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HOW TO CLIMB MOUNT KINABALU WITHOUT A TOUR OPERATOR

Standing at 4095.2 m above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in Malaysia. If you’ve heard that it’s also the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, then you must have heard it from a Malaysian. Don’t fall for it. For at least 25 years of my life, I had been fooled, until I found out that it was just a marketing gimmick by the Malaysian Tourism Board, in a desperate attempt to attract more tourists.

Still, that didn’t stop me from harboring dreams to see its summit one day. Being a Malaysian, I felt like it should be something that I must do at least once in my life. The only problem was the price.

How Much Does It Cost?

For a non-technical mountain that only takes 2 days to climb (some have even done it in one day), Mount Kinabalu is notoriously expensive. This is mainly because you can’t go independently, i.e. without a guide. Independent travel is still a very alien concept to us Malaysians, and we generally assume that all tourists are rich, hence all these ridiculous mandatory charges, especially for international climbers.

Here is a breakdown of what you have to pay to climb Mount Kinabalu (as of 2019):

  • Park entrance fee: RM3 (Malaysians) / RM15 (International)
  • Climbing permit: RM50 (Malaysians) / RM200 (International)
  • Climbing insurance: RM7
  • Mountain guide: RM230 (can be shared by up to 5 people)
  • Overnight stay at Sutera Sanctuary Lodge, Laban Rata: RM756 (Malaysians) / RM1134 (International)
  • Shuttle bus to and from the trailhead (optional): RM34
  • Porter (optional): RM130 – RM160 / 10kg
  • Souvenir certificate (optional): RM10
  • Left luggage (optional): RM12

In Kota Kinabalu, Ranau and Kundasang, you won’t have any problem finding travel agencies that sell climbing packages. These can cost you anywhere from RM1,400 to RM2,500. Obviously, the more people you have in your group, the less you will have to pay, as you can split the cost of the mountain guide and shuttle bus with your group members. Both the mountain guide and the shuttle bus cannot be shared with other groups. So if you’re a solo traveler, you have to bear the cost on your own.

Since December 2015, due to safety reasons, 1-day climbing tours have been discontinued. So, unfortunately this means that it is compulsory to spend a night at the Sutera Sanctuary Lodge (SSL) at Laban Rata. Laban Rata is the halfway point where you stop to acclimatize before attempting the summit the next morning. At Laban Rata, SSL has a monopoly for being the only accommodation provider, and it shows in their price.

Mount Kinabalu Climbing Options

2D1N (Two Days One Night)

Since the discontinuation of the 1-day climbing permits, 2D1N is now the cheapest and most popular option. You will start before 10.30 in the morning on the first day, reach Laban Rata around 2 pm, have an early dinner and get some rest before starting the climb to the summit at 2 am the next morning. Ideally you should reach the summit just in time for sunrise and then return to Laban Rata, where you will have a second breakfast and pack all your stuff. At around 9 am, you will start your descent to the trail head, which will take approximately 5 hours. 

3D2N (Three Days Two Nights)

The 3D2N option doesn’t mean that you get to stay for 2 nights on the mountain. Rather, it is only an extra stay before or after the climb, usually somewhere near the Kinabalu Park, with other activities included, such as a visit to the Poring Hot Spring. This varies from one tour operator to another, so do check the packages offered accordingly.

Via Ferrata

A Via Ferrata is a climbing route that involves steel cables, iron rungs, pegs, and ladders fixed to the rock face. You will be attached to a harness and will be scaling the rock surface thousands of meters above sea level.  Perfect for those looking to give their Instagram followers heart palpitations. On Mount Kinabalu, there are two Via Ferrata options to choose from:

  • Walk the Torq (WTT) – Suitable for beginners. Distance: 390m, elevation gain: 109m. Highest point: 3,520m above sea level. Average duration: 2-3 hours. Attractions: Tyrolean Traverse, Cable Monkey Bridge, balancing beam.
  • Low’s Peak Circuit (LPC) – World’s highest via ferrata. For more experienced climbers with above average fitness levels. Distance: 1.1km, total elevation gain: 365m. Highest point: 3,776m above sea level. Average duration: 5-6 hours. Attraction: World’s highest suspension bridges.

The Cheapest Way to Climb Kinabalu

For those doing the non-Via Ferrata, there are two ways you can book your climb. You can either book through a tour operator or directly with SSL. Booking with tour operators is definitely more expensive, but it often includes transportation from Kota Kinabalu and also your accommodation in Kinabalu Park before you begin the climb. If you want convenience and don’t mind shelling out extra money, this is the way to go. However please be wary when choosing a tour operator, as some might refuse to give you refunds after failing to secure you a spot.

Here are a few of the most recommended tour operators:

If you’re looking for a cheaper way to climb Kinabalu, you need to book your accommodation directly with SSL. This is easier said than done, though. First of all, their website seems to have always been under construction. Secondly, their email replies can be very slow–if they reply at all.

The best way is to call their number or visit their office in Wisma Sabah, Kota Kinabalu. Please note that if you’re booking with SSL, you’re only booking the accommodation and meals at Laban Rata. You will arrange everything else yourself, including transportation to and from Kinabalu Park, your accommodation before and after the climb, mountain guide fee, climbing permit, insurance, etc.

Click here to read more about my experience climbing Mount Kinabalu without a tour operator. 

How Early Do You Have to Book?

There is a limit of 120 climbing permits issued everyday–77 for non-Via Ferrata climbers, 33 for Via Ferrata, and 10 for Sabahans. Priority is given to those who book 3D2N and Via Ferrata, therefore they are allowed to book several months in advance. Those taking 2D1N packages can only book 30 days in advance.

Try to book as early as you can. I understand that this is not always possible or convenient when you’re traveling. So, is it possible to secure a spot last-minute? If you’re alone, you might have a chance. 

Click here to find out how I managed to book on the same day as my climb.

How to Get There

The nearest airport is the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA/BKI). There are direct international flights from Brunei, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea and Singapore. You can also fly domestically from Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Johor Bahru and most major cities in East Malaysia. 

Despite its name, Mount Kinabalu is NOT located in Kota Kinabalu. It’s located more than 90 kilometers away (about 2 hours’ drive) in a town called Kundasang. If you have booked a climbing package with a tour operator, they will usually arrange the transportation for you. Otherwise, you have a few options:

  • Self-drive – Renting a car is a good option for those who are familiar with driving on the left. It gives you the flexibility to make stops and detours along the way. There are many car hire companies at the airport and city center. You can also book online.
  • Taxi – Regular taxis from Kota Kinabalu can take you to Kinabalu Park for RM100 – RM200. This is for those who need to get to Kinabalu Park quickly, without having to wait for other passengers, e.g. if you wish to reach Kinabalu Park in the morning before your climb.
  • Shared taxi – A cheaper option would be to take a shared taxi that will only depart when they have enough passengers. It should cost RM15 – RM20 per person. Alternatively, you can pay for the missing passengers and leave immediately. The shared taxi station is located between Padang Merdeka and Masjid Bandar KK.
  • Coach – To get the coach, you first need to go to the North Bus Terminal in Inanam, which is about 10 kilometers away from the city center. You can take any coach heading to Ranau, Sandakan or Tawau as they will all pass by the park entrance. Just remember to tell them where to drop you. It should cost between RM10 – RM15.
  • Minivan – SImilar to the shared taxis, the minivans do not have any fixed schedule and will only leave when full. Generally, there are more passengers in the morning. So try to start your journey before noon so that there will be less waiting time. The fare is RM20 per person. You can get it from Padang Merdeka.

Best Time to Go

February to April is the dry season, making it the best time to go. October to January is the worst, due to the monsoon season. The trail can be treacherous during heavy rains, so climbs usually have to be cancelled. The busiest period is March through September, especially April, July and August, as well as around public holidays.

What to Bring

  • Hiking shoes with good grip
  • Trekking pants
  • Thermal underwear
  • Raincoat or waterproof jacket
  • Daypack with rain cover
  • Dry bag for your electronic gadgets
  • Snacks (chocolate, protein bars, energy gels)
  • At least 2 liters of water
  • Pills for mild symptoms of altitude sickness (paracetamol/ibuprofen/promethazine/acetazolamide)
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Balaclava
  • An extra pair of socks
  • Headlamp (can also be rented in Laban Rata)
  • Hiking sticks
  • Good knees and a good attitude

How Fit Do You Have to Be?

Mount Kinabalu is not a technical mountain. You don’t need any mountaineering experience or complicated climbing gear. If you can climb stairs, you can climb this mountain, because the trail mostly consists of concrete and wooden steps.

That being said, if you’re not used to physical exertion, please do not attempt this climb without prior training. Climbing stairs may sound easy, but remember that you’ll be doing it continuously for 4 – 6 hours, and you’ll be doing it at high altitude. This means that, due to the lower oxygen level in the air, your heart will need to pump extra harder to get enough oxygen into your lungs, consequently tiring you out even faster.

If you have any pre-existing medical concern, please consult your doctor first. Do some cardio workouts for at least a few months before the climb to build your stamina, and don’t forget to include stair-climbing in your training routine in order to prepare your leg muscles.

My Experience Climbing Kinabalu Without A Tour Operator

BEFORE THE CLIMB

In June 2016, I went to Sabah with no intention to climb Mount Kinabalu. Therefore, I was totally unprepared. I had no hiking sticks, no warm clothes, and no hiking shoes. The shoes that I was wearing–well they had seen better days, to put it mildly. The soles had holes in them and were coming loose. In addition, I was also severely undertrained. The last time I went for a jog was probably in January, and my only hiking experience was on Broga Hill, which was only about 400m in height.

But, since I was already in Kota Kinabalu, just for the heck of it, I tried calling SSL office to see if they might have a spot available for one more climber. In my mind, I was already quite certain that they would be full, but I had nothing to lose for trying. To my surprise, they told me that they did have one spot left, and I was to come to the office to book it immediately. This was on a Saturday morning. They would close at noon, so I had to hurry. The climb was to be on Monday the 20th, which was two days away. I made it just in time before they closed.

Shoes I used to climb Mount KinabaluOn that same afternoon, I took a bus from Inanam to Kundasang, and went to buy my supplies – snacks, mineral water, gardening gloves (those were the only gloves I could find), and glue for my shoes. Then, I got down to gluing my shoes, and tying shoelaces around them, for extra support.

It wasn’t until the night before my climb that I decided to take a look at my reservation printout. That was when I noticed that something was not right. The date written on the reservation was 28th of June, when I had booked for the 20th.

The person who took my reservation must have misheard me or keyed it in wrongly, and I was stupid enough to not check the receipt before leaving.

I was crestfallen. My flight home was on the 22nd. There was no way I could change my flight date. And I didn’t want to stay in Kundasang for another week to wait for my climb. My only choice was to go home and come back. Unless I could persuade the people at SSL to change the date to the 20th. But what are the odds of them having an empty spot at such a short notice?

My room in Kinabalu Park, Kundasanf
My room in Kundasang
Me in Kundasang with Kinabalu in the background
Me in Kundasang, with Kinabalu in the background

DAY 1 (20th June 2016)

It had been raining the whole night. The wind made awful sounds. On top of that, there were no lights outside, and I was the only person in the entire guesthouse where I was staying. I barely got any sleep. The same questions kept running through my head: Will I or will I not be allowed to climb? Can I change the date? Will the weather be good enough? Will I be able to make it to the summit?

By 6 am, the heavy rain had subsided into a steady drizzle. My guesthouse was about 1.5 km away from Kinabalu Park. I braced myself against the rain and strong wind, and started walking. Now I had to keep my fingers crossed that they would let me climb. I was prepared to put on my sorriest face and beg.

It turned out I didn’t have to. They had another spot for me on that day! I was astounded at how lucky I was. People had to book months in advance, and then there I was, just waltzing in and getting myself a spot, not once but twice! 

Here’s what I learnt from this:

  • You have a much better chance of securing a last-minute spot if you’re a solo climber. While the accommodation can be overbooked months in advance, there’s always the off chance that somebody cancels or doesn’t turn up.
  • Try going during the fasting month of Ramadan. More than half of the Malaysian population are Muslims, and they tend to avoid strenuous activities when they are fasting. So the number of climbers during Ramadan should be considerably lower and the likelihood of you getting an available spot significantly higher.
 
I took it as a sign that I was meant to climb that mountain. I was going to make it to the summit, come what may.
 
Misty Day on Mount Kinabalu

After, I went to the office to pay for my permit, insurance, mountain guide, shuttle bus and park entrance fee. I was given a packed lunch and an identification tag that I had to wear around my neck at all times during the climb.

They assigned me a mountain guide–a small man named Zul, who made climbing seem literally like a stroll in the park. While I was scrambling on all fours just to keep up with him, he had one hand in his pocket and the other one holding an umbrella. He only wore flip-flops. To add to the insult, Zul was fasting. Me? I had to stop every few hundred meters to chug down some water and eat chocolate.

Heavy mist when climbing Kinabalu

The day was misty throughout, so I was unable to see much scenery around me. The trail that was mostly stairs and rocks, was quickly transformed into mini waterfalls due to the constant drizzle. Water was seeping through the holes in my shoes, soaking my feet. Still, I was glad that it rained because I don’t think I would have been able to make it had it been a hot day.

Despite my slow progress, we managed to reach Laban Rata at 2:15 pm (45 minutes ahead of schedule). I had an early dinner at the cafeteria (it was a hearty buffet) and spent the rest of the evening trying to get my body rested.

Sutera Sanctuary Lodge dormitory

Sutera Sanctuary Lodge Dining Area

The hostel had no heating system. Neither was there any hot water, because the water heater was solar-powered. No sun meant no hot water.

No hot water at Sutera Sanctuary Lodge (SSL)

DAY 2 (21st June 2016)

 
We woke up at 1 am to freshen up and have a quick breakfast/supper before making our final push to the summit–3 kilometers away from Laban Rata. The ladies’ bathroom had only two washbasins, two toilets and one shower to be shared among all of us females on that floor. Not that anyone wanted to shower anyway.
 
Outside, in the pitch-black darkness, we were led to a series of wooden steps that went up, up and up with no end in sight. I had rented a headlamp for RM10 at the reception. The staircase was narrow, so we had to walk single file. If somebody stopped, everyone behind had to do the same. I saw someone up ahead being taken aside by her guide. She seemed to be having trouble breathing.

The last stretch of the climb was the hardest. As the air grew thinner, fatigue consumed me, and I had to stop often to catch my breath. It was as though I was slowly suffocating. The rocky cliff surface felt almost vertical; we had to use a rope to scramble up.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu with headlamp

 

As if that wasn’t bad enough, suddenly it started to rain. Up there on the mountain, there was nothing to shield us from the elements. Coupled with the strong wind, the icy rain was hitting us from all directions. Some climbers had put on raincoats and balaclavas. I was wearing a very thin parka that looked waterproof but actually wasn’t. Inside was a thick sweater that only got heavier as it absorbed water, and the third layer was another thin long-sleeved T-shirt, followed by a tank top. But it made no difference how many layers I had on–they were all wet.

Reaching Mount Kinabalu summit

The first rule of being in cold temperatures is to ensure that your feet are warm and dry. Your feet, being the furthest away from your heart, are the key points where heat can leave your body. Keeping your feet warm can redistribute heat around the body. But my shoes had been soaking wet since the day before. By now, the shoestrings that I had tied around them were long gone, and the glue was barely holding them together. The zigzag parts of the soles were flapping about, so I tore them off, leaving only the thinner layer.

Finally, I reached the summit after so many times of wanting to give up. Climbers took turns to get their photos taken at what was called the Low’s Peak, presumably named after the first summiter. I think it’s a rather confusing name because now some people would think that we had climbed only to the lowest peak, and that there were higher peaks elsewhere.

Mount Kinabalu Low's Peak

Each of us took less than a minute up there, as everyone was desperate to climb back down and away from the cold. My face was starting to look puffy. So were my fingers, and probably my entire body too. I had to ask Zul to operate my phone for me, because my fingers were numb. 

Going back to Laban Rata was more treacherous, because of the rain, and because I was beginning to lose sensation in my feet. I was experiencing mild symptoms of hypothermia, although I didn’t know it then. We went back to SSL to pack our stuff and have a light breakfast before descending to base camp. I had changed to (somewhat) drier clothes, but my body hadn’t stopped shivering.

For the rest of the descent, Zul had to hold my hand because I kept stumbling and falling on my butt, even on level ground. My legs had simply stopped taking orders from me. As a result, we were the last to arrive at the gate, right before they closed. I limped to the registration counter to get my certificate. Before leaving, I tried to look for Zul again, but he was already gone.

Mount Kinabalu climber certificate
 
So, is Kinabalu worth spending thousands of ringgit on? Probably not, if you’re an experienced mountaineer who has been to more challenging summits with probably better views. But I certainly found it worth my money because Kinabalu has a special meaning for me. And I was glad I had chosen it as my first mountain.

 

Have you climbed Mount Kinabalu? How was your experience? Comment below.

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