A Malaysian army helicopter rescued two men before bad weather closed in. Paramedics were winched down to help the three remaining climbers, who were starving and suffering from exhaustion.
Investigators will want to know whether the 10 men who originally set out were fit enough and had adequate survival training, equipment and rations. Two experienced officers led a team of mixed abilities and fitness into a jungle without machetes, radios or radio locating devices.
The party was spotted in a narrow ravine, trapped 'like a spider in the bathtub,' according to a rescuer. The men were stuck between two giant waterfalls. A Malaysian officer said it was 'a point of no return'.
A helicopter pilot, Capt Mohamed Izhar, spotted 'SOS' written in pebbles on a boulder in a river. Near by, three soldiers were standing on rocks, waving and reflecting the sun with mirrors. 'As I descended, one of the guys was smiling and taking pictures,' said the pilot, who lowered down a British paramedic and a box of high-protein rations. The climbers' food rations - except for a few crumbled biscuits - had run out 15 days ago
The expedition leader, Lt-Col Robert Neill, 46, from Yorkshire, and Private Victor Lam Ywai Ki, 27, were lifted out on stretchers winched down from the helicopter, which was unable to land because of steep cliffs either side. 'The rotor blades were close - too close - to the rocks,' said the co-pilot. 'There was no room at all.' By late afternoon, a thick mist spilled down from the peak of Mt Kinabalu, flooding the ravine.
Two more attempts to retrieve Major Ron Foster, 54, from Lincolnshire, and Chen Wai Keung, 24, and Cheung Yiu Keung, 32 - were unsuccessful. Lt-Col Neill and Private Lam were flown to hospital in Kota Kinabalu. Both were suffering from malnutrition, but were described as 'steady and stable'.
Lt-Col Neill said last night that they made their wills. 'We had food for 10 days but we realised on day six that we might be in a survival situation. We made the final bit of our food - a biscuit a day - last until Sunday and then we had nothing but a couple of Polo mints between us. We have been surviving on water since then.'
The Malaysians hope to rescue the remaining three today, if the clouds lift. Twelve RAF mountain rescue experts and 350 Malaysian troops had been searching since 12 March. The RAF climbers, after abseiling down a 1,600ft precipice and spidering over waterfalls and swirling rockpools, were forced to turn back on Wednesday, unaware that the missing men were 500ft below. A helicopter went back into the ravine yesterday after a pilot thought he saw a torch blinking through the jungle canopy.
Ten men took part in the assault on Kinabalu via a 'tourist' route. The group split up for the descent when the unfit Hong Kong climbers were struggling to keep up with the more seasoned mountaineers.
Lt-Col Neill, who had twice before failed to descend Low's Gully, rejected pleas from several soldiers not to take the inexperienced privates down the perilous route of cliffs and waterfalls. Neither group had radios or flares. Almost as soon as they began abseiling, torrential rain lashed the climbers. No-one in Lt-Col Neill's party had jungle survival experience.
Maj Gen John Foley, British commander in Hong Kong and a former SAS officer, said yesterday such exercises should continue: 'It develops people's initiative. It hardens them and makes them able to react to adverse conditions.'
SOS in pebbles, page 9