Mount Kinabalu (4,095.2 m) is the tallest peak in Southeast Asia and the highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea. Its slope is home to a rich assemblage of plants and animal species. It is a hot spot of particularly the plant biodiversity with affinities to flora from the Himalayas, China, Australia, Malay Peninsula, as well as the pan-tropical region. It is protected as Kinabalu National Park, a World Heritage Site.
Covering 754 square kilometers, Kinabalu National Park is one of the greatest attractions of Sabah. Within its boundaries are found lowland rainforest of the tropical zone at its lower level, the montane oak and chestnut trees, rhododendron shrubs, and wild berries of the temperate zone at its medium level, and the conifers and other alpine-like associations of the summit zone at its upper level. Where else in the world can you find a complete ecological system such as this, compacted in one small area?
Kinabalu Park which covers an area of 754 sq km was gazetted a park in 1964. The basis for the establishment of protected areas in Kinabalu was formed after a report from the Royal Society Kinabalu Scientific expedition in 1962-1964 led by Prof. Corner. It is the first Park in the Malaysian Borneo’s state of Sabah.
The main entry point for visitors is the Park Headquarters located about 92 km on the Kota Kinabalu – east coast highway lying at an elevation 1520m above sea levels. The cool climates attracted over 250,000 visitors in 2009 with about 47,000 attempted to conquer the peak. The administrative center is located in the ‘Conservation Center’ building. Also in the same building is the Research and Education offices and facilities.
The spectacular peaks of Mt. Kinabalu were recently acknowledged by the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest Via Ferrata in the world! A Via Ferrata (or ‘iron road’ in Italian, plural via ferrate) is a mountain path consisting of a series of rungs, rails, and cables embracing the rock face. It allows access to scenic sections of the mountain that are typically available only to rock climbers and mountaineers.
LEGEND & FOLKTALES
The origin of Mount Kinabalu’s name is uncertain, but two main tales remain as the reasoning to its name. A popular folk tale begins with a fantasy that long ago, a dragon lived up high in the peaks of Mount Kinabalu protecting a huge pearl. And there was a Chinese prince who had traveled thousands of miles to Borneo in search of this pearl. Where he finally laid the dragon and descended the mountain with the pearl in his possession.
It is said that while resting in the villages nearby he met and fell in love with a Kadazan girl, whom he then wedded. There are several versions of this tale, depicting the prince as a loyal man who died of old age and another of him abandoning his wife to return to homeland China. Whichever it is, the consequence of the wife’s sorrow is the same. She mourned his absence in the solitude of the mountain, where she eventually turned into stone. Hence the name, Chinese “Kina” and widow “Balu”.
Legends aside, there is another theory that the name is derived from the Kadazan words “Aki Nabalu”- the revered place of the dead. It is to the belief of the Ingenious Kadazan people that the top of the mountain is a sacred ancestral home, the final resting place for departed spirits.
THE CLIMB: TRAILS
Don’t be alarmed by the enormity of Mount Kinabalu, as it is among the most accessible mountain peaks in the world requiring no prior experience in mountain climbing. However, that doesn’t mean that it is an easy climb. Hikers attempting the climb should be in good health, and it is recommended that you do brisk jogs and walks months before the climb. Although the weather at the Kinabalu National Park is a nice cool 20-25 Degree Celsius, be prepared to face near-freezing drops in temperature as you approach the summit. There are 2 trails up Mount Kinabalu, The Summit Trail, and The Mesilau Trail. Both trails converge at the Layang-Layang staff quarters, 5.5 km from the starting point. Depending on your level of fitness, it should be a 5 to 6 hours climb to reach the rest house at Laban Rata.
The Mesilau trail begins at the Mesilau Nature Resort and is 2 km longer than the Summit Trail, 8.5 km from the summit. It is said to be a more challenging route as compared to the Summit Trail and offers a much more scenic hike up to Layang-Layang. The summit trail begins at Timpohon Gate, a short drive inside the Kinabalu National Park, and is an 8.5 km trail to the summit. The foot of the mountain is filled with a diverse array lush greenery and botanical wonder that flourishes at every sight. The trail is a steady climb up rocks and tree roots that serve as steep stairs. There are five Pondok (shelters) scattered on route to Layang-Layang. And as you climb higher the air gets cooler and thinner, so be sure to use these rest stops if you do need them.
THE CLIMB: OVERNIGHT STAY AT LABAN RATA
It takes about 3 hours or so to reach Layang-Layang at 2,621m above sea level, it is a staff quarter where the paths of both The Mesilau and The Summit trail converge. From Layang-Layang your journey on to Laban Rata, and as you venture further in the mountain it is apparent that there is a slow but drastic change in scenery. Lush vegetation gives way to harsh granite, and soon brown tree branches are mystically silver, a soft peel from its branches. At 3,273m above sea level, Laban Rata is your accommodation destination for the night. Comprising of a handful of lodges, it promises hot meals, a comfortable bed, and other necessities before and after your ascent to the summit.
It is also here where beautiful granite walls, some almost vertical, will remind you of the sheer magnitude of Mount Kinabalu and your pending climb to its peak.
THE CLIMB: CONQUERING THE PEAK.
The highlight of the journey is of course watching the first streak of light peeking on the horizon, a sunrise over the whole of Sabah. Hence, it is a 3 a.m call time on summit day. It’s another 2.7km climb to the summit over the smooth granite face and rocky slopes. Be sure to have your headlamp ready as the climb is done in the dark. The air is thin and seeing that it is a good 3,300m above sea level, nausea, dizziness, and altitude sickness may start to take its toll even before you get off the bed. So keep those medications handy and ready at any given time, some even experiencing nausea as low as 2,000m.
With the peak swelling before your eyes, take comfort in knowing that soon you’ll be up there as the last stretch of ascent to the summit is the steepest and hardest part of the climb. A line of ropes give support and direction to hikers as they ascent the peak, but do watch your step as there are no save guard lines. Crowning the top of Mount Kinabalu is a handful of peaks, each with significant shapes and features. But the highest and the one that hikers will be aiming for is Low’s Peak, 4,095m above sea level.
THE CLIMB: VIA FERRATA
Certified by the Guinness World Records as the world’s highest suspension bridge at 3 600m above sea level, the Via Ferrata puts you on the edge of the world without having to jeopardize your safety. Via Ferrata or meaning “iron road” in Italian, is a carefully crafted system of rungs and rails crowning Mount Kinabalu’s summit. It offers hikers dramatic views of the mounts surroundings and of the mountain plateau itself.
There are 2 routes offered by the Via Ferrata; Walk the Torq Route and Low’s Peak Circuit Route. It’s best, to begin with, Walk the Torq. At 3 520m above sea level, it is designed for beginners, with a 2-3 hour climb offering dramatic scenic views that can only be seen if you were mountaineering to the summit. With a thrilling tightrope walk and a swinging monkey bridge, you are scaling the granite walls and walking on cloud nine.
Low’s Peak Circuit, on the other hand, is designed for those with an above-average fitness level. At 3 776m above sea level, it is the highest Via Ferrate in the world and offers a 4-6 hour route crowing the mountain’s top with an optional summit attempt. It connects to the Walk the Torq route, hence you’ll be able to experience both routes. The Via Ferrata is a whole different approach and experience on Mount Kinabalu, an adrenaline-pumping adventure that will leave you with unforgettable memories and pictures.