Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven
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Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven

By Shivya Nath

DAUNTING and thrilling, climbing Mount Kinabalu is an adventure you’ll never forget.

Few travel adventures in my life have come close to the experience of climbing the twentieth highest peak in Asia – Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. It was exciting, daunting and exhilarating, in that order. It was also where I turned 21!

After a month of light training over the 12 floors of our apartment block, my brother and I flew to Borneo, and arrived at the Timpohon Gate, 90 km from Kinabalu National Park. We didn’t know then, but this national park is reason enough to visit Eastern Malaysia; beaches, islands, wildlife, the region has it all. After a compulsory briefing, we were assigned our guide, a small-built lady called Yeta who I came to know and admire over our climb. We were each handed a walking stick which we ridiculed at first but later came to rely on.

Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven

A glimpse of the Mount Kinabalu summit from the base. Pic: Shivya Nath.

The first day’s target was to climb 6 km horizontally, and 1.3 km vertically. The initial stretch was relatively easy alternating between flat clearings and small steps, amid tall trees and dense vegetation. The second half was more taxing, with steeply inclined rocks and steps, where shrubs and bushes gradually replaced the trees. The trick was to save energy by finding alternative ways to climb the rubble by using small rocks as stepping-stones and the walking stick for support. The higher we ascended, the more scenic the view became, and we were often shrouded in mist. I would typically describe it as breathtaking, but I must reserve that term for the summit.

Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven

Mist on our way up. Pic: Shivya Nath.

It is mandatory for all climbers to spend the night at Laban Rata, the midway point, or at one of its subsidiary guesthouses, before resuming the climb early the next morning. We arrived at Laban Rata in time to catch an eloquent mountain sunset, and tuck in for a few hours; on adventures like these, even scanty hours of rest are welcome. At 2am the guesthouse, housing 20-25 climbers, started brimming with activity. The weather was chilly and even our thick woolen gloves offered just enough protection. Wrapped in all the clothes we had, we set out with our guide, determined to conquer the peak. After all I had turned 21 at midnight and needed to welcome the new year in style!

The only light on the trail was from small torchlights, visible every now and then through crevices and corners. If the first 6 km were challenging, the next three were terrifying! With torches clutched between our teeth, we grabbed the climbing ropes trying to get a grip on the bare rock of the mountain. I hadn’t experienced such an adrenalin rush in all my twenty years. The dark though admittedly made the terrain less daunting.

By about 6 am, after deciding to give up a few times and battling the wind and the rain for a good half hour, we conquered the last stretch. That was it! Low Peak, 4095 m, the fourth highest in Southeast Asia, the 20th highest in all of Asia, the only that I might ever conquer, spectacular. We were above the clouds, almost touching the sky, and watching the most breathtaking sunrise of our lives. The sun gradually emerged, its rays distinctively penetrating the air, a salute to all creation, a promise that nothing is significant enough, an assurance that THIS is life. My words really can’t do justice to that feeling of being at the top of the world. It is here I began my 21st year of life, and my endless thirst for adventure.

Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven

Last stretch of the ascent. Pic: Shivya Nath.

Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven

There, but not yet there. Pic: Shivya Nath.

Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven

Sunrise, as seen from the summit. Pic: Shivya Nath.

The climb down wasn’t my favorite part. In the light of the sun, I could now see the 900m of vertical terrain we had climbed. One slip was all it would take to unite with creation again. In retrospect I don’t know how I made it back; determination and luck maybe but mostly thanks to our guide Yeta. Yeta came from a village at the foot of these mountains, and had been a guide for 12 years. She climbed the mountain on average twice a week, so by rough calculations, she’d done the trail 500 times! Phew.


Mount Kinabalu: Stairway to heaven

Descending behind a Japanese climber. Pic: Shivya Nath.

On wobbling feet six hours later we made it to our starting point, proud and tired. The adventure has housed itself in my head. Life can be short, I know, but it can also be the single most intoxicating experience.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website


About the author…

Shivya Nath (India)
Shivya is a travel blogger with a penchant for offbeat destinations that few have been to and fewer have written about. She blogs at and tweets @shivya.