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When planning to backpack through Southeast Asia, I imagined scurrying through bustling night markets, meandering on serene beaches and savoring exotic, spice-laden dishes. These were the experiences for which I was prepared. What I failed to realize was the potential for a striking, incredible trek.
At 13,435 feet, Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu is the fifth highest peak in Southeast Asia. But this does not diminish the satisfaction of reaching its summit, Low’s Peak — a feat in and of itself. And better yet, a few hundred meters below the piercing point lays Asia’s only via ferrata, Italian for “iron road.”
The iron road path consists of steel rungs, cables and rails secured into the rock face on a mountain slope, allowing an average climber to access previously unreachable spaces along a mountain’s trail. Climbers are attached to the cables with carabineers and led through the via ferrata with a professional mountaineering guide.
To access the via ferrata, my fellow hikers and I flew into the Kota Kinabalu airport and stayed at Kinabalu Backpackers hostel. The next morning, we were picked up by the Skyland Adventures van that took us to register at the Kinabalu Park Headquarters. The two-day, one-night hike began at Timpohon Gate around 8 a.m. A mountain guide was assigned to my group and led us on a five-hour uphill hike to Laban Rata rest house, about three quarters up the Mount Kinabalu slope. Here, we enjoyed a buffet style dinner with about 200 other climbers.
The next morning, we woke up at 2 a.m. to begin the climb to the Low’s Peak summit to view the sunrise. The last push to Low’s Peak is made in darkness, with headlamps and a rope to guide you all the way up.
Climbers descend Low’s Peak and access the via ferrata near the Laban Rata rest house. This is where the start of the via ferrata lies, and where I was able to feel my life literally hang in the balance.
Walking across a tightrope-like cable suspended at over 11,811 feet high was my favorite part of the via ferrata. The achieved view of Borneo is one very few have the opportunity to gaze upon. Though this is not for the faint of heart (or those with a fear of heights), journeying the trail of Mount Kinabalu’s via ferrata is absolutely unforgettable.
Around $300 per adult, the cost of the trek includes a climbing permit, climbing insurance, a mountain guide, entrance fees, a one-night stay at the Laban Rata rest house, five meals and access to Low’s Peak and the via ferrata. Travelers should book at least one month in advance to guarantee reservations in the Laban Rata rest house. I recommend packing non-perishable snacks such as protein bars to supplement the brown bag lunch provided. Water refill stations are available along the path.
Travelers choosing to reach the summit should be physically active and in good shape. Even average or above average hikers can complete Mount Kinabalu’s trek, but should begin their ascent earlier to allow enough time to climb. Travelers should also consider what time of the year they pursue Mount Kinabalu, as the rainy season requires shoes with good tread and a light but sturdy poncho. Layered clothing and gloves are recommended to transition from the warmer base to the much colder and near freezing atmosphere near the peak.
Climbing Mount Kinabalu gave me a deep appreciation for Sabah, Malaysia — “the land below the wind.” The ascent up Mount Kinabalu has completely altered my notion of Southeast Asia as a place best suited for cultural learning — it is also a hiking enthusiast’s dream journey.