Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk


Mt. Kinabalu’s Clipped Ear

I purchased this postcard in 2009 after completing my hike up Gunung Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain. It shows part of the route used by most climbers and the various peaks at the summit.

The profile of the mountain has altered slightly since this photo was taken. The magnitude 6.0 earthquake which occurred on 5th June last year caused one of the Donkey’s Ears to partially break off (the one on the left, I think).

You might recall that this quake, which caused 18 fatalities, was blamed, by followers of local beliefs, on a group of western tourists who unwisely stripped off at the summit, thereby angering the mountain spirits.

A more scientific cause of the earthquake would be Sabah’s proximity to seismically active plate boundaries.

Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk

Malaysia is not normally associated with earthquakes. West Malaysia is seismically stable although vulnerable to the affects of large earthquakes in Sumatra.

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The Indian Ocean plate is pushing under Sumatra, in the direction of Malaysia, at the rate of about 7cm per year. Large earthquakes occur periodically in Sumatra and have been known to cause buildings to shake in KL and Johor Bahru. Meanwhile the Philippine plate is moving westwards, towards Malaysia, at a velocity of around 8cm per year.


Sabah is classified as a moderately active area, seismically. The map above shows the location of earthquakes around Sabah in recent years. There have been 16 incidents in the past 20 years, mostly in the 4-5 magnitude range..  The biggest one ever recorded was a 6.2 magnitude quake in Lahad Datu in 1976.

Mt. Kinabalu’s 6.0 magnitude was not huge in earthquake terms but the energy released was still the TNT equivalent of 15 kilotons, similar to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Very frightening for the people who were stuck on the mountain at the time.

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This graphic helps put these events in perspective.

Mt. Kinabalu was closed to climbers for six months following the earthquake due to damage to the trails and facilities. It was reopened in December 2015 although the number of permitted climbers has been restricted to 120 per day. That will probably improve the experience – it was a little too crowded at the top when we went.



Mt. Kinabalu vs. Fansipan vs. Rinjani

I recently returned from climbing Mt. Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia. This was the third in a series of major peaks in South-East Asia, having earlier climbed Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia and Mt. Fansipan in Vietnam. How did they compare?

  • Height. In terms of height, Kinabalu is the highest, 4,095 metres, followed by Rinjani at 3727m and Fansipan on 3143m. Of course pure height does not the reflect actual metres climbed or the degree of difficulty. The Kinabalu climb began at Timpahon Gate which lies at an altitude of 1,866m. It was more or less a straight up (and down) route so the actual height climbed was 2,229m. With Fansipan, we started at 1,800m (Tram Ton Pass), but almost immediately dipped to 1,700m and then up to 2,200m for the camp. Then a big up followed by some dips and detours as we negotiated the mountain in front of Fanxipan before climbing up to the summit. The total height actually climbed was around 1,593 metres. As for Rinjani, the trek started at 600m, we ascended to the crater rim, 2641m, then down to Segara Anak lake (2,051m) before climbing up to the 2nd camp, 2,638m, then up to the summit, 3,726m, followed by a long march down to the road at 1,156m. The total height climbed was 3,715 metres (more than double Fansipan!). It was also by far the longest distance walked.

    Kinabalu, 4,095m
  • Difficulty. Kinabalu was probably the least difficult of the 3 climbs because the path was well defined and maintained. Steps and ropes were in place to assist climbers over the tricky spots. Having said that, it was still very hard work. Being the highest of the 3 peaks, people were more likely to suffer from altitude sickness. I found the descent brutal due to the steepness of the path and the endless rough steps over unforgiving terrain which took a toll on my tired knees. Fansipan was probably the second hardest because there was a lot of mud to be trudged through and in places there were huge boulders to be clambered over which was not easy in the wet slippery conditions. The path was poorly defined and maintained. The hardest climb was Rinjani. This was purely due to the final exhausting 1000 meters which involved clawing our way up a sheer bank of soft volcanic ash. It was also the coldest peak of the three, though Kinabalu was also freezing.
  • Views/Scenery. Rinjani had the most beautiful scenery, especially the view from the crater rim. Shame we could not see a thing from the peak at dawn due to thick cloud. Kinabalu had amazing views from the summit. Fansipan involved a lot of hiking through bamboo forests but the view from the top was also worth seeing.

  • Porters. The porters on all three climbs were great and showed impressive stamina and skill at climbing great heights despite shoddy footwear.
  • Access. Both Rinjani and Kinabalu had easy access to their starting off points, a couple of hours drive from the closest airport. Fansipan needed an overnight train trip from Hanoi to reach the start of the trail.
  • Certificate. Kinabalu’s park authorities provided an attractive certificate to commemorate the successful climb. For Rinjani, our tour operator provided a certificate of achievement. Unfortunately no certificates were issued for Fansipan.
  • Accommodation/Food. Kinabalu was well organised to handle the large numbers who climb the mountain daily. Hostel accomodation, with hot meals, showers and toilets, was available at Laban Rata (3,720m) where most climbers spent the night before the early morning trek to the summit. The Rinjani climb included two nights in tents,the comfort of which, and the quality of the food, depended on which tour operator you used. Ours was excellent and they even provided a toilet tent in an attempt to at least bury the poo, which unfortunately was strewn all over the campsites. Fansipan had one or two grim shacks where climbers spent the night but the food again was pretty good.

  • For more information about climbing Mt. Kinabalu please refer to my website Malaysia-Traveller .com  //