Team makes summit push to honour quake victims

Mr John Quok and wife Mae Molina thanking 45-year-old mountain guide Ehing Sakumbang (right), who saved their son Elliot (background) during last year's earthquake. Elliot and his parents were among those who returned to trek Mount Kinabalu this year
Mr John Quok and wife Mae Molina thanking 45-year-old mountain guide Ehing Sakumbang (right), who saved their son Elliot (background) during last year's earthquake. Elliot and his parents were among those who returned to trek Mount Kinabalu this year to pay tribute to his TKPS schoolmates who died in last year's disaster.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Five S'poreans reach peak in memory of those who died in Mt Kinabalu disaster

With every step that she took towards the summit of Mount Kinabalu, Ms Mandeep Tamana pictured in her mind the seven Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) pupils who died in a quake on the mountain last year.

The 44-year-old was one of five Singaporeans who reached the summit yesterday - an achievement that eluded the Primary 6 pupils on last year's trip because of the disaster which killed 18 people in all, including 10 Singaporeans.

Her son Jayden Francis, a former TKPS pupil, survived the Sabah quake, and she decided to join a team that ascended the mountain in memory of the victims.

"It was a gruelling climb," said Ms Tamana, who started on the road to the summit from Laban Rata - a pit stop where climbers can rest - at about 2.30am. "But just as we were turning around to come back down, we saw this beautiful rainbow. It was very emotional."

The other four Singaporeans who scaled the summit in time for the sunrise were Dillen Jhala, 16, who lost his sister Sonia in the earthquake, his cousin Karan, 20, Mr Tonny Phuay, 47, and Mr Phuay's 12-year-old daughter Chantal, a former TKPS pupil who also survived the quake.

"I really feel like I've achieved something in life," said Chantal. "It's something that I really wanted."

"Someone said that if I were to go back to Mount Kinabalu again, I would dig my own grave. But I proved them wrong," she added with a wry smile.

"I'm really proud of Chantal," said Mr Phuay. "Hopefully, this will be a closure and will make her stronger, more positive, when facing challenges in the future."

Several people had to turn back during yesterday's ascent - quake survivor Elliot Quok, 12, his father John, 45, and Dillen's father Jaidipsinh, 49.

Elliot threw up during the climb and his father stopped the hike, said his mother, Ms Mae Molina, 43. She said: "(Elliot) told me, 'If I could have vomited and walked, I would have gone on.'"

Mr Jaidipsinh Jhala started feeling unwell 550m into the journey, with more than 2km to go. He told his guide that he would turn back.

"He told me - the spot that you said you wanted to turn back, this is where the kids' bodies were found," said Mr Jhala. So there he stayed, at 3.45am, to say a prayer with no one around him but the stars above.

What this trip has achieved is to "prove to everyone that life goes on", added the safety training programmes company director, who hopes schools will allow students to go on such expeditions again.

Twenty Sabahans, including immediate family members of the two late Mountain Torq trainers who had been guiding the pupils on the Via Ferrata trail, reached the summit on the same morning.

On the final ascent, Ms Jessica Veronica Sikta, 26, carried a picture of her fiance Valerian Joannes, one of the trainers who died.

Speaking to The Straits Times after she descended the mountain, Ms Sikta said she "brought him inside my heart". "My fiance finished his journey bravely, so I needed to finish this journey with strength."

Said Ms Molina after trekking down the mountain: "Every year, I will still be thinking of them, feeling sad, tearing up, still crying. Probably every year, on June 5, we will feel it. I'll always think of the kids. Always."

The Singaporeans will return home from Sabah today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2016, with the headline 'Team makes summit push to honour quake victims'. Print Edition | Subscribe