Matt and Joanne’s Page

November 9, 2008

Borneo Part 2 (Mt Kinabalu)

Filed under: Climbing, Malaysia, Roadtrip — Tags: , — Matt Stamplis @ 2:35 pm

Our 2nd day of hiking was shorter (probably less than 3km) but we still had 2300 feet to gain to reach the Gurkha Hut, our basecamp. And we were pretty worn out from the previous day’s hike. Joanne was really struggling with her load: our guide offered to shoulder some of the load. We were happy to oblige and the day ended up being considerably easier than the 1st day’s effort, though I could feel the air getting a bit thinner. And so we arrived at the Gurkha Hut early in the afternoon.

We received a pleasant surprise on arriving: the hut is easily one of the coolest places to stay that I’ve ever seen in any mountain! For starters, it’s weather proof and rodent proof (though you can hear a rat moving around outside at night). Rain pours from the roof into two water storage tanks to provide water during droughts. Inside, you’ll find 4 mattresses, cooking ware, leftover fuel from other parties, and a small collection of books including a real gem: 3 volumes of journals that record the building of the hut in 1984 and all the visitors who have stayed in the hut. It makes great reading when the weather is bad, which is almost inevitable!

The Gurkha Hut! A cozy place for 2 to stay. You could squeeze a couple more people in if you wanted to be close.

The Western Plateau of Mt Kinabalu in all its glory! From left to right are Alexandra Peak, Oyayubi Peak (the tilted tower in front of Alexandra), the Dewali Pinnacles, Victoria Peak (the huge prominent peak on the right), then finally St Andrews is identified by the insanely overhanging prow in the bottom right. The Gurhka Hut occupies prime real estate here, right below Oyayubi: Any of these peaks can be reached with just a short stroll from your base camp, making for incredible access.

Alexandra Peak, as viewed from the Gurkha Hut. Despite being right next to the hut, the prominent face in the middle of the picture is unclimbed. Of course, all of the orange rock is overhanging and looks loose. And there are no crack systems on the lower half of the face!

The overhanging face of Oyayubi towers directly above the Gurkha Hut. Also unclimbed, I spent a lot of time looking over the face but it was difficult to see any line that wouldn’t be highly artificial. Some things might be better left unclimbed! Instead we climbed the much easier South Ridge of the peak. It was 4th class or so and was terrifyingly loose without a rope.

But before you get too excited about the prospect of first ascents and book the next flight to Malaysia it’s worth giving a word (or two) of caution. The rock here is geologically young and hasn’t been weathered as much as granite that I’ve climbed in the US. As a result, there is considerable amount of loose rock and there are very rarely continuous crack sections. And many cracks end up being shallow seams. As a result you’ll often find yourself climbing on semi-detached and hollow flakes with little or no protection.

And the other drawback to climbing on Kinabalu? The weather! Usually April-June and Sep-Oct are considered to be the dry season. But this year, things have been a little strange and the locals told us it’s been raining pretty much all year! And the weather didn’t change for us: it rained every single day. And almost every night. So we would wake up in the morning and it would usually be somewhat clear but the rock would be completely soaked. So we would wait for things to dry out but the weather inevitably would change, often with no warning.

The video shows a pretty typical view from the Gurkha Hut. There is so much bare rock and hardly any soil so the water just pours down the rock and forms rivers and waterfalls everywhere you look. I’ve never seen anything like it. During these rains the Gurkha Hut is cut off from the rest of the park: it would be life-threatening to try to descend the slabs back to Park HQ. I hope you brought a kayak!

So with horrible weather we did pretty much the only thing we could…wait. And wait.

I didn’t know anyone played Solitaire except on computers…

Occasionally the weather would clear up and allow us to play OUTSIDE!

On the edge of the abyss. From here, Low’s Gully drops for thousands of feet towards the Pacific Ocean. Some of the biggest (and most remote) walls in the world can be found here. Just reaching the base of these walls can take close to a week of rappelling and scrambling down the gully! Maybe next time…

Occasionally we even climbed with a rope. Here is where I decided it would be more fun to do a jig instead of climbing! Taken on the Southeast Ridge of Alexandra, shortly before bailing due to high winds. Then when it started raining an hour later we figured we made the right call.

Taking a walk over to the incredibly aesthetic South Kinabalu Peak. This was one of the few peaks we were able to summit! A clean slab with a 4th class move or two gains access to the summit and a spectacular view.

The view from the top of South Kinabalu Peak: you can see some of the huts far below.

After a week of crushing rain, our spirits were getting low. We had spied a few potential lines to try but the weather wouldn’t cooperate long enough for us to even walk over to their base. We hadn’t finished any technical climbs (though we bailed from several) and our food supplies were getting low. And then we received a text message from Park HQ telling us that there was a mistake with our permit and we would need to come down to sort things out. Argh!

We had been rationing our food supplies to try to stay as long as possible but when we finally decided to bail off Kinabalu we started gorging ourselves on the remaining food, trying to lighten our loads for the next day. And so, after 7 nights in the Gurkha Hut, we packed our things up and started the descend down the mountain. Despite ridding ourselves of fuel/food our packs were heavy enough that the 10,000 foot descent was quad destroying. It took 4 days of rest before we could walk downstairs without pain.

Before we left the park, though, we made one last stop at Park HQ. Here is where we had one last look at how things are run. We were leaving early so we wanted to see if we could recoup some of our fees; namely, the unused insurance and hut fees. Neither of us really expected to get anything back but we figured: why not? So we talked with the fellow who had helped us get our permit in the first place. He told us he couldn’t do this but he could ask his boss. So he called up his boss who told us that he, also, was unable to refund our money. But he could set up a meeting for us with an even bigger boss. Alright, sounds good!

We eat lunch and then come back to meet with this big boss. We’re lead upstairs to a secretary who lets us in to the room. This “boss” has a gigantic room, with over-sized chairs and an over-sized desk. Behind the desk, dozens of windows provide a magnificent view of Kinabalu. We’re mightily impressed and starting to feel confident that if anyone can give us a refund (or at least tell us “no”), this is the man. Of course, things don’t work out exactly like that.

It turns out there is an even bigger boss, “The Big Boss”, who is _still_ on vacation so no decisions can be made here. Even though the refund we are requesting is less than $100, we are told to leave an address and write and sign a letter requesting a refund. We are told that they we will get a reply. Not surprisingly, we never heard a word from them again! I could care less about the money but the experience was truly eye-opening. Needless to say, the management of the park is embarrassingly inefficient.

So I have mixed feelings about the park: Mt Kinabalu is a spectacular peak and the Gurkha Hut is the best base camp you could ever hope for in the mountains. The weather is a mixed bag: from reading the journals, there are spells of great weather so we just had some bad luck. And because of the elevation, temperatures are so much nicer than anywhere else in Malaysia (temperatures frequently drop to around freezing). And while a lot of the rock looks terrible (really sketchy loose flakes) there are sections that look fantastic. I won’t give away all the places I found but No Name Peak and Victoria Peak might be good places to find solid rock.

But park management left a bitter taste in our mouths. I would like to return and try our luck again in a couple years but there’s many other places out there, most of which don’t have such hassles involved. Still, as far as adventure climbing in South East Asia goes, it doesn’t get much better than this. If you’re thinking about making a trip there, feel free to e-mail or leave a comment and I can fill you in on all the details. Of course, there’s no guarantee things won’t be very different in a few years!

Next time: A trip to the incredible caves of Mulu! But first, one last parting shot from Kinabalu: we passed this guy on our way down. And this is why things are so expensive at Laban Rata!


  1. well the few photos that you have here looks amazing, although the video certainly shows the other (rather unforgiving) side of nature. bummer re the park management but normally unless you know some big guns somewhere, it’s unlikely they’ll get anywhere…

    Comment by Lil — November 10, 2008 @ 6:53 am

  2. hello,jonne i am journalism student from Tunku abdul Rahman college. we are doing a survey regarding malaysia climbers. Can i conduct a interview with u though email. The project is for the academic purpose, we won’t publish to the public. If u willing, i will sent the question aid to u. I hope u can reply me as soon as posible, thanx

    by, yoke yan

    Comment by yoke yan — November 17, 2008 @ 7:50 am

  3. NIce photos. Sorry to hear of your troubles on KK. I made six trips to Kinabalu from 1995 to 2003, mostly for multi peak climbs and enjoyed some great fun on Ugly Sisters. St Andrews Peak, climbed Alexandra and a couple of the 5.8-5.10 routes on the non-slab side of Kinabalu South. Some of the info the in the guide book came from me and some Singapore climbers. BUt overall the book is riddle with quite a lot of errors. I’ll be re-looking the permit issues and have some words with people better connected than me these days working with the Parks people. The monopoly of Park services has changed hands more than once, and the profiteering side , mixed with poor knowledge of technical climbers’ needs still makes it a tricky business. In our days with the Mountaineering Society of Singapore( MOSS), we merely had to write a letter asking for permission – no fee for the rock climbing permit at all. Things have changed…..

    Comment by david — January 27, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

  4. Dear Matt and Joanne, I am a mountain hiker come from Taiwan.
    Since looking this article at 2010, I hope to go there someday!
    The the scenery is really beautiful and great!
    I want stay at Gurkha Hut one night, my e-mail is:
    Please let me know the detail about application.
    Thanks a lot!
    Best Regards,

    Comment by Yeh — September 23, 2013 @ 11:34 pm

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