Climbing Mt Kinabalu in one day (or how not to!)

Mt Kinabalu is the highest peak in all of SE Asia, and the 20th highest prominence in the world. No special mountaineering training is needed to summit this 4,095m leviathan, but it is generally acknowledged to be pretty grueling and not a challenge to be sniffed at.

Apparently the elite climb Mt Kinabalu in a 2hr30 round trip, and the locals even climb at the age of 3 (our guide did it first at the age of 10), but most tourists take 2 days with a 1 night stopover after 6km at Laban Rata.  This is pretty expensive, and a less known and much cheaper option, which we opted for, is attempting the summit in a single day.

As we sat in a hotel in Kota Kinabalu the day before however, we were a little nervous. We considered ourselves fairly fit: Louise ran a marathon six months ago, I did my last half-marathon around one year ago, and up until christmas (when our voyage began) we averaged about 20 miles of jogging per week.  "Are we still in shape for this?" we wonder. "And we're actually going to pay someone for this physical torture!?" We visit the supermarket near our hotel and stock up on high-energy foods like peanut bars, raisins and chocolate, "is it too late to back out?"

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into...

How to get there

From Kota Kinabalu (KK) go to Merdeka Field bus terminal. Take a bus to Mt Kinabalu for 20-25myr (they are vans, but have AC and are fairly comfortable).
This takes 2hrs and drops you off just outside the Kinabalu Park HQ.

Why climb Kinabalu in one day?

Well, when we considered the default strategy of staying a night at Laban Rata, the camp roughly 6km (out of 8.7km) on the trail to the summit, it did not appeal. The most obvious drawback is the price; Sutera Lodges has a monopoly on the accommodation here and the prices are sky high for food and very basic accommodation. 

Sutera Sanctuary Lodges office in KKEven worse they now apparently insist on a 3D2N package forcing you to choose them at the base of Mt Kinabalu too, using their monopoly at Laban Rata to lock you in at the base too. This kills the option of cheap accommodation the pre-hike night, and also drives out other local hostels and hotels. We visited Sutera's office near the harbour in KK (this is near WISMA, circled in map above), and they quoted us over 800myr just for the accomodation and food (guide, insurance, permit etc not included) . The second reason is that I did not think that having a sleep until 2am before the hike continued would be exactly refreshing; no doubt, I would barely sleep anyway, and just be even more tired when the hike resumed. We've done these sunrise hikes before and sometimes they're overrated. Might as well do it in one swoop, we thought.

Costing of hiking Kinabalu in a day

The single biggest reason for considering the day hike of Mt Kinabalu is money.

It cost us per person: 25myr for the bus from KK to Mt Kinabalu, 63.60myr hotel night before at Tohubang just outside park (they have cheaper rooms than this), 219myr for the permit for the day hike and insurance (200 for day permit, 7 insurance, 6% tax), 15myr for park entrance, 24myr for three packed-lunches from a restaurant near our hostel, 75myr for our mountain guide (150myr for 1-2 people), 17myr for transport to and from the Timpohon gate. In total 438.60myr.

The hike

It's not always easy to convince them to let you do the day hike. Upon arriving at the park headquarters, the first lady said “no it's not possible without accommodation at Laban Rata”. I said that I had a friend who had recently done the day hike and I was surprised. She relented and told me to go and speak to another lady. This lady told us that the day hike is possible but sold out since last August (this was May). With some more arguing, she eventually told me to go speak to the ranger, who was in an office up the hill from the visitor centre. The ranger seemed much more OK with the idea. He asked if we were physically fit enough, and told us if the weather was OK the following morning then no problem. The permit is 200myr for the day hike vs 100myr for the usual multiday hike. 

We reported to the visitor centre at 7am the following morning, and the sky was blue. We paid the fees, were assigned a guide and were on our way.

The first stage is a bus from the park HQ to the Timpohon gate (you can walk, but trust me you really really don't want to do this, especially on the way back, as it will add an extra painful hour on). We were off at 7.30am. There were only 3 of us that day doing the day hike, and the other guy looked like some kind of olympian, fully kitted with every piece of hiking kit. At this point we began to doubt ourselves. Nevertheless, bright eyed and bushy tailed we sprinted off trying to keep pace.

Summit trailThe first few km are pretty OK, wooden stairs, not too steep. We made good progress, maybe 20-25mins per km. By about 4km, the pace had slowed somewhat to maybe 40mins per km. From here the path gets steeper, and the terrain is slippy stone. It was a relief to reach Laban Rata and the 6km mark by 11am (I later learned that the target was 10.30am to reach Laban Rata). So we'd averaged 1.71km/h for the first 6km or 35mins per km. We sat and drank some drinks and eat some sweets in the restaurant for 15minutes. We were tired, but we felt we were making just about acceptable pace. 2.7km to go and probably doing a km every 40mins at this stage, so expecting another 1hr48mins leaving at 11:15am from Laban Rata. We expected to make it more or less (usually the guide will give 30mins leeway if you're lucky). Suffice to say, we were wrong. Combined with cramps and the change in terrain (it gets really steep, at near 7km it is just a rock slope and a rope to pull yourself up on), our pace drastically dropped. We hit the 7.3km mark at 12.40pm, so we'd only covered 1.3km in about 1hr25min or 65mins for every km. Oh dear. With the cutoff time being 1pm, and the summit another 1.4km it would take us another 95mins if we kept this pace and we had no chance of making it in time. 

Disappointed at finally realizing our fate, we sat and took comfort in a drink and some food, whilst the third guy also on the day hike skipped back down, cheerily telling us he'd summited around 12.30pm!

We couldn't believe we'd come all this way, and gone through all this pain, but weren't going to make it. In the brief moments the fog rolled out, we could see the “Donkey's ears peak”. How could we be so close but not going to do it. All this pain for nothing. Not even a good view! Damn.

Even worse we had to hike the 7.3km back down now, and be out of the park before 17:30. My legs were in heavy cramp by this stage, and the hike back down was painful indeed. We even enquired at Laban Rata to see if by chance they had any rooms left over, so we could at least summit tomorrow, but no such luck. Downward we went somewhat dejected and exhausted. We got back down by 17:20, and I've never been happier to sitdown in my life.

Would I recommend the day hike?

In a word, 'No'. It really depends what you want out of the climb though. It's the cheaper option yes, and it is scandalous that Sutera has this monopoly on accommodation. However, unless you want to hike Mt Kinabalu for the physical challenge (in the same vein as you might run a marathon for example), it's simply not worth the cost saving even if you are fit enough:

  1. The weather by 1pm is usually pretty bad, at best this means a bad view, but at worst it could mean cancellation of the hike even if you do make pace. 
  2. Having such a restrictive time limit, makes the hike more like a race. There is no time to just take your time and take in the surrounds or enjoy the experience, it's head down and 'go go go' from the outset. 
  3. There's a chance you won't make it and will miss out on the summit. Obviously if you know you're in good enough shape for it or just want the physical challenge, then knock yourself out...


Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do --- Mark Twain

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