Australian climber Vee Jin Dumlao was just beginning the decent on Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu when the region was hit by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake last Friday. Her group was left stranded by rescue officers, and they were forced to make the perilous journey down on their own.
Dumlao and the rest of her 137 person group left at 2:30 am for what was supposed to be a quiet dawn climb up Borneo’s tallest mountain. They reached the peak’s granite plateau on schedule, and were just beginning their descent when the earthquake hit.
“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.
Around 1:00 pm, the group received news that massive landslides below them on the mountain had destroyed their only route, and that there was no certainty of rescue. According to Malaysian rescue officials, there was an effort to reach the climbers, but no one could land a helicopter due to fog. The fog cleared up later in the afternoon, but 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.
The Malaysian government reported 13 people were killed in the disaster.
Dumlao said the rescue effort appeared disorganised, and with the rescue officers on foot and without helicopters, they were of little help to the stranded climbers. She added that many more people could have been helped, and deaths possibly prevented, had helicopters landed in Laban Rata.
All members of Ms Dumlao’s group made it to the mountain’s base safely. She attributed all credit to the guides of the group, who 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.”