Known as the Roof of Borneo, 4,095m-high Mount Kinabalu in Kinabalu National Park is the island’s highest peak and a constant presence, catching the clouds and shading valleys.
A white moon hangs on the horizon like a paper lantern as climbers inch across Mount Kinabalu’s granite slopes. Ahead, a line of head-torches uncoils across the plateau. “Only an hour till dawn,” says our guide Edwin Moguring, pointing towards a rugged outcrop just visible against the inky sky. “And it looks clear at the top. We have good luck – the mountain spirits must be happy!”
Mount Kinabalu lies roughly two hours inland from Sabah’s northern coastline and looms on the skyline resembling the teeth of a great granite saw, surrounded by tropical forest. Officially, the mountain is a part of the nearby Crocker Range, but its isolated position gives it the look of a gigantic volcano. In fact, the mountain was formed by the movement of tectonic plates around 10 million years ago, which thrust the underlying rock skywards and formed Kinabalu’s sprawling summit plateau.
In previous centuries, local Dusun tribes believed Kinabalu was the resting place for their ancestors’ spirits; its name translates as ‘the revered place of the dead’. The first recorded ascent was in 1854 by the British colonial administrator Hugh Low, after whom Kinabalu’s highest point is named. Nowadays, it’s considered one of Asia’s most accessible mountains, with around 40,000 people attempting the climb every year.
“The mountain can be fickle,” says Edwin, as he clambers over the shattered boulders beneath Low’s Peak, one of several rock towers that make up Kinabalu’s summit. “I’ve been climbing it at least twice a week for nearly 10 years, and every day is different. The weather changes so quickly.” The ascent is usually split over two days. Day one involves a six-hour trek from the park entrance at 1,866m to the resthouse at Laban Rata at 3,262m, followed by a three-hour climb to the top at 4,095m the following dawn. Along the way, the trail passes through distinct habitats, from steamy rainforest to montane meadow to rocky plateau. Some sections are steeply stepped; others wind their way through a jumble of rocky slabs and knotted roots.
Beyond Laban Rata, the trail disappears altogether as it ascends sharply towards Kinabalu’s apex, and climbers are forced to rely on a series of fixed ropes hammered into the granite. While the views from the summit are spectacular, it’s Kinabalu’s natural diversity that makes it memorable: pitcher plants and orchids bloom alongside the trail, including many species found nowhere else in Borneo. Little wonder the mountain has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000.
“Kinabalu has many moods,” notes Edwin, clambering onto the crest of Low’s Peak as the first rays of dawn break at the summit. “Some days, it helps all the way to the top. Other days, you can feel it telling you to turn back. It’s best to listen to the mountain.” He turns to watch the rising sun, as ribbons of mist swirl around the mountainside, and Kinabalu’s towers light up like signal beacons. “Today, I think the mountain is happy we came,” he says.