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Climbing Mount Kinabalu

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Feel like walking up a popular and challenging mountain but don't think you can manage Mount Kilimanjaro? Another option could be Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. At the satisfying altitude of 4096 metres and with a well-maintained path running all the way to the summit, around 1000 people make it to the top every year. Judging from the visitor's book, quite a few of them even enjoy the experience.


Mount Kinabalu is two hours' drive from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. Climbing a mountain is only one of the interesting things to do in Sabah - other options include visiting the tropical rainforest, diving on the east coast of Borneo or stocking up on cheap DVDs in Kota Kinabalu.

Interesting Facts about Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is considered to be the highest mountain in South East Asia, although there are higher mountains in Indonesia, on the island of Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea). These include Puncak Jaya, also known as Carstensz Pyramid, which is 4884 metres high. This is generally considered as part of Oceania and is climbed as such by people who like to climb the highest mountain on all of the seven continents.

There are two theories about the origin of the name Kinabalu. The first is that Kinabalu stands for 'Chinese widow' with Kina being a corruption of China and Balu being a commonly-used term for widow in the local languages. The story goes that a Chinese prince visited the region and climbed the mountain. This was either to look for a giant pink pearl or to slay a dragon that was terrorising the neighbourhood, or both of the above. After accomplishing these mighty deeds he fell in love with and married a local girl. He then returned to China, promising to come back for her, but never did. If that's too sad for you, an alternative explanation is that it stands for 'the revered place of dead' in the local language.

The first person to climb the mountain was Sir Hugh Low, a British colonial officer, in 1851. The indigenous peoples of Sabah didn't climb the mountain to the top because they believed that it was sacred and home to mountain spirits. Probably also because they considered it a pointless activity - nothing to eat at 4000 metres after all... He relates that the hardest bit of the expedition was hacking through the jungle from the coast to reach the base of the mountain. During the ascent his local guides required the sacrifice of white cockerels at a regular basis along the trail, in order to appease the mountain spirits. It is now not necessary to strangle one's own chicken, as the sacrifice is performed annually with the appropriate ceremony.

Every year Mount Kinabalu is the scene of a 'climbathon' where very fit men and women run up and down the mountain. In 2002 there were 250 participants from 21 countries. The record for the men is held by Ricardo Mejia from Mexico in a time of 2 hours and 37 minutes. The fastest woman so far is Anna Pichrtova from the Czech Republic in a time of 3 hours and 8 minutes.

Nine British army soldiers had a close shave on the mountain in 1994. They had attempted to abseil down the notorious Low's Gully, a mile-deep cleft down one side of the mountain. A month later they had to be rescued, having apparently survived the last week with no food other than mints...

Equipment Required

No specialised mountaineering equipment is required. You will, however, need:

  • Comfortable walking boots that you have worn before.

  • Warm clothing. Although the weather will be literally tropical at the base of the mountain, it could be cold, windy and raining, or all three, at the top. This means you should take a waterproof and windproof jacket, and a fleece or similar. A pair of gloves and a woolly hat or balaclava could also be handy. If you begin the walk in shorts don't forget to put a pair of trousers in your rucksack.

  • Sunscreen and a cap. You're in the tropics, after all...

  • A water bottle. 1.5 litres would be ideal. Take water purification tablets if you normally drink a lot - that way you can fill up from the numerous taps along the route.

  • A torch, preferably a head torch.

  • Some chocolate or other high energy food. If you're going with an organised group they will probably give you some sandwiches and fruit, but check before you head off.

  • Camera and film. There are some fantastic views if it is not misty.

  • A walking pole or two (preferably telescopic) particularly if you have dodgy knees.

  • Finally, someone in your group should have a basic mountain first aid kit. The guides may have one - but they may not.


Climbing Mount Kinabalu will cost you about 120 - 150 Malaysian Ringgits (£17.50 - £23.50, 30 - 40 Euros or US Dollars, all at the time of writing) in park and guide fees, accommodation and water.

Facilities on the Trail

There are three reasons why you can get away with taking so little equipment up what is after all quite a high mountain. Firstly, it's a walk. There are a few bits at the very top that are a little bit trickier but a rope in situ protects them. Secondly, it is obligatory to have a local mountain guide with you. These aren't particularly well-equipped or highly-trained but they do the climb three times a week and so clearly know the mountain and its potential hazards well. Thirdly, there are water taps and little huts to rest in at regular intervals along the route, and at the overnight camp there is a mountain hut with hot food and dormitories for you to sleep in.

The Different Stages of the Trail

One of the highlights of the climb is the way you move through different ecosystems as you get higher. You start the walk at an altitude of 1829 metres and still firmly in the tropical rainforest - you may see pitcher plants in wait for unwary insects, or orchids if you are lucky.

As you get higher up, you enter the montane oak area. If it's the right season, you will see rhododendrons in bloom. When you stop at the picnic spots you are quite likely to see a mountain squirrel after your chocolate.

At the end of the first day, you leave the montane oaks behind and the trees become progressively more stunted and gnarly. Alpine meadow plants can also be found up to the mountain hut where you stay overnight (altitude of 3353 metres).

Finally, the summit itself is a bare granite slab on which nothing but lichen grows.

You can find more information on the flora and fauna of Mount Kinabalu here.

Some Common Sense Safety Tips

In many ways Mount Kinabalu is an extremely safe mountain to climb. However, it is still over 4000 metres high and therefore should be treated with respect. There have been accidents in the past.

Listen to your Body

Altitude sickness is a possibility. If you begin to feel nauseous or develop a severe headache then you may be suffering from altitude sickness. This is where common sense is required. If it is just a slight headache then you can do what many people do, take an aspirin and finish the climb. If it's worse than that then you should go down. You can reduce the impact of the altitude by taking the climb at your own pace and drinking plenty of water.

You don't need to be super fit to climb Kinabalu. However, you are more likely to find the 2000 metres of height gain enjoyable if you have taken regular exercise before leaving for your holiday in Borneo.

Be Careful on the Top Section

When you leave the hut at 3am on the second day it will be dark. You will quickly get to a section where a thick white rope has been placed. If you follow this rope to the top then you can't get lost. You don't have to hold onto it all the way up, but keep it in view.

On the way down, don't run down the summit slabs. Several people break a limb doing this every year, when they get to a bit where it steepens and find that they are unable to stop...

Stay with your guide and with the rest of your group until you leave this top section. This reduces the chance of someone getting lost and means that if you were unlucky enough to slip and fall, help will be with you quickly.

So - Is it Worth it?

Yes. The views are magnificent and although experienced mountaineers may find the route (and especially the summit) a bit crowded, there is a real sense of camaraderie among the walkers. There are very few mountains where you will see such a range of vegetation, and few of this altitude that you can walk up with such a nice light rucksack. If that's not enough for you, you even get a certificate to pin on your wall back home...

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