Matt and Joanne’s Page

November 7, 2008

Borneo Part 1 (Mt Kinabalu)

Filed under: Climbing, Malaysia, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 8:46 am

Alright! Now that the jetlag has worn off it’s about time we started posting about our travels in Malaysia. We ended up not climbing nearly as much as we originally hoped because ….well, we’ll get to that later. First, it’s time to go to Mount Kinabalu! Read on to hear about absurd weather and even more absurd bureaucracy! I’m going to try to not be too bitter and nasty in some of the rants below but no promises.

We started our trip with one of the longest plane trips I’ve ever taken. We flew from Detroit to Atlanta to Seoul to Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, arriving some thirty hours after we left Detroit. Hello frequent flyer miles! Kota Kinabalu is a small seaside town in the state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. Borneo (the 3rd largest island in the world, behind Greenland and New Guinea) is split between Indonesia and Malaysia, with a bit owned by the Sultan of Brunei. The entire island was once pristine tropical rain forest though recent logging has made irreversible impacts. Despite this, parts of the island are among the most untouched places to be found on Earth.

Our first destination on the island was Mount Kinabalu. Isn’t the name just fun to say? Kin-a-balu! At 4,095 meters (13,435 ft) it is the tallest point in Malaysia and depending on your definition of the region, the tallest in Southeast Asia. But our real reason to come here was to explore the upper regions of the mountain with it’s vast amount of exposed granite and dozens of peaks.

The view from park headquarters was inspiring!

But first we had to pick up our permit and figure out where we were going to sleep that night. I had e-mailed the park before our arrival to reserve the West Gurkha Hut and secure our “Multipeak Climbing Permit”. (Here’s where the fun begins). After reading over the permit we became a bit confused: it specified 3 peaks that we were allowed to climb. And so we asked: “Well, what about all the other peaks?” We were informed that those peaks are “technical” climbs and require a rope (!) so we can’t climb those. HUH!? We actually had to show the park guide some of our gear: I don’t think he believed we had proper equipment.

And here’s where the confusion started: when visiting Malaysia 18 months before we picked up a copy of the local climbing guidebook, “Climb Malaysia”. It features a section on Mt Kinabalu and has the following to say about permits (for rock climbing): “You’ll need a Multi-Peak Climbing Permit … Send your applications along with your climbing resume…”. The park officials found the book fascinating (they hadn’t seen it before!) and asked to make photocopies.

Meanwhile, we decided to ask how we could get a “Rock Climbing Permit”. How hard could this be? This is when we were politely informed this request was impossible. Only one individual, the head of park operations, is allowed to issue these permits. And this individual was on vacation, enjoying the beach on Tioman Island. We had packed 2 70 meter ropes, 2 full sets of cams, 2-3 sets of stoppers, aid hooks, etriers, and ascenders and flown across the world with all this gear. You can be damn sure I was going to find a way to use them if I could!

Fortunately, the ranger we talked to was willing to do what he could to get a permit, making phone calls and trying to get a hold of “The Big Boss”. We had already decided we were going up the peak, whether or not we got an official permit. But we figured we’d give the park a day to figure things out: While waiting we decided to go figure out our accommodations. we needed to get a room for the night and then figure out a place to stay on our hike towards the summit. The price to stay in the hostel at park headquarters turned out to be RM80/person ($46 for 2 people). Our first question: where’s the cheaper accommodation? It turns out you can leave the park, take a right and walk a quarter mile to rent an entire room for RM30 ($8.50). Likewise, food just outside the park is much cheaper than the restaurants within. This was our first sign that the park had some dubious pricing practices.

But we still had to sleep 1 night lower on the mountain before reaching the summit plateau. And the park has only one option for sleeping on the mountain: Laban Rata. Last year they charged RM29/person for the dorm-style accommodations. But they decided to raise prices this year, to a whopping RM190/person. How could prices rise so much? They force you to buy 4 meals to go with the room and all the food has to be carried by porters up the mountain. We tried to get them to exclude the food (we had our own food) but they told us this was not possible. Setting up a tent is not allowed. So we were forced to pay $109US for 1 night at Laban Rata. Sheesh – what a rip off!

Who says the American Dollar is weak? Here’s the bathroom we got for $109. Un-sanitized water and cold water included. But hey, the toilets flushed! Laban Rata may be the world’s most expensive shit-hole hostel. It wasn’t the worst place we stayed at in Malaysia, but it was, by far, the priciest.

Finally we got some good news, though: we would be able to get our “Rock Climbing Permit”. We went in to the park office and signed a bunch of legal documents and then went to pay our “fees” (a nice word for the extortion racket the park runs). RM400 for “Rock Climbing Permits”, RM380 for 19 days at for the Gurkha Hut (which used to be FREE), RM380 for 1 night in Laban Rata, RM180 for a “mandatory guide”, RM266 for insurance (one of the documents we signed essentially said if we get in trouble on the mountain we’re screwed as the park provides no rescue resources – so I’m not sure what this insurance is). This adds up to a grand total of RM1606 ($459US). D’oh!

So after coughing up nearly all of our cash, we were happy to finally get started up the mountain! But with one bizarre stipulation from the park: they wanted us to send them daily updates to make sure we were OK. Of course, if we’re NOT OK, they’re not going to rescue us. OOOO-K. We were getting a distinct impression that park officials would prefer every visitor to follow their cookie cutter plan for reaching the summit. And they certainly did their best to dissuade us from following through with our plans.

The trail map to the summit.

Our first day we were hiking 6km from Park HQ (866m) to the Gunting Lagadan Hut (3323m). If you do the math, this is a whooping 8000 feet of elevation gain in just 3.7 miles! As I’m writing this, this is the first time I did this calculation – holy crap that’s a big day. But what made the hike more ridiculous was the size of our packs. We were both carrying about HALF of our bodyweight. My bag was somewhere around 80lbs, Joanne’s about 55lbs (I weigh about 150 lbs).

We must not have been very far on the trail at this point. I know this for two reasons: the trail is still flat and Joanne is smiling. Joanne was actually mistaken for a porter on several occasions!

The hike was, needless to say, one of the hardest I’ve ever done. The trail is relentlessly steep and with a crushing load I sometimes felt like I was climbing a ladder, using my hands to grab roots and whatever else I could to keep from toppling backwards. The last kilometer became a real fight: we would make it a few hundred meters at a time, taking frequent breaks. When we dropped our bags I noticed by legs were actually shaking from the effort.

Finally, we reached the Gunting Lagadan Hut, collapsed in our room, took a cold shower then went for dinner at Laban Rata. We slept like rocks, waking up at 7 still feeling pretty tired and headed to breakfast. The food is pretty mediocre at Laban Rata, especially considering the price. I was excited, though, to see french toast. I loaded my plate up and poured “syrup” all over the them. I started eating and immediately I commented how salty the food was. Salty fried rice, salty meat and worst of all, salty french toast! Gross! Then we realized what was wrong: the “maple syrup” I had liberally drowned my food in was, in fact, soy sauce. A bit confusing since it was in a maple syrup container and placed next to the french toast!

After filling up on what would be our last big meal for a while, we shouldered our packs in preparation for the final 2.5km to the Gurkha Hut…

Next time: Gurkha Hut and Kinabalu’s Western Plateau and (much) the bureaucratic nightmare continues… and many better pictures of the mountain! Click Here for Part 2!


  1. Awesome! Have to admire your willingness to play by the rules.
    Cracking up over the soy sauce incident.
    Looking forward to the next installment.

    Comment by Eric — November 7, 2008 @ 11:00 am

  2. I am glad that you spell out the ugly part of Kinabalu management bodies. Hope they could find the ways to improve it.

    Anyway, congratulations for your achievement. You can actually count how many people slept in Gurkha Hut!

    Comment by drizad — November 9, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

  3. oh yikes! crazy though, to read the daylight robbery that was going on… ><

    Comment by Lil — November 10, 2008 @ 6:47 am

  4. Since the Sabah government gave Sutera Sanctuary Lodges the exclusive rights to make money from the mountain, many locals in Sabah are very upset. They used to be able to just hike a little way up the mountain for a picnic and come down on the same day by paying about RM30. Now it cost you and arm and a leg. Can’t blame them, after all the mountain belongs to the people. It is public property and no one should be allowed to make money from it. Again it is clear that with the right connections anything is possible

    Comment by Shiang — November 17, 2008 @ 4:35 am

  5. Change the RM$$$$$$ not $$$$RM that would be more nice

    Comment by kuanima — January 6, 2009 @ 6:00 am

  6. hi there, i saw your post mentioned about maple syrup. did u buy the maple syrup in Kota Kinabalu? been searching for it for many days now.. i went to many stores already to find it, but no where to be found. need your assistance. thanks

    Comment by yun — August 27, 2009 @ 12:28 am

  7. No, I think Matt mentioned he ‘thought’ it was maple syrup but turns out he poured soy sauce all over his pancake. Sorry, no maple syrup 🙂

    Comment by joannestamplis — August 27, 2009 @ 5:53 am

  8. Hey this was in 2008. I’m doing some climbing malaysia now and was considering Kinabalu…… ha, not any more. being 2012, all the price hikes you spoke of are even worse. It’s a pathetic shame that the nation allowed the mountain to be privatized with ridiculous fees to get up there. nice pics on your 2nd page!

    Comment by ryweller — August 2, 2012 @ 3:56 am

  9. Hey Guys

    Graham here. Sue and I are heading to the park of Mt Kinabalu and looking for the beta. Do you have any route beta you coppied from the hut log? What is the cost of permits and the hut. Lots of other little questions as well but I hate to inconvenience you. We’re in Thailand now and happy to call at any time that’s good for you.

    Hope to hear from you.

    Comment by Graham Hopkins — December 3, 2012 @ 1:10 am

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