Mount Kinabalu – The Roof Of Malaysia Part 1 Of 2

It seemed like almost everyone I knew had conquered Borneo’s highest peak. It sounded effortless by the number of success stories I have heard over the years.Yet, the secret to the mountain’s reputation lies not with its rocky terrain, but rather to its absolute altitude. There was an indescribable allure to it that draws us upwards. After conquering the second highest peak, I set my sight on the mother of all mountains in Malaysia, Mount Kinabalu.

You won’t believe what I see from this vantage point, the years stretching out before you like a long and winding road.”

Lang Leav, novelist and poet
The summit of Mount Kinabalu shrouded in mist.
All eyes are on the summit but often times it is shrouded in mist. What lies behind the white blanket that draws climbers from all over the world?

Touch Down At Kinabalu Mountain Lodge

Nothing about the preparation was ad hoc. Every nitty-gritty of the climb was laid out six months in advance with emphasis on the expenditure. We had saved almost quarter of our budget by dealing directly with Sabah Parks instead of going through an agent. On the other hand, our accommodation for the night prior to the climb was a stone’s throw away from Kinabalu Park, and affordable.

It was a one-and-half hours drive from Kota Kinabalu to Kinabalu Mountain Lodge, our stay for the night. From afar, we could spot a wooden lodge perched on the hill with the mist-enveloped Mount Kinabalu as its backdrop. We almost made it to the lodge in our rented Proton Saga, that is, until the car couldn’t cope with the load and started to roll downhill instead. At that point, we had to offload, and by putting the pedal to the metal, finally coaxed the car upwards to deliver us safely to the lodge.

The mist blanketing Mount Kinabalu lodge and Kinabalu mountain.
A misty evening at Kinabalu Mountain Lodge with an obscured backdrop of Mount Kinbalu.

Our home away from home, though basic, had all the necessary comforts. As the sun began to set, our hearts began to race a little. After assembling our gear and having an early dinner, we tucked ourselves into bed. Like all of my previous climbs, I was nervous but even more so due to its altitude. It can hit even the most adept climbers and once it does, the only way to feel better is to descend. I wondered what awaited us tomorrow.

A Walk In Kinabalu’s Montane Forest

The clock struck 7 am and the week-long overcast had lifted, revealing a beautiful blue sky. I found myself gazing in astonishment at the majestic outline of Mount Kinabalu as we arrived at the Park’s main office. Surely, we had seen it many times from below but there is an inexplicable rush of blood in knowing that this time around, the order will be reversed.

The view of Mount Kinabalu from the main office.
The magnificent outline of Mount Kinabalu from the lower viewing point on a clear day.

Our guide was Nordin, a local Sabahan who knew the mountain like the back of his hand. He has been in the business for over ten years, so much so that he had lost count on the number of climbs. At 8 am, after a short drive to the Timpohon trail head, we began our ascent.

The start of the hike at Timpohon.
The cast and crew at the start of the Timpohon trail head.

There were six checkpoints with a (combined) distance of six kilometres before Laban Rata, our resting place before the summit push. The start of the ascent was gradual with familiar sightings – a tucked away waterfall, towering green trees and plenty of steps! I broke away from the group and observed the transition from lowland to montane cloud forest after three kilometres.

There were birds of all sorts as I ascended up to the lower montane. I spotted a Golden Naped Barbet, endemic to the lowland and montane forest of Kinabalu at the start of the trail.
Carson waterfall
Carson Waterfall, some 200 metres from Timpohon trail head.
Rhododendron crassifolium can be seen throughout the trail and is a native to Borneo’s montane forest (Geiger, 2016).
The Mossy forest.
The mossy forest at the lower montane before its transition at a higher altitude.

The mossy forest soon gave way to low lying trees and ferns I had never seen before. Now at this point of the hike, a scurry of Kinabalu mountain squirrels began to swarm the Layang-Layang hut (half-way mark). I took a short lunch break here while observing them come into close proximity for food. After a short five minutes break, at about 200 metres after the Layang-Layang junction, I was lucky enough to spot two pitcher plants. Surprisingly, they were not conspicuous along the trek and can be easily missed.

A red Kinabalu pitcher plant.
The Kinabalu Pitcher Plant, otherwise known as Nepenthes kinabaluensis, spotted 100 metres from Layang-Layang junction.
The adorable Kinabalu squirrels.
These Kinabalu Squirrels (Callosciurus baluensis) can be seen in abundance at Layang-Layang hut searching for food.
Evening mist at 2500 meters, Mount Kinabalu.
The upper montane trees at the foot of the summit being enveloped by mist, giving it a mystical appearance.

As I went higher, it felt like a mystical forest decked with what looked like stunted Bonsai trees enveloped in mist. The blanketed metamorphic rocks of Mount Kinabalu occasionally made itself visible, offering a sneak peek of its magnanimous scale. One can only imagine what is in store at the peak.

The conifer species at 2500 metres.
‘Bonsai garden’ is actually composed of Dacrydium gibbsiae, a conifer species found in Mount Kinabalu at an altitude of 2,500 metres. It has the rare ability to grow in ultramafic soil that is considered ‘toxic’ to most plants (Geiger, 2016).
The trekking terrain towards Laban Rata.
Stairway to heaven at the upper montane towards Laban Rata.
The job of a porter is back-breaking. They carry goods and bags weighing up to 50 kilograms from Timpohon to Laban Rata.

Home Above The Clouds

At 3,220 metres, the air became thinner and fatigue was setting in. It wasn’t the hardest terrain but every step forward became a challenge. After five hours of ascent, I had finally reached Laban Rata, our pit stop before the summit push. Now at such an altitude, I was expecting to rough it out in a bare bones camp but it was to the contrary. I found myself sipping a cup of hot Sabah tea in the common dining area while indulging in a plate of fried rice. As for the price, well everything up here was six times its normal value considering its altitude. Luckily, the (**timed) buffet was included in our package which meant we didn’t need to stinge on food!

**Dinner buffet: 16:30 – 19:30, Supper buffet: 02.00 – 03:00, Breakfast buffet: 07:30 – 10.30.

The highest hut at Laban Rata, named Pendant.
The Pendant Hut at Laban Rata where the highest post box in Malaysia is located.
The common dining and buffet area at Laban Rata.

I took a slow walk from the common dining area to Lemiang hostel, our accommodation for the night. There were seven bunk beds and a dorm-like shower and toilets that could accommodate 14 climbers. Certainly, it was a far cry from the camps in Trus Madi, Malaysia’s second highest mountain. There was a sense of luxury at such an altitude with comfortable sleeping beds and clean restrooms. At 5 pm, it was time for another round of meal. We ate to our heart’s content and retired to our room for some shut-eye. True enough, it was to be another sleepless night as the anticipation heightened.

The cast and crew at Laban Rata, Mount Kinabalu.
Welcome to Laban Rata! There are many hostels where climbers can rest and recuperate before the summit push.
This is why I chase after summits – for that one moment that takes your breath away. As the sun sets at Laban Rata another journey awaits.
Photo taken by Kharti.

Up next: Mount Kinabalu – The Roof Of Malaysia Part 2 Of 2.

Special credits to Sabah Tourism, Amazing Borneo Tours, Mount Kinabalu Information & Booking Centre, and Hellosabahmy for their effort in boosting the beautiful travel destinations in Sabah. Visit Sabah Tourism FB or their official website for more information on hiking Mount Kinabalu and other places of interests in Sabah. Also visit Hellosabahmy FB for more information about cultural events and travel destinations in Sabah.
Check out Amazing Borneo Tours facebook page or their official website for more information on Mount Kinabalu packages and other beautiful destinations in Sabah. Mount Kinabalu Information & Booking Centre offers climb permits and full range of climb packages, including Ferrata and Non-Ferrata. Visit their official website and FB page for detailed information.

References

  1. Len Geiger, 2016, ‘Summiting Mount Kinabalu On The Island Of Borneo’, viewed 03 August 2019: http://www.marriedtoplants.com/tours/summiting-mount-kinabalu-island-borneo/
Jeevitha KUMAR

About Jeevitha KUMAR

Hiker, mountain climber, diver, globe trotter, and all-round adventurer, she is probably one of a handful of medical doctors who has left her footprints (almost) all over the world.

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