Sabah earthquake: No protection from falling rocks on route

The 4,095m-high Mount Kinabalu in Sabah is popular with Singapore schools organising mountaineering expeditions and young children who are fit should have no problems scaling the mountain, said tour agencies and experienced climbers.

Questions over whether the route was suitable for 12-year-olds have emerged after news broke that a group of pupils from Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) were caught in an earthquake while climbing the mountain on Friday.

Mr Clarence Lee, 39, manager of Pac-West Travel which has been organising school trips to the mountain for more than a decade, said: "No technical skills are needed, it's not like ice-climbing. You just need to build up your stamina and be healthy."

Mr Collin Ng, a 53-year-old events organiser who has climbed the mountain four times, said: "It is definitely safe for upper primary school pupils as long as they follow the instructions of the guides.

"Save for the final push to the summit, where climbers need to hold on to ropes to walk along a cliff, the trek is relatively easy."

Secondary 1 student Pung Feng Kai, 13, who climbed the mountain while at his alma mater TKPS, said: "I didn't really find it a difficult climb."

The Raffles Institution student said that to prepare for the five-day, four-night trip, the pupils trained by hiking to Bukit Timah Hill, climbing stairs at Housing Board blocks, and jogging.

Mr Jack Chen, 48, a project director at outdoor adventure company Ace Adventure, said there is just one way up and down the summit and the trails are well-maintained.

The mountain is in a national park and climbing permits are needed. Park rules dictate that for every six climbers, there must be an experienced guide leading the group.

"In times of bad weather, park officials will stop people from going up," added Mr Chen.

But an earthquake, climbers said, may change things.

The last entry on a blog for this year's TKPS expedition, dated June 4, said that the pupils were supposed to take the Via Ferrata route the next day - the day the quake struck.

The Via Ferrata is a trail along the rock face. Climbers, wearing harnesses, would move along by clipping a pair of carabiners to a long cable fixed to the mountainside.

Mr Ng said the Via Ferrata is usually scaled in the morning, after sunrise. Friday's quake struck at 7.15am.

If the pupils were near or on the Via Ferrata route when the earthquake struck, there is no shelter or vegetation on the rock face to protect them from falling rocks and debris, he said.

He added: "When the quake struck, my fear was for those who were doing the Via Ferrata. Some may be caught by the falling rocks where there is no escape for them."

Additional reporting by Linette Lai

This article was first published on June 5, 2015.
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