On the Move

How to Hack Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu

Last week, myself and two visiting friends jumped an Air Asia flight out of Kuala Lumpur and headed to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. The purpose? To tackle the sacred Mt. Kinabalu.

This would be, for each of us, our first climbing trip. Sure, we’d all been hiking before. And all of us are either avid skiers or snowboarders and have been to mountaintops. But to strap on a pack and set out to defeat a mountain on our own two feet? No. This would be a first.

Preparation for the trip was easy, Google is your friend. And so I (rather naively) skimmed through several blogs on the climb and based my gear decisions around what I had read. This was my first mistake. My second was to not take more mental notes when I was in a Kuala Lumpur supply store talking with the owner, as he had actually climbed it.

Mt. Kinabalu view

If I had researched more, read more blogs about it, and been even a little more attentive at the supply store, I very likely could have weeded out all the unnecessary things I ended up taking with me, and my knees and calves would have been all the more grateful.

But if I had done everything right then I suppose there would not be much for me to offer here, so I guess one can say everything did turn out for the best, in spite of my ill-tempered knees.

With that said, how to avoid making the same missteps I made.

Where to begin? Before starting in on any material goods, let’s talk health. I am in relatively good shape. Granted, I am on the wrong side of 40, but I certainly do not feel or look it. My two friends are similar in both age and physical condition. The only difference, and this is important to note, was the type of conditioning each of us had done prior to the climb.

My workouts leading up to the trip were focused mainly on weight training with some rounds on the heavy bag for cardio. This is not something that I designed specifically for the trip, but rather routine more than anything else. My friends, on the other hand, planned for a gruelling climb up the side of a mountain by running five miles a day. Simply put, they chose wisely, as their training paid major dividends going up the mountain.

Mt. kinabalu hiking

I had read that the hike was moderately difficult and a superior fitness level was not at all necessary, but this information turned out to be more than a bit misleading. Yes, the climb is not technical at all, but neither is it a walk in the park. Those who prevail with little to no trouble are either young (early 20s) or in good cardiovascular condition. And even then, towards the top of the peak (4,096 m (13,438 ft)), with oxygen thinning, everyone slows down just the same.

In any event, my first piece of advice would be to focus on cardiovascular exercises (mainly running) during the weeks leading up to the climb. It’s not necessary that you run five miles a day, but a few laps around the neighborhood every evening (or similar) will pay off for most of the climb, which is to say when you exactly need it the most.

It was our first climb, so naturally we were somewhat overzealous on what we packed. Not only that, it was only a year ago that the Sabah earthquake killed 18 climbers, so the anxiety that comes after reading some of the stories about the situation also influenced (mildly but understandably) our impulsive packing. Moreover, this is Malaysia, and you never know what you’re getting yourself into. Doing anything in Malaysia I think of it in terms similar to hailing a taxi in Kuala Lumpur—you never know what type of ride it’s going to be, and you never know what type of lunacy or peacefulness the driver might surprise you with. Nothing is predictable here.

As such, we packed with that mind-set, and this was perhaps our biggest mistake. I should have gone with my gut instinct to be as trim and lean as possible, but instead I found myself packing like I was preparing for a survival adventure. Waterproof matches, LifeStraw, water bladders, towels, first-aid kit—all sorts of foolishness after the fact.

Here is the list I would follow if I had to do it all over again:

– Lightweight / Waterproof daypack  (adjust size to fit gear)
– Collapsible walking stick  (an absolute necessity on the way down)
– Lightweight / Waterproof jacket and pants
– Lightweight fleece pullover
– Heat technology shirt and pants  (skin tight)
– Lightweight / Warm skullcap
– Lightweight / Waterproof / Warm gloves  (the term warm cannot be stressed enough)
– 3 lightweight t-shirts  (2 for the first day, 1 for the second)
– 1 pair of warm hiking socks, 1 pair of athletic socks
– Camera (or phone)
– Tiny bag of toiletries (toothbrush, deodorant, etc.)

As you’ve probably noticed, I left off some things that may have caught your eye… like water! This is because I discovered that if you are climbing in a somewhat healthy condition you could easily do it with a liter of mineral water in a plastic bottle like you get at the convenience store. The water bladder is definitely overkill, and anything you cannot dispose of is just as cumbersome. You’ll be hard pressed to find anything more lightweight than a plastic water bottle in Malaysia. Moreover, you’ll need three in total, and two of those you can buy at the hostel on the mountain so that is a huge help.

Mt. Kinabalu hostel

The hostel itself is surprisingly nice for a place on a mountain in Borneo. The shower is dripping, freezing cold water if you’re lucky and the bunk beds are kind of scary—old and seemed like they would collapse any day—but the place was clean, the food good, and both snacks and beer were available. Moreover, the views were spectacular from the balcony of the restaurant, and if you’re up for a game of high-altitude/thin-air volleyball then (bizarrely) there is a sandpit and net set up for your pleasure.

First and foremost, you must know that this isn’t like hiking up the Appalachian Trail or something similar. You cannot plan to do it yourself on a whim. The park itself is a 2+ hour drive away from Kota Kinabalu city (and airport) which creates your first logistics’ issue, and the climb is tightly controlled by the government—you need to pay and register for a permit (only 135 issued per day). There is no open camping on the mountain, so trying to avoid the mountain hostel is largely impossible. Consequently, using a tour agency is not only convenient but also pretty much unavoidable.

As such, making the arrangements with a tour vendor wasn’t exactly easy, but as I said before, nothing is without confusion and mystery in Malaysia.

I contacted a large, well-known tourist company in Kota Kinabalu first. I thought I would start at the top and work my way down (if necessary). I talked to an agent on the phone. They were well-spoken, mannerly, and seemed to be on top of things. Unfortunately, first impressions are not necessarily lasting ones.

When I called they said they would send an email. They promptly sent the email but the dates were wrong. I called back and was informed, “Yes, sorry, March is busy… the dates you want are fully booked.” I forwarded the email to my friends in the United States and, for reasons still unknown, one of them called to follow up after I did. Oddly enough, same company, different agent, different response, different result—welcome to Malaysia!

After several more phone calls the final verdict was that the days we specified were, in fact, not available. For the moment, this was extremely disappointing and untimely, as the hostel on the mountain is used by all the vendors and this well-known tourist company let me know that it was fully booked for every vendor.

Mt. Kinabalu hiking trail warning

Knowing full well that this is Asia and, as the saying goes, money talks, everything else walks, I was determined to climb on our desired dates. After additional searching, I found a new tour vendor. Jungle Jack seemed a bit sketchy as first, but him and his staff proved to be the type of local insiders with a finger directly on the pulse of this slightly chaotic adventure tour.

I initially contacted Jungle Jack’s via Facebook (as they do not have a website) and, after a brief phone conversation, I ever-so-reluctantly wired our deposit. Concerned at first, as we hadn’t received a confirmation or any type of reference number, etc., we were relieved to finally receive a booking number for the mountain hostel.

I’ll be honest; I was more than a little distressed from the time I wired the money to the time we actually reached the mountain hostel. I imagined climbing up on the first day, only to reach the hostel to be told, “Sorry, we’re overbooked.” Jack didn’t soothe my anxiety either after we reached his compound by telling me, “Everything should be ok, but if they ask who you booked from don’t tell them Jungle Jack, just say you don’t remember and demand a room… you have the receipt and booking number now so it should be alright.” My 20+ years of living in Asia had my gut telling me this was going to end up being a monumental clusterfuck….

Luckily for my friends and I—mainly for me since I was the host of the entire trip—everything worked out perfectly. We got our hostel room without issue or question, we were well-fed, and we reached the peak well before sunrise to freeze our asses off until the sun finally made an appearance. It could not have worked out better, and we’re grateful to Jack for the hospitality and his local knowledge of how things actually operate up on the mountain.

I don’t know if there are better mountain tour operators in Kota Kinabalu, I assume there are, but I do know that Jungle Jack pulled through where the largest of them failed. Jack’s facilities are not for those who prefer to stay in 5-star resorts when they go on vacation, but they are perfect for anyone who just needs a warm bed and some sustenance before and after the climb.

Mt. kinabalu hikers summit

When you’re planning your trip frame it like this: It’s not 1890, it’s 2016, so things there have been streamlined and geared for tourist climbers. You won’t starve, you won’t run out of water, and you won’t be scaling any sheer faces with climbing cams. It’s definitely not an easy climb, but there are different variations of steps throughout the climb—whether actual wooden steps, or rocks, etc. There are parts where you need rope assistance but they are few. Altitude sickness is something of a concern—we saw a couple people drop out of the climb because of it—but as long as you take it steady and pace yourself you should acclimate just fine.

It was an unforgettable and rewarding experience to say the least, and we all give it very high marks for the surreal views and natural beauty of the entire adventure—although we all are still unsure if we would try to grind out another one any time in the near future (or at least till our knees have time to forget).

Key points: Think light. And think warm.

Good luck!

Mt. kinabalu summit view