The three of us knew that Mt. Kinabalu, the highest mountain in SE Asia, was on the top of our Borneo to-do list. We also knew that the typical two-day trek, at almost $200 per person, was beyond our budget. So I got to thinking, and Googling. Could Mt. Kinabalu, standing tall at 4095 meters, be done in one day? The answer, is yes. But be prepared for pain.
See and Do
Just the sight of Mt. Kinabalu is inspiring, though catching a glimpse can be difficult since the rocky peaks are often obscured by clouds throughout the day. We were lucky enough to see some clear views on our way down to Sukau, and that was enough to get us excited for the climb ahead.
I'd read online that one day climbs were possible, but that you had to be persuasive in order to get the permit and incredibly fit in order to make it. The latter is more accurate than the former.
Our main goal for our first day at Mt. Kinabalu was figuring out how to get the permit. The park staff isn't the most helpful, since they want you to do the two day climb and pay the 360MYR+ to stay at the overnight accommodations.
But one-day permits are available, as long as you're persuasive. You have two options: either go to the Visitor Center to the right of the main driveway and inquire there, or go directly up the hill to the administration office and ask to speak to Mr. Peninsus. Keep in mind that the admin office is closed on weekends, and has a LONG lunch break from 11:30am-2pm.
We headed up the hill to Mr. Peninsus and it only took about 10 minutes (after his extended lunch break) to convince him that we were fit and gung-ho enough to do the climb. Our cost was as follows:
15MYR conservation fee 7MYR insurance 100MYR climbing permit 128MYR guide (split between the three of us)
Once that's figured out, you just fill out some paperwork at the Visitor Center and start thinking about whether or not you've lost your mind.
7am the next day is go time. After paying at the Visitor Center and meeting your guide, you take a cab (33MYR roundtrip and the best money you'll ever spend) to the Timpohon Gate for the beginning of your 17.4km hike.
Your first checkpoint is at Laban Rata, 6km away.
Goal time: 10:30am
The first 6km are hard, and about 95% uphill. You get some great views when the clouds part, but for the most part, it's eyes down, knees up.
The fun really starts when you begin running into the two-day climbers on their way down. Their guides, realizing how early it is, tell their groups that you're doing the climb in one-day. The look of shock, awe, and respect alone is enough to power your through for a while. But right as the praise starts going to your head, so does the altitude.
We made it to the Laban Rata checkpoint around 10:10am, and we were beat. After a 10 minute break, and full of what we thought was energy from all the peanut butter, we were at it again.
By about 6.5km, I thought I wouldn't make it. My heart seemed to be pounding out of my chest, like a cartoon character in love. I needed to stop for air every three steps, and was heaving as if I'd just ran the fastest mile of my life. I could see Rob looking at his watch, calculating our chances at making the 1pm cutoff at the summit. That's when I told him to walk ahead.
Dina and I stuck together, keeping a slow and somewhat steady pace until 6.7km, which is where the fun really started. What had been just rocks at our feet, was now rock everywhere. Using ropes, we had to scale the vertical granite wall, hoping we didn't slip into the rocky abyss below. By the time we made it to 7km, both our arms and legs were shaking.
Our guide, who was pretty much useless up until that point, decided that the hardest part of the trek was also the best time to take a lunch break. He told us to keep going, while he ate some snacks.
It must have taken us an hour to traverse the terrain from kilometer 7 to 8. The altitude was beating down on us, our hands were swollen, and our breath seemed to disappear before we could catch it. That said, our surroundings were incredible. I've done a lot of trekking, but never before have I felt like I was on the surface of the moon.
The marker for kilometer 8 was when I realized we would make it.
The terrain evened out a little bit, and before we knew it, we were at 8.5, with Low's Peak just up ahead. It was 12:20pm.
How it's possible to take 25 minutes to walk 0.2km is beyond me, but the rocks were so steep, we were so tired, and our breath was so shallow, that we almost gave up with just feet to go. It was only when we saw Rob shouting for us at the top that we knew we'd make it. (He had gotten up at 12:20pm.)
With only 15 minutes to enjoy victory, we stuffed our faces with apples, oatmeal cookies, and crackers before setting off down the mountain we had just scaled.
Quite possibly, the way down is worse than the way up.
Supposedly, you have until 5pm to reach the gate, though I'm almost certain it stays open later than that because we passed tons of two-day climbers on the way down. Even though four hours seems like a lot of time, trust me when I say that until you get to kilometer 4, going down is almost as slow as going up. It tends to rain later in the day, so the rocks are slippery. You're exhausted, so your balance is off. And all you want to do is just get off the f-ing mountain.
Seeing how much pain my knees were in between kilometers 6 and 4, Dina decided to pick up the pace and try to get to the gate before 5pm, just to let them know that we're not far behind. With some running, she reached it at 4:35pm.
Rob and I arrived at 4:45, and we too ran the flat parts. How anyone gets there before 5pm is beyond me, as we passed about 25 people on the main trail.
So can it be done? Absolutely.
Will you be in pain? Yes, both physically and mentally. And it gets worse 24 hours later.
Is it worth it? Damn right! There were two other people on the summit with us, as opposed to the 100+ that show up for sunset each morning. We were lucky and had amazing clear views. We saved hundreds of dollars between us. We booked the climb one day ahead of time, versus six months like most of the multi-day climbers. And we can say we climbed Kinabalu in one-day, which officially makes us part of an elite group for whom there's no silly medal at the Visitor Center.
We spent four nights at Mountain Resthouse (70MYR for a triple) which is run by one of the sweetest families I've ever encountered and is only 200m from the park entrance. Even though the kids did make a bit of a racket, the grandmother of the family did her best to make us comfortable, which including letting us in at 3am when we told her we were coming at 6am; making us breakfast at odd hours of the morning; bringing us extra blankets; and not charging us for the night we arrived. The rooms aren't special, but they're clean, there's hot water (with okay pressure), and the WiFi works. Why you'd stay anywhere else is beyond me.
Eat and Drink
Don't eat inside the park. The restaurant right across the street from park HQ has decent food at affordable prices. There's also a lodge about 400m down the road (away from KK) that had good food and a cheap bottle of wine that came in handy after the climb.
Mountain Resthouse has solid breakfasts at incredibly cheap rates.
All buses from KK pass Mt. Kinabalu about two hours into their journey. There are also shared minivans leaving each morning from various points in the city. It should cost between 15-25MYR. Getting back is another challenge, as noone knows exactly when buses or minivans pass. We actually ended up hitchhiking back to KK with the sweetest young couple ever, who took us from the mountain all the way to our guesthouse in KK.
If you're coming to the mountain from Semporna like we were, you can take the night bus (50MYR), which left at 7:30pm and dropped us off at the park at 3:30am. It was pretty miserable, but better than wasting a whole day on the bus.
There are supposedly share taxis for 5MYR for Poring Hot Springs, but we had no luck getting one. Instead, we bargained for 15MYR/pp each way for the one hour ride.
Interested in seeing the summit of Mt. Kinabalu without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Mount Kinabalu photo tour.
You can also share your tips for backpacking Mt. Kinabalu by leaving a comment!