This is Jomius, our mountain guide. We are grateful to him.
I am a Malaysian born Australian national. I spent my childhood in Malaysia.
This was a trip I planned with my high school friend to spend some time with her.
When the earthquake struck at 7.15 am, there was initial panic. I heard shouts o run down quickly, which we did.
When we could go no further, due to sightings of rockfall, we quietly stayed put. There was a surprising calm and collectedness among the group, as if emulating the essence of the mountain.
The group of climbers stranded on the summit plateau were predominant Malaysians. I recall thinking how lovely that Malaysians are enjoying their beautiful land. I also noted how fit and fast they trekked compared to me.
After the initial quake, we waited for instructions from the mountain guides. We trusted the guides ultimately. No one questioned their direction. We were told that it would be too dangerous to proceed with the descent because tremors continued. We would wait till tremors ceased for a significant period of time. And if they didn’t, the guides were confident that helicopters would be deployed to pick us up.
We were mindful that it was cloudy and likely to delay any helicopter landing.
On two occasions we heard helicopters in the distance but nothing came from this. Still we waited patiently.
Many took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep having been up since 1am or earlier. However rest was disrupted by intermittent tremors and subsequent sounds of landslides.
We were told to stay in the middle of the wide expanse of the granite plateau and to remain above a certain point to ensure that we were not in the pathway of any rockfall. Having anticipated a timely return to Laban Rata for breakfast, climbers had packed few snacks and limited water so as to keep our load light for our climb to the peak.
By 1pm, climbers had run out of water and were low on food. The guides collected our empty bottles and briskly ran down to the Sayat Sayat checkpoint, the closest fresh water supply. They risked further landslides to get climbers more water.
They returned to us promptly. But they had also surveyed the state of things further downhill. They told us there were many landslides and the route down was affected.
At 2pm a light rain set in, a cold wind blew up. Even with three layers of clothing and a plastic raincoat, I felt the cold.
By 3pm, our patience was wearing thin, still we waited. We were advised to huddle up, to help each other. Some climbers were faint and weak. My friend gave away her chocolate to a young man who was experiencing hypothermia. No one had any food left in their packs.
We were then told that the fog would make it hard for the helicopters to see where to land. A food drop would be executed instead to provide us with sustenance should we have to spend the night. We wished and prayed in all our different forms of spirituality for the clouds to lift.
At about 3.30pm, the clouds cleared. I recall that the wind also stilled. At once, instruction was called out for the climbers to be ready for pick up. We were told to hurry and assemble in our walking groups. We were relieved and expectant but the continuing absence of any sound of spinning blades diminished our hope for rescue.
Then we were told the helicopters were not coming till the morning and we would have to spend the night on the mountains.
The guides conferred with one another and a decision was made to make the descent down on our own with the assistance of the guides. We were assured that each guide would be allocated to 3 climbers and we expected to be met by more guides further down the mountain.
Although the trek would be perilous, our guide informed us that we risked more if we stayed atop the mountain. The guides were also wary of flash flooding on the plateau should it rain on the mountain.
The group neither questioned nor hesitated to comply with this decision to descend. Our one resolve was to get off the mountain as quickly as possible.
At 4.30pm, the descent commenced with climbers in a disciplined line. But the trek hit a snag when the ropes that climbers used to traverse a steep incline appeared to have been dislodged and the original route down decimated by large boulders fallen from above.
At this point, we heard helicopters above us. Interestingly, no one got excited about this. Apathy turned into disgust when we saw the helicopter drop the long-awaited food package into a gorge. This happened twice.
There was no time to lament. At two points in the descend, climbers had to abseil down rock faces, holding on to some ropes, which appeared to be the only the equipment at hand. Climbers navigated through fallen boulders, loose stones, broken trees, completely and correctly trusting the guides’ direction with every step.
While lowering myself down a rock face, I saw two mangled bodies on the slope among the rubble of a landslide. While attempting to stay focused on the trek, I found myself feeling rage, grief, dread and shock for the first time that day.
Grief for the perished, shocked that the situation was worse than imagined and that I could have been killed by the landslide if I had been a faster trekker earlier that morning. Rage that the promised help of a helicopter rescue did not arrive and dread that the rest of the journey ahead was dangerous and further landslides quite possible.
Still we pressed on. Many abseiling in the fading light and eventually the dark. We reached a dark powerless rest house at Laban Rata at 7.30pm.
I noticed a number of uniformed personnel on site but they did not appear to be carrying out any task. I was told they had arrived on foot at 4pm, too tired to be of any real help. I saw mountain guides and Laban Rata rest house staff busy organising food, water and light for the climbers. I noticed a covered corpse on a stretcher against the counter and as I burst into tears, a guide put a comforting hand on my shoulder and another said I had to stay strong because we still had a long way to go.
We had a few minutes to gather the belongings we had left in the rest house earlier that morning. There was no panic, no confusion. The guides directed us to assemble outside in an orderly line readying to complete our journey to Timpohon, the base of the trek.
I observed a guide padding up the handles of a stretcher carrying a female, in preparation for the trek down.
We were tired. At this point though food was available, the urgency to get down the mountain overrode any other need.
There are 7 huts in the route between Laban Rata and Timpohon. As we approached Hut No. 3 or 4, I cannot be certain which, there was a congregation of uniformed men occupying the shelter and the seats. The smell of cigarette smoke strong. We were asked ” are you okay?” and offered bottles of water. When it was evident that no further assistance was going to be given, our guide simply directed us to keep moving.
Further aftershocks were felt. At 9pm, trees rustled violently and the now familiar sound of rockfall was heard in the distance. We rushed along anticipating the possibility of being hit by boulders.
Although we were at the head of the line behind our guide, being slow walkers, many climbers eventually overtook us. This gave me an opportunity to observe how climbers helped one another. Men held on tightly to the arms of exhausted women who could hardly put one foot in front of the other. One climber lighting up the way for another with his torchlight. Many asking if we needed help because we had stopped to catch our breath. Most of all, I was mindful that it must have taken every ounce of willpower for our guide to restrict himself to our painfully slow pace. And yet he was always just ahead shining his torch to light the way for us.
There had been a small landslide after hut number 3 which caused part of the path to collapse. Emergency services had secured some rope as safety barriers to help climbers cross the one-metre wide boarded path safely. While I was grateful for the assistance, I thought it ironic, after what we had already been through, when they urged us to be very careful because it was a very dangerous crossing.
When we reached Timpohon gate, I finally allowed a uniformed personnel to carry my bag for the final 10 concrete steps.
We were told to make our way into the medical tent for a check. The doctor asked if I had a lift to the parks headquarters which was still a few kilometres away. When i inquired if there was transportation provided, I was told there wasn’t. Our guide organised to have us transported in a van shuttling some mountain guides.
We were too exhausted to feel relief even when we reached park headquarters. But it was a comfort when a gentle lady called Julie whom I believe worked with Sabah Parks, talked to us, asked after our condition and insisted that we take some hot food away with us when we said we just wanted to leave.
This is my recount of events as I perceived it. I have no answers for anyone who asks me why the helicopters did not pick us up. I can find no reasonable explanation for the delayed arrival of emergency services.
But I know what I can expect of the mountain guides. To claim that they did their job with integrity, dedication and genuine care for the people of Malaysia and the foreigners, would be an understatement.
Would I return to Mt Kinabalu? Yes, I certainly hope so, as long as the mountain guides are given the resources, equipment and authority to support the job they already do so well.
What do I want to say to Malaysians affected directly or indirectly by the earthquake?
I have witnessed the care and sense of community inherent in the people of Malaysia, regardless of race, religion or wealth. I am impressed by the talents, intelligence, resourcefulness, resolve in them. They deserve to be protected, fought for, respected and celebrated by their leaders whose ultimate duty ought to be putting the people first.
Vee Jin Dumlao