We were booked on the SilkAir flight from Singapore Changi Airport to the Kota Kinabalu Airport. The flight time is approximately 2 hours 40 minutes. Once at the Kota Kinabalu Airport your transfer will pick you up and drive you to the Mt Kinabalu HQ. This two hour winding journey snakes up the foot of the mountain and has some great mountain views along the way.
TIP: Arrive in KK during the day to be able to see the mountains along the way and enjoy the drive to HQ.
Our flight landed at the airport at 8:00pm and we reached HQ at about 10:45pm. We checked in and proceeded directly to our dormitory. We stayed the first night at Grace Hostel. There are another 8 facilities that are available for stay. Each one has a different price and comfort level. Some accommodations have shared facilities and may not have hot water for bathing. Our room at Grace hostel had two bunk beds/4 beds. Toilets and showers were common and it did have tepid water for bathing.
TIP: Check which hostel you are staying at with your booking company.
We started our day with breakfast at 8:00am. There is only one common restaurant but the breakfast spread was good. We carried around 1.5 liters of water in our backpacks and that was enough for this leg of the hike.
TIP: Ask for packed lunch. Carry a couple extra slices of bread/fruit from the breakfast buffet if you feel its not enough.
We proceeded to the HQ office after breakfast, signed the paperwork and collected our tags. The tags must be worn at all time once you enter the park gates. We were introduced to our guide and porter and then driven to Timpohon Gate, which is the starting point of the hike. The guides are assigned randomly, according to availability by Sabah Park. We didn’t know this when we started but soon realised that we were stuck with the most disinterested and pessimistic guide of the lot. He didn’t assist us during the climb and whenever he did show up he uttered only discouraging words.
TIP: I cannot insist enough, but please highlight this to your booking company. You don’t want to be stuck with a guide who doesn’t really care about you or your journey.
The distance from Timpohon Gate till the base at Laban Rata is 6 kilometers. There are rest points and toilets every 1k along the way. The first challenge here is the steady upward climb itself. The path is clear consists of steps most of the way. Some steps can be quite high and you will have to haul your body weight up. What hit me in the assent is the continuity of it. It seemed like it was never going to end. For those who have walked Bukit Timah Hill, its like that but for 5 may be 6 continuous hours.
TIP: Hiking poles can be extremely helpful and here two hiking poles are definitely better than one. They will take some pressure off your knees.
The second challenge is the altitude. Altitude sickness is real. It sets in fast and the only way to treat is to get to a lower elevation quickly. The path on Mt Kinabalu is quite steep and you will gain elevation pretty quickly so if you feel dizzy or light-headed, or a mild headache setting in, a queazy stomach, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite or rapid pulse then please tell someone. I did feel a like a mild headache, slight loss of appetite but rubbing peppermint and lavender oil relieved the headache. Cacao leaves are said to be a great natural cure for altitude sickness but are almost impossible to find in Singapore.
TIP: We carried 90% cacao and a piece of this chocolate cleared our heads completely.
On the way up we stopped at every resting point for a few minutes. As we climbed higher we noticed the wind getting stronger and cooler. Try and not rest for more than a few minutes at each stop. It gets harder to restart as your body goes cools down each time you stop. Among the three of us we carried quite a few energy snacks. Snickers, energy bars, cashew nuts, peanuts, raisins and brownies. All of which came in handy. I don’t know a whole lot about foods for serious sport training and consulted a triathlete friend. He suggested carrying mini snickers as energy bars. He also suggested other options that would keep the GI index stable but I had never tried these before and decided to stick with the snickers option.
TIP: I took a bite from the mini snicker every time I felt I needed a push and put the rest into my pocket for later. This way I would avoid a rapid rise in blood sugar and a consequent drop below normal levels resulting in fatigue.
We reached Laban Rata at 4:00pm. This would be our resting point for the night. There are multiple dorms here and everyone gathers at the central point, which is the single restaurant at the location. This is where the trekkers gather for all the meals. The heater uses the energy from solar panels so there will be no hot water available once the sun sets. There is no heating indoors here so dress warm. After we ate, we got into bed at around 6:30pm.
TIP: As for a bed in the dorm above the restaurant. This way you can avoid the walk from the restaurant to your dorm in the cold windy atmosphere outside.
The beds are alright but the whole place can be very noisy and so any kind of sleep or rest is hard to come by. We could here every step from every hiking shoe that hit the wooden floors. The door creaked and my bunk moved every time the person in the top bed moved. We had very strong winds and it was hard to get warm or comfy.
TIP: I carried a pair of ear plugs. They muffled the sounds and I was able to get in some rest.
We woke at 1:30am the next morning, got fresh, had supper and were out by 2:30am. It was pitch dark and the only light source was my head lamp. This is a must have item. Be sure to find one that will strap on securely to your head and provide enough light for you to see. The weather that morning was not good. We were battling a wind storm. It was cold, extremely windy and threatening to rain. We were told later that the weather is always unpredictable at that altitude. This leg from Laban Rata till the summit is the most challenging. As I was holding the rope and pulling myself up, I found it hard to breath and climb with the strong gusts of cold wind pushing me backwards.
This was the point where things got bad for me. After about an hour of climbing, I felt warmed up but realized that I had over layered and was extremely uncomfortable. Despite it being close to zero degrees and stormy winds I was sweating and feeling too warm. I removed my gloves, the shawl around my neck and unzipped the first jacket halfway. This is where our bad guide also made things absolutely worse. He repeated statements like "It will be very scary coming down in daylight", "You will miss surely your flight if you go further because coming down you will be slow”, "You go back down now" With the weather being like it was and the guide with his pessimistic attitude, I was unsure if he would actually guide me and keep me safe. I decided to return to Laban Rata. It did upset me that I was not able to reach the summit but it does give me a reason to go back.
Tip: Sometimes the mountain guide is the key. Make sure he/she is not the reason you do not finish your hike.
The hikers who did summit that morning found it ridiculously cold, windy and foggy with very poor visibility. No beautiful, clear skies that every one was hoping for.
The descend starts quite soon after the return from the summit. We had packed the night before and so after a quick breakfast we started the walk down. I did feel upset about not reaching the summit but I was relieved to be headed back down. It seemed like this was going to be easy. I was surprised again. It just seemed easy for the first 2k down but I could feel my knees starting to protest by that point. By the time we had reached Timpohon Gate the muscles in my legs were aching and my knees were crying. I wanted to sit and I did, but getting up was hard and painful. We flew back the same evening and were at Changi Airport by 11:00pm.
Tip: Do not plan your return flight on the same evening as your descent. This will give you time to summit, slowly and steadily and then you can take your time coming down as well. The traffic conditions are not great as you may be stuck at peak our and risk missing your flight.
FOOD AND WATER:
I do have to mention the food as well. There was enough vegetarian food available during the trip. Rice with stir fried veg for dinner, cereals, eggs, yogurt, bread and spreads for breakfast, cheese and vegetable sandwiches with oat crackers and apples for the packed lunch and plenty of vegetarian mee goreng, French toast, rice, baked beans, bread at Laban Rata. So if you are a vegetarian, fret not. You will have food.
There is plenty of bottled water you can buy. We did carry water purification tablets but didn’t bother using them. The bottled water is expensive but I recommend just buying it.
Need more info regarding training in Singapore for a climb?
MOUNT KINABALU CLIMB - Training in Singapore
In retrospect of having done this climb here are
5 THINGS I LEARNT FROM HIKING UP MT KINABALU