Climbing Mt Kinabalu - Day 2

Rise and shine

Climbers choosing to head to the summit will wake at about 1.30am to be ready to head off between 2 and 2.30am. The restaurant at Laban Rata serves a light pre-climb breakfast, but most climbers make do with a hot or cold drink and some nuts or chocolate for a makeshift breakfast.

It will generally be cold and dark outside Laban Rata, so you'll need to be wearing most of your cold weather gear: warm jumper, waterproof jacket and long pants. Make sure you've got a beanie, gloves, a torch, a water bottle, your camera and some more snacks for the climb to the summit.

1.30am - never pleasant.

Not more steps

That's right - once you walk past the huts surrounding Laban Rata, you're back into the stairs. These are actual staircases built above steep rock inclines. They're very basic and can get very slippery when wet, so take it easy.

It's also a good idea to start walking slowly and conserve your energy for the first half-hour or so, until you get warmed up. Remember, you were warm and asleep not long ago and now you're hauling your tired body up a mountain at high altitude when all your mind really wants to do is sleep.

Some climbers will turn back in the first hour, as the combination of fatigue, high altitude and nausea takes its toll. The staircases are surrounded very closely by thick scrub and they can seem quite claustrophobic by torchlight. Take plenty of rests if you need them and keep a steady pace.

It's hard to recall in detail the early parts of the climb to the summit, other than it's unrelentingly steep and the staircases can become quite tiresome. It will take up to an hour and a half before you emerge from the scrub to the open rockface, where the magic of the climb really begins.

Let the fun begin

After seemingly endless flights of stairs and clambering up the rocky trail, climbers emerge on to a small rocky plateau that marks the end of the treeline and the beginning of the open rockface.

The white rope that accompanies all climbers to Low's Peak begins here with a very steep climb up some potentially treacherous rockfaces. You will need to literally pull yourself up parts of the rockface here, which can be an exhilarating experience.

The views out over the clouds and the valleys below are simply breathtaking. When we climbed, it was a clear night and the clouds stretched as far as the eye could see, broken intermittently with views down to the forest below. It was nearly a full moon and the vista ranks as one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. It makes all the effort worthwhile and it gives weary climbers just a taste of what's to come.

There is no defined trail from this point, as climbers are simply walking, clambering and climbing their way up the sheer sides of Mt Kinabalu. It is vital that you stay next to the ever-present white rope as it marks the safe route up the mountain.

Your mountain guide may not have been much use to you up to this point, but his local experience is invaluable at this point. He'll tell you where to walk, when to rest, and the best way to approach tricky parts of the climb. Listen to what he has to say and your ascent will be much easier.

One last break

About two hours after leaving Laban Rata, climbers will reach the Sayat-Sayat checkpoint, where their permits and registration will be checked. This is the last point that climbers can refill their water bottles, so have a good drink and load up on fluid for the last push to the summit.

It's quite an eerie sight, looking up the mountain from Sayat-Sayat. The outline of the mountain looms before you and the trail is marked by several little dots of light, marking climbers making their way to the summit.

While the roped section before Sayat-Sayat can be quite tricky and treacherous in parts, the slog up to the summit is less hair-raising. Essentially, climbers are simply putting one foot in front of the other for the best part of one and half kilometres, using the white rope to pull themselves up the steeper sections.

A well-needed rest at

The gradient can become incredibly steep in parts at this point. The actual terrain is flat underfoot, but it is common to see climber bent almost double at the waist to keep their balance. There are parts when you'll need to grab the rope, which is bolted into the rockface at regular intervals, to help you up short sections.

Hitting the heights

Altitude tends to take its toll here. Your heart will be racing and you'll be continuously breathless. Rests become more and more frequent, until you might only be walking twenty paces before you have to stop again. Don't worry about your slow progress. It's better to make steady progress than wearing yourself out before reaching the summit.

A very small percentage of climbers might experience severe nausea and vomiting at this point. Of those who do, some are able to continue on, while others are forced to return to lower altitude at Sayat-Sayat. Headaches are almost universal at this point - again, they're not acutely painful, but a constant uncomfortable pressure all over your skull.

It will take up to an hour and a half to make the last push from Sayat-Sayat to Low's Peak. It's quite a frustrating section, as each time you crest another ridge, thinking that you must be near the top, another long uphill section presents itself. However, once you see the distinct wide triangle of Low's Peak, you'll know you're almost there.

On top of the world

At this stage, it'll be close to 6am. The sun will be beginning to rise and the sky will lighten. Resist the urge to speed up too much, as you'll suffer for it once you reach the peak.

Even before you reach the top of Low's Peak, the views in all directions are incredible - St John's Peak to the west, the Donkey's Ears to the east and the distinctive South Peak to the south make for incredible scenery.

Quite simply, the experience of seeing the sun rise at almost 4100m defies description. It makes all the effort and pain worth it.

Naturally, the peak is crowded with climbers waiting to have their photos taken at the sign marking the summit. Take 20 minutes to regain what breath you can and admire the scenery around you. There are endless picture opportunities for enthusiastic photographers - take as many as you can. Most climbers have something to eat before embarking on the descent to Laban Rata in clear daylight.

Sunrise on Mt Kinabalu is
a magic moment.

The descent

At first, the downhill walk from Low's Peak is blessed relief to your weary legs. However, as most seasoned trekkers know, it's often harder to walk downhill for long periods than it is to climb uphill and Mt Kinabalu is no exception.

The descent to Laban Rata will take about two hours and it can be quite dangerous in places. Again, take your guide's advice about where to walk and how to approach some of the more dangerous steep sections. You don't want to injure yourself after having completed the hardest part of the climb.

Refill your water bottle at Sayat-Sayat again and continue along the white rope to its end. The series of staircases seems more difficult this time, as they're generally wet and your muscles are quite fatigued from the ascent and descent. Take it slowly and give yourself a rest whenever you need it.

Rest and refuel

Upon reaching Laban Rata between 8am and 9am, several climbers may find themselves feeling quite faint and unwell. It's a combination of severe fatigue, dehydration and depleted energy from your exertions of the morning.

Happily, lots of water and hot tea, a hearty breakfast and a good rest settles most people down within half an hour. While you might not feel like eating much at the restaurant, you'll need to eat as much as you can stomach to prepare for the rest of the trip down the mountain.

It's time to pack up, check out of your accommodation and begin the trip down the summit trail, retracing your steps of the day before.

I thought the hard part was over...

The descent should take between two and four hours, depending on your level of fatigue. Sore legs, knees and ankles tend to be the limiting factor on the way down, rather than aerobic fatigue.

In fact, our group found itself in more collective pain halfway down the mountain than at any other stage in the trek. The second half of the descent, through the rainforest stairs after Layang-Layang, was the most taxing.

In the end, we literally limped up the last 200 metres to the Timpohon Gate as our legs threatened to give out.

Other groups had less trouble and others had more trouble than we did. It depends on individual fitness and climbing ability as to how sore you'll be at the end. (As a guide, it took three days for my wife and I to be able to walk properly again. Stairs at our hotel were almost unbearable.)

The descent can be quite tricky.

The end

Once you reach the Timpohon Gate, you'll take the minibus back to park headquarters, where you will register with park authorities that you've completed the climb.

You can also purchase your certificate for climbing the mountain: a colour version for those who reach Low's Peak, and a black and white version for those who reach Sayat-Sayat. Your guide will inform the park authorities as to your achievement.

Finally, it's off to your next destination. Sore, sleepy and ultimately satisfied, you'll depart Kinabalu National Park with a new respect for its mighty mountain and those who attempt to scale it.

For more pictures from the climb, head to the Image Gallery

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