Mount Kinabalu (Borneo)

(Private Trip)

By: Paul A. Bloland

Rising 13,455 feet above the South China Sea and deep in the heart of the Bornean jungle is a most unusual mountain, Mt. Kinabalu, first climbed by Sir Hugh Low in 1951. Located in the Malaysian state of Sabah, formerly North Borneo when it was a Dutch possession, Kinabalu is the highest mountain in all of Southeast Asia and easily one of the most striking with its fantastic granite turrets and spires.

Ruth Bloland and I had flown to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, via Taipei and Singapore in June of 1992 especially to climb this famous tropical peak. We arranged for shelter on the mountain and a guide through a local travel agent and on June 2nd a minivan took us up into the heavily forested mountains to Kinabalu National Park where we stayed overnight in a Park chalet. As is usually the case in the afternoon the mountain was shrouded with clouds. However, just before dinner, the clouds parted and there, soaring impossibly high above us, was the bulk of Kinabalu, its minarets and towers clearly visible above the darkening forest.

The next morning we met our guide, Danson Kandong, at Park Headquarters and took a van up to the Timpohon Gate, at 6,000 feet the official entrance to the Kinabalu Trail. After the obligatory photo, we swung off up the trail (actually down for the first couple of hundred feet). Starting up, a ridge, the trail began to climb and never let up.

The trail up Kinabalu is wide and well developed (one might say "overly developed") with thousands of steps cut into the soil and reinforced with sticks. Wooden ladders or steps carry the hiker over rough or steep areas with railings to clutch while climbing. Where there is sheer rock, steps are carved or cut into the rock. The trail winds up a long, very steep ridge with heavy montane forest all around succeeded by the stunted trees of the mossy or cloud forest above 6,000 feet. Many ferns, mosses, rhododendrons, climbing bamboos, pitcher plants, orchids and other epiphytes, and other tropical plants, many endemic to Klnabalu, line the path.

There are six open shelters along the trail at stated (and very welcome) intervals of 15-45 minutes. At each shelter, the altitude is given together with the hiking time to the next shelter, Every half mile there is a posted map showing the trail and your location on it.

After about six hours on the trail, over 3 1/4 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain, we reached the Laban Rata Resthouse at 3:00 pm, close to timberline at about 11,000 feet. We were assigned a room with two double bunks and promptly went down the hall for a cold but refreshing shower - the climb had been very strenuous in the heat and humidity. The resthouse boasts a dining room on the main floor where we had a filling meal of sweet and sour chicken and corn soup prepared by the staff after which we turned in for the night - at 7:30 pm.

We both had some difficulty sleeping so we were awake when Danson came by at 2:15 am to wake us up. We went downstairs for a light breakfast of toast and coffee before stepping out into the night with our light packs slung over our shoulders. At about 3:15 am we turned on our headlamps and started up the trail. The first section, between the Laban Rata Resthouse and Panar Laban was lighted with fluorescent street lamps so we had no problem, but beyond the lights the trail became very steep with endless ladders and railings. Just below the Sayit hut we left the stunted forest behind and began climbing up a thick rope, hand-over-hand as the slope steepened and the sky became lighter.

The summit plateau of Kinabalu is one of the most bizarre mountain tops I have seen and a prime reason why we particularly wanted to climb it. A huge rounded dome or plateau of flat slabs of exfoliating granite there is absolutely no vegetation visible because of the almost daily heavy rain that scours off any soil. The dome is split down the center by an awesome chasm, Low's Gully, over a mile deep with sheer walls plunging down into a black gorge. All across the dome are sharp pinnacles or peaks, one of which is Low's Peak, the highest point on the mountain at 13,455 feet. Climbing up the huge slabs, we followed the thick white climbing rope up to the official summit of Low's Peak which we reached at 6:00 am. We saw the sun rise over the steaming jungles and could look out upon wave after wave of peaks and ranges stretching deep into the heart of Borneo.

After a half hour, we started down. Now that it was light, we could plainly see the route up and were astonished at what we had navigated in the dark! Picking our way carefully down the steep rock slopes, we were back at the Lajan Rata Resthouse at 8:30 am where we took a half hour nap followed by a second and more satisfying breakfast. Leaving the guest house at 10:15 am we started down the endless series of steps to the Timpohon Gate which we reached at 2:15 pm, a 4-hour descent, not too swift when one considers that the fastest time recorded for the round trip was an incredible 2 hours, 42 minutes, and 32 seconds by a Nepalese soldier during the annual Kinabalu Climbathon.

Our van was waiting for us to take us back to Park Headquarters where we were presented with our summit certificates attesting to the fact that we had indeed conquered Mt. Kinabalu.

Kinabalu is very popular, with heavier traffic than Mt. Whitney, so if one is to stay in the Laban Rata Resthouse or in the chalets at Park Headquarters before the climb, reservations are advisable. Seli-service huts, which provide bunks, stoves, and utensils, are available also. Reservations can be made at the Park Reservation Office in downtown Kota Kinabalu or through a local travel agent. Although the brochures state that an authorized guide is mandatory, many people climbed without one. The route is obvious, even in the dark, but it should be noted that the weather inevitably deteriorates in the afternoon and heavy cloud cover accompanied by rain could render the mountain quite hazardous. The presence of the trail makes Kinabalu a Class I climb.

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