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


What it's like to climb Mount Kinabalu

Where is Mount Kinabalu?

This 4095 metre 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?”


The summit

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.

It is an easy task to secure a spot on tomorrow's climb. The parks 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

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.


Hiking up the mountain

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'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. 

tree clouds

Up in the clouds


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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

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 on 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.

Make sure to pack layers

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

Surveying the view

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

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.

mount kinabalu deb

Deb on the mountain

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.

mount kinabalu couple

Proud that we made it!

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.

Climbing down 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!


Slowly coming down

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.

Read More:

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