If you are visiting Borneo for an adventure vacation, then conquering the mystical Mount Kinabalu is not really an option - it is 'the' priority.
The mystical Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South East Asia, is strategically located at the Kinabalu National Park, a designated World Heritage Site. Kinabalu National Park is just about two hours drive from the city of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
Mount Kinabalu, which stood at around 4,095 meters above sea level, is an icon for Sabah as well as for Malaysia tourism. Therefore, it is of no surprise that every year, thousands flocked to climb or rather, trek up the mountain. Although the traditional route up Mount Kinabalu is via the Kinabalu Summit Trail at Kinabalu National Park, there is an alternative route on the other side of Mount Kinabalu called the Mesilau Summit Trail, a newer and more challenging route. This trail is definitely one for those who are more adventurous to consider seriously.
The Mesilau Summit Trail at the Mesilau Nature Park on the Mesilau plateau is about 30 minutes by road away from Kinabalu National Park or about 108 km from Kota Kinabalu.
It is advisable to stay a night at Mesilau before starting your ascent up Mount Kinabalu as the journey from Kota Kinabalu will likely to leave you rather exhausted. Take a rest and acclimatize with the higher altitude at the eco-friendly Mesilau Nature Resort, which is nestled amongst the trees at the foot of the mountain at about 2,000 metres above sea level within the Park. The resort has a total of 22 lodges and 96 resthouse beds.
As for the climb up to Mount Kinabalu, the Mesilau Summit Trail is definitely more rugged, about 1.5km further than the trail from Timpohon Gate at Kinabalu National Park. But it offers more opportunities for viewing flora and fauna. The Mesilau route is still relatively new, but some shelters and toilets have been built along the trail for the convenience of trekkers. The route is also less crowded than the old summit trail. You won't bank into many mountain climbers on the way up.
The first ascent of the Mesilau Trail does involve a climb up, then a drop into the Mesilau valley, and then another ascent to regain the lost height. You will get to see both the Kinabalu and Mesilau routes at higher ground. The trail is also more "jungle" than the traditional Kinabalu Summit Trail. When trekking uphill, it is fortunate that the trail is well laid with steps cut into the earth and thus, making walking easy.
Layang-layang (Place of Swallows) is where the Mesilau Trail meets the Kinabalu Summit Trail at 2,740m. From there onwards, you will notice that the vegetation zone is like a forest of bent and twisted silvery-grey trunks with peeling bark.
A short hike after the sixth shelter, you will reach the mid-summit (i.e., Laban Rata). Conservatively, it should take a normal fit person an average 6-7 hours to reach Laban Rata, where you will be required to stay a night at Laban Rata Resthouse or at other nearby accommodations (i.e., Mountain Huts and VIP Lodge). From there, the second and more grueling ascent will follow the traditional route all the way to the summit (i.e., Low's Peak), which will start early morning the next day at around 2 am to 3 am
The ascent should normally take a few hours but it is much more challenging than the initial ascent as the trail gets more tiring with each step up the slope as the air gets thinner and thinner. On top of this, you have to battle the freezing cold temperature (sometimes below zero degrees Celsius). If its rains and windy, it will be doubly challenging.
But once you get to the summit and catch the truly magnificent glimpse of the sunrise, you would have forgotten the tough climb. You will feel on top of the world looking down at the tiny villages and small islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu.
For those who had climbed Mount Kinabalu before via the Kinabalu Summit Trail or for those who are searching for a more challenging trek, the Mesilau Summit Trail definitely offers a fuller Mount Kinabalu climbing and adventure vacation experience. To quote an avid climber: "You have not truly conquered Mount Kinabalu if you have not conquer it from both sides of the mountain".