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Kinabalu, a mountain of spirits, lures thousands

By Jahabar Sadiq

MOUNT KINABALU, Malaysia, Aug 21 (Reuters) - The peaks of Mount Kinabalu broke through the clouds on Tuesday, the first time they have been sighted since British teenager Ellie James began her trek up Southeast Asia's highest mountain a week ago.

Guides say the weather on the mountain over the past week, while rescuers have been battling to find the 17-year-old girl who has been missing for six days, has been the worst in more than a decade.

On a clear day southern islands of the Philippines can be seen across the Sulu Sea from the top of the mountain in the Malaysia's far-flung Sabah state on Borneo island.

Known as the "abode of the dead" by the Dusun mountain folk, some locals, such as guide Michael Gimpopon, believe spirits may have lured the British girl away from her family and other trekkers as they made their way down in the mist.

Legend has it that a dragon guards the entrance to Low's Gully beneath the summit, which is believed to be the resting place for the souls of dead tribespeople.

The Dusun people believe sacrificing a chicken and sprinkling holy water can protect a person from the dragon.


Kinabalu is usually a benign climb.

Every year about 30,000 people trek up the 13,455-foot

(4,101-metre) mountain on the northern tip of Borneo, which was recently listed as a World Heritage site.

The slopes are covered by jungle until around 12,000 feet

(3,660 metres) then it gives way to smooth rock, sweeping up the serrated peaks crowning the massif.

Most people take the easy route up to Low's Peak, striding up steps hewn in the rock and helped by ropes pegged to the mountain wall to reach the summit first conquered by Sir Hugh Low in 1851.

Gimpopon said it normally took a person five hours or more to go from the base of the mountain, at about 1,800 feet (550 metres) above sea level, to around 11,000 feet (3,355 metres) near the top.

Many people stay at chalets there, sheltered from the freezing temperatures, to begin their final ascent at around 2.00 a.m., timing their arrival at the summit for daybreak three hours later.

"You'll be rewarded with a beautiful sunrise as well as a glimpse of the southern islands of the Philippines," Gimpopon said.


More a walk than a climb, it is still a lung-bursting trek and altitude sickness can take its toll.

"The air is thinner, harder to breathe," Gimpopon told Reuters, adding that he had seen people take aspirin to ease headaches brought on by the altitude and some people hallucinating because of the thin air.

Gimpopon says he's been up to the summit a thousand times, but the lashing the mountain has taken from the southwest monsoon in the last few days was the worst he had seen since he became a guide 10 years ago.

Veteran climber Wan Abdul Rahman Wan Abdullah says the descent is riskier than the climb up the mountain.

"The only difficult thing about climbing Mount Kinabalu is just adjusting to the altitude but coming down is more physical as it is slippery and you have to avoid getting cramps and sprains," he said.

The jungle on the lower reaches of the mountain posed few dangers, but on upper slopes the rock made slippery by rain, ice and moist mosses can be treacherous.

"You can survive the jungle but once you slip and fall into the ravine, that's the end of it."

Two Malaysia climbers disappeared without trace 10 years ago.

But 18 British soldiers were luckier. They were missing for about a month in 1994 after becoming stranded while trying to abseil down from Low's Peak. They lost their bearings in a heavily forested area and were only found after one party went in search of help.

Source: Reuters

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