Above the rain forest in Borneo: Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Two very eager and well tramped Kiwis decided to go for the challenge to climb the highest peak in South East Asia, Mount Kinabalu. Vance and Carol took me along, but I felt quite underprepared, coming from the New Zealand winter where anything above 1000m was still covered in snow at the time we left for Borneo! Situated close to Kota Kinabalu, the 4095 m high peak can be seen from the city on a clear day… We saw it and got a bit worried – it seemed very high and very hot for such a climb!

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Luckily, we started at  Kinabalu National Park, Timpohon gate at 1,828m. Here we started walking at a considerably cooler temperature than the 30C down in the city. Up, up, up we went with our local guide Arnol, a very experienced and patient but rather quiet fellow. Walking through a wide range of habitats, from rich tropical lowland and hill rainforest to tropical mountain forest, sub-alpine forest and scrub on the higher elevations. The track is only about 6.5 km long, but about 1400 m of elevation have to be conquered. Every kilometre or so, there are little huts with information about flora and fauna. The huts offer benches to rest tired legs and shelter from the tropical downpours. They also allowed us to meet some fellow climbers and share a chat and some laughs. The climb goes up and down on the same track, so we also met people who had already conquered the mountain. They were all smiles and encouragement.

Even though the park had put animal safe garbage bins in these shelter huts, there still was the occasional little creature rushing around. When we decided to eat our lunch, Vance had one of his sandwiches stolen by a cute but fearless mountain squirrel!!! To Carols delight, we saw many colourful flowers and the guide even pointed us to a small detour with the famous pitcher plants!

Countless stairs and many greetings later, we finally saw the sign of the mountain hut at 3,261m. We were offered hot tea or coffee and a rest until we were ready for an early dinner. They had prepared a nice buffet to find something for every taste. We went to bed early and even though it is bunk style, I think we all slept as we were exhausted from the climb!

A very early wake up call at 1:30am was followed by a small breakfast with toast and peanut butter and we started walking under the moonlight at 2:30am. Luckily, it was a full moon and clear, so we had a bit of light reflecting off the smooth rocks. The first part was a seemingly endless dark row of stairs under the last small trees, uneven and slippery from the rain the night before. After we survived that part without slipping, we had a more open rock landscape with many serpentines ahead – which we knew from the torchlights of fellow climbers ahead of us. Arnol was kind and patient and led us to the dry parts of the path and there was a bright white rope to help us find the way. A few passages were that steep that we used the rope for support and others were even steeper, so we climbed and scrambled in the dark. I just started worrying slightly about how on earth we were supposed to climb down this section when the first light started to turn everything into magical beauty. We passed the checkpoint well before cut off time, so went on to the summit with joy and even without a headlamp – the full moon right in front of us and sunrise promised by the red glow on the horizon.

Finally, we got to the summit at 6:20 am ! A big happy smile from all of us!!! After about half an hour, which was not enough time according to Carol, we started the challenging descent. 

Slowly and carefully we climbed back down. Luckily Arnol had a strong hand to help in difficult sections. Around 9:30 am, we reached the mountain hut and had a well deserved brunch. After a short rest and packing everything, we started our long descent – Vance very slowly and carefully as his knees were bothering him. 

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The long way down was made easier by the fellow climbers who were always waiting out a tropical downpour with us in a shelter or crossing paths. And for distraction we had the porters coming up the mountain for the second or third time carrying heavy loads of supplies and building material up on their backs. Terima kasih!!!

When we finally reached the Timpohon gate again, we were greeted with a can of beer by the rest of our Borneo Adventure tour group!!! What a wonderful ending to an extraordinary experience climbing the highest peak between the Himalaya and New Guinea!!!

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