After the Sea King helicopter landed on the hospital lawn in the town of Kota Kinabalu, nurses lifted out the two Hong Kong privates, Chen Wai Keung, 24, and Cheung Yiu Keung, 32, both frail and reed- thin, and wheeled them away on stretchers. They had eaten nothing for the past six days and had survived on one biscuit a day for the previous fortnight.
Last out of the helicopter was Major Ron Foster, 54, from Lincolnshire, who was strong and steady enough to pause in the helicopter hatchway to capture the pandemonium of his rescue on a home video camera.
Instead of recording a heroic rescue, it could easily have gone the other way. Like the last page in a doomed explorer's diary, Major Foster's video could have been the only surviving testimony of the party's slow death by starvation, trapped in a mountain ravine, hidden in mist from the rescue helicopters they could hear beating overhead, agonisingly near, for so many days.
Although Major Foster was the oldest expedition member, he emerged from his ordeal in the best shape, for the simple reason that he was a beefy man who could afford the weight loss of more than two stone. 'I'm feeling fine - looking forward to seeing my family,' he said striding into the hospital. Two weaker party members, the team leader Lt-Col Robert Neill, 46, from Yorkshire, and an injured Hong Kong private, Victor Lam Ywai Ki, 27, were winched out on Friday by a Malaysian army helicopter whose pilot, Capt Mohammed Izhar, had spotted an SOS which the marooned soldiers had written on a large black boulder with white pebbles.
For 18 days, the party was stranded in a narrow ravine between two 700ft (212m) waterfalls. They sheltered under a rock ledge dodging boulders, loosened by the torrential rains, that cannoned down from above. One boulder missed Lt- Col Neill by inches. 'I guess it's will-making time,' Lt-Col Neill joked after one close scrape, but the stranded climbers said they never lost hope of rescue.
'We played chess and talked about house extensions - anything to take our minds off it,' Major Foster said. 'Most of all, we missed our families.'
The team jettisoned many non-essential items from their rucksacks during the hazardous climb down a side of 13,455ft (4,081m) Mt Kinabalu known as Low's Gully, after a British officer who first spied the treacherous valley, which is often lost in cloud. One souvenir that Lt-Col Neill always kept with him was a large cartoon drawing on cardboard. It showed a limbo dancer with the caption 'How Low Dare We Go?'. Lt-Col Neill had found the cartoon hanging in a Heathrow pub when all 10 members of the Borneo expedition met for the first time.
He had kept the cartoon in his rucksack throughout the dangerous descent into Low's Gully, even while abseiling down endless cliffs and wading through swirling rock pools. On the day the helicopter spotted the party, he grabbed the cartoon and stuffed it inside his shirt before he was winched out. The Malaysian operations leader, Brigadier General Yusof Husin, displayed the cartoon yesterday and asked: 'It is an example of English humour, no?' Doctors said the British soldiers, gaunt and still dazed by their hellish month in the Borneo rain forest, are nevertheless healthy enough to fly today to Hong Kong. After their reunion with wives and families, the expedition leaders will face a Ministry of Defence inquiry, led by Maj-Gen John Foley, commander of British forces in Hong Kong, into how the adventure training exercise ended in near-disaster.
One question raised will be why Lt-Col Neill insisted on taking the three Hong Kong soldiers, all novice mountaineers, down Low's Gully, which had never before been climbed. Two Malaysians had attempted it earlier and fallen to their deaths. Their bodies were never found. Lt-Col Neill himself had twice before 'dared to go Low' and failed. He knew the mountain's myriad dangers.
In high-risk mountaineering, the line between bravado and foolhardiness determines who survives and who dies. Having led his inexperienced colleagues into a perilous impasse, where they had no choice but to stay put or scale down a 700ft waterfall when they were already weak from hunger, Lt- Col Neill exercised caution.
As Lt-Col Tony Schumacher, the British rescue operations chief, explained: 'On 5 March they went into a survival situation. They realised that escape from the gully was virtually impossible.'
From their shelter under the ledge, they made occasional forays to examine other routes, bypassing the waterfall. No exit was found, and the men settled into weeks of a miserable, immobile existence, conserving their energy as they watched, with increasing dread, their food rations shrink to crumbs and then nothing at all.
On Friday night, several paramedics were hoisted down to tend Major Foster and the two privates. For the first time in a month, the stranded climbers had hot food and coffee. Soon after dawn, the Sea King helicopter appeared. The rescue was the riskiest that the pilot, Capt Gabriel Joel, had ever encountered.
'It was sunny, and clouds of mist were rising from the treetops like steam from a kettle. It was hard to see, and there was strong turbulence. The tail of my helicopter nearly banged into the cliffs,' he said.
Now that the missing British Army men are saved, the indelicate matter arises of who will pay the huge rescue bill. Britain sent more than 40 doctors, mountaineers, potholers and jungle survival experts halfway around the world to Borneo. More than 350 Malaysian soldiers and policemen have been hacking their way through the rain forest for weeks searching for the lost Britons. Helicopters were constantly buzzing on the rare days when Mt Kinabalu was not besieged by equatorial storms. 'We won't worry about this, yet,' Brig-Gen Husin said stiffly. 'The men are alive and safe, that's what counts.'
Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, sent a personal letter of thanks yesterday to Malaysian Defence Minister Najib Razak for the role of his forces in the Kinabalu rescue.
There is no precedent for such a joint operation, and an MoD spokesman said the prospect of a bill was 'speculation'. He added: 'I have got no information on that.'
But following the break in commercial links imposed by Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, over the Pergau aid-and-arms affair, relations between Malaysia and Britain are at a low ebb - and billing the former colonial power for rescuing its soldiers could prove an attractive option.
John McWilliam, Labour MP for Blaydon and a member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, said: 'I think we owe the Malaysians a lot. They did a superb job. I am just pleased that the professionalism of their army and air force was such that they were able to get our guys back.
'I do not see us getting a bill for more than the aviation fuel,' he added. 'If we do get a bill, we should pay them happily.'
Mr McWilliam pointed out that the Malaysians would also have benefited from the jungle rescue. 'Their forces would have got some valuable training experience out of the exercise, too.'
The Defence Select Committee is unlikely to mount its own inquiry over and above the Army's own internal investigation, but it may ask a few questions about what went wrong with the Kinabalu expedition. Adventure training has paid dividends in the past, and will continue to do so in the future, MPs believe.
Mr McWilliam said: 'I don't think we will be losing anybody on that mountain again.'
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