Ellie’s true story : Our holiday 2001, Part 3

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They decided to make their way down again and had travelled for about ten minutes when they met Bruce. Ellie was delighted that he had ‘made it’. ‘Oh Dad, you’ve made it, I’m so proud of you’, she said, hugging him. Bruce said that he would go up to the top and then come straight down. He feels now that he should have just walked down with the children, but knowing Ellie as we did, she would have insisted that he complete the climb. As the fog swirled across the mountain, the wind howled and the rain lashed against his face, Bruce decided not to hang about, but get back to the shelter of the trail as quickly as possible.

This is precisely what Ellie and Henry were also doing at this time. Ellie rushed ahead and Henry lost sight of her. We presume that in her enthusiasm to get down, she just rushed past or followed one of the quartz ‘stripes’ in the granite that in fog could conceivably be mistaken for the white rope. They failed to turn sharp left, but went straight on towards St John’s Peak. She called out to him, however he was unable to hear what she was saying as the wind blew so strongly. Henry thought she had fallen and was crying for help, so stumbling in the direction of her voice, he also left the trail. He thought that he had broken his ankle as he fell against a rock.

Fortunately, it was only his trousers that were damaged. Finding Ellie, Henry discovered that she was not hurt, but lost. Now they were both lost and tried to find their way back to the trail. Being lost was one problem, they were also becoming very cold and wet by now and Ellie decided that it was most important just to get down. The mountain fell away very steeply at this point and after getting down a steep gully they realised that they could proceed no further so they agreed to stop for a while, build a shelter and rest.

A rush of adrenaline enabled Ellie to lift heavy boulders and build a wall. Henry was amazed that he could tear down branches from low-growing shrubs to line and cover the shelter. They tied a large yellow plastic bag to a tree in order to mark their position. This was subsequently found and reported in the press, although some reports placed its position further down the mountain. They crawled inside the shelter and curled up together, Ellie with her feet and legs inside her capacious rucksack. From time to time they ate nuts and banana chips and drank their water. They talked about what would happen if they were not found and tried to picture Bruce, Tom and me. They prayed harder than they have ever done before that they would be found and if they were not, that we would be able to continue our lives without them. Henry reports that he was very frightened, but that Ellie was extraordinarily calm. Several times, when he felt she was slipping into sleep, he woke her, as he was afraid she might die in his arms.

After waiting for what seemed like ten hours, but actually only six, the sky cleared and a layer of cloud rolled back, improving visibility for a short while. Ellie seemed instantly refreshed and decided that as it would soon be dark and nobody had come to find them, she should try to find the trail. They clambered back up the steep gully. With improved visibility, she could see where they needed to go and set off, rucksack on her back, across a steep ridge. Again, she cried out as she disappeared from view. Henry could not tell whether she was calling him to follow or shouting as she fell down a precipice. He tried to follow, but his bigger feet and less agile build prevented him from crossing the ridge. Henry had left the shelter and was unable to climb back to it, so he found himself as much shelter as he could and waited to die or to be rescued. He later said that his feet and legs were completely numb, his teeth chattering and his upper body aching with cold.

Henry was found by a mountain guide, who had joined the search on arrival at Laban Rata with his group. It was 14.30, about two hours after Ellie had left him. Henry had entered the early stages of hypothermia and needed to be helped to the hut at Sayat Sayat. He remained there, wrapped in blankets, until his body temperature had stabilized and he was able to walk with support to Laban Rata. Naturally, he was unaware that Ellie was still missing. He presumed that she had reached the trail and told the guides where to find him. Henry was given food, warm drinks and a change of clothes by other climbers and put to bed, where he slept until morning.

Kit was the first of our party to arrive at 07.40 in the restaurant at Laban Rata. I asked if Ellie and Henry were with him. He replied that they had been just behind him at the summit, but that they had stopped to talk to Bruce and he had carried on, as it was so wet and windy. When they did not appear we assumed that they had stopped at their overnight hut to collect their things. This thought was endorsed by someone from another group, who claimed to have seen them there. Bruce arrived, soaking wet, a few minutes later and went down to our hut to change his trousers. He came back to the restaurant and drank the coffee I had ordered for him.

We began to worry when Ellie and Henry still did not appear. Surely it could not take them that long to get their things together? Bruce went back up to their hut to find Henry’s rucksack on his bed and panic really set in. He told our guides that they had not arrived and another climber reported that they had been seen going into the hut at Sayat Sayat. Bruce and the guides set off for the hut more than a kilometre back up the mountain. Henry and Sugarah being much faster were already on their way down, having found no sign of the children, as Bruce approached the hut. The guides returned to the restaurant at Laban Rata. The alarm was raised and three guides started to retrace their steps to the summit.

By 11.00 eight guides, arriving with new groups of tourists, had joined the search. The park authorities had been notified and a group of rangers sent to add their knowledge and expertise to that of the Dusun guides. Their work was hampered by the weather, which by now was atrocious and the ‘red herrings’ that kept filtering through. Apparently, claimed one climber, ‘they’ had been so cold that they had not bothered to stop at the restaurant, but just kept walking down. This was plausible, but unlikely, as they had been so keen to see me and talk about the climb. A phone call from Park Headquarters reported ‘they’ were sleeping in a chalet in the park. It was very confusing. Our hearts and minds lurched between optimism and desperation during those five hours in the restaurant at Laban Rata. All the while cheerful people burst into the rest house, excited by their individual achievements. It was ghastly; we felt so helpless. We could not join the search for fear of getting lost ourselves and could not eat anything as we felt dreadfully sick.

Bruce and I were advised to start walking down to the Timpahon Gate. He was very tired from the morning’s exertion and my foot was still sore, but our condition seemed unimportant as we rushed down the mountain. It was no longer raining and we gradually removed layers of clothing as we descended through the climatic regions. We did not stop to admire the scenery this time.

Half way down we met a park ranger who stopped us and asked our names. I suppose we fitted the description of the missing children’s parents. He made numerous radio calls, advising us that there was some news. We waited anxiously as his radio lost contact with someone on Low’s Peak and after several minutes the signal was received again. Henry had been found! Our joy at hearing that news was soured by the realization that they had separated. ‘Oh Ellie, what have you done?’ we both cried. We tried to imagine what had taken place up there and prayed to thank God for his help in guiding the rescuers to find Henry and to ask for strength to wait patiently for Ellie’s return.

We raced down the trail in a daze, not knowing what to think. At the Timpahon Gate the other older members of our group were waiting for us. We had persuaded the younger ones to leave as soon as the search was started. We felt dreadful as we had wasted half a day of their valuable holiday time and caused them unnecessary anguish. They were wonderful. Lynn, Adrian, Pat and Alan hugged us and said that the only thing that mattered was that Ellie was found.

To be continued to part 4…

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About drizad

A self employed General Practitioner who lives with his lovely family in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. He dedicates his spare time serving people with precious information on climbing the Majestic Mountain of the Borneo, Mt Kinabalu. Reachable at drizad(at)gmail.com

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