“If you want to try it, I know of a way to do it for cheap,” he said to me from the dorm bed across the room.
I had only met just met him, and we were talking about doing something fairly major together. I hadn’t planned for it and, frankly, was ill-prepared for what awaited me. Still, I was so intrigued, I told him that I’d like to try it.
We awoke early the next morning and set out on foot, casually talking about our past travels and avoiding focusing on the monumental task ahead of us:
We would be climbing Mt. Kinabalu in Borneo, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, in just one day.
Most people train for this, plan ahead, and book several weeks or days prior. I, however, hyperventilate when I have to plan things far in advance, so I didn’t do anything of the sort.
I had thought climbing the mountain, at what normally costs closer to $400 for a stay in the lodge halfway up and a climb broken into two days, was simply not in the cards for me.
That’s where Neil came in. He had looked into it and discovered that for closer to $65 per person, one could climb the mountain in one day and avoid staying in Laban Rata, the lodge at the 6 km mark that held a monopoly on the area, and therefore set the prices sky high for an overnight stay (and food).
The catch is, to summit Mt. Kinabalu in one day, one must make it to the top by 1pm, leaving only 5 and a half hours to make it to the peak at 4,095 meters (13,440 feet). This would seem entirely doable given it is only 8.7km (5.4 miles) to the top, however, given the elevation gain of 2229 meters (7,313 feet), and the thinning of the air as each foot is placed higher, this is no easy task.
The hike was, to put it bluntly, brutal. There were no flat parts to speak of.
If it weren’t for Neil, who graciously carried my camera, water, and food, and who also kept up a very positive attitude that lifted me as well, I doubt I would have made it to the top.
The beginning was only a taste of what was to come. It was mainly stone steps punctuated by the occasional steep wooden staircase. Each half kilometer seemed like a feat of mankind and leg strength. At about 15 minutes per half km, we were making decent time.
Around the 6th kilometer, I started to worry I might not make it. I sat down next to Neil, panting, as we took a peanut butter sandwich break. It was a bit tougher than we both had bargained for.
“I can’t get this close and not make it to the summit,” he said.
I realized that I couldn’t, either.
The final 2.7 kilometers were the toughest. 1000 meters of elevation was gained just over that short period. It started to take me 25 minutes per half kilometer. I asked Neil to go ahead, just in case I might not make it by 1pm. Just as I thought I might not be able to go any further, I remembered I had brought along my iPhone, and plugged in my headphones. Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner? Music always gets me through the tough parts.
Clouds of icy rain formed around me as I gripped the rope and climbed ever higher, as quickly as my legs, lactic acid screaming through them, would allow me. About .7 km from the top, I started to feel dizzy from the altitude.
“Just a bit further! We can make it!” my guide smiled to me. I glanced down at the time and realized it would barely be possible. I was going to do it. I was going to make Mount Kinabalu my bitch.
Finally I glimpsed the summit. Neil was sitting there smiling – he had made it about 45 minutes earlier.
As I climbed the final step, he held out his watch. It read 12:57pm. We had done it. Just barely.
Finally, a feeling of elation came over me. The view was beautiful.
If asked only the afternoon before, I would have had no idea I’d summit Southeast Asia’s highest mountain. The serendipity of travel never ceases to amaze.
We took in the vistas for about 20 minutes before heading back down the mountain. Unfortunately for me, what goes up must come down. We had 8.7km of stone steps to take on and complete before 5pm.
All in all, the climb was, of course, worth it. I proved a little something to myself and realized, through sore knees and walking like an 80-year old down stairs for the next two days, that with a positive attitude and determination, almost anything is possible.
Do it yourself:
- From Kota Kinabalu, take a mini bus (at a cost of 20 RM) from Merdeka Field the day before. Ask the bus driver to drop you at a guest house close to the park. I chose Kinabalu Mountain Lodge on Hostelworld.com, which was only 2km from the park entrance and a serene place to spend the evening. The price was right at 30 RM per night for a dorm room.
- Arrive at park headquarters the day before your intended hike and reserve a permit and guide. Try to arrange with the guide to take off prior to 8am the following day.
- Fees: Pay the park entrance fee of RM 107 (USD $35), and hire a guide for RM 128 (USD $42). It is compulsory to hire a guide, but the cost can be divided between two persons. The max amount of climbers per guide is strictly set at two, however. The final fee is RM 33 (USD $11) to be driven to the gate where the climb officially starts. Trust me, it is worth it to pay for this ride rather than walking up to the gate, especially given the tough hike ahead!
- Bring along snacks and ample water. The key to avoiding altitude sickness is staying fed and hydrated. Be sure to also tote along a rain jacket and a long-sleeved hoodie. A head or ear cover is also a wise decision as the peak often experiences temperatures close to freezing.
- Risks: Weather can be unpredictable as the day wears on. Given both timing and weather, hikers often make it close to the summit and have to turn back. Not everyone who set out at the time that Neil and I did made it to the summit. One must be in fit condition and be free of joint problems.
2016 update (thanks Alistair): My wife and I did the walk at the beginning of August 2016. We did book months ahead of time as from what I am told post earthquake they only allow 100 walkers per day (used to be 200) and no more same day walkers anymore, it books out months ahead of time we were told, not sure if true or not. When we did arrive on the day there were signs up also saying no 1 day trips for sale. We booked directly via Sutera in January and for whatever reason they sold us a 1 night package which of course was cheaper than the 2 day one where the first night is at the park entrance. We just stayed at far cheaper accommodation close to the park entrance. All up including guide and entrance fees and the stay at Laban Rata, the shuttle to the start of the track etc, we paid about $290 USD each. Sadly for us a storm came in once we reached Laban Rata and lasted all night, and coupled with a very minor earthquake it prevented anyone from summiting, so we never made it to the top, but the walk to that point had been amazing as we had trained so were fit enough for it not to bother us. All the same our legs were sore for a few days after descending. Hope this gives people an idea about the current situation that we experienced.