Military board to look into gully mission

Ron Gluckman

LIKE Ahab in the classic quest novel Moby Dick, the expedition leader who followed his personal obsession in Malaysia will be the focus of an upcoming military inquiry.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill has twice tried to descend into Low's Gully - on the northwest face of Mount Kinabalu - and failed.

Newspaper reports have described the experienced soldier as ''obsessed'' by the 4,204-metre Mount Kinabalu, among the tallest peaks in Southeast Asia. Both attempts in the early 1980s were called off due to atrocious weather and lack of suitable equipment.

Colonel Neill, 46, and four other soldiers, were found on Friday about 1,830 metres up the mountain. Joint Services public relations officer Major Paddy Hartigan said an inquiry would be held when the men recovered.

If it was found that something went wrong, further action against ''culpable parties'' could be taken.

The hearing would be held in camera, he said.

''Nowadays, it is difficult to find a place where not many people have been before. Entering into the unknown is a classic example of the old British spirit. You have to be extremely lucky to get everything right in this kind of circumstance,'' Major Hartigan said.

The inquiry will probably focus on the same questions asked by local mountaineers and rescue squad members who risked their lives to save the soldiers.

Was the mission poorly planned? Was Colonel Neill so obsessed with the climb that he ignored dangers or failed to properly inform colleagues or superiors of the risks? Did officials who approved the mission adequately assess the dangers and skill and fitness of the men? Why was so little effort paid beforehand to the possibility of a rescue operation during a mission fraught with such obvious danger? Why were no radios or flares taken? Were the men properly equipped for this mission? There are many indications the group was ill-prepared and inadequately equipped for the climb.

Stephen Pinfield, who led the only known expedition that conquered the gully, told the Sunday Morning Post in an exclusive interview that the unique demands of the terrain dictated a small, lightly equipped and extremely mobile climbing party. The ideal size was two people - even three could be too dangerous.

The 10-member team was ''a crazy idea, doomed from the start''.

A more compact group was crucial, he said, for a safe, speedy descent down the gully. Weather patterns changed rapidly and it was critical that movement continued without waiting for men to abseil down the steep cliffs.

The difficulty and diversity of the challenges in the gully dictated the need for light gear. Mr Pinfield said it would be suicidal to take packs of the size carried by the soldiers.

According to villagers who helped rescue the first group that stumbled out of the jungle two weeks ago, several men had lost packs during the perilous descent.

Mr Pinfield, who lives in Penzance, England, said he was not consulted on the difficulty and dangers of the climb. Past parties of soldiers had been ''gung ho'' to test the gorge and ''blind to the dangers''.

Many local mountaineers who had climbed Mount Kinabalu described the journey as ''an easy stroll''. However, several said the gully was among the top challenges in the region and an obvious attraction for serious adventurers.

But the question on everyone's minds is whether the men were suitably equipped and fit enough to tackle the difficult gully.

Hugh Brittain, one of the five who staggered out of the jungle, said it was ''not a place for human beings''.

Chung Kin-man, Hong Kong's most famous climber who has scaled Mount Everest, said none of the soldiers were known in mountaineering circles.

''Their only climbing experience is what we hear from the army,'' said Mr Chung, who is chairman of the Hong Kong Mountaineering Unit.

He found climbing Mount Kinabalu easy but Low's Gully, a terrifying 1,800-metre vertical drop, was a different matter.

It was also revealed last week that Colonel Neill ignored advice to take extra food, given in his briefing by park warden Eric Wong before the trek began on February 22.

Mr Pinfield said a set of his slides portraying the route through the gorge were on file at the park office. It is not known whether these slides were ever reviewed by the team.

Mr Wong told the group leader his estimate of 10 days for the expedition was far too optimistic and advised him to take extra rations.

When the group was found, all were suffering from severe malnutrition and had not eaten for days.