Climbing Mt Kinabalu was simultaneously one of the hardest things I have ever done… and one of the most rewarding. I have never felt so miserable and yet so determined. So elated yet exhausted. So cold and yet excited. Everything about the experience was a challenge which drew me far out of my comfort zone and gave me new concepts of myself and my body.
It is experiences like this one that teach us a little bit about our own levels of endurance, both mentally and physically. I learnt how to cope in trying and exhausting situations. Things that I wouldn’t find in my everyday life.
I love watching post-apocalyptic movies – you know the ones, where vampires/zombies/nuclear bomb/disease/the government/apes have wiped out most if civilisation, and there is a struggle for survival. The hero is often an “every day” person like you or me, who does amazing things, while always looking fabulous in the process.
I always wonder how I would hold up in one of those scenarios. Would I be the loveable character who is killed off in a couple of episodes to give the hero some emotional depth. Hopefully, I wouldn’t be the coward or weak link that leads the group to disaster. Maybe I would be the insignificant person who dies five seconds after a funny one liner. Or would I be the everyday hero who performs amazing feats of athletic and emotional bravery.
This is something I learnt about myself on the side of Mt Kinabalu… I am the liability. For sure. If the apocalypse happens, get away from me. Save yourself!
I should have learnt from climbing a volcano in Guatemala, how hard I would find this experience. For some unknown reason, I thought this would be different. It wasn’t. It hurt… for days! But yes, it was rewarding and I am glad I did it (which took me a long time to realise after the volcano Guatemala).
If you are an everyday person like me, and you want to challenge yourself to doing something really out of your comfort zone, then I recommend climbing Mt Kinabalu. It was one of the safest and most organised trekking experiences I have ever had.
Some context – My experience climbing Mt Kinabalu, Borneo
I travelled to Borneo with three friends, who over the course of the Mt Kinabalu hike would show me they are the heroes of my personal apocalyptic movie. I want to write “the hike started off easy” – but that would be a lie. From the very first steps I found it painful. Big giant steps in energy draining humidity. Straight away I knew I was in trouble.
The first kilometre ticked over and my brain couldn’t comprehend that I had only done 1/6 of the way. I think that was the first moment I started to doubt the way Malaysians counted kilometres. By lunch time it had started raining. Not your standard every day rain, but torrential flood creating rain. Within seconds I was soaked through, right down to my toes. Lunch was taken huddled under a small shelter at the 4 kilometre mark. I was so excited to reach 4 kilometres, thinking that I was over half way to base camp. That the second half of this day wouldn’t be as hard. I was wrong.
The slope was steeper, the rain heavier, my will power weaker. My guide (a complete champion and legend) kept me motivated by telling me the next rest stop was only 50 metres away… I seriously don’t know by what measurement stick Malaysians count a metre by… but its not the same as mine. My friends had long since left me, the slow poke. Good on them, only the strong will survive.
When I was getting close to the top of Mt Kinabalu my will power was about to give in completely, when one of my amazing friends appeared, bounding DOWN the track. She took my backpack from me and practically pushed me the last 100 metres. I felt like I owed her my life…. like if a horde of zombies had been chasing me.
That night we slept and ate in wood hut on the side of the mountain with 20 other people. It was stinky to say the least. No one got much sleep thanks to the altitude and the snorer (people who snore shouldn’t be allowed in dorm rooms). We were woken up at 1:30am to get ready for the final ascent to the summit.
I can’t go into too much detail about this part as I have suppressed this part from my memory. There were ropes we had to cling to, slippery rocks, steps followed by more steps. I cried. A lot. My guide practically pulled me up parts of it, never letting go of my hand when I was hysterically crying or freaking out. Thankfully it wasn’t raining.
I almost made it to the very top of Mt Kinabalu
When the sun started to rise I was 100 metres from the summit and couldn’t walk a step further. So I didn’t. I sat there with my guide and watched the sun frame the beautiful mountain and the valley below. I think my view was spectacular and that the extra 100 metres wouldn’t have changed anything. It was one of the happiest hours of my life.
Going down, the portion that I had only seen in the dark on the way up, was spectacular. We were above the cloud line and could see for miles. It felt like I was on top of the world. The rock formations were stunning and awe inspiring. My friends (who had gone to the summit and back down) found me and we laughed a lot, I hadn’t been eaten by the zombies after all.
Then we started down. They always say that down is worse than up. They weren’t wrong. It started raining again. I reached a new level of soaked… I have never been that cold and wet. When we finally got to the bottom of Mt Kinabalu and our accommodation I also discovered that a leech must have bitten me through my leggings. For three days afterwards I could barely walk.
So here are my Top Tips for the Everyday Person Preparing to Climbing Mt Kinabalu
- You don’t have to be fit to climb Mt Kinabalu, but if you can do some training such as hill walks or squats it will help. Basically any leg weights will help. A lot.
- Take warm clothing water proof clothing
- Plan your outfits, layers are the key. Remember that you have to carry everything so if you don’t think you will wear it, don’t take it.
- A hat helps keep the sun and the rain off. Also don’t forget sunscreen.
- Bug spray is an absolute must.
- Wear long pants, I found yoga pants or leggings were the best.
- Pack all of your spare clothing inside plastic bags to keep it dry when it rains.
- Extra socks!
- Also make sure you have a poncho or plastic bag to go over your backpack as well
- Try and stay somewhere near Mt Kinabalu both before and after. Before to acclimatise, and after so that you don’t have to sit on a bus for two hours in your wet clothes on the way back to Kota Kinabalu.
- You can buy/rent nearly everything you will need at the park, including gloves, walking poles, beanie, warm jackets etc.
- A head torch is a must (once again you can buy it at the park)
- Ski gloves are better than normal wool gloves, you need something that is waterproof, durable (to handle the rope burn) and warm. One of my friends wore two pairs, standard wool gloves underneath leather gardening gloves – genius!
- Pack your phone and camera in a plastic bag as well to keep them dry. I suggest a zip-lock bag for your phone.
- If you are hiking with friends, share toiletries and snacks, make everyone’s load lighter.
Top Tips for the Everyday Person While Climbing and Descending Mt Kinabalu
- My ultimate top tip is to take your time. Don’t rush. Do it at your own pace.
- The zig zagging method is the best. Constantly going back and forth across the track helps your legs. Yes you are walking more but it is SO much easier.
- Listen to your guide and ask for help, they are awesome and know the track very well and can often help find you an easier route.
- Stock up on anti-inflammatories, and take them BEFORE you start going down Mt Kinabalu.
- Be strategic with your extra snacks. They feed you a lot on the mountain but extras for the second day are a must. Snack small amounts regularly.
- Consciously tell yourself to drink lots of water, even when you are too tired.
- Tuck your socks into your pants to avoid leeches.
- When it rains, wear your rain jacket but also your poncho over your back to keep it dry.
- Altitude sickness is a real thing but it can effect everyone differently. It can also be hard to tell if you are suffering from altitude sickness or just regular exhaustion. Keep talking to your guide though, they have been trained to look out for the danger signs and will know if you should stop better than you will.
- Your concept of a kilometre is very different to a Malaysians concept… or else a kilometre is a lot longer when going uphill.
- Don’t forget to tip your guide. Especially if they managed to make you laugh while you were crying your eyes out in the dark on the side of the mountain.
Top Tips for the Everyday Person for your Base Camp Stop on Mt Kinabalu
- If your boots are soaked through when you stop for the night, take out the in-soles to help your boots dry a little.
- Take an eye mask and ear plugs for help sleeping.
- Wearing wet clothes will get them drier quicker than taking them off, I wore my wet clothes in the evening before bed and they were almost dry for me to wear the next day.
- Eat early and eat a lot. You will need the energy the next day, and a full belly will help you sleep.
Preparation is key, it can be the difference between a great hike or a painful one. Make sure you also plan a couple of rest days afterwards. It takes a lot more out of you than you think it will. You will need a couple of good nights sleep and some good meals to get you back to full energy again.
Follow my top tips and you will have an awesome time. When you get back from your Mt Kinabalu hike, I would love to hear what your tips! Write and tell me if you were the hero, the comedy relief or a liability like me!
Check out my Ultimate 2 Week Itinerary for Sabah Borneo for more things to do and places to stay!