Climbing Mount Kinabalu. The world's strangest mountain.
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Geology of Kinabalu
Mount Kinabalu – The World’s Strangest Mountain?
At the northern tip of the world’s third largest island, Borneo, there is a curious natural phenomenon that defies the rules of geology. Mount Kinabalu, or Gunung Kinabalu (Malay) rises in virtual isolation more than 4000 meters (13,000’) above the surroundings in the Malaysian state of Sabah. There is no deep ocean trench near Borneo and no colliding continents.* High mountains usually owe their existence to these dynamics yet there is a strange absence of either when it comes to Mount Kinabalu’s unexpected presence. Another possible answer for its lofty isolation – a hot spot perhaps; the same phenomenon attributed to Hawaii’s volcanoes, but in Kinabalu’s case, there is no lava. With the exception of Poring Hot Springs, close by, there is little thermal activity in the area. The mountain is built of a grey granitic type of rock called grandiorite. According to geologists Kinabalu is only about 1.5 million years old and the massive, not surprisingly, continues to rise about 5 mm per year. The mountain saw extensive glacial activity during the last ice age and glacial striations are visible on some of the summit peaks.
* The region was shaken by a rare 5.9 magnitude earthquake on June 5, 2015. The event triggered rock slides on Mount Kinabalu leaving many hikers stranded and at least 16 dead as of June 7.
Hiking Kinabalu. The best way to experience the mountain is by hiking. As the centerpiece of the 754 square kilometer Mount Kinabalu National Park the hike requires you to navigate some red tape, but with some advanced planning it’s easy to do. You can get to the park by bus which leaves coastal Kota Kinabalu at 0730 every morning and takes about two hours to get the park's gate. The return trip to Kota Kinabalu from the park leaves at 0800. Register at the park’s Headquarters, 88 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu, where you will be required to hire a guide. The guides are cheap but check prices ahead of time. It is also customary that you tip the guide at the end of the trip. Most of these friendly guides are local villagers and your money supports a large part of their yearly income. It's hard to believe but some rude, or stingy, hikers did not tip these hard-working people who offer to carry your bags and will give you a helping hand when needed. More amazing is that some of these guides have climbed the mountain a thousand times, or least that’s what some claim. Temperatures can drop below freezing at night so be prepared with a set of cold weather clothes.
Accommodation at the mountain’s base vary from functional to private bungalows with the usual creature comforts. If you just need a place to sleep there are facilities that sleep people in bunks, eight to a room or so, with shared bathrooms. Most hikers will stay a night at the base near the park’s headquarters and set out with their assigned guide the next morning. After you meet your guide at the park HQ (1558 meters), you will be driven to the Timpohon Gate at the 6200’ (1890 meters) elevation and begin the hike. Your destination for the day will be Laban Rata Hut (11,000’), which is 6 kilometers from the Gate, or Sayat Sayat Hut (12,500’), about 7.5 kilometers from the Gate. The latter is above the timberline - a spartan collection of low-lying and functional shelters with few amenities. The former, Laban Rata, is well staffed with a restaurant and facilities that are regularly provisioned with a network of porters. After spending the night in one of the huts, the guides will wake you up very early so that you can make it to the summit in time for the spectacular sunrise. From Laban Rata, it will take approximately 2.5 to 3 hours to reach the summit, or another 2.5 kilometers. There is no technical aspect to the climb. It just takes some conditioning and acclimation to the higher elevations. This is where you would be advised to stay in the lodging near the park’s HQ for one night and Laban Rata the second night, especially if you are not accustomed to high elevations. If you are in poor shape, the climb, which covers 7,500’ vertical feet, is not recommended. The worse part of the hike is probably the way down, which is typically done in one day and can be difficult on the knees.
Some of the superlatives of this mountain include the unbelievable range and diversity flora which includes the largest flowering plant on the planet, the Rafflesia. The top of the mountain, which is a huge domed massive, is a pin board of polished granitic peaks above 12,000’. The tallest, Lows Peak (13,435’), or 4,095 meters*, is the most popular destination for the stream of hikers and their guides. Other peaks that you will see along the route are Donkeys Ears (13,301), Ugly Sister Peak (13,228’), St. Andrew Peak (13,295’), St. Johns Peak (13,440’), Victoria Peak (13,431’), Kinabalu South (12,902’), Alexandra Peak, No Name Peak (13,132’), King Edward Peak (13,405), North Peak (12,630’), Tunka Abdel Ramen Peak (12,952'), and King George Peak (13,340’). These peaks were sculpted by glaciers of the last ice age and the most impressive residual feature left from these tropical ice sheets is the U-shaped abyss, Lows Gully, more than 3,000 feet deep and visible from the top.
*The previous accepted height was 13,455’ or 4101 meters, but the mountain’s latest measure in 1997 lost 6 meters. All other heights of satellite peaks above are from older triangulations.
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