Kinabalu, a massive granite peak in Sabah, Borneo, has a summit elevation of 4095 metres, making it the highest point in Malaysia. It has always had an interest for me, mostly because of the international renown in which it is held for its biodiversity; it supports between 5000 and 6000 plant species, making it an important centre for plant biodiversity in Southeast Asia. However, I had never seriously considered the idea of climbing Kinabalu – it was not only out of reach geographically, but also because of its height – some 1300 m higher than I’d climbed before.

That all changed in the middle of last year, when my sister suggested that we join her and her husband for a trip to Malaysia to visit some old haunts where they had lived and worked, including a reunion with school pupils whom Mike had taught several decades ago. The prospect of a guided tour through Sabah, complete with local contacts was too good to turn down, and we signed up straight away. But then the tantalising prospect of Kinabalu came to the fore – could we fit it into our schedule? more important, was there still sufficient stamina in a 60+ year old body for such an undertaking? The scheduling question was quickly resolved, and plucking up our courage, we booked for the climb with Amazing Borneo Tours, resigned to having a good time, even if still somewhat doubtful of an ascent to that altitude!

After some less than ideal fitness preparation, we finally arrived in Kuala Lumpur, and after three days of astounding hospitality, food and humidity, we moved on to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, where our Kinabalu adventure would really begin. Coming from a New Zealand spring, the heat was opressive, and we wondered how this would play out when it came to walking. With anticipation on the night before, we sorted our gear, gave a case with our city clothes to other party members for safe keeping, and went to bed ready for an early morning call.

The climb begins

At five-thirty the alarm duly cheeped, and we were soon out into the first light of day to where our ride was ready and waiting.  After a couple more pickups, we were on our way, winding out through the early morning traffic, heading north and inland towards the dark bulk of mountain that stood imposingly on the skyline. Fortunately the higher we climbed the cooler it got, so that by the time we registered at the Park Headquarters, it was a pleasant 20 degrees or so. Once tagged and teamed up with Jimmy, our ever calm and smiling local guide, we were off to Timpohon Gate (1866 m) for a 9 am start to the first day’s climb that would take us to the rest-houses at Laban Rata (3270 m).

At a superficial level, it would be easy to mistake this walk for somewhere in New Zealand, particularly at the beginning – the climate on the lower slopes is not too dissimilar to a New Zealand summer – mild temperatures although perhaps a bit more humid, and a pleasant walk through dense rain forest, with at least some familiar looking genera – Dacrydium, Phyllocladus, and Blechnum to name a few. But soon we encountered points of difference; seriously fit looking porters with equally serious-looking loads, carrying everything to be used at Laban Rata, including food, gas bottles, and building materials; vireya Rhododendrons, including the spectacular looking R. lowii; orchids and pitcher plants; and, squirrels scavenging for scraps around the stopping points.

Soon another point of difference  began to also make its presence felt – the elevation! By about the 2500 m mark, the effects of the reduced oxygen became undeniable, with breathing increasingly difficult despite our light loads. Snacking and drinking regularly to avoid dehydration, we pushed on somewhat slowly and were greatly relieved to finally arrive at the accommodation just after 2.30 in the afternoon.

From here the schedule was flexible – dinner was available from 4 pm, and we could retire to our bunk room when we liked, but Jimmy was cheerfully insistent that getting up at 2 am was a great idea if we wanted to be on the summit for dawn – groan! Dinner was a generous affair, with lots of hearty Malaysian food, and with second helpings allowed. By the time we had sat around over dinner chatting with some fellow climbers we were feeling a little restored. The last of the evening light had faded completely by about 7 pm, and not too long after, we were in bed, conscious of the early start.

Last light at Laban Rata

The final push

Perhaps the less said about the night the better, other than to acknowledge the enthusiasm for midnight singing (with cell-phone accompaniment) of the occupants of the bunk room opposite. At 1.15 am we abandoned the prospect of any further sleep and headed down for breakfast (where the midnight revelers all sat curiously silent). The previous night’s cloud had cleared to reveal a deep blue sky, lit by the full moon and a myriad of accompanying stars – just one or two towering cumulus processioned along the northern horizon, lit up by occasional flashes of lightning. Breakfast downed, boots on, and with head-torches at the ready, we headed to our 2.30 am rendezvous with Jimmy and the start of the serious part of the climb – another 825 m of ascent, mostly in the dark.

Two in the morning – Laban Rata

The first part of this was a magical ascent through low forest and scrub, much of it on stairs re-built after the 2015 earthquake – looking back we could see a procession of lights carried by the other climbers, while the lights of the town of Kundasang twinkled far below. After passing through the last checkpoint the path grew seriously steeper, much of it was on steep granite pavements, and we were glad of the thick rope that provided both a clear indication of the path and a useful hand-up on the steepest parts.

As we climbed the moon gradually sank into the clouds lying along the western horizon, creating an eerie glow, but this was offset shortly after 5.30 am by a corresponding pink glow in the east, which gradually revealed a magical world. At our feet, extensive granite pavements rose steeply to the northwest and the last short climb to Low’s Peak – below us a fairy world of cloud castles drifted along above layers of valley mist and cloud, gradually changing colour as they were lit by the newly arriving sun. To the south lay Low’s Gully,  fenced off along the top to keep out straying climbers, and looking every bit like the chasm described in Lewis Carrol’s Hunting of the Snark.

By this stage, walking was fine when the going was flat, but even the slightest incline made for a dramatic slowing in pace due to the rarefied atmosphere – engage low ratio, don’t hit the throttle, gently ease your way forward and up – and then we were there! I’m sure the sense of relief, elation and satisfaction needs no description – perhaps the lack of oxygen induces a certain euphoria at such times, and it felt good. Quickly we did photos by the summit plaque, and chatted briefly with other climbers while admiring the 360 degree panorama from the top. But all too soon, Jimmy was beckoning us downward, back down to breakfast at Laban Rata, and the opportunity to see in daylight the steepest bits that we had scrambled up in the dark.

After satisfying our hunger in the dining room and quickly packing up our gear, we were off on what probably became the hardest part of Kinabalu – the long descent to Timpohon Gate. We were both reasonably fit for this walk, but our legs were not well enough trained for a steep descent of 2200 m on top of all our climbing. We left Laban Rata at about 10 am, and thankfully reached the road end at 1.10 pm, by which time my calves, in particular, were in a seriously mutinous state from all those steps.

We ate and slept extraordinarily well that night, so very well cared for by our local hosts, Jimmy and Wee Lai, but full recovery took a day or three. The next day I even resorted to walking backwards up one small hill to avoid the too-painful stretching of my calf-muscles. Other parts of this trip also left some indelible memories – the extraordinarily generous Malaysian hospitality; the sheer density of population, particularly in KL; and the counterpoint between the remnant orangutans at Sepilok and the ever expanding palm oil plantations towards Sandakan – but Kinabalu was undoubtedly the high point. A big thanks to Reanne at Amazing Borneo Tours and to Jimmy, the perfect guide, who helped it to happen for us.

Camera notes

All photos were taken with a Sony A7RII, using on the first day a Zeiss Loxia 21mm/2.8, a Zeiss ZM Distagon 35/1.4, and a Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8. For the trip to the summit I took just the Distagon 35mm. All images were shot in raw and processed to taste in Lightroom.