull myself up with great effort using ropes tethered to the rock, thankful for the darkness concealing the long drop into oblivion.

It is cold and dark and I am exhausted.

It feels as though we will never reach the summit and every step is excruciating. 

My legs ache and my heart races. 

I look down and see a long line of lights winding below and I am thankful that at least I am farther along than they are.

Breathlessly, we stumble up the last obstacle of precarious jagged rocks and arrive at the top in darkness wondering “is this it?” It is too dark to be certain.

At the Summit of Mount Kinabalu

mount kinabalu summit
Proud that we made it!

After verifying that yes we are at the summit, we jostle for a position on the small peak, careful not to take a wrong step and fall into the deep canyon. 

We perch ourselves on the edge of a rock facing east, and I am overcome with emotion until I realize that I have to wait for another hour until sunrise. 

Huddling together, we wrap anything that we can find around our legs and shoulders to protect us from the freezing air but, nothing helps and we shiver in the cold.

Finally, the sun breaks out from below the horizon, lighting up the sky and warming our chilled bones revealing a magnificent view. 

Surrounded by the vast mountains of Borneo I look into the plunging valley, and I am amazed that I made it.

We snap the obligatory photo of us standing at the summit of Mount Kinabalu – 4095 meters.

We conquered the fabled peak of Malaysia’s Borneo and suddenly we realize there is nothing left to do but to walk back down.

Going Down

I thought that the walk up was difficult, but the walk down is twice the pain.

I now understand why they say that going down is the hardest part. 

My legs cramp tighter with each step, and the distance seems to be endless. 

I no longer care about the stunning vistas and panoramic views. All I want is to get off of this mountain and to have this ordeal behind me.

Hiking Down Kinabalu is worse than going up.

With the final cruelty of steep steps leading up Timpohan Gate, we finally come to the end. 

The sight of our minivan waiting for us brings an overwhelming sense of relief to know that I will soon be sitting down and I plunge into the seat feeling proud of my accomplishment.

It is amazing how quickly the mind forgets the pain. 

The next day on the bus back to Kota Kinabalu, we are already planning our next climb.  Kilimanjaro, here we come!

And yes, we did Kilimanjaro 3 years later. 

It seemed less painful than Mount Kinabalu. 

I really think that Borneo’s climb, which was shorter and took less time, was still a far more difficult mountain to conquer.

So if you conquer Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, you definitely have some bragging rights in our books.

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

Leave a Comment

12 thoughts on “Mount Kinabalu – What it’s Really Like to Climb Borneo’s Highest Peak”

  1. Hi
    I love trekking and Mount Kinabalu is the best for trekking
    I did not about this before but now i am interested to visit here
    Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  2. Wow! Love your blogs. Planning to climb Mount Kinabalu nxt March. 30 of us jst returned from Mount Rinjani in Lombok Indonesia a few days before the earthquake. Only half of us managed to summit. Great experience!

    Cheers
    Vie
    Singapore

    Reply
  3. Hi, I have just read the article on climbing Mt Kinabalu. I climbed that mountain with some local tribesmen (Dusans) in 1962 long before it was ever a tourist attraction and our overnight stop was a small corrugated tin hut, it was a very difficult climb in those days but well worth it.

    Reply
  4. wow, the mountain Kinabalu is a world heritage site & it is protected by Kinabalu park…
    Looking at those images I think climbing the mountains is a bit difficult…
    Nice pictures…

    Reply
  5. Really like the travel blog!

    I climbed Kinabalu a couple of years ago & also remember it being fairly tough. Didnt help that we turned up at the gates at 3pm just as they were closing so we had a fairly speedy 3.5hrs to the hut. Definitely agree about the descent- tough on the knees!

    I have booked a trip up Kilimanjaro for June so I am looking forward to conquering that one!

    Reply
  6. Wasn’t aware that Mountains looked that great . . . but then it hit me. It’s probably the only unspoiled things that humans basically can’t spoil or simply can’t demolish. OMW I don’t think I’m an adrenaline junkie like that climbing 4 kilometer high up in the sky! (We have a mountain this side in my hometown (South-Africa) barely 1.5 kilo’s and I would probably climb it only for a million bucks.)

    Thanks for the beautiful pics.
    .-= Jason – Need money fast now´s last blog ..Product Name =-.

    Reply
    • Isn’t that the truth Jason. We haven’t “yet” figured out how to destroy the earths mountains. We were in South Africa in 2008 and loved it there. Table Mountain looks like it would be a tough climb. Have you tried that one? Or you can go up like the rest of us and take the trolley:)

      Reply
      • Hi, again! No haven’t climbed Table Mountain. Only been on there by way of it’s cable way. Glad to see that you guys have made it to South-Africa before and think it was nice here.
        .-= Jason Jumat´s last blog ..Product Name =-.