For as long as I have been traveling to Southeast Asia, I have had a bucket list of things to do in that region. One item on the list was to summit Mount Kinabalu on the island of Borneo. While it is not the tallest peak in Southeast Asia, which is a commonly shared falsity amongst travelers, it is still 13,438 ft above sea level and represents an intriguing challenge. For me, the desire to start a trek in a tropical rainforest inhabited by the likes of monkeys and other jungle animals and end up hiking past the tree zone to a below-freezing, high-altitude environment was a dream pursuit. The opportunity to climb the 20th most prominent mountain in the world by topographic prominence was of great appeal as well. However, as a plant guy, Mount Kinabalu had a more important draw. This UNESCO World Heritage site is known for having one of the most plant and animal species-rich ecosystems in the entire world. Mount Kinabalu’s six vegetation zones are unique and include many plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet. Up to 6,000 plants and over 500 animal species make their home in the area. When you put all this together you can kind of see why it could make my bucket list.
Our journey would begin the day after I saw the Rafflesia in flower just outside Poring Hot Springs. Tourists are not allowed to do a one-day trek to the summit. Climbing Mount Kinabalu requires you to hike to a basecamp where you overnight before your early AM trek to the summit to view the sunrise from the top of Borneo. Also, to climb Mount Kinabalu you need to hire a guide service. After doing a lot of research online, I decided on Amazing Borneo to handle our trek. I would highly recommend them to anyone else after the wonderful experience we had, as you will soon see.
The Amazing Borneo bus picked us up in the afternoon at our hotel in Kota Kinabalu and transferred us to the Kinabalu Park Office a few hours away. Here we would handle all paperwork, arrange for porters and do any last-minute shopping. After which, we were taken to our rooms at the Liwagu Suites to relax before dinner. Dinner would be at the Balsam Buffet Restaurant. The food won’t win any awards, but it provided an excellent source of fuel for the tough two days ahead as our mountain summit loomed.
Although our room was excellent, I didn’t sleep much that night. I usually don’t when I am excited about an upcoming activity. We were up at the crack of dawn for the shuttle from the Liwagu Suites. First stop was back to the Balsam Buffet Restaurant so we could load up on a few omelets before starting our amazing journey.
Before heading to the park headquarters to meet up with our guides and porters, we had a chance to take a look at our goal for the day. Basecamp. You can just make out the small white structure above the two radio towers in the photo below. That is the Laban Rata Pesthouse and where we would spend the night.
After breakfast I had the first opportunity to get a feel for just how popular this hike up Mount Kinabalu is. Thank goodness Sabah Parks recently reduced the limit to 135 climbing permits per day. I couldn’t imagine how congested it would have been on the trail without these limits.
A short shuttle bus ride later and we are at the Timpohon Gate—where the trekking part would begin. I think I only have one more photo of my wife smiling this day. This steep hike would prove difficult for her. But she was a trooper and made it to basecamp.
It is at the Timpohon Gate where you sign into the registry and have your pass validated. It is also where you could grab a few snacks.
The trek into the jungle doesn’t last long before you reach your first landmark—Carson Waterfall (named after the first Warden of Kinabalu National Park). Not much to look at here, but during heavy rains it can get much more impressive. I was glad it was small.
The start of the seemingly never ending uphill climb.
This is a good time to give you some details about the trek we were about to embark on. It will also give you a better understanding of just how steep the Mount Kinabalu summit climb is. Just like I did during my Madagascar hikes that I blogged about last year, I used Strava to log the entire Mount Kinabalu trek. From the Timpohon Gate to the summit and back totaled 10.4 miles (16.8 kilometers). The distance to the summit was only 5.2 miles (8.3 kilometers). However, when you look at the elevation gain during those 5.2 miles you can see just how step it is. You gain 7,200 feet (2,195 meters) over that short distance. I have climbed a few 14,000+ peaks before (Mt. Whitney and Mt. Langley). I hiked the Inca Trail. I have done many hikes in between. This proved the most exhausting for me. The heat and humidity were tough on a dry, Mediterranean climate guy like myself. Plus I was humping a new digital camera and three heavy lenses to go along with my 3 liters of water and rain gear. Add jet lag to the mix (we had only arrived in Borneo two days earlier) and you get the recipe for a challenging experience.
It doesn’t take long before I see my first notable plant. Of course it is a palm tree. This thin-stemmed, clustering palm is Pinanga pilosa.
At the same time Pinanga pilosa makes its appearance on the trail, you also find your first Pinanga capitata var. capitata. Pinanga capitata var. capitata is a variable palm that groups a few old separate species. It can be found solitary, although it is mostly seen clustering. It also has a wide degree of leaf variation.
Due to the fact the hike starts out at about 6,000 feet above sea level, you won’t be hiking in the typical tropical rainforest vegetation found in most of Borneo. During the lower part of the trek the vegetation along the trail is inhabited by lower montane flora. The trees are not as tall as you find in lowland tropical rain forests, but they still form a nice canopy.
The Bornean Mountain Ground Squirrel (Dremomys everetti) is one of the few animals not scared away by the caravan of people that the trail handles every day. These gregarious little guys could be found on the trail until we got high enough to where there were no longer any trees.
Tree ferns of the genus Cynthia are found in abundance at the lower parts of the trek. If you were paying close attention, you could even find a few wild banana plants.
Orchids, orchids, and more orchids. Sadly, just like during my treks around Madagascar, I was hiking Mount Kinabalu during the wrong time of the season to see all the amazing orchids in flower. There are over 1,000 orchid species on Mount Kinabalu. These Eria sp. could be found growing on the ground or in trees. Man, what I would give to go back and do this hike during orchid flowering season.
Some plants that were in flower in the lower parts of the trail were Impatiens kinabaluensis (endemic to only Mount Kinabalu) and what I guess to be Begonia burbidgei.
The shiny, bronze emerging leaves of Plethora pachyphylla couldn’t be missed.
Not sure what this plant was, but the yellow berries stood out.
Two kilometers down, four to go until basecamp. This photo documents my wife’s last smile for the day.
It is around the 2 km mark that you begin to notice the transition from the Lower Mountain Forest to the Upper Mountain Forest (cloud forest vegetation) zone.
The step trail is made up of mudstones and pebbly sandstone in the Lower Mountain Forest up through the Upper Mountain Forest zones. This part of Sabah where Mount Kinabalu resides was once covered by an ocean. These rocks are the remains of deep water deposits that filled that ocean floor 20-45 million years ago.
It is in this Upper Mountain Forest zone where you can find many of the 26 Rhododendron species found on Mount Kinabalu. Rhododendron crassifolium was easy to spot because it was in flower all over the trail. Usually a large shrub, Rhododendron crassifolium can be found as a small tree in areas.
Another Rhododendron in flower this time of year was Rhododendron stenophyllum. It is hard for me to believe that the plant above and this one below are related.
As the canopy shrinks down while you climb farther up the trail, Pinanga capitata var. capitata can be found growing out in the open. The beautiful emerging red leaves in the photo below are of Blechnum egregious—a common fern along the trails.
One of the more iconic plants on Mount Kinabalu is the carnivorous Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes). Ten species can be found in Kinabalu National Park. Sadly, I would only see one species on my trek and that was Nepenthes villosa in just a small strand. However, considering this was the first time ever that I have seen a Pitcher Plant in habitat, I was pretty stoked. Nepenthes villosa is unique in that the entire plant is covered in brown hairs and it is known as the highest elevation Nepenthes on Borneo.
A few other abundantly found plants growing in this zone of the trek were a large moss (Dawsonia longifolia) and and a fuzzy flowered plant (Hedyotis pulchella).
Calamus gibbsianus is the most numerous palm tree along the Mount Kinabalu trail. It can be found at the start of the trek by Timpohon Gate and seen growing at the highest elevation of any other palm in Borneo. Calamus gibbsianus has been found growing up to 9,600 feet above sea level on Mount Kinabalu. Calamus gibbsianus is a rattan palm: a spiny, climbing group of palms found throughout Southeast Asia.
Even the flowers on Calamus gibbsianus are armed with spines.
Close to the 4 kilometer marker was the Layang-Layang hut lunch stop. It was during lunch that our good luck with the weather changed and the rains started. They would continue off and on the rest of the trek to basecamp and throughout the night.
Silky-leaved Berry (Rubus lineatus) grows around the lunch spot. Their fruit is edible and looks like raspberries when ripe.
After lunch and a short rest we set off to finish the remaining 2 kilometers to basecamp for the night. Literally right around the corner from the lunch huts at the 4 kilometer marker, I found the last of the Pinanga capitata var. capitata that I would see. It was a real beauty.
The landscape was opening up the higher we climbed. The vegetation zone moved toward an Ultrabasic Rock Forest zone. Trees, like this Leptospermum recurvum, became more and more stunted and twisted and their branches were covered with moss and epiphytic orchids. Plants here were highly specialized to handle the ultrabasic soils.
There are over 60 species of fern found in Kinabalu National Park. Along with Dicksonia mollis (which I didn’t see on this trek but did see at Poring Hot Springs), this Cyathea havilandii has to be one of the more attractive ferns in the park. Just like with the canopy trees, the tree ferns get smaller the farther up in altitude you climb. Cynthia havilandii has the distinction of being one of the highest elevation tree ferns in the world.
The tougher growing environment higher up the mountain gave this unknown Blechnum an almost cycad-like look.
As we climbed towards the 5 kilometer marker, we were afforded an amazing view of the Ultrabasic Rock Forest landscape. In the photo below you can see orange growth under the trees. This was a Trentepohlia species of alga. Its orange coloration glowed as you passed under it. This spot was one of my favorites during the entire trek. The location along the trail where the trees had Trentepohlia growing on them could only be viewed in this narrow band you see below.
Five kilometers down; one to go. To be perfectly honest it was about here that I started to feel the hike in my legs and back. All that camera equipment I was humping up the mountain kept getting heavier. I was happy I only had one more kilometer until basecamp. Rest was certainly needed.
The 5 kilometer marker also marks the change to another vegetation zone. We would now be climbing into the Lower Granite Boulder Forest zone. What a beautifully inhabited zone this was. Dacrydium gibbsiae, Schima brevifolia and more stunted Leptospermum recurvum reigned supreme in this part of Mount Kinabalu.
Dacrydium gibbsiae is an endemic conifer species only found on Mount Kinabalu. Even though we were transitioning to the Lower Granite Boulder Forest vegetation zone, the soils here were still ultramafic. Dacrydium gibbsiae is specialized in its ability to grow in these soils where most plants would fail. One thing you will take note of in the two photos below is how fast the weather can change here. Peak-a-boo sun one minute, and pouring rain the next.
Schima brevifolia would follow us up the mountain until the tree line would disappear. The photo below was taken the day I was climbing back down the mountain. That is why you see blue sky in the picture. However, even that didn’t last long. A few hours later the clouds rolled in and the rain started back up. It’s Groundhog Day, every day, on Mount Kinabalu.
Schima brevifolia leaves were thick and its flowers white. The new growth was also attractive, emerging in tones of purple.
Another interesting plant which would glow when my headlamp would hit it at night while we were doing our early morning summit accent was this unknown blue-leafed plant – possibly Phyllocladus hypophyllus.
My timing to basecamp was impeccable. Just as I came around the final bend to the two-story Laban Rata Resthouse, I snapped this photo of the “beach” volleyball court with a wall of rain moving in. I had been hit with off-and-on light rain most of the late morning and early afternoon. While I was fortunate to have missed the heavy stuff, my poor wife (still 1.5 hours behind me) would get the blunt of it. I was proud of her for pushing through. She was miserable. The trail was slippery with streams of water flowing down it. Visibility was poor, too. Plus the poncho turns into a basting bag. When she showed up she wasn’t too happy with me. I had talked her into this climb and this was not her idea of a well-earned vacation.
10,738 feet above sea level. Time for a well earned rest at the Laban Rata Resthouse.
Tired, wet, hungry hikers filled the restaurant. Most of them would be in bed by 8 PM as an early 2 AM wakeup was fast approaching.
Our group would end up heading to the summit at 3 AM. It didn’t take long to start shedding layers. You get hot quickly.
I was maybe 20 minutes into the climb to the summit when I realized we were one of the last groups to leave. You could see a bunch of lights snaking their way up the mountain ahead of us. I asked our guide if we would make sunset. He said “Maybe.” It was then that it dawned on me that he never thought my friend could make it in time for the sunrise so he started us off late. Not happy about it, I told him I was heading off alone. I didn’t come all the way around the world to miss the sunrise from the top of it. He told me I needed a guide to get through the final checkpoint and to wait there. Yeah right. I put my head down and rushed to the top. The park official simply looked at my badge and let me past the checkpoint. I would end up passing about 75 people and get to the the summit only behind some young Malaysian couple that took a photo and headed back down before first light broke. That left me alone with the Kinabalu Rats (Rattus baluensis) crawling on my legs at the top of the mountain for about 5 minutes. It gave me an opportunity to stake claim to a small flat area at the top to wait for the sunrise. The best thing about the spot I got? It was only large enough for one person. Despite efforts by many hikers, they couldn’t push me off the top. It was a very chilly wait but so worth it once first light broke.
Due to the clouds that morning, the sunrise would not be perfect. But you never look a gift horse in the mouth on mountain summits. A few days the week prior saw hikers turned back due to bad weather. The wind and rain can get bad up top with visibility dropping to a hundred meters. I felt fortunate to have the views I did from the top of Borneo. The first picture is looking east, the second south looking at St. John Peak (see the orangutan face?) and the last one is facing Victoria Peak looking west towards the ocean and Kota Kinabalu.
I would stay up top for a little over an hour. Before heading back down to the Laban Rata Resthouse for a nap, I would have someone take the obligatory summit sign photo proving I was there. 13,435 feet above sea level on top of Low’s Peak.
Looking back at the summit you can see how crowded it can get. And this photo was taken after many people had already started back down the mountain. Of course, a handful of people were still struggling to reach the summit as well. The reality is that you don’t climb Mount Kinabalu to get away from people. This summit was nothing like sitting on the top of Madagascar alone at sunrise. But it was no less epic to me.
Mount Kinabalu is a very young mountain which was once covered with glaciers. Today the rain and wind continues to erode what the ice started to polish thousands of years ago.
I didn’t see this 8 kilometer marker on the way up in the dark. Beautiful South Peak is behind me.
Looking down you get an optical illusion that you will have to climb right off the cliff to the jungles below.
The sun hiding behind Donkey Ear’s Peak. An earthquake removed part of one of the ears last year.
Aplite veins could be found all over the weathered, granite summit slopes of Mount Kinabalu. This one was really unique in that it was a perfectly straight line which ran east-west. Parallel with the equator.
The last view of Low’s Peak and the top of Mount Kinabalu before it disappears from sight. You can just make it out 1/3 of the way in from the right of the picture below. The group resting was a nice Swedish family on vacation that I would talk to for much of the two-day trek.
The weather on these exposed granite slopes makes it challenging for most plants to grow in this Subalpine Vegetation zone. Amazingly, you could find some extremely stunted Leptospermum recurvum. It was hard for me to believe that these were the same trees I walked under farther down the mountain.
Sayat Sayat Checkpoint sits at about 3,700 meters above sea level and marks the transition back to the Upper Granite Boulder Forest vegetation zone.
Potentilla borneensis could be found flowering around the checkpoint area.
As you continue down the trail back to basecamp you come upon this rock face that is missing a huge chunk from its façade. With its attractive white coloration, you get an idea what the granite looks like on this mountain when not exposed to the elements. This was the direct result of the same earthquake that shook off part of Donkey Ear’s Peak. I will cover the details on the earthquake shortly.
This was the steepest part of the hike. In many places you had to use a rope to assist with your climb up, and down. The Laban Rata Resthouse can be seen in the middle right of the photo.
Almost to the tree line. You can see debris from the earthquake in the right side of the photo.
Can you see anyone climbing the beautifully weathered rock face in the photo below?
Zoomed in with my 200 mm lens, you can now make out people traversing the world’s highest Via Ferrata. I was kicking myself for not adding this to the itinerary. That’s a lot of exposure right there.
Once farther down the mountain you could look back and see that huge chunk of granite that came off the mountain just resting in the debris field.
The recent (geologically speaking) pushing of a pluton through the Crocker Range which forms Mount Kinabalu is still very active. Mount Kinabalu is growing at a rate of about 1/4 inch every year. Coincidently, almost one year earlier to the date we summited, a 6.o earthquake hit the mountain at 7:15 AM. That is the busiest time up to the mountain. Tragically, 18 people died during that earthquake. Mount Kinabalu is sacred to the people of Sabah. Locals believed the earthquake was caused by their mountain protectors who were ticked off after ten really stupid and disrespectful western tourists stripped naked and urinated on the mountain summit. These fools did this just six days before the earthquake happened!
When looking back from where this photo was taken, you can see two large white granite chunks now. Had these two boulders not stopped miraculously where they did, they would have continued on a direct path towards basecamp. Many more people could have died.
After a quick 1-hour nap we would make our way down the remaining 6 kilometers to the park headquarters. One the way back down I passed a few of these guys carrying steel beams up the mountain. I was complaining about my daypack being too heavy. These guys are paid by the kilogram.
With about 1 kilometer to go I caught a lucky break in terms of wildlife. Because of the amount of people that are always using the trail, most animals stay away from it. Walking down alone I heard some noises in the trees pretty far off the trail. In Madagascar this sound meant lemurs. In Borneo it means monkeys. Shot with my 200 mm lens and heavily cropped, I got my only picture in the wild of the Maroon Leaf Monkey (Presbytis rubicunda). Note to self: buy a teleconverter.
After many hours walking downhill, without any flat areas, mind you, my knees were really starting to hurt and my muscles were fatigued. The 4 Advil I had that day were no longer helping. Downhill is always the hardest for me and I was ready to be finished. What a cruel way to finish such an amazing trek but with another hill to climb.
Once again my timing was impeccable. Soon after I reached the Timpohon Gate checkpoint, the sky opened up and the heavy rains began. My wife can be seen smiling in this photo as her climb had been over 15 minutes earlier. She did not do the summit climb in the morning but rather headed back down from basecamp upon sunrise.
What an adventure. It ranks right up there at the top with my favorite things I have done over the years. It was much more challenging than any of us expected. But would I do it again? In a heartbeat!