From ABC News
The Local Sabahan Guides were Hero’s.
The Government Rescue response was a farce.
Australian climber describes harrowing escape from Mount Kinabalu earthquake
By Natalie Tencic, staff Updated about an hour ago
Australian climber Vee Jin Dumlao was atop Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu when a magnitude-6.0 earthquake hit. When her group was left stranded by rescue officers, they decided to make the perilous journey down themselves.
It was supposed to be a quiet dawn climb.
Leaving at 2:30am for the top of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu, Borneo’s tallest mountain, a group of 137 climbers — including two Australians — reached the peak’s granite plateau at dawn, and had expected to be back at Laban Rata for breakfast.
But at 7:30am, that plan abruptly changed.
“We had just completed the ascent to the peak, and [we were] making our descent, taking some photos when we heard a loud crash, and felt the ground shaking,” Vee Jin Dumlao, a clinical psychologist from Sydney, told the ABC.
Though Ms Dumlao felt calm at first, panic set in when the group was told that the magnitude-6.0 earthquake that rocked the mountain had destroyed their route back.
“When our guide took our empty water bottles to be refilled, at perhaps 1:00pm … they came back with news of massive landslides and the route having been decimated and no certainty of rescue,” Ms Dumlao said.
The Malaysian rescue officials said they were making an effort to reach the climbers, but could not land a helicopter due to poor weather.
“Fog was quoted as the reason for not rescuing the climbers, that was certainly true earlier in day,” Ms Dumlao said.
“However, around about 3:30pm the sky actually cleared right up, from ground level up to the mountains and that’s when we thought there’s nothing stopping them now from coming to get us.
“When the clouds lifted all the guides got a phone call from ground level to say ‘alright the helicopters are coming’. We prepared ourselves, we organised ourselves into groups but nothing happened.”
Despite the clearer weather, the climbers and their guides were told by officials that they would not be evacuated until the next morning.
“We were not equipped for an overnight stay, it was an open place, we couldn’t huddle along any walls, because that’s where the risk of landslide was worst,” Ms Dumlao said.
“Many in the group were already getting hypothermia, it was very cold up in the mountains, it was starting to rain at some point, some of the climbers were already getting wet and we hadn’t eaten since 1:00am that morning.
“And that’s when the guides said ‘they’re not coming, we’d better make our way down the mountain ourselves’.”
After being told, nine hours after the quake hit, that no help would be coming until the next morning, the freezing, hungry climbers were forced to make the perilous journey down the mountain.
“When we saw that all the conditions were right for the rescue and yet they had made the position that they were not coming, I was both angry but also determined to make it down on our own,” Ms Dumlao said.
Ms Dumlao and her travelling partner made the perilous trek, followed by the other climbers, down to Laban Rata, a small village rest stop halfway up Mount Kinabalu.
“There were continuing tremors, continuing rustling of trees and continuing landslides that we could hear in the distance and it was quite fretful really, the potential of being caught in a landslide,” she said.
The Malaysian government reported 13 people were killed in the disaster, and for Ms Dumlao the sight of death all around was confronting.
“When I saw the corpses, lying uncollected in the rock fall, that was probably the point when I realised that things were actually very, very bad, and fear set in,” she said.
Government rescue effort a ‘farce’
Arriving at Laban Rata, Ms Dumlao saw uniformed rescuers milling around the “chaotic scene”.
“They were looking rather lost really, and it was the mountain guides who did most of the work attending to the injured, strapping people into stretchers, getting ready to take them down the mountain,” she said.
“The whole government emergency response was a farce.”
She said the effort appeared disorganised, and without helicopters, the rescue officers were of little help, stuck on foot and five hours away from the mountain’s peak.
“They congregated in groups occupying resting spaces, sharing smokes and food that were meant for survivors,” she said.
“A convenient helipad remain unused when they could have transported rescuers to the foot of the peaks. Instead “rescuers” arrived at 4:00pm, nine hours after the earthquake struck, on foot, much too tired to be of help.”
Ms Dumlao said many more people could have been helped, and deaths may have been prevented, had helicopters landed in Laban Rata.
“If the helicopters had delivered some help earlier and landed in the helipad at Laban Rata, they may certainly have been able to attend to any injured people quite sooner,” she said.
After seven hours trekking in the freezing dark, through treacherous rain and mountain-rattling tremors, the climbers reached the trek’s starting point Timpohon. Upon their arrival at 12.30am, the site was strewn with medics, military and media.
All members of Ms Dumlao’s group made it to the mountain’s base safely. But she says emergency services let her, and many Malaysians down.
“I cannot find evidence for me to respect the government who have all the conspicuous demonstration of responsibility but none of the true act of it,” she said.
“It was quite appalling when the rescue services got credit for something they did not do at all.”
Local guides the ‘real heroes’
Ms Dumlao said she was “so grateful” to mountain guide Jomius, who helped the trekkers to safety.
“The journey we took required the engineering of the guides who made abseiling equipment from the bare resources at hand,” she said.
“The mountain guides were the heroes. They risked life and limb and made some difficult decisions that ultimately saved our lives, and had neither help nor recognition from the authorities.
“Many had homes affected in the quake. They lost friends and family yesterday. Yet they remained with us guiding us to safety till the very end.”
She said she appreciated that the guides could have saved themselves much faster without the slow-moving climbers.
“Yet they stayed and did what they could to meet our needs,” she said.
“I have great regard for the people around Mount Kinabalu who are defined by their culture spirituality and most of all their care for people.”