Climbing Hallasan and organising a summer trip to a few of China’s many incredible mountain landscapes has come as a timely reminder for me that Taiwan doesn’t (quite) have the monopoly on fantastic hiking opportunities in the Asia/Pacific area. My interest in hiking elsewhere in the region (and in other parts of the world) has far outstripped my actual experience of hiking in other countries hereabouts, but I thought I’d share another favorite, favorite place that I have climbed, the highest peak in Eastern Asia, the mighty Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo.
In my humble opinion, the Borneo part of Malaysia is a far more interesting place to visit than the mainland. Maybe I’ve missed many wonderful places in peninsula Malaysia, but tourist faves such as Penang and the Cameron Highlands do absolutely nothing for me.
Sabah, on the other hand, is magic! Even the capital, Kota Kinabalu, has a certain laid back charm, although it certainly ain’t pretty, and the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman, with their nice beaches and friendly giant lizards, makes a perfect day trip for legs painfully strained by the rigors of Mt Kinabalu.
Mount Kinabalu itself, though, is the real star. Climbing it is just a two-day trip from Kota (although adding an extra two nights in the national park, at the foot of the mountain, would be much more relaxing, if you get in early enough to reserve beds). Although the trail is just 8.7 kilometers long, it’s a tough, tough climb, especially the endless second day’s descent, but wow! This is a real mountain, and an astonishingly scenic and exciting one to boot.
Climbing Kinabalu (like Yushan (Jade Mountain) in Taiwan) has become enormously popular in recent years, and we found booking the trip almost as difficult as climbing the mountain! The best season for climbing is basically the first four months of the year – we were there early April, taking advantage of a week’s holiday over Spring Break, and trying to book a hut/guide/transport package for climbing the mountain three weeks before the trip was extremely tough. Most travel agencies in Kota Kinabalu that I emailed replied that the huts on the mountain were already full, but one company somehow found a couple of beds that had been cancelled, and we just managed to get in. So the moral of that experience I suppose is – on Kinabalu, book really early if possible!
The Visitor Center at the foot of Kinabalu is just a few hours from Kota, but how dramatically the scenery changes on the way up there! On the later stages of the short trip, Mount K. looms intimidatingly above, with all those crazy glacial remnants – the Donkey Ears et al, silhouetted against the sky. By 10 am or so at the Visitor Center we were met by our guide (which was compulsory in 2007, when we climbed, and probably still is), continued a bit further to Timpohon Gate (the trailhead) and started the hike.
The long slog to the top begins with a short descent to a disappointingly tiny waterfall called Carson’s Falls, then starts the long, loooong climb up through the forest. My aging brain can’t remember any more how long that first day took (maybe 5 or 6 hours) but it’s quite a hefty climb with pack on back, and an hour or two into the climb it’s already clear that to reach the summit you need to be reasonably fit, do plenty of walks in the months before going to get the muscles toned up and, most of all, learn to enjoy the pain of screaming legs and (on the way down) knee muscles, because it’s a remarkably steep and seemingly endless climb, albeit along a pretty good, wide-ish trail all the way.
Arriving at the hut below the summit is something of a shock. No small abode this, merging harmoniously into the mountain scenery like most mountain huts on Taiwan’s mountains – the Laban Rata Resthouse is a big, impressive construction, above the treeline, commanding magnificent views over the lowlands below. In comparison to mountain huts I’ve stayed in China, Taiwan and Japan, it’s a place of luxury – big, airy, huge windows and even basic hot food for sale. Unfortunately our guide led us past this hotel-like colossus to more humble digs in one of the much smaller, humble huts on the slopes above, but since we’d almost lost the chance to climb Kinabalu at all, I wasn’t complaining.
The second day starts at about 3 in the morning in order to reach the summit before dawn. The first day’s climb had given the legs a rigorous work-out, but the last part of the climb is a lot harder and steeper. Two of us started the climb at an ungodly hour of the night, but after an hour or so toiling through a wood of stunted scrub, my David (among many others) threw in the towel, started back down to the hut, and left me to continue the punishment alone.
Most people that turn back seem to give up about an hour or so above the huts, at the Panar Laban rock face. The climb up from Laban Rata, at 3 in the morning, is a tough and joylessly steep haul, and at the top suddenly being faced with this very, very steep, and seemingly very high wall of rock is a big psychological challenge! As I stopped for a breather at the foot of the cliff and prepared to continue onwards and upwards, a couple of fellow hikers – looking visibly crushed – there-and-then told their partners they could go no further and started back down.
Teeth gritted, gripping the fixed rope grimly, I soon realized having an opportunity to use the hands for once, as well as the different muscles being used when hauling one’s body up an extremely steep bluff of sheer rock (it’s actually not hard at all), was a welcome change. At the top lies the last hut, and finally I was on the famous sloping granite sheets than rise past extraordinary rocky pinnacles such as St John’s Peak, towards our goal, Low’s Peak (4,095 meters).
The sky was gradually lightening as I grimly hauled myself up the granite slopes (it’s a long climb), but the unique, glacier-smoothed landscape is extremely effective at taking the mind off aching leg muscles. Then the pile of boulders that forms Low’s Peak finally appeared ahead, and surprisingly quickly, I was on top, with a hundred or so other climbers, trying to shelter from the frigid wind blowing over the edge from Low’s Gully thousands of meters below.
The sunrise itself was vaguely disappointing, as it almost always is (sunsets, in my experience, tend to give a much more spectacular show), but it’s enough to simply be on top of Mount Kinabalu – this is one popular mountain summit that you really feel you’ve earned, and it’s certainly very much tougher than either Mount Fuji or Yushan/Jade Mountain, two of the other highest peaks in eastern Asia.
Heading down, it was a clear, cloudless day (which was just as well since the sloping granite sheets below the summit would be pretty slippery when wet), and there’s finally time to admire the fantastical assortment of pinnacles on the way down by daylight. The graceful point of the South Peak looks especially tempting, since it’s so close, but unfortunately it’s a technical climb (as apparently are all the peaks on Kinabalu except for Low’s).
My knees have never ached nearly as much after a hike as when we finally made it back to the visitor center at the start of the trail that afternoon, and it was actually painful to walk for several days after the trip. To recuperate we extended the basic 2-day trip with stays at the Poring Hot Springs and at Mesilau Nature Reserve. The hot springs were pleasant but touristy. The hot spring baths themselves were ugly tiled circular monstrosities, although the surrounding forest is beautiful, with a fun canopy walkway to follow, and a wild but tame orangutans called that comes into camp daily looking for food.
A far more memorable night was spent at Mesilau. In contrast to Poring, which was buzzing the night we stayed, we seemed to be virtually the only guests staying in the beautiful resort there that night. Mesilau is the starting point for a second, even more strenuous ascent of Kinabalu (the trail joins the tourist route at the 4 kilometer point), and it would be great to try this trail (at least on the way down) if I ever challenge Kinabalu again. To finish our trip off though, before heading back to Kota we joined a personal guided tour through a restricted corner of the reserve (tours leave several times a day) limping along dirt trails to be introduced to one of Mount Kinabalu’s most famous botanical treasures – its rich variety of insect-eating Pitcher Plants. Our Kinabalu guide had pointed out a few on the climb a couple of days before, but here, away from the careless hands and feet of tourists, they grow in profusion right beside the trail, ranging from tiny little miniatures the size of a small coin, to one of the biggest of all pitcher plants the magnificent Nepenthes rajah.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu:
It’s five years since I climbed Kinabalu, so I’ve not been able to go into details here, but it’s always well worth
– Booking the shelter on the mountain really early
– Getting fit with lots of strenuous day hikes before going – it’s quite a tough climb!
There’s now a via ferrata route (a system of cables, ladders and footholds) on the mountain that allow hikers to climb on routes previously only scalable by rock climbers. Looks great, but it’s quite expensive. Do a search on the Web: there are plenty of outfits that will help organise the climb. We went with MMAdventure, who managed to find cancelled beds at (relatively) late notice when other agencies failed, and provided a great service.
For more photos see here.