A mere 95 meters over 4,000, Mount Kinabalu is just high enough to really feel rewarding after a scramble to the summit. The trek to the top starts at Kinabalu National Park Headquarters, where there is an all you can eat buffet restaurant, a gift shop and scores of tourists with designer sunglasses, and selfie sticks, meandering among complexes of hotels. It feels a bit more like a theme park than a national park – Disneyland Mountain. From here you are shuttled to Timpohon Gate (1,866 meters), show your tickets at the entrance booth, and begin on the 8.72 kilometer tour, ascending 2,229 meters to Low’s Peak.
The trail is wide and well-manicured, and local porters wearing flip flops pass by in clouds of cigarette smoke, bent over with crates of beer and other supplies on their backs. The jungle consists of wild mango, rambutan, and durian trees, interspersed with palms and towering Bornean bamboo, covered in a 50 meter canopy of dipterocarp trees which coordinate every ten years to mega bloom, turning the whole jungle the colors of autumn. Shielded from the equatorial sun, a 1,000 different species of orchid, as well as the Rafflesia flower – the largest flower in the world — paint the jungle. Kinabalu squirrels scurry around the forest floor, along with the Kinabalu Giant Red Leech, rhinoceros beetles, sun bears, pangolin and whip snakes. It is a wonderland of biodiversity.
However, the slope of the mountain comes quickly and spreads trekkers out along the trail. The forest becomes dominated by oak-chestnut, myrtle, conifers, and tea trees. This is where the red fern grows. A variety of species of pitcher plants wind their way through the undergrowth and along spiraling ferns, and the soil sparkles with crushed granite. The urge is to push on as the slope of the mountain ratchets steeper, but it is better to enjoy the journey here, taking in views as the trees open up, and peering into the pitcher plants to see what they have managed to catch.
Then around 2200 meters, you climb through the clouds themselves, where trees are dwarfed and gnarled from the high winds and cold climates, and the sweat becomes cold on your skin as the tree cover recedes. In this cloud forest, the weather is often a hanging mist, mixing with the exposed granite rock into a sea of grey. However, the crevices grow lichen and rhododendron splash the mountain’s stoic face with color. At 3,270 meters, after about five hours of steady stair stepping, you reach the Laban Rata Rest house, tired, and proud, and within striking distance of your goal.
The views are vast, extending over the clouds now far below, and only 900 meters of weathered granite rock remain between you and the summit. During the Northeastern Monsoon from October to January, you gaze far across the horizon trying to decipher the weather, knowing that will be the only barrier between you and the peak, and the one that is often responsible for the deadly accidents every couple of years.
We were comforted by the warmth of the cabin, tea, and the excitement of the other trekkers in the great rest house, as the sun dropped slowly under the slope of the mountain, and the stars hung clear overhead. However, at 2am, as we awoke to prepare for our assault, the wind howled through pummeling rain, and heavy mist blinded the mountain face. Our guide delayed our departure, unsure of the conditions even higher, but as group after group left the shelter of the rest house, he begrudgingly led us upwards over newly rushing waterfalls, and carefully along big thick white ropes anchored into the steep rock faces.
Nobody can hear through the weather, or has the oxygen to yell, and everyone is obscured in the dark night and heavy mist, where stopping means freezing your hands on the wet rope and letting the mists seep under your jacket and into your bones. It is too difficult to turn around, so you follow the rope, seeing glancing headlamps in the distance through the mists, and blowing continuously on the shooting pains in your fingers.
They are long hours, but after only a couple of them, you summit to stand in a confused herd of freezing trekkers, not sure whether to stay or go, or what to say, since there is nothing to be seen in the mountain mists, and the winds gush in erratic cycles strong enough to throw you off balance. Most are huddling between rocks wondering what to do, too cold to take pictures, while guides eye the sky and urge people to “descend now”.
Then literally, just for a few seconds, the rising sun burns through the fog, displaying the ledges and vertigo inducing gullies that surround the small pinnacle upon which you perch. Golden red light refracts through the mist, and as if in the eye of the storm, everything seems still. However as most fumble to turn on their cameras with frozen fingers, we are enveloped in mist again, and retreating back down to the warm tropical forests below.
Mountain climbing in Borneo during monsoon season definitely takes some solid perseverance, and a more adventurous spirit than the average traveler, but for those determined to make the climb, it is very achievable and a wonderful tour of the uniquely diverse ecosystems of a fabled island.