Borneo’s Second Fiddle – Climbing Mt. Trus Madi

Usually the highest mountain range achieves this lofty state just because it is the lead, and as such draws the most traffic. The second-highest just doesn’t get the attention, and often then is the better wilderness experience.” — Richard Bangs

Three Americans and a Brit, on America’s birthday, were going for a trek…

Borneo is often regarded for the difficult, yet tourist riddled climb of Mt Kinabalu, its tallest peak. For this weekend, we decided to gear up, climb the lesser known, relatively deserted, Mt Trus Madi, and let freedom ring.

This was my first real mountain climb. Searching the Internet for some more information, I came to the conclusion that this climb was nothing but steep slopes and physically trying. I try not to take much of this into consideration; there is no need to build up any sort of anxiety before ever trying it myself. Better off just getting stoked on the possibilities and forgetting about the negatives!

After a four-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu to Keningau, with stops for durian and terap on the way, we met Dennis, our organizer for the climb. An adamant birder who can mimic different calls with ease, showed us a slide show of the previous group, and then our A frame stretcher hammock abode. After some salted fish and rice, we hit the hay, preparing for a 7 am departure. 

Dennis had told us a fast climb to Camp 2 would take roughly 5-6 hours. Always up for the challenge, we began to charge it. The first two kilometers were reasonably civil, walking along the river and crossing small sections of it as we wound our way towards the uphill. We spotted a Borneo Brown Pit Viper drowning head deep into a large snail shell, unsure who was actually winning the battle. We placed them to the side, letting them finish this unusual death match away from the main trail. 

Onwards we climbed, myself maybe too persistent on keeping pace with our ninja like guide, we silently hiked. One stop at the fresh stream to refill our water bottles with the delicious taste of iodine, which no lie, I was beginning to enjoy. We pushed on, stopping to spot beautiful Golden Naped Barbets and Ashy Drongos filling the air with noises other than the thumping of my heart.

The climb up to Camp 2 was pretty focused, cruising up the old logging road until we came across the beginnings of the enchanting ultramafic forest. For the last hour or so we leapt across springboards of moss-covered roots, slowing our pace to take in the beauty until we arrived at our destination for the day.

Camp 2 took us only four and half hours to get to, so we were officially the fastest guests Dennis and his guides have had. This was an ego booster, but then a realization in how unnecessary the quickness was when we were left baking in the sun for half of a day. The rest of the day was spent eating rice and canned pork, bird watching, and collecting awesome sun burns on our backs in preparation for the 2 am climb to the summit.

Looking out at Camp 2  © Charles Ryan

Looking out at Camp 2
© Charles Ryan

1:19 am and we hear “Charles! Charles are you ready?” – Our guide speaking to my friend Charlie. 

“What the f—“ I hear mumbled in the stretcher hammock next to me. “It’s 1 in the morning and it’s raining, I’m not getting up.” He said.

Well…something along those lines anyway. In all honesty it was foggy at that hour, but I remember grumblings of a possible mountainous manslaughter if he tried to make us get up an hour early.

Thoroughly pleased with the civil conversation that went down, we all fell back asleep until the rain stopped and it was 2 am.

Waking up around an hour later, we were pleased to hear the rain had subsided for our ascent, so we mixed up some 3 in 1 Nescafe coffee, dropped some iodine in our collected river water, turned on the torch and hit the trail.

I forgot to mention, my brand new torch had stopped working around 12 hours after purchasing it, but that’s a rant for another time, and a lesson learned about the Chinese black market of outdoor gear. Thankfully I was able to borrow another, and march ahead.

The night was black, the little lights we had clouded by the fresh layer of post rain haze. Again, our guide was ninja like, this time with the cover of the night sky to hide him ahead. And again, I felt the need to follow in his footsteps, like Ricky Bobby about to make the slingshot move.

We had heard about the steep ascent to the peak of Mt Trus Madi, and that its comparisons in difficulty to Mt Kinabalu lie within it. It’s funny, because normally in the jungle we are so cautious with our every step and especially our hand placement. But when its pitch black and you’re on a Freedom expression mission, you throw all that away and grab whatever the hell will help you up that 80-degree slope.

Flashlight in mouth, we trekked on, climbing natural ladders formed from the moist, moss covered root systems of the ultramafic forest. Pulling ourselves up ropes like we were in 5th grade gym class, the slopes seemed to extend into the night, nothing to gauge as a finish line yet in sight. We followed the light of our guide, who at times seemed to be directly over us.

You forget how cold it is outside when you are sweating like crazy, but then your backpack happens to hit an ice bucket of a pitcher plant, and it pours down your back. Consider that my ALS Ice Bucket challenge that’s sweeping the nation. This happened time and time again, from unsuspecting pitcher plants hanging by the thousands above us.

Three and a half hours later, we summit. For myself personally, it was a great accomplishment. For my first mountain summit, I felt ecstatic, amazed, and exhausted. So we got in our warm, dry clothes, hunched over and took a nap. Don’t worry though, the sun had ATLEAST another 45 minutes to rise, and it was so cloudy we weren’t going to see it anyways. Unfortunate, yes, but the feeling of accomplishment did not dwindle because of it.

After the nap, we made our way out of the mist and into the most spectacular forest I’ve seen. The sun illuminated the dark path we’d walked for hours, shining light on the thousands of pitcher plants above us, to our right, and to our left, brightening the dew covered reddish green moss that laid at our feet. Highlighting every little root cavern we climbed through and around to get to our peak.

Mt. Trus Madi summit  © Charles Ryan

Mt. Trus Madi summit
© Charles Ryan

I felt the need to charge to the top, but on the way down, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in Fern Gully or something. I can’t even remember that movie, but the title seems appropriate. The forest was stunning, and felt mystical.

© Charles Ryan

© Charles Ryan

© Charles Ryan

© Charles Ryan

We made our way down to the first peak, taking in the sights of Sabah we couldn’t at the top, and continued on our 12 km trek to the bottom.

The home stretch was supposedly just 1km, but this was easily the longest kilometer of my life. Toes beaten and bruised, legs wobbly and ready for that long car ride, mind exhausted and filled with joy all at the same time, Mt. Trus Madi provided gorgeous forests, and exciting trekking without the crowd, and most importantly for the occasion… The feeling of true freedom.


4 thoughts on “Borneo’s Second Fiddle – Climbing Mt. Trus Madi

  1. Dear Ryan

    We (3 friends of mine and I) are currently also planning to climb Mt Trusmadi in the upcoming month of August. Although we are not really experienced hikers and climbers we don’t want to pay extra charge most of travel agencies intend to charge us. That said, we would greatly appreciate it if you share with us how the climb organization was done and how much it cost you.

    Thank you very much for a beautiful and very valuable reading material.



    • Hi Dmitry!

      Apologies for the late response, just got back to wifi. Mt Trus Madi is a great climb and can be difficult at some points because of its steep grade, but even for inexperienced hikers it is well worth it.

      I used Sticky Rice Travel, and they are great. Fun, young guys who are extremely knowledgable about the flora and fauna you come across out there. I can’t quite recall the price, but I know it was not expensive relative to other agents. They will also handle your transportation to and from the mountain.

      Have a look on their website

      Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy your trip to Borneo! It is my favorite place in this world thus far!

      Take care,


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