Malaysian authorities raced on Friday to try to reach 137 people, some of them injured, who were stranded atop the popular climbing peak of Mount Kinabalu after a strong earthquake triggered dangerous rockfalls.
The 6.0-magnitude quake struck near the mountain around 7:15 am Friday (2315 GMT Thursday), jolting a wide area of the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island. No deaths or major damage had been reported as of late Friday afternoon.
But Sabah state tourism minister Masidi Manjun told AFP that the quake had triggered landslides and sent huge boulders tumbling down the 4,095-metre (13,435-foot) mountain's wide granite crown. Masidi said 137 people were slowly and cautiously working their way down the mountain, as an 85-member rescue team was climbing up to reach them.
The climbers, believed to include foreigners, had been stuck on the picturesque summit, slowed by lingering danger from rockfalls and damage to a key trail.
"Its very tricky now. We can't land a helicopter up there because visibility is so bad, but the people can't come down on their own because the main route is now impassable," Masidi said.
State officials were quoted earlier by the New Straits Times saying at least four climbers had suffered injuries including broken bones and head wounds due to falling rocks.
The force of the tremor was so strong that it snapped off one of the two large 'Donkey's Ear' rock outcroppings that form a distinctive part of the peak's craggy profile, Masidi said. He said authorities were now focused on trying to get supplies including food, water and warm clothing to the stranded climbers in anticipation of a possibly wet and chilly night.
Kinabalu's broad but steeply undulating moonscape-like summit is frequently lashed with heavy rain, and night temperatures can dip below freezing despite the tropical latitude.
The US Geological Survey said the quake struck at a depth of 10 km, its epicentre located about 54 km (34 miles) east of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. No tsunami warning was issued and there were no initial reports of major damage.
Colin Forsythe, a resident of Kota Kinabalu, said the quake lasted around 15 seconds and felt "as if a truck had crashed into a brick wall".
Residents reportedly fled in panic from homes and buildings, including Kota Kinabalu's International Airport, and social media users uploaded photos of damaged roads, shattered storefront windows, and cracked walls.
Thousands of people complete the relatively easy climb of Mount Kinabalu each year. Malaysian national schools currently are on break and the peak was busy with visitors at the time of the tremor. Most climbers attack the peak early in the morning after overnighting at a resthouse perched at 3,270 metres above sea level, descending a short time after, so they typically do not take food or camping equipment to the peak.
Authorities have closed the picturesque mountain, a major tourist draw, until further notice.
Strong earthquakes are rare in Malaysia, which lies just outside the Ring of Fire, the belt of seismic activity running around the Pacific basin.
Mount Kinabalu is sacred to the local Kadazan Dusun tribal group, who consider it a resting place for departed spirits. A group of 10 apparently Western men and women tourists angered locals last weekend when they snapped nude photos at the summit and uploaded them on to the Internet.
Some Malaysian social media users suggested the quake was a sign the spirits had been angered by the act.