Costs of the Climb
A park fee, climbing permit, insurance and a guide fee are mandatory if you intend to climb Mt Kinabalu. All permits and guides must be arranged at the Sabah Parks office, which is next door to the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges office, immediately on your right after you pass through the main gate of the park. Pay all fees at park headquarters before you climb and don't ponder an 'unofficial' climb as permits (laminated cards worn on a string necklace) are scrupulously checked at two points you cannot avoid passing on the way up the mountain. Virtually every tour operator in KK can hook you up with a trip to the mountain; solo travellers are often charged around RM1400. It's possible, and a little cheaper, to do it on your own – but plan ahead. Packages are obviously easier.
All visitors entering the park are required to pay a park entrance fee: RM15 for adults and RM10 for children under 18 (Malaysians pay RM3 and RM1 respectively). A climbing permit costs RM200/RM80 for adults/children, while Malaysian nationals pay RM50/RM30. Climbing insurance costs a flat rate of RM7 per person. Guide fees for the summit trek cost RM230 for a group of one to five people.
Your guide will be assigned to you on the morning you begin your hike. If you ask, the park staff will try to attach individual travellers to a group so that guide fees can be shared. Couples can expect to be given their own guide. Guides are mostly Kadazan, from a village nearby, and many of them have travelled to the summit several hundred times. Try to ask for a guide who speaks English – he or she (usually he) might point out a few interesting specimens of plant life. The path up the mountain is pretty straightforward, and the guides walk behind the slowest member of the group, so think of them as safety supervisors rather than trailblazers.
All this does not include at least RM1069 for dorm and board, or RM2000 for private room and board, on the mountain at Laban Rata. With said lodging, plus buses or taxis to the park, you're looking at spending over RM1700 for the common two-day, one-night trip to the mountain.
Optional extra fees include the shuttle bus (RM34, one way) from the park office to the Timpohon Gate, a climbing certificate (RM10) and a porter (RM160 per return trip to the summit, or RM130 to/from Laban Rata), who can be hired to carry a maximum load of 10kg.
If you need a helicopter lift off the mountain for emergency reasons, the going rate is around RM6000.
Permits & Guides
A climbing permit, insurance and guide are compulsory if you intend to climb Mt Kinabalu. Permits and guides must be arranged at the Sabah Parks office, which is directly next door to the Sutera Sanctuary Lodges office, immediately on your right after you pass through the main gate of the park. Pay all fees at park headquarters before you climb and don't consider an 'unofficial' climb as permits are scrupulously checked at several points along the climb. The Amazing Borneo website provides an easy way of checking how many spaces are left for any given day, and of booking the whole thing online.
If you have no reservation for a night on the mountain at Laban Rata, go to the Sutera office and wait for a last-minute cancellation; you will be informed if there is space in one of the huts. Your guide will be assigned to you on the morning you begin your hike. If you ask, park staff can try to attach individual travellers to a group so that guide fees can be shared. Couples can expect to be given their own guide.
The Climb to the Summit
This schedule assumes you're doing a two-day, one-night ascent of the mountain, since hikers are no longer allowed to attempt a one-day ascent and descent (no matter how fit they are!) unless taking part in the biannual Climbathon. You'll want to check in at park headquarters at around 9am (7am at the latest for via ferrata participants) to pay your park fees, grab your guide and start the ascent (four to six hours) to Laban Rata (3272m), where you'll spend the night before the summit climb. On the following day you'll start scrambling to the top at about 2.30am in order to reach the summit for a breathtaking sunrise over Borneo.
A climb up Kinabalu is only advised for those in adequate physical condition. The trek is tough, and every step you take will be uphill. You will negotiate several obstacles along the way, including slippery stones, heavy humidity, frigid winds and slow-paced trekkers. Mountain Torq compares the experience to squeezing five days of hiking into a 38-hour trek.
There is now only one trail option leading up the mountain – the Timpohon Trail (the trailhead is an hour's walk, or short park shuttle ride, from the entrance to Kinabalu National Park). The Mesilau Trail was badly damaged in the 2015 earthquake and is closed for good. If you are participating in Mountain Torq's via ferrata, you are required to reach Laban Rata in time for your safety briefing at 4pm.
As you journey up to the summit, you'll happen upon signboards showing your progress – there's a marker every 500m. There are also rest shelters (pondok) at regular intervals, with basic toilets and tanks of unfiltered (but potable) drinking water. The walking times we give are conservative estimates. Don't be surprised if you move at a slightly speedier pace, and certainly don't be discouraged if you take longer – everyone's quest for the summit is different.
Timpohon Gate to Layang Layang
'Why am I sweating this much already?'
The trip to the summit officially starts at the Timpohon Gate (1866m) and from there it's an 8.7km march to the summit. There is a small toilet located 700m before the Timpohon Gate and a convenience shop at the gate itself for impulse snack and beverage purchases.
After a short, deceptive descent, the trail leads up steep stairs through the dense forest and continues winding up and up for the rest of the trip. There's a charming waterfall, Carson's Falls, beside the track shortly after the start, and the forest can be alive with birds and squirrels in the morning. Five pondok (shelters) are spaced at intervals of 15 to 35 minutes between Timpohon Gate and Layang Layang and it's about three hours to the Layang Layang (2621m) rest stop. Near Pondok Lowii (2286m), the trail follows an open ridge giving great views over the valleys and up to the peaks.
Layang Layang to Pondok Paka
This part of the climb can be the most difficult for some – especially around the 4.5km marker. You've definitely made some headway, but there's still a long trek to go – no light at the end of the jungly tunnel quite yet. It takes about 1¾ hours to reach Pondok Paka (3053m), the seventh shelter on the trail, 5.5km from the start.
Pondok Paka to Laban Rata
Also known as the 'can't I pay someone to finish this for me?' phase, this part of the climb is where beleaguered hikers get a second wind as the treeline ends and the summit starts to feel closer. At the end of this leg you'll reach Laban Rata (3272m), your home sweet home on the mountain. Take a good look at the slender signpost announcing your arrival – it's the propeller of the helicopter once used to hoist the construction materials to build the elaborate rest station. This leg takes around 45 minutes.
Laban Rata to Sayat-Sayat Hut
It's 2am and your alarm just went off. Is this a dream? Nope. You're about to climb the last part of the mountain in order to reach the summit before sunrise.
Most people set off at around 2.45am, and it's worth heading out at this time even if you're in great shape (don't forget your torch). The one-hour climb to Sayat-Sayat hut (3668m) involves a lot of hiker traffic and the crossing of the sheer Panar Laban rock face. There is little vegetation, except where overhangs provide some respite from the wind. It is one of the toughest parts of the climb, especially in the cold and dark of the predawn hours. Note that on some particularly steep sections, you have to haul yourself up specially strung ropes (gloves essential).
Sayat-Sayat Hut to Summit
After checking in at Sayat-Sayat, the crowd of hikers begins to thin as stronger walkers forge ahead and slower adventurers pause for sips from their water bottles. Despite the stunning surroundings, the last stretch of the summit ascent is the steepest and hardest part of the climb.
From just beyond Sayat-Sayat, the summit looks deceptively close and, though it's just over 1km, the last burst will take between one to three hours, depending on your stamina. You might even see shattered climbers crawling on hands and knees as they reach out for the top of Borneo.
This is it – the million-dollar moment. Don't forget the sunrise can be glimpsed from anywhere on the mountain. In the predawn, teeth chatter and hikers huddle together for warmth, as it's practically freezing at the top. The summit warms up quickly as the sun starts its own ascent between 5.45am and 6.20am, and the weary suddenly smile; the climb now a distant memory, the trek down an afterthought.
Consider signing up with Mountain Torq to climb back to Laban Rata along the world's highest via ferrata, in which case you have to start heading down at 6am in order to meet your guide at 6.30am at the 7.5km mark. The Low's Peak Circuit via ferrata takes four to five hours to complete.
The Journey Back to the Bottom
You'll probably leave the summit at around 7.30am and you should aim to leave Laban Rata no later than 12.30pm. The gruelling descent back down to Timpohon Gate from Laban Rata takes between three and four hours. The weather can close in very quickly and the granite is slippery even when dry. During rainstorms the downward trek feels like walking through a river. Slower walkers often find that their legs hurt more the day after – quicker paces lighten the constant pounding as legs negotiate each descending step. If you participated in the via ferrata you will be absolutely knackered during your descent and will stumble into Timpohon Gate just before sunset (around 6pm to 6.30pm).
A 1st-class certificate can be purchased for RM10 by those who complete the climb; 2nd-class certificates are issued for making it to Laban Rata. These can be collected at the park office.
Mountain Torq has dramatically changed the Kinabalu climbing experience by creating an intricate system of rungs and rails crowning the mountain's summit. Known as via ferrata (literally 'iron road' in Italian), this alternative style of mountaineering has been a big hit in Europe for the last century and is starting to take Asia by storm. Mountain Torq is Asia's first via ferrata system, and, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, it's the highest 'iron road' in the world.
After ascending Kinabalu in the traditional fashion, participants use the network of rungs, pallets and cables to return to Laban Rata along the mountain's dramatic granite walls. Mountain Torq's star attraction, the Low's Peak Circuit (minimum age 17), is a four- to five-hour scramble down metres upon metres of sheer rock face. This route starts at 3766m, passing a variety of obstacles before linking up to the Walk the Torq path for the last part of the journey. The route's threadlike tightropes and swinging planks will have you convinced that the course designers are sadistic, but that's what makes it such fun – testing your limits without putting your safety in jeopardy. Your guide may encourage you to lean back for the photo shoots, with nothing between you and the abyss but your safety belt and harness. Those who don't want their heart leaping out of their chest should try the Walk the Torq (minimum age 10) route. This two- to three-hour escapade is an exciting initiation into the world of via ferrata, offering dramatic mountain vistas with a few less knee-shaking moments. No matter which course you tackle, you'll undoubtedly think that the dramatic vertical drops are nothing short of exhilarating.
Walks Around the Base
It's well worth spending a day exploring the marked trails around park headquarters – if you have time, it may be better to do it before you climb the mountain, as chances are you won't really feel like it afterwards. There are 10 trails and lookouts, though three of the trails – Bukit Ular, Liwagu and Mountain View – were closed at research time and may or may not reopen.
The base trails interconnect with one another, so you can spend the day, or indeed days, walking at a leisurely pace through the beautiful forest, spotting interesting plants, plenty of birds and, if you're lucky, the occasional mammal. When it rains, watch out for slippery paths and legions of leeches.
At 11am each day a guided walk (per person RM5) starts from the Sabah Parks Office and lasts for one to two hours. The knowledgeable guide points out flowers, plants, birds and insects along the way. If you set out from KK early enough, it's possible to arrive at the park in time for the guided walk.
Many of the plants found on the mountain are cultivated in the Botanical Garden behind the visitors centre. Guided tours of the garden depart at 9am, noon and 3pm and cost RM5.