Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Majestic Mount Kinabalu - A Geological Story

Mount Kinabalu from Kundasang Town

Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in the country needs no further introduction to fellow Malaysians, though it is not very well understood geologically. Aki Nabalu as the local Kadazandusuns call it, meaning "the revered place of the dead"[1] as it is believed that the spirits of the dead will reside on the mountain when one passes away. It is however, popularly translated to 神山 (pinyin: shén shān) in Chinese meaning Mountain of the Gods.

View of the peaks of Mount Kinabalu from near the Kinabalu Park's Timpohon entrance

Geography and Location
The tallest point, Low's Peak is at 4095 m above sea level[2], and is 1453 m higher than Malaysia's 2nd tallest mountain, Mount Trus Madi at 2642 m above sea level[3]. It is often touted as the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, this is in fact disputable. Some might have heard of Puncak Jaya in the Indonesian Province of Papua (Irian Jaya) as the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia at 4884 m,[4] but the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia is actually Mount Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, which is part of the Himalayan Mountain System, at 5881 m.[5] There are also many other mountains in Myanmar above 5000 m tall and in Papua, above 4500 m tall! See the List of Southeast Asian Mountains.

Peak of Puncak Jaya
Alfindra Primaldhi, Wikipedia

While there are 9 mountains listed on the list that are taller than Mount Kinabalu, those in Papua are geographically considered to be in the continent of Oceania and those in Myanmar are bordering southern China (but some still consider that as part of Southeast Asia). So, the claim of Mount Kinabalu as the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia might be accurate, depending on the geographical definition. Within political borders, however, that claim is far from true.

Myanmar's Hkakabo Razi

Climbing Mount Kinabalu has a good explanation of Mount Kinabalu's geology:
Mount Kinabalu is the youngest large mountain on earth today. The whole structure of the granite dome has been pushed through the sandstone in about a million years, which is exceptional young in geological terms. Mount Kinabalu thus is a huge granite dome, pluton or batholit that was pushed up from the earth’s 1-1.5 million years ago by the hardening of a mass of molten rock that rose beneath the sedimentary rocks of the older Crocker Range. The sandstone and soil that once covered the granite have been eroded to reveal the underlying bare granite rock. During the Pleistocene Period at about 100,000 years ago, the mountain was covered by ice and glaciers which flowed down its slopes, scouring its surface in the process and creating the 1800 m deep Low's Gully on its north side. The ice fields covered some 5,4 square kilometres, and projected into two glaciers with moraines. Only the sharp summit peaks projected through the ice. The ice sheets disappeared 3,000 years ago, but the glacier-smoothed slopes of the summit plateau and the jagged ice-plucked peaks still bear witness to the icy past. No snow falls on the mountain today and there are rare reports of ice forming in the little rock pool at the summit, this is the ‘Sacrifice Pool’, it was a traditional site of offerings to the mountain spirits.[6]

Low's Gully
Source: Universitas Bergensis

Mount Kinabalu is essentially a massive pluton formed from granodiorite which is intrusive. It is still pushing up at the rate of 5 mm per annum.[2] The glacier at 100,000 years ago, cuts the mountain and formed Low's Gully, a huge U shaped gorge 1.5 km large, splitting it into the "two sides of Kinabalu East and Kinabalu West".[7] This gorge led many to assume that Mount Kinabalu is an extinct volcano, which is untrue. Volcanoes, extinct and active do exist in Malaysia though in the Semporna Peninsula. See my previous post here.

Low's Gully
Source: Stoncel
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is definitely worth a visit as it's the only place in Malaysia where one can find an alpine forest, only mountain over 3000 m high, and the geological features will just blow you away! A climb up the mountain, however is becoming very unaffordable due to efforts to limit visitors in order to protect the mountains.

[1] Mount Kinabalu, The Legends of Mount Kinabalu,
[2] Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, Mount Kinabalu
[3] Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, Mount Trus Madi
[4] Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, Puncak Jaya
[5] Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia, Hkakabo Razi
[7] Mount Kinabalu, The Geology of Mount Kinabalu


  1. wow, got references also, and very detailed description like journal,haha..

  2. Actually it is for safety to include all sources. Some people can file a lawsuit for not giving them credit on the work they've done.