Rising 4095m from the tropical depths of Borneo’s Sabah region, Mt Kinabalu is the giant between the mountains of Papua New Guinea and the Himalayas.
It is sacred to locals, who believe the spirits of the dead rest around its ragged peak. With no technical equipment needed, Mt Kinabalu is one of the most accessible mountains in the world to scale, but it is by no means easy: only about 10 per cent of the 40,000 who attempt the climb each year reach the summit.
The walk itself is physically demanding, but it’s the effects of high altitude which force many to turn back after an overnight stay at Laban Rata resthouse, 3272m up the peak.
The going gets tough
We set off along the Mesilau Trail, through thick rainforest, past waterfalls with strangler figs towering above and orchids and ferns scattered along the fringes.
This is where the carnivorous pitcher plants exist, some with prey-trapping water-filled cavities large enough to devour a rat.
About 1200m up, the rocks are covered in a blanket of moss and the trees have thinned out into conifers and oaks.
By the third hour, the lack of oxygen in the air is making the going much tougher. You may need to pace yourself to acclimatise to the altitude, as at 3000m, you only have 70 per cent of the oxygen you would normally have at sea level.
Every so often a local porter laden with up to 30kg of food or climbers’ backpacks scurries past, defying the difficult conditions and gliding up the seemingly endless, and awkwardly spaced steps.
As I draw closer to the layer of cloud, these muddy clay steps become steeper and further apart, and it’s impossible to gauge my progress.
As the vegetation begins to clear, I can see what appears to be a tiny white shed. The terrain now is different – twisted alpine trees and shrubs with bearded moss hang from branches.
With a renewed burst of energy, the Laban Rata resthouse in sight and the grey granite peaks of the mountain as a backdrop, I figure the end is near.
As I cruelly discover the next morning though, this tiny shed, which is actually a three-storey resthouse and restaurant, always appears closer than it is.
At peak performance
The words of encouragement from those on their way down are motivation to push on.
While the record for the fastest round trip is two hours and 39 minutes, most take two days to reach the summit and back (walking about eight hours in total). Today we have to cover 7.6km before stopping for the night.
Despite everyone’s best attempts to catch an early night ahead of a 2am rise, most found they couldn’t sleep due to the high altitude.
In complete darkness, three of us and our porter set off up the slippery ladder-like stairs.
The next 15 minutes are the most gruelling, until our bodies are able to adjust to the pace and high altitude.
The short, twisted vegetation makes way for a mass of bare granite where a series of thick white ropes, somehow secured to the rock face, guide us towards the peak.
Here, the trail narrows to a 70-degree angle in places and in such darkness a head torch is essential as you need to use your hands for the guide ropes.
Looking back at the resthouse below, a trail of flashlights vanishes into the distance like a string of glowing ants.
Getting a good view
As the dull pre-dawn light arrives we can see the South Peak and upsweeping St John’s Peak to the left. Just when I can’t imagine anything surviving up here, a pair of rats run between climbers’ feet, keen to scavenge for food scraps.
Backpackers scramble for a vantage spot on Low’s Peak, the highest point on Mt Kinabalu.
We perch up close to Low’s Gully – a 1.5km sheer drop (also known as The Devil’s Cauldron) – where the view of the surrounding peaks is spectacular.
By now my hands and toes are numb, being the only person on the summit in boardshorts, but it is a small price to pay as at about 6am the sunlight bursts over the landscape below.
Faint lights of villages appear across the jungle as the blanket of cloud begins to break up below. Behind us, the summit casts a triangular shadow out across the South China Sea towards the Philippines.
The descent only takes between three and five hours, but most head back by 7am before the heat from the sun off the granite becomes uncomfortable.
We are happy to linger on the summit plateau though, soaking up the view on a clear morning. We’ve invested too much time and energy to turn back so soon.
» Dan Imhoff travelled to Borneo with Intrepid Travel (020 3147 7777). The 10-day Sabah Discovery tour is £545, plus about £87 for local payment. Visit the Intrepid store in Upper St, N1 0NU.
The highest mountains to climb on each continent
If climbing South-East Asia’s highest peak merely whets your appetite for mountain climbing, attempt the highest summits on each of the seven continents.
Asia – Mt Everest, Nepal, 8848m
Known as the Goddess of the Sky, Everest is situated in the Himalayas and has claimed 9 per cent of the lives of those who have attempted reach its summit.
South America – Aconcagua, Argentina, 6962m
Located in the Andes mountain range, you can walk the normal route to the summit of ‘the stone sentinel’ without needing climbing crampons. Altitude poses a problem here.
North America – Mt McKinley, US, 6194m
It’s said to be the coldest mountain in the world, given its combination of height, high latitude and shocking weather.
Africa – Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, 5892m
The world’s tallest walkable mountain, snow-capped Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano. You go through five different climate zones to reach the summit.
Europe – Mt Elbrus, Russia, 5642m
Elbrus is a volcano located in the western Caucasus mountain range near Georgia. Lap up the massive snow slopes and cheap vodka on this mountain.
Australasia – Puncak Jaya, Indonesia, 4884m
Technically the most difficult of the seven summits, it is hidden deep in the jungle of Irian Jaya in the Indonesian province on the island of New Guinea.
Puncak Jaya is not considered part of South-East Asia, while others argue it is not part of Australasia either.
Antarctica – Vinson Massif, 4892m
Climbing Vinson Massif offers few technical difficulties beyond the usual weather hazards of Antarctica.