The Crazy Climb to Mount Kinabalu - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Crazy Climb to Mount Kinabalu

The Crazy Climb to Mount Kinabalu

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because it’s not an adventure without thrill-seeking peril.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Imagine that you’re dangling on iron rungs, rails and cables — not unlike a gymnast braving a balance beam. Now, put yourself on the rock face of a majestic mountain, 13,000 feet in the air, with billowing clouds and blue skies beneath you. You’re on misty Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s tallest peak, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a vastly underrated destination in the region — no thanks to big, fat brother Everest. 

While Mount Everest has “Rainbow Valley,” a snowy graveyard of mountaineers who failed to reach the world’s tallest summit, Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu is much more accessible for the average Joe who wants the thrill without the kill. This peak boasts the world’s highest via ferrata — a system of balance beams, suspension bridges and monkey bridges — snaking up the tropical mountain’s ascent for the final 4,000 feet. Locals call it “the vertical playground” because the route traverses corners of the plateau that normally can’t be reached without the right safety equipment. Don’t worry, it’s completely secure; the youngest climber has been a sprightly 6-year-old boy, says Sokid Nabalu, a via ferrata safety guide and your friendly neighborhood daredevil. But in any case, it’s “designed for the brave,” he adds. 

As legend has it, Mount Kinabalu is a sacred place where the souls of the dead “rest on their way up to their creator in the sky.”

Mount Kinabalu is also quite spiritual, and not just because its climbers are hovering at a death-defying height overlooking the scenic Borneo jungle and South China Sea. As legend has it, Mount Kinabalu is a sacred place where the souls of the dead “rest on their way up to their creator in the sky” — mountaineers stop at several points during the four-to-six-hour upward hike to pray and pay their respects. The mountain “watches over Kota Kinabalu; it’s truly majestic and contagious,” says Joanne Swann, CEO of Dive Downbelow, a scuba dive shop and travel center. Before mountaineers make their final ascent, there’s a mandatory overnight stop at 11,000 feet, where there are plenty of huts, resorts and guesthouses in all price ranges to stay in. The other mandatory costs do add up quickly; with the park entrance fee, climbing permit, shuttle buses and a mountain guide, most people end up forking over $300 to $400 for two-day packages.

Moreover, nature reared its ugly head when a magnitude-5.9 earthquake struck in June, killing 13 people and injuring many during their climb. The mountain’s pathways were closed for two months for repair. Now, Mount Kinabalu is slowly opening back up with new, earthquake-carved routes and a band of adventurous trekkers prudent enough to snag one of the limited climbing permits. The last few miles of the summit trail — much of the via ferrata route — is off-limits until next year; until then, there are four uphill miles of gurgling streams and colorful rocks to hike and you don’t need to be Captain America-fit to make the ascent. Still, the via ferrata “can get tiring after awhile,” especially since you’ve just climbed to the summit, says Gina Cheong, who spent 15 hours trekking up and down the mountain a few weeks before the earthquake.

Despite nature’s whims, Mount Kinabalu is still one of Southeast Asia’s best-kept secrets, says Swann: “As hard as the climb is, it draws people back time and time again.” As Mount Kinabalu’s via ferrata shows, perhaps there are better ways to explore a new destination than on your own two feet.


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories