The 6.0-magnitude quake struck early Friday near the picturesque mountain, a popular tourist destination, sending landslides and huge granite boulders tumbling down from its wide, 4,095-metre-high (13,435-foot) crown.
“There are 13 (dead) bodies. Two yesterday and 11 today. We’ve got six people still missing. I cannot confirm with you where they are from,” Mohammad Farhan Lee Abdullah, police chief of the town of Ranau near the mountain, told AFP.
Malaysian media reports have said the dead included members of a Singapore primary school group on an excursion to the mountain, including a 12-year-old girl who was killed, as well as a local Malaysian climbing guide.
“It’s very sad. The Singapore children were so happy when they arrived here, but now…” Masidi Manjun, tourism minister for the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, told reporters.
Rescuers earlier on Saturday finished escorting down to safety 137 hikers who were stuck on the mountain for up to 18 hours after the quake damaged a key trail and they faced the threat of continuing rockfalls.
Crews and officials engaged in further search and rescue efforts were kept on edge, however, by aftershocks including a Saturday afternoon temblor that Malaysian officials rated at 4.5-magnitude.
It sent staff and journalists scurrying out of the park’s headquarters.
Reports said most people on the mountain when the quake hit were Malaysian but that they also included hikers from Singapore, the United States, the Philippines, Britain, Thailand, Turkey, China and Japan.
Authorities have not provided a breakdown or given details on the number of injured.
Major earthquakes are rare in Malaysia and the tremor was one of the strongest in decades, jolting a wide area of Sabah and sending people fleeing outdoors.
But there have been no reports of major damage, nor any casualties outside of those on the mountain.
Masidi said all climbing would be suspended at Mount Kinabalu for at least three weeks to allow for repairs to damaged trails, accommodation and other facilities.
Malaysia’s Bernama news agency quoted a climber describing his terror as the quake unleashed a shower of large stones from the rocky peak.
“Rocks were raining down fast, like rock blasting,” Lee Yoke Fah, a 60-year-old Malaysian who suffered minor injuries, was quoted as saying.
“I am not going to climb again, I am scared.”
Mount Kinabalu is among the top tourist attractions in a state famed for its rainforests, wild rivers and coral reefs.
Around 20,000 complete the relatively easy climb each year, usually taking two days.
The force of the tremor was so strong that it toppled one of the two “Donkey’s Ears”, towering twin rock outcroppings that form a distinctive part of the peak’s profile.
Mount Kinabalu is sacred to the local Kadazan Dusun tribe, who consider it a resting place for departed spirits.
Malaysian social media users and some officials have suggested the quake was a sign the spirits were angry after a group of 10 apparently Western men and women tourists last weekend snapped nude photos at the summit and posted them on the Internet.
“This will certainly bring misfortune… we can’t play with the spirit of the sacred mountain,” deputy state chief minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan told reporters Saturday.
He called for the tourists to be brought to justice.