If you’ve read a few of our other blog posts, watched our videos or even heard our tales face to face, you would know that Jac and I love a bit of an adventure! Now, what bigger adventure is there to climb South East Asia’s Highest Mountain?!
Mount Kinabulu is located in Sabah, Malaysia and stands as SEA’s highest mountain at 4,095m. Currently, only 100 climbing permits are allowed per day, therefore we booked ourselves in to climb a couple of weeks in advance with 'Marvellous Borneo' to make sure we had secured our place.
In regards to our accommodation, we knew we needed to stay near to the National Park so that we could get there quickly in the morning to register and secure all our permit documents. We had a look on all websites including booking.com, Hostelworld and Agoda, until we finally found a hostel within 300m from the park entrance on Airbnb. It was called Jungle Jacks Hostel and it was £10 per bed/per night, how bloomin’ perfect!
We turned up at Jungle Jacks after a long day catching flights, taxis and buses from Kuala Lumpur. The staff (Arvin, Javier and Kristen, who were travellers volunteering there for a few weeks) showed us to our room which was located at the bottom of a pretty steep hill, one minute away from the main part of jungle jacks hostel (if you are going to climb Mount Kinabulu - take this hill as good practice!). The room was amazing, there was a gym on the bottom floor - yes, you read that right, a gym! You can imagine how far mine and Jacs’ eye fell out of our heads when we saw it. It may not be much of a gym but there’s a few machines and dumbbells, a bunch of mirrors and a stereo with Bluetooth - add that to a little motivation and what more could you want!
The room also had free tea and coffee, free towels, hot water and a whole wardrobe of free warm clothes to wear if you needed them. Jac and I wore a different jumper from the racks every day, they are all so retro and look like they’ve been plucked straight from the 80’s, I’m not sure where jungle jack shops for them but it’s definitely not in this era! We couldn’t believe how attentive that was as a personal touch. Especially as a large number of people hiking Mount Kinabulu will be travellers and with travelling, it’s more than likely that you won’t have enough warm clothes or even proper hiking gear since you’ve been living from a backpack in different climates all year (like us).
After settling down our bags, we asked where was good to eat, only to find out that the price of a bed at Jungle Jacks includes all food and drinks. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, water, tea, coffee and all other food in the kitchen... is all free. We literally couldn’t believe our ears. We were a little late for lunch, so we made ourselves cheese toasties (using an actual toastie maker) and scrambled eggs (from their own chickens!). Arvin made us an avocado and coconut milk smoothie and gave us a chocolate bar to eat whilst we all sat down and got to know each other. Jack turned up around 30 minutes later and we instantly fell in love with him. He’s absolutely brilliant. His stories are so funny and he’s the guy you want to ask if you ever have any questions regarding the hike or about anything in general really! He’s travelled himself and will have a few funny stories to tell with whatever you ask.
We woke up in the morning at 7am. We had to make our own lunch for the hike on Mount Kinabulu, and of course, jack told us to make our lunches from the ingredients in the kitchen. We made ourselves cheese sandwiches for lunch and ate some scrambled egg and a banana for breakfast before heading off to the mountain at 8 o’clock. Top tip - jack lends out hiking boots and hiking gear for those who don’t have them, he lent me some gloves and a head torch, which were an absolute life saver on the mountain!
We set off to Mount Kinabulu HQ, a meet 200 from Jungle Jacks. We chose the cheapest package with Marvellous Borneo tours, which meant that we had to arrange all of the permits ourselves. We've also listed all the details below
(Rest assured if you'd like any help, just drop us over an email)
First, we paid the admission/ conservation fee to the park, which was 15 ringgit (£3) per person. Next, we made our way over to the Mountain Torq office, tucked in between the gift shop and the guesthouse. At the mountain Torq Office, we signed the official documents for the permits (which had already been prepared) and paid 414 (£82.50) Ringgit for the both of us. Now that we were allowed to climb the mountain, we needed to collect our passes and pay for our guide. We went over to the information centre (directly opposite entrance to Mountain Torq office) and paid the remaining balance of 230 Ringgit (£46) for our guide, Ronnie. Lastly, we had to pay 34 Ringgit (£6.80) for our taxi up to the starting point of the trail, this ticket was a return ticket, so it pays for the taxi back to HQ too. Altogether, our permits, guide fees and taxi fare came to £141.30.
In addition to this cost we paid a total of 2940 Ringgit which included our overnight stay on the mountain, an amazing buffet dinner, the low peak via-ferrata and breakfast.
If you choose not to organise things yourself the package cost would be 4660 Ringgit for two people. However, because we arranged things ourselves we actually saved just over 1000 Ringgit (£190) so its well worth doing!
We jumped in the taxi and drove 5km to the start of the trail. We initially asked if we could walk it instead but apparently this isn’t allowed haha! At the start of the trail, we signed our lives away at the starting checkpoint and head down the steps to the start of the summit trail.
We got to know our guide Ronnie during the trek to base camp. He was a lovely guy and had climbed Mount Kinabulu a whopping 800 times! He had calves bigger than mine and Jacs’ head! (and Jacs’ head is mahoosive).
The first thing, we came across was a beautiful waterfall. Seeing this again the next day was such a good feeling as we knew it was officially the end of the gruelling descent!
The surrounding bridges of the waterfall had suffered from a land slide recently. There are a few areas on the Mount Kinabulu that are sign posted as high risk areas, it was essential to move quickly through these!
The path the the summit was very clear. It was a constant incline of wooden steps and stairs made out of vines and boulders all the way to base camp. We understand that it is illegal to climb without a guide, but it would have been soooo easy to climb without one considering the summit trail.
There are 7 pit-stops on the trail, with toilets, shelter and bins so that climbers can have a break and dispose of any rubbish. The huts were great as they reduced rubbish left on the mountain and the toilets were... well, it was nice not to have to pee in a bush for once! Although, we do love good old ‘pee in a bush’ treks so it was a bit strange having full-on western toilets available on this hike! The huts appear every kilometre or so and ended up being good check-point marks for us. We only stopped at hut 1 and hut 3 for a quick 2 minute toilet breaks, we skipped the rest on our competitive ascent up to base camp (explained in the next paragraph). Clearly a bit confused, Jac turned to me at hut 3 and said “right, this is Number 5 isn’t it, so we’ll skip 6 and 7 and head straight to base camp.” The mountain can do funny things to you people!
Now, Jac and I never like to do things with half-efforts. At the start of our hike, we asked our guide what his quickest time up to base camp was - he replied, “Two and a half hours”. Jac and I have each other the ‘let’s try and beat that’ look and so our time goal was set.
The ascent up to base camp was a killer hike! We covered the first 3km in just under an hour. At this point, Ronnie told us if we kept up our pace, we would arrive at the base camp by half 11. He had initially said half 1 at the beginning, however after realising we meant business, he reduced this estimation as the hike went on!
Not for the faint hearted, or for the faint leg strength, we had to battle with our energy and motivation just to get us up the last 3km to the base camp. The stairs turned into layers upon layers of boulders which had us puffing ad panting, encouraging each other and letting out a good old ‘holy moly, when do these end?!’
We passed so many people as they were on their descent from base camp the day after their hike. They gave lovely words of encouragement and really did help to spur us on.
After 2 hours 10 minutes, we had 500 gruelling metres left to go. A desperate burst of energy came from nowhere as we quickened up the pace to the top. We reached the humongous set of stairs that led the way to the finish line and a place to sit down at last. We reached the top of the stairs at 11:30am. Having left at 9:10, that meant we had taken 2 hours and 20 minutes to get to base camp, the quickest time our guide had seen in his 10 years of climbing Mount Kinabalu!
We signed in and sat down in the cosy and warm (we wish, it was absolutely freeeeeezing at this altitude!) with a coffee and our cheese sandwiches that we had made for lunch. Luckily, we got there in time for when breakfast was still on for the guys and gals making their descent that day, so we were allowed to have some free toast as well!
The view from base camp was absolutely insane. There weren’t many view points on the ascent, as much of the path is shaded by the trees. There are around 3-4 spots to catch the view, however these are quite high up and were covered by clouds by the time we got there. However... the view from base camp window made it all worth it for us. We were literally above the clouds. The clear blue sky above us, the clouds layering the sky below, it was literally one of the most incredible things we’ve ever seen!
Being the first people to reach base camp so far that day, our room wasn’t ready yet, so we grabbed monopoly deal from their games rack. We spent half an hour trying the learn the rules and 15 minutes playing the game (that game is so confusing at first, but thankfully, we got there in the end). We got talking to a few people who came through the door for a while after that and then finally, around 1:30pm, dived into our beds for the night and cocooned into our much-needed sleeping bags to rest until the Via Ferrata Briefing at 4pm.
At the briefing, the guides spoke through the procedures of the hike to the summit and the consequent Via Ferrata activities. The plan was to ascend to the peak at 2am and arrive at the peak at around 5:30am for sunrise. Luckily, our guide knew our pace, so he informed us after the meeting that we could leave at 3:30am instead - what a lie-in hey!
We had picked the Low’s Peak Circuit Via Ferrata activity, which was explained first. It turned out... the two of us and only one more person had picked the Low’s Peak Circuit, which was amazing for us as it meant it was going to basically be a private tour! (Low peak circuit info) The rest of the gang on the mountain were going to be doing the Walk the Torq option, which was cheaper and shorter, yet just as good with a few little surprises along the way.
We all received training on Via Ferrara Harness Safety after the briefing, signed our lives away on the training confirmation form and ran down to the dinner hall in our 24 layers of clothing, snoods, gloves, hats and waterproofs.
The dinner is still one of our highlights from the whole trip (For anyone that knows us reading this, I bet you’re thinking ‘course it was the food, you little piggies!’ Haha!). It was an all-you-can-eat buffet sent from heaven. There was a big salad section the start with which is always a bonus in our eyes, a soup section with beautiful bread rolls for dipping in, bbq lamb, steamed chicken pieces, beef stroganoff, mash potato, noodle/rice dishes, big platters of vegetables and different varieties of fresh fruit for dessert. If there’s any thing more you could ask for after a (3500m?) exhausting hike, you would be asking too much! (Ok... maybe some heating wouldn’t have been a bad shout!)
Lights out was 8pm at base camp, which felt just like being sent to bed for when the ‘watershed’ came on when I was younger. It was so weird and I don’t think any of us had a good night sleep as we were way too awake, loaded with mash potato and beef stroganoff and most likely too excited with anticipation of climbing to the peak in 6 hours time.
One thing that was definitely on all of our minds was the weather. In the briefing, the guide informed us that two days ago, the peak ascent and Via Ferrata activities had been cancelled by Park Rangers as it had rained on the early morning of the trek. If it rained again anywhere near to 2am the next morning, our activity would also be cancelled as it is way too slippery at the peak and on the Via Ferrata metal wrungs when it is wet, which is fully understandable in our eyes. We had to just cross every single body part, not just our fingers, that it would stay dry for us the next morning.
Turns out we were quite the contortionists! We woke up to freezing cold, unbelievably windy, yet beautifully dry weather at 2am. We ate some toast, down a couple of coffees and sat waiting for the right time to leave. Because we could get there in good time, our guide let us leave as late as possible as it would be -7 degrees at the top and consequently, it wouldn’t be too nice to get there early and have to wait around. The chances of actually seeing the sunrise however were very slim as it was a windy/misty forecast for that time. Nonetheless, we still held a little hope that we would see it rise above the clouds!
We set off at 3:30am. We had our head torches secured, clothes layered up, wooly gloves on and were ready to conquer the last stretch of the mountain. Well.. actually I had my gloves on, Jac turned a pair of gloves down that he was offered as apparently, his hands don’t get cold when he’s hiking... more on this later! The path to the peak was a mixture of layered boulders and stairs. It was such an awesome feeling venturing out in pitch black. Further along the way, we looked back and saw the coolest view of a long stream of head torches moving up the mountain, with the same view presented directly ahead of us.
The last part of the ascent to the peak is by far the best bit. You walk the last kilometre across the marble slate just beneath the peak, zig zagging and holding on to the rope that leads the way when needed. It’s a steep slope and requires constant digging in from the old calves to keep going!
It was a bit of a surreal experience at this point as hardly anyone was talking to each other due to being so cold and pretty exhausted, but this silence was not in a hostile way - it was in in a completely peaceful, we-all-in-this-together way, our shared motive was getting to the peak. Think... March of the penguins. It was exactly like that! Give us all a penguin costume and you wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference from the film!
We were 100m from the peak at 5:10am. Our guide stopped us at this point and found some shelter behind a giant rock. He said we had reached the peak too early and there would be no point going up there until 5:30am as it would be too cold and too dark to see anything, we rested for 20 minutes in the shelter from the wind until it was a better time to make the last ascent. When I say rested, I make it sound like we sat down, whacked the coffee flask out and had a chin wag. We definitely did not, we all stood desperately against this rock trying to get away from the harrowing wind, Jac was rubbing my arms up and down trying to get me a little warmer (God bless him) whilst all the while, jogging up and down on one spot to keep his own legs from going too cold. It was at this point that Jac really wished he had said yes to a pair of gloves! The conditions felt a lot worse when worse when you stopped moving, we would have preferred to have not had these breaks, but we were thankful we didn’t have to wait at the peak!
At 5:30, we made our way up and reached the peak with freezing hands and super-warm hearts. It felt so awesome seeing the sign marking the peak at 4,095m. To top it off, we had been the second people to reach the peak that morning, which made us even more proud to be there!
After a quick picture with the sign at the peak and a high-five between us and our guide, we started to descend back down to somewhere a bit more sheltered. It was evident quite quickly that at 5:30am, there wasn’t going to be a sunrise for us, which wasn’t a bad thing as we were rewarded with the most amazing views during our Via Ferrata afterwards.
We came to spot 50m beneath the peak, where we sat down and waited for a while. Jac and I huddled together in a little hole between two rocks, only to be straight in the target sight of the wind and have absolutely no shelter from it at all! We asked the guide if we could move down to the spot we had found earlier instead.
After resting at the other spot for 20-30 minutes, it was starting to become light. We got a move on to our Via Ferrata starting point, as we had to be there by 7am. The walk down from the peak of the mountain was literally amazing! The slate rock looked so much better in the day time, it just went on for miles and miles in every direction that you looked. The air was still extremely cold and the winds were nearly knocking us off our feet, but there was something so beautiful about the weather when combined with the mountain at the top when it became light. A white mist covered the top of the mountain and clouds began to form below us, it was like being in an old movie as everything just had a grey and white tone to it.
We reached the Via Ferrata starting point at 6:20am, we went a different way to every body else on the mountain as our Via Ferrata would start off vertically down the side of the peak. We waited for the other guy who we thought would be joining us, but he didn’t show up so we went on without him. We’re still not sure why he didn’t make it (he didn’t die, in case you might be thinking that! It was maybe just a change of mind after the peak ascent).
We got geared up and started our Via Ferrata at around 7am. It was sooooooo cool and was by far, one of the best experiences of our whole lives put together. The first drop off the side of the rock face is near on a sheer vertical trail, after completing this we walked along some tiny platforms that formed a stepping-stone trail across the face. The sun was coming up at this point, so we stopped to admire the view next to us and just couldn’t even believe it was real.
The whole Low’s Peak Circuit was amazing, we made our way through it on tonnes of little stepping stones, metal wrungs and natural rock crevices. There was a few little surprises along the way such as a suspended bridge and a slack-line walk between two cliff faces!
We loved our guide, James, during the Circuit. He was so chatty and really nice, we didn’t stop the entire time!
After 2 hours, we reached the end of the circuit. We couldn’t recommend enough the Low’s Peak Circuit if you are going to climb Mount Kinabalu, it was really tiring after the ascent at early hours that morning, but the views, the experience and the feeling of accomplishment were priceless. Besides - who else can say they had officially completed the HIGHEST VIA FERRATA IN THE WORLD! (Guinness book of records certified - yeah man!)
We made our way back down the staircase path, 700m to base camp. Waiting for us at 10am was such an awesome breakfast - boiled eggs, Frankfurt sausages, beans, mash potato, gravy, mushroom soup and toast. It was a bit of a crazy combo, but we basically had as close to a Full English (or Roast Dinner?) as we were going to get right there!
After breakfast, we lay in bed for an hour or so, taking some much needed rest before we made our descent at half 11. The descent itself was so hard. Not only on the knees with every step (more like leep) between steps, but on the mind as it felt soooo much longer than when we made our way up the day before. It didn’t help that we were running on the energy we had left from 2am in the morning (breakfast hadn’t kicked in just yet!). We reached the bottom of the mountain at 1:30, only to have to go up those humongous set of stairs we had gone down when we first past the entrance gate. There was a sign that said ‘welcome back, successful climbers’. A smile hit all our faces as we saw this and walked through.
On arriving back at HQ, we collected our certificates. One for completing the hike to the summit and one for completing the highest Via Ferrata in the world. We strolled back to Jungle Jacks, where we were rewarded with the most amazing lunch, a hot shower and our super-comfy beds.
We’re so happy to have climbed Mount Kinabalu, to have completed the Low’s Peak Circuit and to have had an absolute corker with the weather at the time. We were the only group that week that didn’t get rained on when on top of the mountain! How lucky is that!
If you have any questions or have even completed this trek yourself and want to share some tales, please leave your comment below. We would love to hear from you!
How to Get to Kinabalu National Park
The main town of Kota Kinabalu has an international airport that we flew to from Kuala Lumpur. Our flights cost £67 each including 20kg baggage with Scoot. Once you arrive at Kota Kinabalu you can either opt to stay there for a night, or like us, make a bee-line straight to the mountain because we were climbing it the next day (We did stay in Kota Kinabalu after and loved it, so read our top things to do blog for more info on this)
There are a couple of different options getting to Mount Kinabalu from either the airport or bus station. The easiest, but certainly not the cheapest would be to get a Grab or local taxi. For a Grab expect to pay around 200 Ringgit (£40) or with a local taxi expect to pay around 300 Ringgit (£60)
The best and cheapest way is to get local transport. This is also extremely easy to do. Get a grab from the airport/ bus station (9/10 Ringgit - £2) to Padang Merdeka Bus Terminal Station which you'll find on google maps (on maps.me is actually marked as 'Bus to Mount Kinabalu').
From here you get get a local mini bus (Toyota Unser), whose main destination is Ranau (town just after the National Park). Just ask one of the many guys selling tickets. If you let them know your guest house or hostel they'll drop you off on the way. These leave every half an hour and run 7am through to 4pm and the guys don't rip you off. The price costs 20-25 Ringgit (£4-5) depending on how much luggage you've got.
If you want to return to KK, you can also take a bus from across the road (i.e. opposite the park). Buses passing by the park may be minivans or regular-sized buses. There is no dedicated bus stop and while there supposedly is a timetable they don't really seem to stick to it. It's basically a matter of waiting by the side of the road and hailing a bus bound for KK as it goes by. Remember to indicate to the driver that you want them to stop, otherwise they may very well just keep on driving. Note that services on this route do operate in the evening.
Where to Stay?
Below are some of the budget lodges (within walking distance) near Kinabalu National Park (KNP) that you can contact them directly to check for availability. However, you only need to know about one of these! Jungle Jack Backpacker!
It is the absolute boss of all hostels and the best one we've ever stayed in, in 8months of travelling! The only reason we've even included the other options is because it might be booked out. We've written a separate blog on this as it deserves its own!
1) Jungle Jack Backpacker (350m to KNP): Website - Google Map
2) J. Residence (86m to KNP): Website - Google Map
3) Tahubang Lodge (40m to KNP): Website - Google Map
3) Ayana Holiday Resort (1.4km to KNP): Website - Google Map
4) Kinabalu Mountain Lodge (2.1km to KNP): Website - Google Map
5) D'Villa Rina Lodge (500m to KNP): Website - Google Map
6) Sutera Santuary Lodges (inside the KNP): Website - Google Map *quite expensive unless there is an on-going promotion