RANAU: The heavy overcast sky pressed down relentlessly as 10 members of the media made their way to the entrance to Kinabalu Park in Kundasang, from where they would make their ascent of Mount Kinabalu.
In addition to having their names recorded in the registration book, their body temperatures were also noted before they were allowed into the park proper.
Even the guides and porters accompanying them had to have their temperatures taken before the group was allowed to proceed to Timpohon to start their ascent.
Welcome to the new normal way of climbing Southeast Asia’s highest mountain.
The media, comprising journalists and cameramen from Bernama, RTM, TV3 and Astro Awani, were there on June 27 on the invitation of Sabah Parks to cover the COVID-19-prevention standard operating procedures (SOPs) that the authorities have set for Mt Kinabalu climbers.
The 4,095-metre-high mountain was reopened on May 16 after being closed for two months since March 18 when the Movement Control Order was enforced.
Under the SOPs, only 100 climbers – and 15 to 20 guides – are allowed to climb Mt Kinabalu each day. Since it reopened, the mountain has attracted about 2,000 climbers, according to recent press reports quoting Sabah Deputy Chief Minister and State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew.
CLIMB TO PANALABAN
The media was accompanied by Panalaban substation superintendent Julaimin Kamin and several Sabah Parks rangers, members of the state’s Mountain Search and Rescue unit, guides and porters. All in, there were 88 climbers, including regular climbers, that particular day.
For this writer, the SOPs and inclement weather made this climb very different from the one she had participated in five years ago.
According to Julaimin, the SOPs applied to each and every climber, as well as the guides and porters, to ensure the safety of all the climbers.
He said the climb up to the Panalaban base camp – situated 3,272 metres above sea level – would include the usual stops to take a breather at seven shelters, namely Kandis, Ubah, Lowii, Mempening, Layang-Layang, Paka and Waras.
Under the SOPs, the temperatures of the climbers would once again be recorded at the Layang-Layang shelter, situated 2,702 metres above sea level.
He said if any person’s temperature exceeds 37.4 degrees Celsius, he or she would have to be quarantined in a room at the shelter.
“Since the reopening of Mt Kinabalu, no one had to be quarantined,” said Julaimin, who has been attached to Sabah Parks since 2002.
Temperatures are also checked at the Waras shelter and before entering Laban Rata Restaurant and lodgings in Panalaban, which has a few hostels for climbers to spend the night before ascending the peak of Mt Kinabalu the next morning.
To avoid congestion, only four climbers are allowed on the peak at any one time to take photographs and enjoy the view.
SOCIAL DISTANCING, SANITISERS
All accommodation in Panalaban, including the Laban Rata Rest House, Pendant Hut and Lemaing and Mokodou hostels, comply strictly with the SOPs.
The beds are placed one-metre apart to ensure social distancing and sanitisers are provided at the entrance to each room.
Panalaban-based Sutera Sanctuary Lodges service manager Freddi Jude Julani Alexius said to comply with the SOPs set by Restoran Laban Rata – which is operated by the resort – climbers would not be allowed to help themselves to the dishes at the buffet table, instead they would be served by the restaurant staff.
“Instead of the usual 40, only 30 patrons are allowed into the restaurant at any one time and they are allocated 30 minutes to eat their meals,” he said, adding that the restaurant’s waiters and cooks are all required to wear a face mask.
Kurong anak Beki, who was among the climbers who climbed Mt Kinabalu on June 27, said the presence of the SOPs made him feel safer.
The civil servant from Sri Aman, Sarawak, who was climbing the mountain for the first time, said the SOPs were essential to help the government to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Incidentally, the June 27 group of 88 climbers, including the media, could not proceed to the peak of Mt Kinabalu the next morning at 2.30 am due to the bad weather.
Continuous rain in Kundasang since the previous afternoon had caused the climbing track to be slippery and dangerous.
Not only that, small streams had also formed on the track at the Sayat-Sayat checkpoint – at 3,700 metres above sea level just before reaching the peak – and a very thick mist had enveloped the area, making it dangerous for climbers.
The group, meanwhile, made their descent from Panalaban at about 10 am on June 28 and reached the mountain base safely at about 3 pm.