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Ascent of Kinabalu on 2019-09-05

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Thursday, September 5, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Kinabalu
    Location:Malaysia
    Elevation:13435 ft / 4094 m

Ascent Trip Report

Eric and Serge

Sept 4-5, 2019

Mount Kinabalu is considered by some sources to be the tallest mountain in southeast Asia. It is a huge granite peak sticking up above treeline out of the Malaysian jungle on the island of Borneo. It is the tallest peak in Malaysia and is tall enough to routinely get below freezing on the summit, despite being only 6 degrees North of the equator.

Kinabalu is so popular that all climbers are required to take a guide and to spread the trip over two days. There is a strict quota of around 200 permits issued per day and they regularly sell out, despite the very high price (several hundred USD in 2019).

The cheapest and easiest way to obtain a permit in advance is to go to the park website https://www.mountkinabalu.com . There you can see how many permits are available for each day. Permits are different prices for different levels of service and length. I got what I think is the cheapest possible, the budget option. The only difference i can tell between this and other options is the food is a little different for one meal and you sleep in a dorm room with more people.

I found a few spots left for early September that matched my schedule so got the budget option for Sept 4-5. Serge planned to join but by the time he committed the budget permits were sold out for those days and he had to spend more for a normal 2 day 1 night permit, the next cheapest.

We left Timor Leste Sept 3 after climbing Mt Ramelau and connected in Bali. Given the difficulty and expense of obtaining the kinabalu permit for the days we wanted and the infrequency of flights from Timor Leste, I built in a buffer half day layover in Bali to account for any flight issues.

We landed without issue in mid afternoon, so dropped our gear off in a cheap hotel and got ready to bag some more peaks. I wanted to climb the highpoint of Bali, Gunung Agung, but it seemed a bit too tight timing. I had a 3pm to 7am layover and I’d read the peak took around 8 hours to hike. But probably an hour or more to drive to. I was willing to try and run it and pull an all nighter, but then I read a guide is required by law. There was no way a guide would want to join me on that, and it would be tough to coordinate on such short notice. Also, we didn’t want to risk missing the next flight and jeopardize the kinabalu trip.

So instead we rented a scooter for about $5 and decided to tag some hills south of denpasar. Serge drove while I navigated and we tagged 5 named hills before dark.

The next day we flew to kota kinaba and checked in to the Klagan hotel. This is the default pickup hotel for Amazing Borneo tours, the operator associated with our permits.

The next morning Sept 4 a van organized by Amazing Borneo picked us up at 610am and drove us to the trailhead along with five other hikers.

We got to the park headquarters at 815am and filled out paperwork and got an ID badge we had to wear at all times. This is not a mountain I would recommend sneaking up. Everyone wears id tags and there are multiple gated checkpoints along the way situated next to cliffs where it would be difficult to sneak around. There were probably 100 people getting ready to hike like us.

We got a good view of the peak above us, then loaded back up in the van to drive a few more km to the official start at the Thimpon gate.

By 930am we checked in at the gate and were off from the trailhead at around 1800m starting elevation. We each had an individual guide so could go at our own pace. Food and lodge would be provided, so we really only needed to carry our warm clothes, rain jacket, and water. It was very luxurious. I would have been more comfortable without all this luxury and expense, but this is really the only legal way to climb kinabalu.

I was surprised to see multiple signs warning against nudity on the mountain. My guide told me in 2015 several Canadians had posed nude for photos on the summit. They were arrested and spent time in custody in kota kinabalu. A few weeks later an earthquake struck, causing landslides on the mountain that killed several climbers and wiped out the previous hiking route. This is why everyone starts at the thimpon gate now. The understood assumption was that the earthquake and the nude photos were not unrelated events. I assured my guide I would adhere to the rules.

After about 1 hour I reached the 4km checkpoint, the usual lunch spot, and stopped for a snack. I think my guide was relieved. I was kind of feeling like getting a workout so was moving a bit quicker than I think he was used to.

After a snack we hiked up for another hour about 4km more, then reached the panelban lodge at 3272m. I think I was the first tourist up that day. I really wanted to continue up and tag the summit. It wasn’t far away. But that wasn’t allowed. The plan was to summit for sunrise the next morning, which had the benefit of being the time of day most likely to be clear of clouds.

Serge and I hung around outside for a few hours, then we all ate a big buffet dinner at the lodge starting at 430pm. After dinner we made plans with our guides. The goal was for everyone to summit just before sunrise (6am) the next morning. It was about 4km more, with a gain of about 900m.

Since everyone went at different speeds the guides planned to do a staggered start. Most of the other 150 or so people would start around 2am. I and Max, another fast hiker, would start last around 330am.

We all were in bed by 7pm. I was in a 15 person bunkouse and Serge in a 4 person room. This appeared to be the only real difference why his permit was more expensive. We ate the same buffet dinner and hiked the same route each with individual guide.

Sept 5 I was woken up at 1am by all the other people in the room. I tried to go back to sleep, but one guy shook me awake at 145am thinking I was in his group. I tried in vain to sleep until 230am then gave up.

I went to the meal hall and loaded up on a buffet breakfast as the last remaining hikers trickled out. By 330am it was just me and Max left, and we finally started up with our guides.

The trail was steep stairs and we moved quickly. We were almost continuously passing other hikers. It reminded me of the time I ran bandit in the Boston marathon, starting dead last in the pack and continuously passing people for a few hours. (I would later qualify and start at the front the next years).

We reached a checkpoint gate at the base of the rock slabs where they checked our badges. From here we scrambled and hiked up rock slabs. A big white rope marked the trail and also acted as a handline, though I never found the terrain steep enough to need it.

My guide said if it is too rainy the slabs get very slippery and one section on the slabs turns into a deep creek. If it is above a certain depth they close the mountain. Climbers are given the chance to climb the next day for no extra fee if the weather improves. Luckily that wasn’t a problem for us.

By 5am we reached the summit, passing all other hikers except two others that had just gotten there. We snapped pictures in the dark, then hunkered behind a boulder to wait for sunrise.

By around 545am the sky was getting lighter and the views spectacular. I got a bunch of nice sunrise photos. Though, I had to do a lot of jumping jacks to stay warm.

I headed back down around 615am and was soon back to the lodge. Serge and i waited around til 730am when the kitchen opened and we had another buffet breakfast.

We then headed down, reaching the trailhead around 930am. We waited around at headquarters for some more hikers to arrive to fill up our van, and we started driving back to kota kinabalu at 1045am. It looked like we would have plenty of time to pick up our mountain bikes and start driving that afternoon to our next mountain bukit pagon, the Brunei highpoint.

Link to full trip report and pictures.
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