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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Pfaff

Mastering the world's highest via ferrata - Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

I've never been the fastest hiker and have only been climbing for a couple of years. It definitely gives me a thrill, but I mostly do it to get to incredible views, and boy were the views amazing on that weekend. Trip Plan here.

Arrival & Getting ready

Landed in Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, that occupies the northern part of the island Borneo, which is part of Malaysia, but also shared by Indonesia… Asia is complicated, why do I bother. Anyway, so we landed in Malaysia and made our way to our airbnb with backpacks full to the brim. Once we got there and had settled in, things got busy. What exactly did we need for the next 2 days on the mountain? Was there somewhere we could leave the rest? Could we still hire someone to carry our way-too-heavy backpacks? How cold would it get at the summit? Surely we wouldn’t need thermal underwear & gloves, given that it was currently 30°C outside?!


To base camp

Somewhat confident, we were packed and standing outside when the van from Marvelous Borneo came to pick us up at 6am the next morning. The trip to Kinabalu National Park, also known as Malaysia‘s First World Heritage Site, took 2h and after a quick briefing we were on our way.

Starting at Timpohon Gate the first day takes around 4-6h of hiking up STAIRS. Yes, stairs! I was flabbergasted when our guide told us that this was the 3rd time he was doing the hike THIS WEEK. Very impressive, especially as those 5h the first day were really tough! Looking back at it now, it was nothing compared to the second day though...


We arrived at base camp (Pendant Hut) at 3,300m around 3pm and were greeted with hot tea and some snacks. By then the hot tea was very much appreciated as temperatures had fallen to around 5°C above 0.

Unfortunately a friend of ours was sick with altitude sickness at this point, and we were trying to make him feel better (which sadly didn’t help much). Quick tip here, if you are prone to altitude sickness, I’d definitely recommend taking some altitude sickness tablets beforehand.


Shortly after arrival we got our via ferrata briefing. Via ferrata means “iron way” in Italian and is a mountain route equipped with steel cables, ladders, and other fixed anchors, for example wooden walkways and suspended bridges. We learned that there were 2 via ferratas at the top, and we had signed up for the harder one (of course), which was also Asia's first and the highest one in the world! *Gulp*

After a nice dinner and playing cards in our base camp hut, we wrote some postcards and sent them off from the highest postbox in the world! Yes, that’s also up there. So cute!


And then we had an ice cold shower…

Ha, as IF! After putting one toe into it I immediately decided against one. Instead we went to bed early at around 7pm, as we knew we had to start the summit push at around 1am in the morning.


Accommodation was bunk-bed dorm style with sleeping bags in a room with around 10 other people, and not much heating in the hut so we slept in our clothes. We didn't sleep much.


Summit push

1am came much faster than expected, and we realised that this was it. Shaking off any leftover tiredness we started to climb, because (surprise) stairs again! It was pitch black and all of us were wearing head torches in order to see our own hands in front of our faces. Our friend with altitude sickness actually decided to push on, which was very impressive, as hiking and climbing whilst feeling nauseous must be the worst.


After continuous climbing for about 2h we got to the second part of the summit push, which was a solid granite sheet that we had to hike up on. In some areas it was so steep that we had to use pre-installed ropes to pull ourselves up. An earthquake up here would definitely be no fun and almost certainly fatal. We were pretty beat already when we got to the last check point before the summit push, which also marked the start of the big boulder climbing. At this point it was 5am and we were at around 3,900m, 200m from the summit.


Not wanting to lose any time before sunrise we pushed on, climbing over and in between giant boulders until we could see that it started to get light. Increasing our speed we pushed upwards faster, and made it to the summit in time for sunrise (including our friend, feeling even worse, who took one look at the summit view and turned around). It was cold! -5°C cold, so I was extremely glad for my thermal underwear, hat, and gloves. Nevertheless I was still freezing. Patiently waiting for the sun to rise to warm us up, we had some snacks and took incredible photos. I even took my hat off for the photo, but only for a second, as it truly is freezing at the top.



Via Ferrata

We didn’t really have much time to waste, as we still had the via ferrata ahead of us and then the entire hike back down to our initial starting point from the day before. Wowza! We were already pretty tired, and all this after only a couple of hours of sleep. Anyway, complaining didn’t help, so we made our way to the start of the via ferrata and got geared up. We peeped over the edge and froze. In front of us was a huge drop off that we had to climb down. Here we go...

We made our way down the huge drop and then traversed along the mountain to one of the most incredible view points I've ever seen (check the cover photo of this blog post!). And all the way down below we could see our base camp that we were heading for! The via ferrata turned out to be A LOT of fun: Climbing around the mountain, swinging off edges, walking across suspended bridges and taking

photos of the incredible views was totally our thing. The views were especially stunning and we had great fun jumping from wall to wall whilst taking photos of each other. At the same time we were very aware of the height though, remembering that this really was the highest via ferrata in the world, and made sure we always had 3 contact points on the mountain. Even if the third one was a pinky.


After an hour on the via ferrata we ended in a sort of jungle and literally had to swing our way down it, which was extremely fun for the first few minutes and then became quite tedious for the next hour. At this point we were knackered and looking forward to breakfast at base camp before starting the big hike down to our initial starting point at Timpohon Gate.

I’m not going to lie, the thought of possibly staying at base camp another night did cross my mind. Pushing on, we had another hike up in front of us before we could descend down all of those stairs we had come up only a few hours earlier. That hike up was very demotivating, as I couldn’t figure out why we had to go back up to go down. Mountains are strange…


Back at base camp at 3,300m, we packed our stuff and after breakfast started the looooong descent of stairs down the mountain. This last bit felt way longer than 5h. I think my legs really started to question my sanity and I fell into some sort of trance whilst putting one foot in front of the other. When we FINALLY

made it back down to the gate, we all pretty much collapsed. Our legs were done, and so were we. I think we all fell asleep in the van on the way back to the airport in Kota Kinabalu. The funniest part was actually when we tried (and totally failed) to walk up some stairs at the airport and a local person stopped and asked whether we had just done Mount Kinabalu. Apparently that was a very common site for them!


Definitely one of the most intense weekends I have done, at least physically. It was 100% worth it, but I can highly recommend doing some stairs training before you go. Oh, and keep your backpack as light as possible, as you will regret bringing every extra pair of socks whilst complaining about the stairs…

“Push yourself, because nobody else is going to do it for you!”
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