How to climb Mt. Kinabalu.... and NOT make it to the summit!

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December 17th 2009
Published: December 18th 2009
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So a couple of days ago I set out to climb Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in South-East Asia at 4095m. It is a relative easy mountain to climb if you are in good shape, because you don't need professional equipment to reach the summit. It still requires 2 days to do it, though; you can't just drive to the top!

I thought it would be a challenge and decided to sign up for it, although I haven't been doing a lot of sports lately, so I'm not in great shape. But I packed up my bag with the necessary gear and made my way to the Park Headquarters (HQ), located at about 1600m. I spent the night at the HQ and met my guide Safrey the next morning, a nice guy who also competes at the yearly "Climbathon", a sprint to the top of the mountain! More on that later.

So here's the plan: after a short bus-ride the climb starts at the "Timpohon gate", at 1866m. You then climb 6km (4-6 hours) to reach the Laban Rata Station at an altitude of 3300m, where you spend the night. The next morning at 3am, you climb up for another 2km (or 3 hours!) to reach the summit in time for the sunrise. After that, you get back down to Laban Rata for breakfast and then head back to HQ again that same day.

It was about 8.30 when I started. The first 100m you go down a little, but then the only way is up, like an endless stairway. The trail is quite good, although you have to watch your steps carefully. Every kilometer, there is a shelter so you can rest and keep dry from the rain if there is any. Luckily, I didn't have much rain.

The first 4km went quite well for me, but the hardest part was yet to come. The last 2km were very steep but there is also the altitude. Breathing becomes much more difficult at high altitude, which makes it even harder. This is where I was getting into trouble and the last kilometer I had to stop every few steps to catch my breath. I got to Laban Rata in the end, after a 4,5 hour climb in total.

I crashed into a chair feeling exhausted and started to get sleepy. After a while I also started to get a headache. I checked into my room (a dorm I shared with 5 others) and now was feeling more and more miserable, also getting nauseous. I tried eating some chocolate and drinking water, but it didn't help, so I just rested. In the evening the nauseousness won, and I had to throw up. Ahhh, that was a relief... felt better but not stronger. I had lost my appetite and hadn't eaten much and was still very tired. The climb was scheduled to start at 3am, but I was now sure that I wasn't going to make that. All my symptoms were clear signs of altitude sickness, and going up another 700m is the last thing you should do... :-(
But I got out of bed at 2.30am anyway, still feeling nauseous, and wished my roommates good luck with the climb. I threw up once more and went back to sleep...

I woke up again at 5.30 to see the sunrise from Laban Rata. Wow, that was amazing! I didn't come all the way up there for nothing... and I was somewhat relieved to see that I wasn't the only one who got left behind sick not going to the top.

At 7.30 I met up with my guide again and I proposed that we start the descent. I still wasn't feeling any better, so I figured that descending was the best thing to do.
That helped and as I descended, the nauseousness and headache slowly went away. I was still very low on energy though, and the descend was hard on the legs. Once again exhausted, I arrived back at HQ. I was disappointed for not reaching the summit and I would have loved to have conquered that mountain and had the magnificent view from up there, but at least I had tried it and given it my best. Well, my best at the time, because with a little more training, I might have done better, although altitude sickness at these heights can happen to anyone.

While I was climbing the mountain, I saw porters going up, carrying 40kg of supplies for the Laban Rata Station. Even construction materials were brought up by hands and legs. And I got a lot of respect for my guide as well, who told me he participated in the yearly "Climbathon". This is a race to the summit AND back, totaling over 17km! This year's winner was a Spaniard in 2 hours and 40 minutes, but my guide Safrey got in 9th in 3 hours... Last year he finished 5th! So he must have secretly been laughing all the way, seeing me struggling going up, and making it only to Laban Rata!

Back at HQ, I made my way back to Kota Kinabalu: I was in need for some pampering so I checked into my nice 4-star hotel again and poured me a hot bath and enjoyed the view.
After that, I got myself a good Thai foot massage. Ouch, those legs are hurting!
Still recovering now, but in two days, I'll be diving in the east of Borneo! Much more relaxing! I have caught a cold though, so I hope that won't get worse and keep me from diving... Oh, by the way, I'm spending X-mas HERE! :-D hmmm, judging from the Dutch news, you all be having a nice white X-mas. Mine will be in the white sand ;-) Anyway, anywhere, enjoy the holidays and Merry X-mas!

Additional photos below
Photos: 8, Displayed: 8


19th December 2009

Hey there, So sorry to hear that you didn't make it to the top - that altitude thing is pretty tough! Enjoy the rest of your trip! Kathie
19th December 2009

He Tony, great pictures, man! Too bad you didn't make it to the summit, but the pics highlight that it must have been a great trek. Impressive sunrise! Next time...
19th December 2009

So glad you made it
The title of my comment refers to a song of "Kane" but unfortunately not to your climbing-adventure...... Tony, I'm a little disappointed but once again your pictures are superb Gr., Jean!
26th December 2009

Mr Travelling Man!
Hey Teun, heb net voor 't eerst je site bekeken en alle verhalen gezien. Wat fantastisch om te lezen. Heerlijk om weer te lezen over reizen, over andere culturen, mooie natuur en nieuwe ervaringen. Erg leuk. Zo te zien heb je 't goed naar je zin, afgezien van de altitude sickness issue. Shit happens. Hier op Curacao ook alles prima. Kerst in de warme zon is toch een mooie ervaring. Naast het werken zijn er genoeg leuke dingen te doen, dus enjoying myself. Have a great trip Mr Travelling Man! Henri
7th January 2010

Come back again to climb Mt. Kinabalu
Tony, Never give up. Lets come back Malaysia again to climb it whenever you ready. Nice meeting u bro =)
16th January 2010

Well done ...
even if you made it to Laban Rata though :-) it's still an incredible achievement. I didn't make it first time either as I was too fit for my own good and made it up in 3 hrs but paid bitterly for it with altitude symptons . I was so disappointed to be left behind for the summit next day. However, I returned last year and took my time - 6ish hours to walk leisurely, took in loads of sustanance(which I didn't on previous expedition)admired the views and enjoyed the moment that I had got to LR in good shape.... made it to the summit this time and I was delighted to have stayed sympton free throughout, but enjoyed the drunken feeling one gets at altitude though :) It can be done whether one is fit or not but need to allow oodles of time for body to aclimatise to altitude. I hope you have the opportunity to go back to Mt.K and try the ferrata route down-- it's awesome! Excellent pictures and account of your trip. happy and safe travelling :)
5th April 2010

I am planning climb Mt Kinabalu April 18, but unfortunately i can not book room in Laban Rata because fully. So please give me advance to climb 1 day?
6th April 2010

Only very fit climbers should attempt it in one day. If you doubt, then don't do it. Good luck!

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