Towering majestically at 4095 m above sea level, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea. Without doubt the mountain is also the most outstanding geographic landmark of Borneo Island and we stand in awe when we first arrive at the national park gates at the foot of the mountain. Its granite peaks are often veiled in wisps of clouds with ever-changing shapes, which stir the imagination of the observer.
In the language of the local people, “Aki Nabalu” translates to “revered place of the dead” and the locals believe that powerful ancestor spirits dwell amongst the mountain’s peaks. We admire the atmosphere that this giant radiates while waiting for our guide to settle final arrangements for the trek.
Mount Kinabalu is nested in Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Kinabalu Park. So while we are of course very curious to see the mountain itself, we are also excited to explore the unique botanical and biological species biodiversity with plants of Himalayan, Australasian, and Indomalayan origin as well.
The mountain has also the reputation to be one of the safest and most conquerable peaks in the world as long as you bring along a reasonable dose of physically fitness. Still, we are pretty excited as this will be our first 4000+ m peak.
We finally join our (mandatory) guide and begin the ascent starting at the Timpohon Gate (1,800m altitude), located close to the Kinabalu Park Headquarters. We opted for a 2 days, 1 night trek, so our goal for today is the base camp at Panalaban (3,273m altitude). The trail is easy, with stairs simplifying the steeper parts and a series of shelters to take a rest and have some snacks in between. We enjoy the nice flora and fauna, have nice conversations with other hikers at the shelters and finally, after roughly six hours, arrive at the base camp.
The view is breathtaking: We enjoy the sunset on the balcony of the base camp. The air is clean and crisp and we can look down to the shores of Kota Kinabalu city in roughly 100 km distance. The sun sets with a red glow, coloring the outskirts of the mountain range before finally disappearing behind the vast, blue ocean which dwells over 3200m below us.
After a great dinner (the quality of the food in the base camp is extraordinarily good), we go to bed early as we will have to rise early at 2 am in the morning to make it to the summit before sunrise. When a couple of hours later the alarm clock rings, we are still very sleepy. However, a quick coffee later and with the adrenaline of finally ascending to above 4000 m pumping through our veins, we are eager to continue the climb.
The trek this morning is slightly more challenging as we have to use ropes in many places and also we begin to feel the thinner air up here, which we are not used to. However, overall the climb is still quite easy. The vegetation soon almost ceases to exist and granite boulders become the predominant landscape. It is still completely dark and the stars are glittering in the sky like thousands of little diamonds. I stop multiple times along the path to take some long term exposures.
After roughly 4 hours, still 45 minutes to go until sunrise, we finally reach the summit. Now that we stop moving and are quite exposed to the fresh wind, the cold starts creeping up our spines and we are happy about each and every layer of clothing we have. After talking to some other hikers who also reach the summit, we descend roughly 100 height meters as from there we are supposed to have a beautiful view over the valley when the sunrise begins. Indeed the sunrise is a real beauty from up here. It is hard to describe in words just how tranquil and peaceful these moments are, so I will stop here and refer you to the photos as they come closer to the experience than any of my words could possibly be.
On the way back, we make use of the beautiful morning light to take tons of photos. Our guide also shows us the traces of the strong earthquake that hit the mountain in June 2015, causing massive land slides around the mountain. During the earthquake 18 people died and another 11 were wounded. Since then, most of the treks leading up to the base camp are closed and only the main trek is left open. We see a boulder that has the size of a small house lying a couple of 100 meters beneath us and a massive hole in the granite wall towering above us were it originated from. Seeing this, makes us very thankful for the luck that we had so far on our journey. Even a presumably safe place like this mountain can become a death trap if your timing is bad.
We make a breakfast stop at the base camp and rest for an hour before we continue. The descent is actually tougher than the ascent and we meet many hikers on our way down who have significant problems with cramps or hurting knees. We have decided to borrow sticks at the park entrance, which I would strongly recommend to everybody interested in climbing the mountain. Thus, we are doing fine, despite the 2300 height meters we have to walk down today. Seriously, if you are not a pro and don’t know exactly what you are doing, take the sticks. You WILL need them on your way down.
Back at the Timpohon Gate, we meet a very kind Australian guy called Calum who invites us to visit him close to Brisbane. That’s a different story, but just as a small preview: He will show us some really beautiful but also really challenging treks close to Brisbane. Against these, the trek up the highest peak of Southeast Asia was a piece of cake. Stay tuned! We will write about that shortly!
After 2h in the car, we are back in the city of Kota Kinabalu and make our way directly to our favorite Indian restaurant: “Mustafas Maju”. Don’t miss out your dose of Dosa here, it’s cheap and really tasty! A perfect ending for a perfect trek!
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