Climbing Mt Kinabalu - Day 1

Before the climb

The day begins at the park headquarters, where all climbers must register for the trek. Up to 100 people can be found milling around the park offices near the gates, where they nervously anticipate the trek ahead.

Climbers are issued with permits after paying for their guide, their insurance and their climbing fee. The permit, which is individually numbered with your day of departure, must be carried on the trail for the duration of the climb.

Once the formalities have been completed, climbers generally opt to take a short minibus ride to the climb's official start, the Timpohon Gate.

It's better to leave as early as you can in the morning, as the weather in the afternoon at the top of the mountain can turn wet and miserable from about 3pm onwards. Our group departed at about 10am and took five hours to reach Laban Rata.

The early stages

Ironically, the track heads downhill for the first few hundred metres through some magnificent temperate rainforest. Enjoy it, because it's the easiest part of the climb

A waterfall on the left of the track is a highlight of the first kilometre, but the track soon begins winding upwards. The incline isn't taxing in the first kilometre or so, but there's no doubt that you're heading up the mountain.

One of the most appealing aspects of the trail is the regular appearance of rest huts every kilometre or so. Each of these has a supply of fresh mountain water to refill your drink bottle. The water is quite clean, but if you've got any doubts, it's probably safer to use some water purification tablets to avoid any upsets. The last thing you want is to be climbing the last kilometre to the summit with a dodgy tummy.

Essentially, the first four kilometres of the trail is quite moderate, compared to the second half of the climb. There is plenty of climbing but most of it is up regular sets of wooden or stone stairs built into the trail. If you've got short legs, you might find the rather large steps quite tiring, but in all, it's a relatively pleasant walk.

The rainforest canopy is quite dense, giving walkers plenty of protection from the sun. Still, when the trail does emerge into the open, the sun can be quite fierce on a clear day, so a hat and sun protection cream is recommended.

Save your energy in the
early stages.

Take it easy

The most important tip any prospective climber can observe at this point is to take it easy in the trek up to the Layang-Layang power station. The track might seem quite moderate and seasoned trekkers will be tempted to make quick time in the first four kilometres.

However, you're far better off to take it a bit slower and conserve your energy at this point. The climb up to Laban Rata after Layang-Layang is far more taxing and requires some scrambling up some very uneven sections of track. It's not difficult, but it becomes quite tiring after a while.

The altitude starts to have some effect after Layang-Layang as well, so do yourself a favour and walk a little slower than you think you can.

Halfway there

The walk to Layang-Layang can take anything from 90 minutes to three hours, depending on the speed of the walkers in your group. There are two huts at Layang-Layang and a small building. The ever-present fresh water is in plentiful supply as well.

Most climbers opt to take a break here for lunch, resting for about 20 minutes to half an hour. It's at this stage that you'll probably begin to encounter some of the climbers descending from the previous day's expedition.

Most of them seem in good spirits, but obviously weary. So they should be: they've been up since 1.30am and have already been to the summit and back. You'll know the feeling when you're heading down the mountain the next day after your own summit trek.

Lunch at Layang-Layang and
the tough stuff ahead.

Up we go!

The section immediately after Layang-Layang is quite a contrast to the rainforest trail that walkers have just completed. The track has quite obviously been carved into the mountain and the terrain changes dramatically. Gone are the tree ferns and rainforest giants, replaced by more scrubby forest and hard, rocky ground with a high clay content. When this ground gets wet, it can be quite slippery, so take care if there's been some rain.

Even fit climbers will appreciate the sharp difference in the difficulty of the walk at this point. The climb is unfailingly steep and in parts, requires climbers to almost pull themselves up part of the track.

It's not actual climbing, as such - rather, the steep incline of the walking track may require some trekkers to use their hands balance on the ground as the track takes some sharp uphill turns.

In June 2006, a new nature resort was being constructed about half a kilometre past Layang-Layang. This accommodation is at the junction of the Timpohon and Mesilau trails. The Mesilau trail is more difficult in parts than the more popular Timpohon track, but it is slightly less steep overall. It's not as well marked or maintained, either.

Mt Kinabalu revealed

Just past the 5km mark, the track finally clears the thicker forest growth of the mountain and emerges on to a rocky plateau for the first time. It's quite an awe-inspiring feeling to be more than 2500m up, even though the view is often obscured by heavy cloud.

Climbers get their first glimpse of the mountain top itself from close quarters. Waterfalls are visible on the surrounding cliff faces as the almost-daily rainfall drains from the summit.

Somewhere near this point, some climbers may begin experiencing the first effects of physical exertion at altitude. It's much harder to gain your breath, and some may start suffering from a slight headache. It tends not to be a sharp pain, but an ever-present dull ache, particularly at your temples and behind your eyes.

If you do get a bit of a headache, make sure you take frequent rests, take some paracetamol or headache tablets and keep drinking plenty of water.

Changing surrounds

As the track elevation approaches 3000m, the alpine terrain and floral growth is now markedly different to the rainforest below. Trees are bare of any leaves, instead carrying large clumps of what looks to be moss. They resemble bearded skeletons, surrounded by quite thick undergrowth, about two or three feet high. It's quite a sight for any walkers not familiar with the alpine environment.

While Kinabalu National Park is renowned for its flora and fauna, the Timpohon track is so well used that there's precious little wildlife to be seen. The best we did on my climb was the biggest earthworm I've ever seen - about 40cm long. Flora is a different story - there are plenty of wildflowers, although there are few orchids to be found beside the track.

We did spot one wild pitcher plant next to the track up near Laban Rata, but that was the highlight for any budding botanists!

The landscape changes quickly
and dramatically.

Almost there

The last kilometre up to Laban Rata becomes quite a slog, as the thin air begins to take its toll on most climbers. Legs become more weary and the rocky ground, although not as steep and taxing as the walk immediately after Layang-Layang, still needs some care. Again, the track climbs inevitably upwards to the plateau at 3273m where Laban Rata awaits.

By the time climbers arrive at the guesthouses, they will have been walking for between three and six hours. It might seem a wildly varying estimation of the walk, but climbers of all fitness levels and ability attempt the track.

Our group arrived at Laban Rata at about 3pm, having set off from Timpohon Gate at about 10am. An hour after we arrived, the rain set in for a couple of hours and several group of soggy trekkers staggered into the dining room from 4pm onwards! Some trekkers arrived well after 6pm, when the light started to fade.

The climb is hard enough physically in fine weather and good light. Don't allow yourself to be caught in the dark, wet and cold, with 500m to walk before you reach Laban Rata.

A deserved rest

Once climbers check in, it's advisable to have a shower as soon as you can in the communal bathrooms. With more than 100 people staying at Laban Rata and its surrounding huts, you can imagine the showers get quite wet and soiled from weary, dirty trekkers.

It really is a case of first in, best-dressed with showers - another compelling reason to arrive at Laban Rata early.

Accommodation at Laban Rata is dormitory style, with two bunk beds to each room. Guests are given a key to their room, so they can lock their belongings away when they're not in the rooms.

Accommodation at the other huts (Panar Laban, Waras Hut, Gunting Lagadan) is similar, although rooms are not heated. These huts also have communal bathrooms. They're just a short walk from Laban Rata, so once guests check into their rooms, they tend to return to the dining room at Laban Rata to relax.

Laban Rata - a welcome sight.

The dining room at Laban Rata is quite a pleasant place to unwind from the walk. Tea and coffee is available, as well as a range of soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, chocolate and snacks. There's also a 'post office' where trekkers can write and send postcards from high altitude! Drinks and snacks are more expensive than you'd expect to pay elsewhere in Sabah, but keep in mind that all the supplies at Laban Rata have to be carried up by porters.

Dinner is available from the early evening onwards. A range of four or five dishes is served, buffet-style, and it's amazing how much food you can eat after expending so much energy during the day. Malaysian and Western dishes are offered, so everyone will be able to find something to satisfy their hunger.

Second, third and fourth helpings of dinner are not uncommon - in fact, the more you eat, the better to build your energy for the early morning climb to the summit.

Our group chatted with a few other climbers after dinner and drank plenty of the freshly brewed local tea, before heading to bed at about 7pm.

The rooms at Laban Rata are heated, but make sure to turn the heaters off before you go to sleep, or you'll wake in the middle of the night and think you're sleeping in an oven!

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