Mt. Kinabalu – Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Sunrise coming, on the way up to the summit

Heat rises up from within my plastic poncho and I’m conflicted between keeping it on to stay dry or ripping it off so that my skin can breathe. Then the light rain turns to outright downpour, and the decision to keep it on was easily made. We spent the next 5 hours hiking up the trail that turned into a stream the rain was so heavy. Shoes and feet soaked, poncho stuck to skin, cold misty forest, slippery trails, what fun!

Our hike on the first day was super fun because I knew the journey to the summit of Mt. Kinabalu and back was only 2 days. Short but memorable! The summit of Mt. Kinabalu is 4,095m (13,455ft) above sea level (ASL); reaching the top it would be the highest I’ve ever been and I’d be able to see how my body reacts to altitude. Carry on!

The sight of Mt. Kinabalu from headquarters

It’s about a 2 hour bus ride from the city Kota Kinabalu to Kinabalu Park Headquarters where we needed to first register our group and obtain our climbing permits which we wore during our climb. Make sure you have it on you as you need it when passing the checkpoint on the way up to the summit. It also makes for a great souvenir which makes me sad to say that I forgot mine in my hotel room after our climb but at least I have a photo of it:

Your name and group details are at the back of your climbing pass. Make sure to wear it during your climb and after, put it away in your bag so you don’t forget it somewhere like I did! 😦

There are two trails that you can choose to start from: Timpohon Gate or Mesilau Nature Trail. The trail from Timpohon is shorter, and has a starting elevation of 1866m with the distance to the summit being 8.72km. The Mesilau trail is about 2km longer, adding about at least another 1 – 2 hours of hiking. Overall if you could I recommend hiking up Mesilau and then returning to Timpohon Gate. Timpohon may be the shorter route, but it’s definitely not as picturesque due to it being the more traveled path and the water and electric piping going up along the trail to Laban Rata the rest house. Mesilau being a nature trail was more enjoyable to me, despite it being a little more challenging from the longer distance and the constant ups and downs.

Kinabalu Park Headqaurters

A bird had pooped on me and I looked up to see nests (I think these are swifts)! I took it as a sign of good luck before the start of the journey

Map in front of headquarters showing the two different routes you can take up, distance and altitude

At Kinabalu Park Headquarters you can hire a guide and porters to carry your things, a luxury indeed compared to my backpacking trips here in Vancouver. Then to get to the Mesilau trail you’ll need to take a 20 minute bus ride from HQ to get to the trailhead. At 10.30am we began our ascent. Two hours in, the clouds came quickly and it began to rain heavily. We found refuge in one of the rest huts along the trail, ate our lunch of sandwiches (you get 3 in a box from the restaurant at Headquarters in a brown bag along with an apple and a bottle of water), whipped out our trendy yellow plastic ponchos, and carried on.

Along the Mesilau Trail

Clouds starting to come in along the trail

Hiking up the stairs stream! [Photo Credit: G. Lai]

We reached Laban Rata (at 3314m ASL) at 5.30pm, about 7 hours of hiking at an easy pace with a few rest stops. I was really happy to see a full buffet dinner laid out, and after checking in to our dorm room we tucked in. There was a nice choice of fried rice and noodles, stir fried vegetables, fish and chicken, and even desserts! A hot cup of Sabah tea after to wash it all down, yum. Note that the buffet dinner does close up at 7.30pm, so if you think you’ll take longer to reach Laban Rata it would be better to start the trail earlier than miss dinner! Also, luckily there are slippers provided so your feet can dry out of your soggy shoes.

Lots of interesting animal life along the trail – such as this giant red leech wrapped around a walking pole – as thick as the toe cap of this size 9 shoe!

One specie of orchid. Kinabalu Park has one of the highest number of plant species in the world (5 – 6 thousand). If you’re an orchid lover, a trip here might be in order.

Heading back to our dorm room it had four bunk beds so 8 people could sleep (we had 6 in our group). The room was clean and thick blankets were provided so you stay toasty through the night. There’s no heating in the room though, and there’s also no hot water for the shower. After hopping about in the cold shower, we went to bed at 8.30pm to rise and shine at 1.30am for the summit climb…

At around 1am I woke up to the sounds of heavy footsteps and excited voices. Groups were already getting ready to leave. I still just waited for the alarm as another 30 minutes of relaxing in bed is something I don’t deny myself, and at 1.30 in the glorious morning we got ready. An extremely early breakfast of eggs, baked beans, french toast, friend rice and noodles buffet was ready (I don’t let early mornings stop me from chowing down), and at 3am we left Laban Rata to continue onwards to the summit. Check out time for the dorm room is 10.30am so you can leave most of your things in the room and only bring what is essential.

Following our guide in the dark and seeing only what was lit ahead by my headlamp, I found this part of the journey the most exciting. You will reach a part where you will need to ascend to the summit using a thick rope that was installed and looking behind you see the city below all lit up at night. Magical! It is not steep, but the rope helps assure and balance as the rock can be slippery if it had rained.

Headlamp trail – hikers make their way to the summit. In the bottom corner a hiker closeby with their headlamp on showing some very interesting vegetation.

We reach the checkpoint and I show my climbing pass to a man who proceeds to find my name and check it off. Steadily making our way up the sky slowly turns from black to blue with signs of the sun beginning to rise. I begin to see the outline of people that have already made the summit, arms raised on top celebrating.

Sunrise begins – you can see part of the town below lit up, peeking from beneath the clouds


A little more gradual ascending, I feel the air getting thin but the excitement at being closer keeps me energetic. The sun starts to rise, shining on the peak itself and I reach the final part of the climb to the summit which is a steeper scramble to the top.

The sun shines upon the peak

Reaching the top was satisfying but the journey up from Laban Rata to reach this point was more rewarding than being at the top itself. The summit is a crowded affair, it’s a small space with everyone waiting their turn to take a photo behind the summit sign. So after a quick photo of the sign to show yay, I made it, I made my way down a few meters and sat to the side where I could take my time taking photos and capture the view from above.

The summit!

Taking in the view

After everyone in our group had made it to the summit (YAY!) we returned to Laban Rata by 10am. Overall the hike from Laban Rata to the summit and then back took us about 7 hours at a very easy pace. Again, another buffet greeted us which I happily indulged in more fried rice, noodles and eggs. We would need the calories for the rest of the hike back to Timpohon Gate.

Passing the checkpoint on the way back down where the man again checked off my name to show I had come down

With daylight the view below is just as amazing as the town lights at night

After packing up all our things and checking out of our room we left Laban Rata at 11.30am and descended via the trail back to Timpohon Gate. Going down, down, and still more down I was amazed we had climbed all this way up. We pass a waterfall and shortly after Timpohon Gate comes into view! It had taken us another 3 hours to hike down from Laban Rata and finish at Timpohon Gate. A squished 10 minute bus ride back to headquarters (the bus only comes every hour and we were determined to catch this one and not wait around any longer, so some squished along the bus floor) we collected our fancy certificates for completing the climb verified by our amazing mountain guide Lorenzo.

Thankfully I didn’t get any symptoms of altitude sickness at all, which made my journey a very enjoyable one. If I were to climb Mt. Kinabalu again I would love to try the via ferrata – which is currently the world’s highest! Til the next adventure!

A waterfall close to the end of our journey back to Timpohon Gate

Top tips:

    • Slow and steady – acclimatize better without over exerting yourself and taking the time to ascend and get used to the thinning air as you climb higher
    • Advil – which is ibuprofen. I brought some advil with me from Canada in a ziplock bag thinking it would last me the trip with plenty to spare. But with members of the group suffering from bad headaches, and muscle aches, I ended up distributing these like candy. An anti-inflammatory (not a blood thinner which I at first mistakenly thought it was), it will help alleviate headaches and muscle inflammation from all that hiking. Don’t take too many though, it’s hard on the stomach so take it with food. And overall if you feel really sick, it’s always better to rest and go slow or even return down, than to pop a pill, push it, and get stuck somewhere.
    • Water – don’t forget to hydrate. The hike was cooling with all the rain but if you don’t drink water it can help cause altitude sickness along with dehydration to make it worse. There are several washrooms along the trail so drink up.
    • Gloves – your hands will get cold and they will also get wet if it rains. The gloves will keep you warmer and also help you grab on to the rope that you use to ascend / descend.
    • Plastic bags – here’s a great trick my dad taught me, if your shoes get soaked then wear a dry pair of socks and wrap a dry plastic bag on your foot. Then put your shoe on. Ta-da, your feet stay dry.


It ain’t pretty, but highly functional!

  • Windproof jacket – I was lucky with the weather on summit day, there was barely any wind. I’ve heard that it can get super windy up top and cold.
  • Fleece – a fleece under your windproof jacket would be enough to keep you warm. Temperatures up top are about 2 – 5 degrees on average. If you know you get cold easily, add a thermal long sleeve shirt underneath too.
  • Hat – it can keep your head warm when it gets cold, or protect your head from harsh sun which for me causes headaches. You can also choose to bring a lightweight toque which can keep your head warmer.
  • Climbing poles – if you have bad knees these definitely help with the downhill. Also makes climbing up easier though you’ll probably find it better to put them away for the summit climb so your hands are free to hold the rope.
  • Headlamp – for the early morning summit climb in the dark.
  • Energy snacks – when hiking I get hungry about every 2 hours at least and need a snack. Prevent energy crashes before they occur! Always a great excuse to eat chocolate.

For more information on fees, accommodation and general information for Kinabalu Park and climbing Mt. Kinabalu, here are some resources:

10 thoughts on “Mt. Kinabalu – Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

  1. Awesome entry! Although, I’ll never literally hike up that mountain, I just did virtually. Whew, it was intense. Thanks for the experience love ❀

  2. Yikes! We hiked with leeches in Nepal, and they seriously give me the creeps. When we did Mt. Kinabulu a few years ago, I guess we were lucky to see no leeches at all. If I had seen a big, red one like you did, I think that would have done me in! Beautiful photos and a wonderful post!

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