Friday to Saturday
November 30 to December 1, 2018
I was a few meters past the 8-kilometer marker at the top of Mt. Kinabalu. I still had 700 meters to go before reaching Low’s Peak, the highest point of the mountain. Shivering, I flexed my numb fingers. I could see them move, but it had been a while since I had any feeling in them. Next, I pressed my hands beside my head to see if my ears haven’t fallen off from the cold yet. Is this the symptom of hypothermia? I thought to myself. Is this where I die?
*record scratch* Now you may be wondering why I was on Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Malaysia and all of Southeast Asia. This was a climb that bebelabs and I have been looking forward to for more than a year. Here’s how we made it happen.
Even though we booked this trip last 2017, we didn’t arrange any accommodations until the week of the trip. We only booked our first night via agoda and decided to wing the rest of the trip. Yay spontaneity!
After a quick google search, the internet pointed us to Jungle Jack Backpackers, an independent organizer who allegedly gives the cheapest rates in climbing Mt. Kinabalu. I contacted “Uncle Jack” via facebook and he inquired our specified days to climb. He told me to call him once we arrive in Kota Kinabalu.
After arriving and checking in a capsule hotel for the night, Khat called Uncle Jack and confirmed our arrival. At first he told us that he would try to get us slots for a Friday-Saturday climb. If that wasn’t possible, would we be okay with a Saturday-Sunday schedule. We agreed as this climb was the main highlight of our trip. So he advised us to just go to his place on Thursday night to be sure.
The way to Jungle Jack Backpackers is pretty simple:
- Go to Merdeka Square (Padang Merdeka) which is a transit terminal.
- Once you are there, ask the conductors for the van/car ride to Ranau.
- Tell the driver to let you off at Jungle Jack’s. Most of them will already know the place. It’s along the main highway. If not, then tell them to let you off at Kinabalu National Park. The place is just a few hundred meters away.
- As of this writing, the fare is RM25 per pax and the travel time is approximately 2 hours. Keep in mind that the driver will wait until the 4-passenger car is full before leaving Merdeka Square. You can pay for the missing seats if you’re rushing.
- After being dropped off along the highway, walk to the place and say hi to the dogs and whoever is taking care of the place.
When we arrived, the caretaker told us to wait while he called up Uncle Jack, who stayed at a different place. We observed the place and it looked really cool. Hand-painted designs and a homey feel welcomed us. Free WiFi was there as well.
Uncle Jack arrived and he told us that he would go up to the park and ask if it would be possible for us to hike tomorrow. Since there’s only the two of us, we needed to pay extra for our own guide. We paid him upfront and he told us that the payment already included everything from our meals to our stay at his place for the night. Before leaving, he told us to make ourselves at home.
We went upstairs to the single room for the visitors. It had 3 bunk beds for 6 people with a communal bathroom. We got some rest and fixed our stuff before Uncle Jack’s Filipino caretaker, ate Bibi, called us for dinner. We feasted on fried chicken wings that night before going to to sleep. Uncle Jack confirmed our climb the next day and told us to wake up by 08:30 so we can have breakfast before the hike.
Friday morning, ate Bibi prepared us some sandwiches for breakfast and we also packed some for lunch. Fortunately, there was another couple who arrived earlier that morning and had planned to hike that day as well. This divided up the cost of the guide and so we got reimbursed some of our ringgit. Yay savings! Thank you to the wonderful Russian couple, Oleg and Elena.
When we were all set, Uncle Jack’s driver brought us to Kinabalu Park management where it was a busy place full of hikers and local officers. We secured our permits and Uncle Jack gave us our food vouchers as well as introduce us to our guide, sir Iging. The driver then brought us to the starting point of the hike, Timpohon Gate.
At Timpohon Gate, the local officers checked our IDs before letting us through. Here, we started the hike along the summit trail. At first, the hike was like a walk in the park. Well actually, it was literally a walk in the park. A quick descent led us to Carson falls, and from there it was all uphill and man-made stairs.
I don’t want to spoil the journey for anyone, but for those who want to do this climb, I advocate training by climbing stairs. Lots. Of. Stairs.
From Timpohon Gate to the Laban Rata rest house is just a measly 6 kilometers. But I swear these were the longest 6 kilometers of my life. It’s a good thing there were also other hikers and squirrels along the way or else I would’ve gone insane. There are markers every 0.5 kilometers just to mock you and let you know that your long minutes of effort and climbing are just worth 500 meters.
The trail itself is very established. In fact, we weren’t forced to stick with our guide. Sir Iging was there to stick with the last person of our group to make sure everyone checked in. Slowly but surely, we left Oleg and Elena behind and advanced through the trail. There were lots of signs and wrong ways were distinctly marked so navigation was never a problem. Bathrooms weren’t an issue as rest huts were also available at regular intervals. We took some rest to eat our trail food and feed the squirrels, but we really wanted to get to Laban Rata as fast as possible.
After more stairs that would put Amuyao to shame, we finally arrived at Panar Laban. Here, the local guides took our IDs, logged us in, and directed us to our room. Here, we picked our place from the 8 bunk beds available. Being first has its benefits as we got the most accessible spot in the room. Tired from the hike, we got some rest as the other hikers started pouring in.
When Elena and Oleg arrived, we had our early dinner at the Laban Rata restaurant. The restaurant was a beautiful place with an overlooking view. At this point we were already above the level of the clouds. But even more beautiful was the dinner being served for us.
It was a buffet of dishes from lamb, to pasta, to fried noodles and rice. I ate to my heart’s content but also minded my limits as I didn’t want to be too full and get hit by altitude sickness. After dinner, it was back to bed to get ready for the 02:30 call-time the next day.
I won’t spoil a lot for the hike from Laban Rata to the summit. It’s something worth experiencing first hand. I just have to emphasize the importance of wearing proper thermal clothing. Bebelabs and I severely underestimated the cold. It’s the coldest we’ve ever experienced and though we advanced through a lot of hikers along the way, they were the ones looking the coziest in their hiking pants and fleece jackets. Meanwhile, bebelabs and I were just determined to keep moving lest we froze right then and there.
It was an experience that we will remember for the rest of our lives. Almost freezing to death on a foreign mountain surrounded by Koreans and Chinese tourists. We even resorted to using the emergency blanket! Something we have never done in the Philippines. Lol.
As the sun rose, the rays of light gave me back some strength and we finally made it to the top of Low’s Peak. With the cold still digging into our nuclei, we didn’t have the luxury of waiting for all the tourists to finish their pictures. And with sir Iging pacing our Russian friends, we didn’t have anyone to take our picture so we just had a quick selfie before starting the descent.
On the way down we had a picture at the famous cone swirl. I actually thought that this was the summit as most people took pictures with this monument more than the actual summit. It was a really beautiful sight.
The wind was still beating our faces as we descended, but it was somehow more bearable. Before long, we made it back to Laban Rata where we packed our things before heading off for breakfast. That was a wonderful breakfast indeed. Breakfast sausages, eggs, french toast, and coffee after summiting Malaysia’s highest peak!
And then it was time for my most dreaded part of the hike. Going down the same 6 kilometer trail to Timpohon gate. Ugh. If only I could have an autopilot to go down for me. Sure it was all downhill, but it wasn’t even fun as the terrain was mostly stairs. Imagine going down the fire exit of a 100-storey building.
After much suffering, we eventually made it back to Timpohon gate. There, we took the time to reflect on all that has occurred before Uncle Jack’s driver took us back to his place. Ate Bibi welcomed us with a meal of chicken and eggplant. After a shower and fixing up, Ate Bibi hailed us a van from Ranau going back to Kota Kinabalu. We said our goodbyes to ate Bibi and the Russian couple. Sadly, Uncle Jack wasn’t there at the time 😢.
And that ends the account of our Mt. Kinabalu hike. We went on to do more stuff in the city, but those aren’t as interesting (or life-threatening) as the hike itself.
Itinerary and Cost Breakdown:
- 09:45 Start trek from Timpohon Gate
- 14:00 ETA Laban Rata bunkhouse, rest and sleep
- 17:00 Sleep after eating dinner
- 02:00 Wake up, breakfast
- 03:00 Start summit trek
- 06:05 ETA Summit
- 07:35 Back at Laban Rata, pack up and eat breakfast
- 09:45 Start descent
- 12:10 ETA Timpohon Gate, end trek
And now, the part you’ve all been waiting for. The budget. Prepare your heart and wallet for this. Uncle Jack’s place is the cheapest offer for Mt. Kinabalu at RM1180 (~Php15,340) per pax. This includes the following:
- Overnight stay at Uncle Jack’s Backpacker (with free WiFi)
- Pre-climb dinner and breakfast
- Service to and from Kinabalu Park and Uncle Jack’s Backpacker
- Free borrow of gloves/bonnets
- Unlimited drinking water
- All hike permits and guide fee
- Lodging and meals at Laban Rata (Dinner, pre-climb supper, breakfast)
Everything else not listed above is for you to provide.
Also, here are some tips for you would-be climbers:
- Jungle Jack Backpackers is not recommended for hikers with strict schedules. As he gets the cheap prices from cancelled slots, it might not be everyday that he gets a spot for his guests. So make sure to allot at least a day of adjustment from your preferred date of climb.
- Contact Uncle Jack via Facebook at least a week before you arrive. Then call him once you are in Kota Kinabalu at least 3 days before your hike date.
- Uncle Jacks facebook page is here and his number is +60 10-947 7509
- Bring lots of thermal clothing. You don’t have to bring lots of things during the hike. No need for tents and cooksets. Just fill your bags with everything you have to keep you warm.
- Trekking poles are recommended, but remember that they can’t be brought in carry-on luggage for flights.
- Prepare for any chance of altitude sickness.
- There are bathrooms along the route but there are no tissues. Bring your own and remember that wet wipes aren’t flushable!
- Bring drinking water as Laban Rata sells bottled water at an amazing RM14 (~Php182) per liter. If not, then you can risk boiling the mountain water there using an electric kettle provided.
- Bring snacks as the 6km trail doesn’t have any stores along the way.
- Do not underestimate the cold!
This is one hike I won’t be ever doing again. But I am glad to have done it as it gave me an experience of a lifetime. If I could do it all over again, I would definitely bring more clothing to protect me from the cold. This would have avoided the constant thoughts of death I had while ascending the rocky face of Mt. Kinabalu. I was already thinking about what they would do to my dead frozen body. Would they bring it down and take it back to the Philippines? Would they just shrug and roll it off the sloped surface? Or leave it behind as a warning like they do in Everest? We’ll never know because I survived to write this blog.
And this closes my account of the first overseas hike I’ve done. As well as the coldest and most expensive. Bebelabs and I watched some videos of the Climbathon, a race held right along the trail we just did and we were impressed by the capabilities of the runners like Sandi Menchi and Kilian Jornet. They finished the route in less than 3 hours while it took us around that long just going down from Laban Rata to Timpohon gate. Amazing.
Of course, I would like to extend my thank to my bebelabs for taking care of everything! I didn’t expect to go overseas at all, but you pushed me to be open to this experience and I learned a lot with you. Thank you and we survived this one of a kind climb. These memories with you will always be special and I can’t wait to make some more. Thank you also to my family and my officemates for understanding my absence. Thank you to Uncle Jack’s Backpacker and staff for the accommodation and for coordinating our hike. And lastly, to the Big Guy for making everything fall into place and for not letting me die up there.
I hope this blog was helpful, as most accounts of climbing via Uncle Jack’s Backpackers are quite dated. But I certify that all this information is fresh as of December 2018. If you do happen to drop by, tell Uncle Jack we send our regards.
Travel safe and cheap!