Sabah quake: Race against time to reach trapped climbers

Rescue personnel bringing down a body to the foothill base camp at Timpohon gate in Kinabalu Park, Kundasang on Friday. -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Rescue personnel bringing down a body to the foothill base camp at Timpohon gate in Kinabalu Park, Kundasang on Friday. -- PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

KUNDASANG (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Ten people are unconscious, three guides are stuck in between boulders and rocks as 105 mountain climbers remain stranded overnight in an icy cold plateau of Mount Kinabalu after Friday's 6.1 magnitude earthquake.

Their euphoria of conquering the 4,095m Low's peak under a spectacular sunrise turned into a fright night for about 190 tourists and guides when the earthquake rocked at 7.17am and its aftermath jolted the whole of Sabah.

With the epicentre on the western side of Mount Kinabalu, the death and injured figures from the earthquake have yet to be officially announced as search and rescue (SAR) teams are still to reach victims trapped at two places - the 3,922m plateau close to south peak and Via Feratta route (2,700m) that connects to the main trail at Layang Layang.

As of 7pm, SAR officials at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu said that of the 189 tourists and guides registered with the Sabah Parks, 63 of them - including three injured climbers - reached the Kinabalu Park base camp before darkfall.

The SAR said the majority of those on the mountain were Malaysians and the other known nationalities included people from Singapore (38), the United States (5), the Philippines (5), the United Kingdom (3), Thailand (4), and at least one each from Turkey, China and Japan.

They said 17 others were safe and were trekking down to base camp as of 8pm.

The 105 stuck on the mountain were mostly tourists whose nationalities have yet to be disclosed but the search teams were unable to reach them due to the falling rocks.

Helicopters attempted to winch the unconscious and injured but failed due to strong and thick clouds over the peak and zero visibility.

"Before it turned pitch dark, we were able to drop blankets for those trapped," said one rescue official who feared the victims may face hypothermia due to the freezing cold that could drop below 0 deg C.

Rescuers fear that elderly climbers may not pull through the night if it rains and temperatures dropped further.

They said they are praying that they will be able to reach the trapped victims before sunrise, which is usually around 5.30am.

On the ground, a team of 85 rescuers has reached Laban Rata (3,272m) while Sabah Park rangers are trying to restore the main trail which was cut off by boulders and rocks.

"We are slowly making our way in the darkness and hoping to reach them (105 trapped at plateau) if possible before sunrise," one rescue official was quoted as telling anxious families and friends waiting at Kinabalu Park.

Many of the family members were seen holding prayer sessions and several friends of the Dusun guides were cursing the group of Westerners who last week stripped and urinated on their sacred mountain.

"Where the epicentre hit is very close to where the idiots p****d on our sacred mountain," said a relative of an experienced Dusun guide who takes part in an annual ceremony of sacrificing white cockerels as part of a ritual to appease the mountain spirits.

As of press time, the official word is still unconfirmed as to whether any rescue team has reached the trapped 105 and 13 others (including 10 unconscious) in the Via Feratta route.

"Some of us have been keeping in touch via mobile phones but batteries are running out," one of the family members said, adding that they feared some victims might be buried under the rocks or have fallen off the gullies.

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun said steps were being taken to send in food and clothings while they were also waiting for the SMART team to join the SAR.