Mt Kinabalu – truths and half-truths

Climbing Mount Kinabalu is on the checklist of to-do things for most travelers to Borneo. Whether, young or old, fit or unfit, everyone wants to climb the mountain in the mistaken belief that it is “easy”. Is it? Pick out anyone on the streets of Kota Kinabalu and ask him or her if climbing Mount Kinabalu is easy and they will tell you that it is a walk in the park and that you should climb it. Ask the same person if he or she has climbed the mountain, and chances are more than half of the people you ask will say no. So here’s the truth about Mount Kinabalu, minus the exaggerated language of a travel brochure.

1. Climbing Mount Kinabalu is easy.

Yes, and no. Depends on what you mean by easy. If “easy”, means no rock-climbing and mountain-climbing skills are needed, then yes, it is easy. There is only one part on the second day of the climb where you have to use a rope to pull yourself up. You will be doing it in the dark, so what you can’t see, you don’t worry about. The oxygen is a little thin above 3000m, but most people can still proceed without an oxygen mask.

If “easy” means you can climb the mountain even though the only exercise you do is stretching to reach the remote control of your TV, then no, it is not easy. I have seen people scamper up and down without breaking a sweat, and I have seen people curse and wonder why they are paying money to torture their bodies. If you jog 3 times a week, then it will be no problem. If you jog once a week, it will still be tough. Then again, I know people who are overweight and do not exercise who were still able to make it to the top. At the upper levels of the mountain, when the oxygen is thin and you want to give up, the most important thing is not your fitness, but your willpower. Mount Kinabalu is over 4000m high. Climbing a mountain is never “easy”. If it was easy, there would be no thrill in doing so.

2. Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South-East Asia.

Not unless America bombs Myanmar to smithereens and New Guinea Island disappears in an earthquake. Hkakabo Razi (5881m) in Myanmar, and Puncak Jaya and a few other mountains in Irian Jaya (the Western part of New Guinea Island) of Indonesia are higher. Politically, Myanmar and Indonesia is considered as part of South East Asia, so the correct answer would be no. However, the other half of New Guinea island is Papua New Guinea and that belongs to the continent of Oceania, so if you take the whole island as one, and remove it from South-East Asia, and remove Hkakabo Razi as well because it is part of the Himalayas, then I guess that leaves Mt Kinabalu as the highest…

See the below websites for more information:

3. The height of Mt Kinabalu is 4,101m.

Some books say 4101m, some books say 4095.2m. Although Mt Kinabalu is still growing at 5mm a year, that is not the reason for the difference in height. In 1997, a re-survey was carried out using satellite technology that gave the actual height as 4095.2m. Earlier guide books and newer books and websites that copied the information from these books would have the height at 4101m.

4. You do not need a guide to climb the mountain.

Not true. A guide is compulsory. Most people underestimate the mountain. When you have climbed the mountain and come back safely, you probably think that there is no need for a guide. After all, there is only one trail. It is when problem occurs that you thank your lucky stars that you have a guide with you. Accidents do and have happened before.

5. Mount Kota Kinabalu?

The name of the mountain is Kinabalu. Kota Kinabalu is the name of the capital city of Sabah. It is named after the mountain. Kota means city. Sometimes Mount Kinabalu is referred to as Gunung Kinabalu. Gunung is the Malay word for mountain.

6. It is not that cold. I come from Norway, I do not need thick jackets.

I once met a European who went up with no jacket. I do not know if he made it back alive. The average temperature at the resthouse at Laban Rata is between 6 to 14 degrees Celcius. At the peak, it is between 2 to 4 degrees. Sometimes it can drop to zero. It can be freezing when there are strong winds.

7. No reservations are necessary. I can just show up and take the place of the persons who have cancelled. I don’t need a bed, I have a sleeping bag.

You could do that. But if the main purpose of your trip is to climb the mountain, chances are you will be disappointed. More than 40,000 people climb the mountain every year and the reason why there are only 40,000 is because the accommodation is limited. You are not allowed to sleep in the restaurant in your sleeping bag. But in Malaysia, rules are sometimes flexible. I still advise travelers to make reservations in advance.

8. The beautiful sunrise is one of the reasons why you should climb the mountain.

I have climbed the mountain 8 times and only seen a beautiful sunrise once. It could be that I am very unlucky, but a sunrise is still a very subjective thing. The scenery at the top is fantastic, the stars at night amazing, etc, etc. BUT it all depends on the weather conditions. On a rainy day, mists cover up everything.

So, do you still want to climb Mt Kinabalu?

My short answer is yes. Hikers and mountain lovers must climb this mountain. For the rest of the people, it depends on your fitness. If you are totally unfit, then don’t torture yourself. But if you are of reasonable fitness, then do climb the mountain. It might not be the tallest, but you will not easily find another mountain of this height that can be climbed without using mountain-climbing tools. The scenery is really amazing. Go in March or April during the dry season. Even if the weather sucks, and you can’t see anything, nothing beats the sweet feeling of conquest and triumph when you reach the peak after all your sweat and tears. And if you don’t reach the top? It is still a great achievement to reach Laban Rata. And now you have an excuse to climb the mountain again.

I had a great time, I want to climb Mt Kinabalu again.

You must be crazy. 🙂

Where to see Mount Kinabalu?



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