Climbing Kota Kinabalu

Climbing Kota Kinabalu

When I moved to Asia, one of the first things a friend recommended me was to climb Mt Kota Kinabalu and catch the sunrise. Situated in Sabah, Malaysia, with a highest peak of 4,095m (roughly 13,000 ft), the typical hiking route is a two-day ordeal, with the second day requiring climbers to wake up at 2am in order to catch the sunrise at Low’s Peak (Have you lost interest yet?). I attempted the hike this May with my friend, and would rank this one high on the list of hikes to do in Asia.

Trip Prep

The Tour Guide:
From what I understand, the hike needs to be a guided tour, so we booked ours via Amazing Borneo, which came out to be about MYR2200 (USD530) per person (inclusive of the 6% GST and 3% service fee). After speaking with other hikers on the trail, this price can fluctuate as paying in person will not incur the service charge, and last minute spots can go for much cheaper (as low as MYR1700).

I found the tour guide company to be professional and well organized. It’s key to stay connected with them via email before the trek, as they do ask for personal details prior to the hike (and will charge you a penalty for not responding in time). Although we hiked with an overall large group of about 8, my friend and I had one guide to ourselves. We tried our best not to overpack for the trip and did not hire a porter. But when the oxygen levels got low at the top, we eventually relied on our guide, who became a semi-porter for us. It was clutch.

With our super awesome tour guide

The Packing List:
Typical of any hike that has a drastic incline, we packed for both summer and winter hiking gear. I recommend the following to pack:

-headlamp (required by the tour- but can be purchased for cheap at the base of the mountain)
-gloves (for holding onto the rope during steep inclines)
-rain-resistant jacket (or ponchos)
-knee brace/ankle brace (for going down the mountain)
-couple layers of thermal undergarments
-walking sticks (Share a pair with a friend)
-leggings and shorts
-camelpack (or a backpack with a lot of pockets for easily accessible water source
-bug spray and insect repellents
-toilet paper
-cash to tip
-medication (advil, tums, altitude sickness medicine, etc)
-light headphones
-good hiking shoes and multiple pairs of socks – if it rains, these make your life easier. And it does rain.

A good use of the walking sticks

Altitude Sickness:
We did not acclimatize as much as I had done prior to my Machu Picchu hike since this was just an overnighter. I flew in to Kota Kinabalu two days before and gave myself a rest day in the city. However, post climb, I realized that if I had wanted to acclimatize properly, I would have stayed  within Kinabalu Park, which had an elevation of about 1,500m (roughly 5,000ft).

I had friends who flew in to Kota Kinabalu after work on the Friday, start up bright and early on the Saturday, and finish by Sunday afternoon. But they are like iron men.For us, since the highest peak was over 10,000 ft, oxygen got low at the top and we definitely felt the symptoms.

The Itinerary

Day 1: Timpohon Gate to Panalaban Base Climb.
Total distance hiked: 6km

Checking in and registration

Pickup from hotel was at 6am.  Registration was done around 9am at the Kota Kinabalu Park HQ, and then we were transferred to the starting point: Timpohon Gate (elevation: 1,866m)

A guide explaining the entire two day trail

The first day consisted of 6km hike and can be done between 4 hours to 6 hours. The first four kilometres were pretty easy-going, which was really good for our self-confidence. The last two hours were torturous, and I had to employ every method (mentally counting the steps, walking in diagonals, etc) in order to stay the same pace.

Water break at a mossy switchback

The weather was quite moody, and we experienced lots of fog and misty rain. We felt completely engrossed in the forest and greens and wildlife. This made it feel like we were trekking to go find Lord of the Rings.  It helped that the trail had markings at regular intervals, so that control freaks like myself could keep track and break down the remaining hike like “1.5km to go, that’s only 3 more groups of 500m each, which is approximately five more sessions of 100 steps… one..two…three”.

Road markings, including how many kms were hiked, and the elevation

Although I would not recommend overstraining on the first day (I had really not realized that the second day covered so much more distance), it did pay to finish early as it started to rain in the afternoons in the mountain.

Success after day one!

We arrived at Panalaban around 1pm and had the rest of the day to relax. Panalaban was the only accommodation in the mountain and we were given a room to share with about eight others. There was no luxury here, as they were good ol’ bunk beds, with cold showers. But the food was good, we could see above the clouds from the common room windows, and there were board games (We played scrabble).

Dinner spread in the mountain accommodation – it’s actually quite decent.

Around 8pm we turned in for bed in order to wake up early the next morning. In my case, I was kept up for most of the night by the pitter patter of heavy thunderstorms through the thin cabin walls.

Day 2: Panalaban to Low’s Peak/ Low’s Peak to Timophon Gate
Total distance hiked: 11.44km (yeah, it nearly doubled day 1)

We woke up at 1:30am and had breakfast. The plan was to start hiking the remainder 2.7km at 2:30am and catch the sunrise at Low’s peak (4,095m) by 4:30am. Although we did the hike in May (in the middle of dry season, which runs from March to September), it poured all night and since the second day’s trail consisted of slippery rocks (which have turned into a mini waterfall, we were told) that we had to maneuver through the dark, we had to wait for park rangers to give us the go-ahead. We were told that if the rain did not stop by 3:30am we would not be allowed to ascend, since we would have insufficient time to reach the required checkpoint on the descend down.

We waited with bated breaths, and prayed for some kind of a weather miracle. It would have been very disappointing to come so close to the top and turn back, although I have heard that it has happened to some unlucky friends of our fellow hikers.

However, our thunder buddy prayer worked, and the rain stopped at 3:20am and we rushed out to climb as fast as our little legs would carry us. We were able to leave our belongs at Panalaban so that we could be minimalistic with what we paicked. However, I would still recommend a jacket, gloves, water and a hat.

Using the rope to ascend/descend

We trekked in the dark with our head lamps, stepping over mossy grounds for about a km, until we got to the opening area, where the terrain changed from forest to rocks. This was where it got especially slippery. Parts of the trek required us to hang onto a big white rope that seemed to be extended from nowhere. Of course, our guide just glided over the rocks beside us.

Catching that sunrise behind us

Due to us having lost an hour, the sun started to rise as we were nearing the top. We had slowed down a lot due to the higher altitude. My friend, who felt the altitude sickness a bit more, had to take more breaks due to the dizziness. As with the previous day, the last 800m of ascension were the toughest, but the view at the top was all worth it.


After spending some time at the top, the real challenge of the day started. We hiked down to the Panalaban base camp for breakfast around 7:30am, and set out to hike down the rest of the mountain. Going down was much harder than up, especially since our muscles haven’t even had time to be sore yet. My left knee and my friend’s right knee both started giving out, and we wobbled down pathetically. We made it down for 2:30pm and had a final buffet meal before being transported back to our hotels.


Final Thoughts

I thought the Mt KK hike was a worthwhile experience. It was more challenging than I initially imagined, and we had pretty bad luck with the weather. However, since it was just a two day hike, I think I would do it again, in hopes of better weather the next time around.


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