Mt Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Borneo, and the highest in South East Asia if you discount the Himalayan part of Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. It’s also one of the most accessible mountain summits, requiring no mountaineering experience, just a decent level of fitness and ability to cope with altitude.
The track starts from Timpohon Gate at 1,866m above sea level. There’s a 100m downhill section but the rest of the 8.7km walk to the summit is relentlessly uphill, mostly at a decent gradient, gaining over 2,300m.
The vast majority of visitors (fair number of Westerners, lots of locals, Japanese and Chinese) walk the track over two days. Day one is a 6km walk to Panalaban at about 3,270m, where there are various places to stay. Day two starts around 2am to reach the summit for sunrise before returning to Panalaban for breakfast, and then back down to the Timpohon Gate by lunchtime.
The local porters though walk up the mountain multiple times every day, carrying all the goods required to service the guesthouses.
There are also personal porters available for hire for those who don’t want to carry their pack. The porters carry their own small packs plus those of their guests, sometimes multiple!
Every 0.5km there are track markers, and toilets nearby. I’ve never come across a track with so many toilets in such a short distance, but the track is walked by 20,000 people each year.
On day one there wasn’t much to see as the mountain is usually in cloud for much of the day.
I was one of the first up to Laban Rata Guesthouse by noon for a restful afternoon. Dinner is served from 4-7pm, most people are in bed by 7pm for the early start the following day.
Before bed it was a pleasure to catch the sunset though, with the clouds that had been present all day finally clearing a little, to reveal some impressive formations, and behind Panalaban the craggy top of the mountain.
I slept badly, altitude sickness can kick in after 2,800m, and at nearly 500m above this I was feeling it with a pounding headache and what felt like little sleep. Supper (really first breakfast) is served at 2am, though there were slim pickings by 2.10am with the food area crammed.
It was a slow procession in the dark, illuminated by head touches, as around 150 walkers and about 40 guides headed the 2.7km toward the summit at the same time. Thankfully the crowds thinned after about an hour, making for more enjoyable walking.
It was a full moon so once above the tree line I didn’t need my head torch. It was quite special to walk toward the summit by moonlight, carefully following the white rope, required at steep points to pull myself up.
The summit is a pretty small peak marked by a sign, and surrounded on several sides by a wire fence to protect people from falling off.
I got there by 5.10am, about half an hour before sunrise, but it’s coming was clear from the colourful horizon.
It would have been close to freezing at the summit, particularly with the wind. I was just about ok in three down jackets, a wind resistant jacket, scarf, hat and thick gloves. Come prepared! It was worth it though for the increasingly stunning views as the sun rose.
It soon got quite crowded at the summit, with it was at its worst after sunrise, with people still making their way up the mountain. A checkpoint after the tree line turns people around if they don’t reach it by 5am.
It was interesting to see the mountaintop landscape in daylight, less atmospheric than by moonlight but still pretty spectacular.
On the way down the impact of the 2015 earthquake was clear, with huge boulders and rockfall. The earthquake killed eighteen people, guides and walkers. Since then guides are mandatory and it is no longer an option to walk to the summit one day, which would be a huge day, with uncertain views by the time you’d reach the summit.
I got back to Laban Rata Guesthouse by 7.30am, perfectly timed for the start of breakfast, which was considerably quieter than earlier as almost everyone else was still making their way down from the summit.
I finished the track by retracing my steps from the first day, a steady 6km of downhill, passing the next groups of walkers on their way to Panalaban, and the summit. The walk is as popular as the Great Walks in New Zealand, it is usually fully booked 3–4 months in advance.