Climbin’ Mt. Trusmadi and Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia


The original plan was to climb Mount Kinabalu (4092m) in two days. However, a persuasive argument from ex-Pat Sin Leng/Plover Cove owner Hannes Niggli was enough to convince us that only wussies take two days to climb Mount KK. Here’s the email he wrote to us:

hey guys , i saw your conversations regarding KK on FB .
somehow i can hardly believe that you are planning to stay over that stupid hut on the way to top !!!
its less then one hour from laban rata to the top so why for gods sake would you stop there ?
you have to beat the clouds which develop on or before 10am and there is an earliest starting time but if you start at 7am (maybe even earlier possible ) then you can make it before 10 .

i have done this with my fit girlfriend in 1999 and we went up and down in 5 hours or less . we beat the clouds .

if you stay over in this hut , then you may meet people who have never hiked or so…those maybe need to stay over….but not you guys .
are you crazy ?

one month ago some reasonably fit people from my dragonboat team also went up , also in one go…..
in case you have some unfit people with , then you may split up on way up , shoot up to the top and go back down ( maybe 25 minutes ) to laban rata and wait for them. then stay over (with all the idiots and turtles) and make another attempt the next morning .

so you have two climbs (which give you better potision for ownership….)…….

dont be stupid .

as you have to rent a human guide , make sure you request a guide who is fit and has participated in the yearly race .
we have done the same , but he still could hardly follow us ……and to suffer as we made him was not really on his plan….but he made it…on the decent he had no chance follwing us.

if you really need two days for this hill , then i recommend you also introduce this to sharp peak….on first day just hike to ham tin beach , stay over in a bungalow, get up at 3am in the morning and attempt sharp peak , from ham tin to top of sharp peak it will take longer then from laban rata huts to KK .

just my 2 cents .

anyway enjoy it !

rgds hannes

ps : vince , if you really take 2 days for that hill , i will insist that your name to be changed to turtle… more express…..

Any real man after reading that email would have droped the 2-day plan. We did the same. We didn’t want to lose face and I didn’t want to be called a ‘turtle’. So, we settled on a one day trip. That left one question unanswered: what do we do for the two other days we had at Kinabalu? The plan was to be there from June 2nd to June 6th and climb Kinabalu on June 5th (Sunday).

Enter Joanne Cotterill of Borneo Dream.

We came to know of Joanne through Romain who had taken her diving class before. I wrote to her asking for suggestions on what to do. She came back with some touristy walk-in-the-park kind of idea. I resisted and explained that we were super fit trail runners. She then came back with an itinerary for Mount Trusmadi (second highest mountain in Kinabalu – 2640m). The attraction was that it was supposed to be a pristine forest. The city equivalent would be like a Grade A building in Central, Hong Kong. This was supposed to be a ‘Grade A’ forest. And, as several internet sites had warned, it was also supposed to be a much, much tougher climb than the famous climb to Mt. Kinabalu. We were quite easily sold on the idea (although it came at a super steep price – RM 1950 per person!)

June 2nd 2011
The team was supposed to consist of Romain (who was supposed to join us for the Mt Kinabalu climb alone and go diving for 3 days prior to that), Vivien and I, but Maggie, after having learned about the trip 2-3 days before, also wanted in on it. We managed to get the required permits for Mt. Trusmadi done in time for her as well. Actually, they originally said it would take 2 weeks to arrange the permits, but as we all know, “time is money” and therefore, money can buy time! It pretty much took one day to get the permits done for her!

We flew the budget airline Air Asia from HK to KK. After including the cost of food on the plane, cost of breathing oxygen in the cabin, cost of being allowed to fart in the cabin, cost of putting the hand luggage in the overhead compartment, etc, etc, the total bill came up to around HKD 3K per person for a return flight. We reached KK at about 10pm.

Our hostel was a clean and cheap hostel (70 Ringit for a two person room) called Kota Kinbalu backpackers’ lodge.

Kitchen in the lodge

The Room

June 3rd 2011
Get up time was 5.30am! Our guide Alex was supposed to meet us outside the hostel at 6am to take us to Tambulan, a 2-hour drive from KK. Alex greeted us with a nice, big smile and we responded with half the intensity of his smile as we were all still massively sleep-deprived! That trip to Tambulan from KK was a welcome two hour extended sleep in the car.


From Tambulan, we had to change to a 4-wheel drive to get to the start of Mt. Trusmadi.

This is the reason why we needed a 4-wheel drive!

It felt like we were riding a wild horse as the car swerved left and right in the slush!

That ride certainly woke us up and we were ready to begin the 3.5km hike up to Cibon cabin where we were to spend the night and climb to the summit the next day morning for the sunrise.

Our group at the start of the hike. Alex is the bald guy with a big smile! We’re all wearing anti-leech socks!

The forest was beautiful and pristine. The trail was marked every 100m and the trees were covered in rich carpet-like moss. The different shades of green were glimmering under the effect of the sunlight – while it lasted. We are also blessed with heavy rain en route (God also gives you things you didn’t ask for!)

The group – the guys on either end are the guides appointed by the forestry department

Vivien is either enjoying the scenery or thinks he is Jesus Christ!

You find these shelter points every 1km or so

Forest pics

Insect dangling from the canopy

Rich carpet like moss everywhere

Ropes and ladders in the steep areas of the climb

Pitcher plant for which this trail is famous for. Looks like a jug, holds water and unsuspecting insects that go in there are killed and eaten as the water is slightly acidic!

And we finally reached Cibon Cabin! The cabin was full! A bunch of school children were also visiting the same time as us and most of the beds were occupied.

And thanks to the heavy rain + intense sweat, we reached WET! Very wet! Our clothes were full of moisture and on top of that, it was cold at Cibon Cabin and there was no electricity.

The toilet was at the back of the cabin and it was a very basic squat toilet. A pipe containing water was the only luxury! This is when I missed my apartment in Hong Kong. It made me realize that the toilet is the best invention that man has ever made!

Our clothes soon started to stink. The sweat + slush + rain + unclean environment was a perfect recipe for a stink bomb. This stink bomb felt even more dangerous than any other weapon of mass destruction and the only way to contain it was to use Ziplock bags! And, that’s what we did. We had a load of wet/muddy/sweat and rain drenched stinky clothes compressed inside Ziplock bags. It was sealed airtight!

Cibon Cabin – Maggie and Vivien in their bunk bed

Me chilling in my 1st class bed

Protecting myself from cigarette smoke

We somehow had to sleep and get up at 3.30am the next day to make the 1.5km journey to the summit of Trusmadi!

June 4th 2011
Non-stop school children chitchat from my neighbors in this Taj Mahal woke me up sooner than expected. It was 2.30am. Well, there’s only one thing to do when you wake up early in a place where there’s nothing to do and that’s nothing! So, I was staring at the spider on the bunk bed above me until 3.00am. Soon, Maggie yelled “guys, it’s three thirty” from the neighboring upper bunk bed. Vivien was the last to get up. There was no way I was going to walk in the slushy, pitch dark environment outside to do my morning wee. Luckily for men, natural toilets are abundant in nature. Anyway, before I divulge too much unnecessary information, let me get back to the events that unfolded.

After “freshening up”, we were all set to climb to the summit. The walk to the summit was only supposed to be 1.5km long but it took as a whole two hours! That’s because with each step, our shoes sunk deeper and deeper into the soil. Removing each sunken leg from the slush took an enormous amount of effort!

Putting on a brave and tired face at 3 in the morning before the summit climb!

900m to the summit!

Pitcher, pitcher everywhere!

Slush, slush and more slush!

And we reached the summit!

Now, if I say that the view from the summit was majestic, nothing like I had ever seen, etc, etc, I would be lying! Our view from the summit was very.. let’s say ‘white’. And I mean clouds!

What we did see however, was remnants of a helicopter crash that happened about a month ago. Apparently, someone was trying to land on top of Mt. Trusmadi but the sudden wind crashed the chopper!

Chopper down

Inside the fallen chopper

The fallen chopper somehow sent both my legs and bowels in motion! I was on max speed back to the great Cibon Cabin to use the fine loo there! Anyway, I will spare you the details.

At about 10am, Maggie, Vivien and I (along with our super stinky clothes) made our way back to the start of the trail and eventually to Tambulan on the 4-wheel drive and then to KK.

Goodbye Cibon Cabin

Cleanin’ my shoe with a big broom at the end!

The 4-wheel drive takes as back to Tambulan through the slush!

So, in the evening, after reaching KK and our Backpackers’ lodge, we met Romain who had finished his diving lessons. We also had to arrange permits for the Kinabalu climb the next day but the guy who drove us to Mt. Trusmadi did that for us. He had the equivalent of ‘Guangxi’ in Malaysia.

Romain had rented two scooters for us to ride from the lodge to Kinabalu park the next day. We still had the evening to kill and two scooters on hand. So, we decided to hit the beach. Romain and I were the drivers while Maggie and Vivien were the pillion riders.

Maggie was left with an easy choice – which handsome guy would she pick to drive her to the beach? The answer, of course, was me! (sorry, Romain). Romain had the fine privilege of driving a fellow dude to the beach.

The handsome guy gets the girl

The second handsome guy is stuck with the dude

The beach was fantastic. Glittering water against the backdrop of a gorgeous sunset!

The KK beach!

The group

After a round of drinks at a nearby bar, it was time to end the day and prepare for the Kinabalu climb the following day.

June 5th 2011
Get up time was 5am! Romain and I rode our little bikes to the park while Vivien and Maggie decided to cab it for an extended two hour sleep. Maggie assures me that her decision to take a cab had nothing to do with my driving skills!

What a nice bike ride that was! There are two great pleasures in life. One is running on a mountain trail and the other is riding on a mountain road. Today was filled with both pleasures!

Romain on his bike en route to Kinabalu park

The view of Mt Kinabalu – gorgeous day and majestic look!

There is an event held every year in October which involves running up to the summit of Kinnabalu from the park entrance and back! Needless to say, the participants are definitely crazy (and fast). Some crazy, fast guy actually managed to run from 1900m (park entrance) to 4092m (summit) in 1.5 hours and made the trip back in about 1 hour.

The hall of fame! Romain wants his name on this. I want it too but my approach involves some vandalism and graffiti

Taking a group picture at the start

The weather couldn’t have been better. It made up for the crappy weather we had on the summit of Mt. Trusmadi the previous day. The trail to the summit consisted of two big parts. The first part was a relatively steep trail from 1900m (park entrance) to 3000m (to a lodge called Laban Rata – reminded me of Ratan Tata – Indian billionaire). The second climb was from 3000m to 4092m (this one involved walking on a huge rock in high altitude with a steep climb at the end. It felt like we were walking on the surface of the moon).

Giant squirrel en route

Romain with our guide

A group picture on the way to Laban Rata

The lodge Laban Rata

The lunar like surface after crossing Laban Rata

Walking on that lunar like surface was a struggle for me. I was out of breath. I had to stop every 3 minutes to take deep breaths. The view was quite literally breathtaking!

Breathtaking views of Kinabalu

And finally..

On the summit of Mt. Kinabalu

On the way down, I decided to show off my racing skills to our guide. I wanted to show him what a fast runner I was and how he was going to watch me run in awe. I put my earphones on, started pumping music and hit the engines. Romain was on jet fuel while I was on mere petrol. He dashed down like a rocket. I had no hope of catching him but the “realistic” mission was to scare the guide not Romain. Initially, I managed to create a 15 second gap between him and me but as soon as I reached the Laban Rata lodge, the older guide was just 2 footsteps behind me! I was shocked. I attributed his speed to luck and continued to accelerate. Still, the guide was only 2 footsteps behind and CHOOSING to be there as he was the guide. Not only that, he was wearing crappy footwear and talking on the phone using one hand. He was also exchanging pleasantries with the fellow guides when we were running downhill! Multi-tasking, worse footwear and faster than me!!

All my effort aimed at shaking him off was futile. 1 hour 25 minutes is what it took me to run back to 1900m and the guide finished right behind me with utmost ease as if this was a walk in the park.

Further probing revealed that this guide had actually done that crazy Kinabalu race in 3 hours 15 minutes!! I was humbled.

Nothing is more humbling that getting your ass kicked by an older guide

The beautiful weather we had in the morning changed to heavy downpour while we were on our bikes and riding back to the hostel! My glasses were fogged up, the helmet visor wasn’t working and riding at 60kmh meant that the rain felt like whip lashes on the face and eyes!

We had to stop at a fried rice place for temporary relief from the rain! We had just 11 bucks left between us. We ordered food for 9 bucks to keep a 2 buck stash just in case “shit happened”. The bill came back at 11 bucks!! (service charge!!) Shit happened sooner than expected! We then got back on our bikes and rode nonstop to the hostel, broke and drenched!

In the fried rice place to seek temporary relief from the rain

We reached the hostel at about 6pm. We did a different kind of hiking that night – hiking from one bar to another!

June 6th 2011
For a change, we got up late! Our flight back to Hong Kong was only at 4.20pm.

We headed back to the beach for lunch and then made our way to the airport!

Lunch options – Fried rice and more fried rice

This was yet another fab trip! No greater pleasure that riding a bike in the mountains or running on the mountains with friends!

After reaching my home in Hong Kong, I had to hold my breath for a good 2 minutes for a completely different reason. I was removing the stinky clothes from my bag and dumping them into the washing machine…