Climbing Mount Kinabalu on a Budget in 2017

One of the things we really wanted to do in Borneo was to climb Mount Kinabalu. Mt. Kinabalu is the 3rd highest mountain in South East Asia and the 20th highest mountain in the world. Standing at 4,095.2 meters, it dwarfs the surrounding peaks in Kinabalu Park.

Our first glimpse of the impressive mountain was on a boat on the way back to Kota Kinabalu (KK) from scuba diving the nearby islands. She stood proud behind the small city, lit up by the sun, her peak hidden in cloud. She looked impressive, she was begging to be climbed.

The (Unbelievable) Cost

We did some research and quickly realised that climbing this beast was going to cost us. The only option was to climb the mountain in 2 days with a 1-night stopover in a resthouse at Laban Rata 2/3 of the way up the mountain. You also need to buy a permit to climb, and they only release about 135 per day.

Many people climb with an organised tour so they don’t have to worry about securing the climbing permit or accommodation on the mountain - this peace of mind obviously hikes up the price. We had a look at the organised tours and the cheapest quote we found was with Jungle Jack for RM1,580 per person ($355/£285). The more expensive tours went up to a whopping RM2,200 per person ($493/£396)!! Wowza, that put the beautiful Mt. Kinabalu right out of our price range, even at the lower price. But we weren't deterred...

The Price Breakdown

We discovered the price is determined by 3 things:

  1. Accommodation and food on the mountain
  2. Climbing permit and insurance
  3. Mountain guide (max 5 people)

For each, there is a Malaysian price and a tourist price. By far the most expensive is the accommodation and food on the mountain, which is organised by Sutera Sanctuary Lodge. They have a monopoly on the mountain and therefore they can charge whatever they please. It costs a tourist RM980 ($220/£177) for a bunk bed and five meals over the two-day climb. Pretty crazy, considering food costs next to nothing in Malaysia. The Malaysian price is still expensive at RM651 ($146/£117) but a little more palatable.

A Bit of Digging

Chatting to some people at our hostel in KK, we heard that some tourists had managed to rock-up to the park entrance on the morning they wanted to climb and get a last-minute deal, at the Malaysian price. This was music to out ears. After finishing our PADI in KK, we hopped on a bus bound for Mt. Kinabalu.

Jungle Jack Backpacker

We decided to stay at Jungle Jack's even though we weren’t planning on paying top dollar for his tour. He was recommended to me by a good friend and everything about him online was super positive.

We definitely made the right decision because Jungle Jack is an absolute legend and we were well looked after during our stay. We ate better than we had in months! Not only that, Jungle Jack’s is only 200m from the park entrance, perfect for our covert mission to get a cheeky cut-price deal. All meals included, Jack's set us back just RM50/pp per night ($11/£9), we couldn’t have asked for better than that.

The Malaysian Price Mission

We woke up feeling refreshed after our first night at Jack’s; the beds were comfy, the food delicious and Jack was a laugh-a-minute sort of guy. With our bellies full of pancakes, we headed up to the park entrance at about 9:45am to see if there was any truth in the rumours we had heard back in KK. We enquired at Sutera Sanctuary Lodge but all that seemed available was the full RM980 tourist price. We told the lady this was too expensive and could we possibly get the Malaysian price, but she straight-up said no.

Feeling a little deflated, we headed to the tourist office to get a map of the other trails around Kinabalu Park. We were just wondering if we'd been taken for a ride in KK, when the lady from Sutera came running out of her office (quite literally) and said in a hushed voice we could climb today for the Malaysian price. Jackpot!! By this time it was almost 10am, and she said we needed to be back at the park entrance with our bags packed and permits paid, for a 10:30 start. The race was on!

We rushed back to Jungle Jack’s, threw some things in our small backpacks, grabbed some warm clothes from Jack’s stash and were back at the park entrance by 10:25am, covered in sweat and feeling like we'd just run a marathon.

At the entrance, we bumped into Leonie, a German girl who was ready to do the climb on her own. Always happy to help a fellow traveller (and to save a bit of cash) we offered to climb with her and split the price of the guide. She happily obliged and we gained a new friend in the process.

What We Paid

  • Accommodation and food: Malaysian price = RM651
  • Permit and insurance: Tourist price = RM207
  • Guide: Tourist price divided by 3 = RM76.66
  • Total price per person = RM934 or $210 or £168

Much cheaper than an organised tour and cheaper than paying the full tourist price for accommodation & food. We believe this is the cheapest a tourist could climb for, as the permit, insurance and guide fees are paid at Kinabalu Park's tourist information office, and we don't think they offer any discounts.

The Climb

Our guide, Christopher, had been drafted in last minute so we were the last team to set off up the mountain at 11:15am. The sun was shining and it was swelteringly hot. The summit path starts at around 1,800 meters and it took us about 5 hours to climb the 1,500 meters up to the resthouse at Laban Rata. It was perfect timing really because shortly after we arrived they served dinner. We went to bed pretty early as we had to be up at 2:30am the next morning for the summit push. It was just like climbing Mount Everest!

The Resthouse at Laban Rata

The Summit Push

After a light ‘supper’, our little team of three and Christopher assembled outside in the rain at 3am. We were, again, the last team to set off. Soon mine and Mikes cycling muscles kicked in and we were racing past groups of Chinese tourists being sick, leaving Leonie and Christopher far behind. We stopped and waited for them a few times but (just like on Everest) we got too cold and had to keep moving for warmth.

We summited at about 6am, and in true Mike and Hayley fashion, the weather was crap and we didn’t get a spectacular sunrise. However our spirits could not be dampened, we had climbed the monstrous Mt. Kinabalu and we felt like we were on top of the world. The beauty of climbing a mountain in the dark is that you get see it for the first time on the way down. As we descended, the mist started to clear and spectacular views opened up in front of us.

By 8am we were tucking into a delicious breakfast back at the resthouse, by 9am Leonie and Christopher had appeared and by 10:30am we had set off back down the mountain. We reached the bottom at about 2pm, ate the tasty buffet lunch provided by Sutera Sanctuary Lodge and parted ways. We headed straight back to Jungle Jack's for some well-deserved rest.

Interesting Fact

Much like Mount Everest, the locals around Mount Kinabalu believe the mountain is sacred. Many rituals and sacrifices take place to show their respect for the beautiful mountain.

In 2015, a group of Jack's climbers - including Brits And Germans – climbed Mt. Kinabalu and took all their clothes off at the summit - you may have heard about it in the news. Two weeks later a devastating earthquake shook the mountain which left 18 dead. The mountain paths were destroyed and thus Mt. Kinabalu was closed for a period of time. After they fixed the summit route, they reopened the mountain but the price for tourists skyrocketed directly because of this incident. The locals blame the tourists, and Jack, for the quake and consequently the deaths of their friends and colleagues.

After the earthquake, Jungle Jack was investigated and it was found he may not have been operating his hostel completely above board. He had to be protected by the police as the locals were very angry and upset and no longer wanted him on their mountain. He was ordered to leave his premises and Jungle Jack had to move from his hostel with 50+ beds and a stunning view of the mountain to where he is now, with just 8 beds and no view of the mountain. So as it happens we stayed in Jungle Jack #2.


Travelsome's Two-cents

  • Even with these tips, climbing Mt. Kinabalu is still expensive, however, it is worth doing. Not only are the views spectacular, you also get a great sense of achievement at the top. It also employs many local people; there are at least 230 mountain guides and, unlike Everest, all supplies are carried up by manpower (no yaks!). Porters can carry as much as 50kg up the mountain at one time, getting paid RM5 per kg.
  • Despite being overpriced, the rest house at Laban Rata is nice. The rooms are small, cosy and comfortable - just 8 beds in our dorm. All five meals were plentiful and delicious. The only complaint I have is that the hot water comes from solar panels, which means no sun = no hot water! And water is pretty damn cold 3,273 meters up a mountain!
  • If you don't mind an element of uncertainty, don't book a tour, just turn up at the park entrance and try to grab yourselves a bargain. This is definitely a case of if you don't ask, you don't get. They don't want to give their accommodation away for cheap if they don't have to, but they would rather that than have empty beds! Don't be afraid to walk away to show you mean business. The time to go is just before 10am. It worked for us on the very first day we showed up! We hope it works for you too.
  • A word of advice: Have your mountain bag packed before you go to enquire at Sutera Sanctuary offices. This way you will avoid the total chaos we had of trying to pack our bags in 10 seconds flat!!