Sophie Radcliffe
Sophie Radcliffe is a mountaineer, cyclist, adventurer, Ironman and writer.

Mount Kinabalu

Adventure Racing and a Sunrise Summit on
‘The Revered Place of the Dead’


Kinabalu Challenge

I had travelled to Borneo for the Kinabalu Challenge. A seven day, multi-sport adventure race which ended at the summit of Mount Kinabalu. I remember the moment I first laid eyes on this iconic mountain. I had just arrived off the plane and was in the minibus on route to our jungle camp. Way off in the distance, I could see this huge slate peak rising out of the jungle and shrouded in clouds, like something from a Lord of The Rings movie. It is widely regarded as one of the world’s most rewarding trekking peaks, read on to find out why.

Adventure Racing

The race involved six days, of cycling, swimming, kayaking, running and being helicoptered through the jungle, as we made our way to the foot of Mount Kinabalu. The final day would involve climbing Mount Kinabulu followed by a celebratory party on the beach in a 5 star Hotel. It was a big challenge and a lot of fun! Borneo is a wonderful, exotic and diverse country. As I write this, I find myself gazing out of the window dreaming of a return visit.

Variety is the spice of Borneo
Borneo has so much on offer. I tried all sorts of weird and wonderful fruits, including the infamous Durian fruit that smells like death and tastes even worse. I ate noodles for breakfast and drank rice whiskey. I slept on a hammock in the jungle and was woken up by the bright light of the moon. I learned jungle craft and ran through tiny Malay villages where local kids would cheer us on. I swam in the South China Sea, which was so warm it felt like having a bath. I danced in the rain and forged long lasting friendships - always a sign of a great adventure.

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

As incredible and diverse as my experience in Borneo had been, nothing could have prepared me for the experience of climbing Mount Kinabalu. Although I had the drive and determination of an Everest mountaineer, with it being my first forray into mountain climbing, I shudder at how poorly prepared I was. No gear, for a start: I had forgotten to pack any pants and only had a pair of loose fitting Moroccan pajamas. Not ideal for a mountain that is notoriously cold and windy. Luckily I had a Berghaus jacket and a woolly hat – I would survive.

Two-day climb
You don’t need any mountaineering experience or high degree of fitness to climb Mount Kinabalu. The normal route up and down the mountain usually takes 2 days, with an overnight stay in Laban Rata at 3,272 metres. It takes around four to six hours of hiking from the start of the trail to Laban Rata. The whole trail is well sign-posted and there are chunky, slate steps cut out of the mountain side for you to climb up. The first thing you notice is how your environment changes as you gain in altitude. You begin in the lush, humid and green jungle, and as you climb the flora and fauna becomes sparse, the air dryer and the temperature drops.

Hot dinners

Relatively speaking, you can take your time climbing Mount Kinabalu; just make sure you are at the hut in time for a hot dinner! We were soaking wet and cold by the time we arrived at Laban Rata, making our arrival there extremely welcome. Some of our fellow competitors had already arrived and welcomed us with high fives and hugs. At this point, our race had finished. There were no more points to be won just a chance to relax now and enjoy the summit push in the morning.

Rain, rain, go away
The rain didn’t let up all night. We were told that if it was still raining in the morning, we wouldn’t be going any higher as it would be too slippery and dangerous. My fingers and toes were all crossed for the rain to stop. Behind the mountain hut, you can see the summit peak like jagged teeth, shrouded in clouds, the most intriguing and other-worldly mountain I had ever laid eyes on. I was desperate to get experience the summit and complete this amazing challenge.

Summit push

The following morning, we were up hours before sunrise and began the climb to the summit around 2am. It felt very cold outside and given it was middle of the night, we were wearing everything we had: boots, waterproof jackets, hats, scarves and gloves. There was help on the trail by way of ropes to pull on and steps to help navigate the trickier sections. I loved the quietness around me, although everyone was chatting away, the majesty of the mountain I was climbing created a stillness and serenity in the air. You can see a trail of head torches bobbing away up the mountain. There’s an air of adventure and the lure of the beauty of sunrise above the cloudline. I was not disappointed.

Feeling the altitude
Some climbers may start to feel the altitude at this stage – a combination between fatigue, climate and fitness levels – they can turn back to the hut at any time. If you have been through high-altitude training or can muster the strength to push through the fatigue and discomfort, it’s well worth it. After about an hour you will emerge onto the rock face ahead of the final summit push, and this is where the magic of the climb comes into full force. The first hint of light will start peeking over the horizon as you follow the white rope marking the safe way up the mountain.

Memories to last a lifetime

Around four hours after leaving Laban Rata, we were all huddled on the summit sharing body warmth until the sun came up. That moment when it starts to rise and everything around you changes continuously every minute is truly magical. The shapes, shadows, colors and the way you feel adapts as the sun breathes life into the world. You are standing on the summit of South East Asia. It’s a moment to absorb, savour and treasure forever.

photo credits: Kinabalu National Park by Milosz_M Mount View Path by Wesley Lau Kinabalu National Park Steps by Milosz_M Waterfall by Nokuro Ropes by Milosz_M Summit of Mount Kinabalu by Laserspit Sunrise by MEMEME

Plan Your Travel

When to go
All year round
How to get there
Fly to Kota Kinabalu and arrange a tour guide from there or prior to your arrival
Visitors from the U.S. and non-commonwealth countries will need a tourist visa. No visa is required for residents of commonwealth countries.
Malay. Although Tour Guides speak good English
Length of Trip
Two days
Moderate fitness needed. Children are able to climb it but must be with adults.
Laban Rata 3/4 way up the mountain, there are also hotels at the base of the mountain with great food, views and accommodation.
Food and Drinks
Need to bring food and drinks with you on the trail to last until you arrive at Laban Rata. Here, there will be dinner and you can buy food and drinks for the rest of your climb. There are local markets on the drive up to the base of Mount Kinabalu.

View 神山(Mt. Kinabalu, Timpohon Gate - Laban Rata) in a larger map