Safety and Tragedy: Is climbing Mount Kinabalu dangerous?

Hiking above the cloud.

You ask, is it dangerous (or safe) to climb Mount Kinabalu?

My answer is: It is safe, with a few considerations:
  • you need to be healthy. The mountain operator, Sutra Sanctuary Lodge, has a special note in its booking confirmation documents recommending climbers to have medical check up before attempting the climb. It also recommends climbers who suffered from certain medical conditions to refrain from climbing the mountain. Read here.
  • you can follow instructions: Listen to the rangers during briefing, follow the white rope at summit, follow advice from mountain guides and just don't do what is obviously dangerous
  • are reasonably well prepared with fitness of average people
  • well equipped with proper shoes, gloves, warm cloth (night climb to summit) and headlight (night climb to summit)
  • you can keep altitude sickness under control

Yes, it is a safe climb suitable for family outing of average healthy people. You can read more answers from others who climbed the mountain, click here.

It is safer than it looks. It is just the matter of angle.

Tragedies at Mount Kinabalu

Fatal accidents are relatively rare among climbers of Mount Kinabalu, however, just like any sport at any place, it happens. There were a few fatal accidents happened on Mount Kinabalu. We will focus on what went wrong so that we can take precaution to prevent similar event in the future.

Ellie James
On 16 August 2001, a British school girl, Ellie James, and her brother Henry James got lost in thick fogs on the way down from Low's Peak. Apparently Ellie went off to seek help while Henry waiting at the granite spot they found as shelter. Henry was rescued 6 hours later.

The search for Ellie was hampered by the worst weather hitting the area in a decade. For a week there were tropical storms and thick fogs. Ellie was found dead on 23 August 2001 at about 500m below the St John’s Peak. Mount Kinabalu Borneo website has a full account of the incident. Read here.

Her father, Bruce, gave an account to British media that "...his daughter and son Henry got lost on the Low’s trail when they headed straight instead of following the rope which shows ‘left’."

"But they took the wrong turn. Henry keeps talking to himself on how he missed the turning. The white rope is visible even in thick fog. But the fact is they did it and it was a fatal mistake," said Bruce. Read more here.

The white rope at the left indicates the correct trail for climbers to follow.

Just follow the white rope.

You can find a graphical illustration of the location here.

I also found a concise summary of the incident from this blogger's website:

"...two British teenagers Ellie James and her brother Henry together with their parents, were among a group of 12 that scaled the Low's Peak. However, on the descending from the peak, Ellie and Henry wandered off from the group. Henry was found six hours later by rescuers after the parents alerted the Kinabalu park rangers. Ellie apparently told Henry to stay put while she went to look for help.

Due to the howling winds and poor visibility, Ellie was rendered invisible and inaudible for 7 days. A park ranger found the body of missing Ellie James a 17-year-old girl lying face down on a steep rocky slope near St. John's Peak, the third highest peak on Mount Kinabalu with an altitude of 4,090.75 meters. Her body, still clad in her pink jacket, was found just 500 meters from the spot where her 15-year-old brother Henry was rescued earlier.

The authorities did not rule out that Ellie could have died from exposure as there were no visible injuries on her body. Rescue efforts were hampered by heavier-than-usual tropical storms that lasted for a week and produced thick fogs. Temperatures on the mountain dropped to freezing point and the wind speeds jumped to over 100 kilometers per hour."

You can read the blogger full account of his climb here.

The flat slope at the summit's plateau. White rope at the left bottom corner of this photograph.

Sudin Yussin
On 2 October 2004, a 51 year-old local participant, under veteran category, of Mount Kinabalu Climbathon, Sudin Yussin, died on the summit 8KM due to extremely cold and bad weather. Here is a short account of the incident.

Temperature at the peak can reach freezing point. This is KM8 road sign.

Tan Tzu Hau
On 14 September 2009, Tan Tzu Hau, a 31 year-old man were found dead 5.5KM from the Mesilau Trail. It is near, but before reaching, Laban Rata. Apparently he was trailing behind the group, slipped and fell on the trail.

The Star reported the incident here. Another account here.

(Note: It is quite unlikely that someone will fell off the trail or fell off the cliff. Along the trail to Laban Rata, the climber walks on jungle trail most of the time. There is no cliff. At times, there are wooden fence on the trail that next to a slope. At the rocky summit plateau, you are safe if you just follow the white rope.)

Lau Siang Lip
On 6 June 2012, a 59 retiree from Muar, died of head injuries after he slipped and fell on the rocky trail near the Layang-Layang Point at KM4.7 of the Summit Trail. Read more here and here.

(There is a bit confusion in the report as Layang-Layong Hut is before KM4.0, while Villosa Shelter is located just about KM4.7)

Photographs below show the trail conditions near KM4.7.

The trail can be slippery.

Reaching Villosa Shelter.

Viktoria Paulsen (Updated on 13/2/2014)
On 10 feb 2014, a 22 year-old German student, Viktoria Paulsen, fell from Low's peak and died. Low's peak is the highest point of Mount Kinabalu. This was the first incident of someone falls from the peak.

It was reported that she fell down a 30m steep slope after stepping beyond safety railing (or rope fence) and onto an area of loose rocks on the summit. There are more reports about the incident here and here.

Safety railing as fence to prevent climbers to get too near to the edge. This photo was taken at the highest point of Low's Peak, Mount Kinabalu

Safety railing at the top of Low's Peak, Mt Kinabalu.

Notice the railing at the summit.
Find out more about Low's Peak and its safety railing.

Our experience: Tips to climb the mountain safely

Due to my own "slipped and fell" experiences during training, I suspect most similar cases were due to altitude sickness, training for fitness or selection of shoes. It is safe to climb this mountain, just follow the rules and be well prepared.

Our safety tips:
  1. Follow the white rope
  2. Walk the path, not out of way
  3. Wear hiking shoes, not badminton shoes
  4. Headlamp for night climb
  5. Don't climb over fence or safety railings. They are there to protect the climbers
  6. Don't leave your last teammate walking alone
  7. Try to reach Laban Rata on time and not too late
  8. Always abide by the rules and regulations. They are there to ensure climbers' safety
  9. Have you trained to be reasonably fit? Are you healthy enough?
  10. Take altitude sickness medicine. Remember to visit pharmacy to buy the pill.
  11. Watch out for bad weather. Don't go against mountain guides if they decided not to climb due to bad weather.
  12. Hire a PERSONAL mountain guide (this is probably overdo, but...)

Bad weather and fogs.

More Resources