Safety not an issue at Mount Kinabalu, says park director

KOTA KINABALU - There are no safety issues at Mount Kinabalu, the custodians of the mountain said yesterday.

Sabah Parks director Paul Basintal said safety railings had been placed near the peak to prevent people from getting close to the edge and safety briefings were given before they ascended.

The tragedy involving Viktoria Paulsen, 22, the German tourist who fell to her death from the summit of the mountain, was the first of its kind since it was opened to the public more than 50 years ago, in 1962.

"When the incident occurred, I was told that there were only 20 climbers at the peak," Basintal said, adding that only 192 climbers were allowed to be at the summit at any one time, and the rest were told to wait 30 minutes some 50m from the highest point.

He said he believed the case would not affect tourism activities there as it was an isolated case.

Ranau police chief Deputy Superintendent Abdul Rahman Kassim said initial investigations revealed that Paulsen had stepped outside the safety railing and slipped on a loose rock.

"Investigations showed there was no foul play and it could be due to negligence. The body was sent to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kota Kinabalu for a post-mortem.

"(Federal police in) Bukit Aman have contacted the German embassy for the return of the body (to the victim's family)."

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun offered his condolences to Paulsen's family, adding that the ministry would extend any assistance required to ease their burden.

In describing the case as a freak accident, he admitted that it was a shocking one since accidents recorded prior to this involved the trail below the mountain.

"We are deeply saddened by this and will do everything we can for the family to get through the grieving process."

On whether safety rules at the mountain should be tightened, Masidi said that was not the issue as it was considered an isolated case.

"It is also not an issue of limiting the number of mountain climbers at the peak, because if it was (an issue) there would have been more cases. But all climbers are briefed by Sabah Parks before they start their climb and they have well-trained guides, too."

However, Masidi said the state government would still review the safety regulations.

"I am not referring to this case, but there are times in most cases when there are accidents, we found out it was rather due to the climbers themselves when they go somewhere outside the group. This is when accidents occur."

In Kundasang, seasoned guide Andy Majawal said all climbers are given thorough safety briefings before they set out to scale Mount Kinabalu.

He said among the things they are told are never to run, jump or go beyond safety railings and ropes placed along the two trails to the 4,095m summit at Low's Peak.

However, he said, these were among the most common bits of advice ignored by climbers.

"Most climbers may not realise this because they would normally be sort of 'enchanted' by their surroundings, but they are are actually drained of energy.

"Many like to pose for photographs by jumping along the trail or racing with friends on their way down.

"The danger lies when their knees are not able to withstand the impact (of running or jumping). Imagine if it's on a steep stretch.

"Similarly there are stretches, especially above the 3,500m mark, where they have to use the rope or at least hold on to it."

Loose rocks, too, may cause climbers to trip and fall, he said, and pointed out safety railings are placed at hazardous spots for obvious reasons.

"We can be strict but to what point?".

Andy is one of 200-odd registered guides at the Kinabalu National Park, here, Malaysia's first World Heritage Site.

Mount Kinabalu Mountain Guides Association chairman Suhaji Sumail said climbers would also be advised not to stray away from the trail up to the summit, either along the 8.5km Timpohon or 10.5km Mesilau route.

"We also tell them not to be boastful, not to walk without the presence of a guide and refrain from disturbing the plants or the rocks while climbing or descending.

"These are taboo for us because as Kadazandusuns we believe this is where the souls of those who have died would go. Sadly, our advice is usually ignored."

In the last two years, five other climbers died in their attempt to scale the peak. All of them, however, died because of health reasons and the incidents occurred below the 3,500m mark.

Additional reporting by Laili Ismail