Mountain girl found dead just yards from where she was lost

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The telltale sight of a pink jacket on the steep rocky slopes of Mount Kinabalu has brought the seven-day search for the missing British teenager Ellie James to a tragic end, as her body was found.

Searchers whose efforts to scour the Malaysian mountain had been hampered by high winds and dense mist found the student less than 600 yards from where her brother had been rescued six days earlier.

Both youngsters had gone missing last Thursday while walking down from the 13,455ft summit of Kinabalu, the highest peak in South-east Asia, with their parents while on a tourist trek in Borneo.

Hopes that Ellie was still alive were raised on Tuesday when footprints were found further down the mountain at 6,000ft, along with a makeshift shelter and a plastic bag marker tied to a branch.

But any lingering optimism was crushed early yesterday when a 70-strong search team spotted the 17-year-old's body still clad in the pink jacket on a 65-degree slope near St John's Peak at 12,270ft.

Her parents – Bruce, 51, and Claire, 49 – were told the news shortly after 10.30am local time (5.30am BST) after spending the week waiting in a hotel room in the port of Kota Kinabalu, 60 miles away.

A post-mortem examination is expected to be carried out by the Malaysian authorities. The operation to recover Ellie's body was being hampered by poor weather yesterday.

Zul Baharin Ismail, the local police chief, said: "This is a very unfortunate and tragic accident. We were racing against time and were badly hampered by bad weather. We offer our condolences to the family as we tried our best this past week to find her, only to find her body."

Park rangers had passed through the area where Ellie's body was found in previous days but low visibility had prevented them from finding her. The rescue teams have been forced to contend with some of the worst weather in the area in a decade, including near-freezing temperatures, 65mph winds and driving rain.

Early indications suggested that the sixth-form student, who was found face down without any obvious signs of injury, had died from exposure rather than a fall.

It was unclear whether she had descended the mountain to the spot where footprints were found before climbing back to where she had last been with her brother. Local guides said the distance involved – some four miles and 6,000ft in altitude, over treacherous terrain – made such a trek unlikely.

The teenager's parents, who were comforting their 15-year-old son, Henry, after he went missing with Ellie and was then found five hours later close to hypothermia, paid tribute to Ellie. In a statement, the family, who have lived in Germany since leaving Cornwall 10 years ago, said: "Ellie was a remarkable girl. She was brave, intelligent and beautiful and the most wonderful sister and daughter."

They added that the teenager, who was studying for her A–levels at a Hampshire college, had been planning to spend a gap year working with indigenous people in the rainforests of Borneo or Africa.

The statement said: "Ellie's life was a campaign for justice and freedom. If her death inspires other people to stand up and be counted, her life will not have been in vain."

Despite suggestions that the Malaysian rescue services had been slow to react and that guides should have prevented the teenagers getting lost, Mr and Mrs James said they were not seeking to blame anyone for the tragedy. The family were on a holiday organised by Hampshire-based Travelbag Adventures, which said last night that it was sending a representative to Borneo to investigate whether it could improve safety.

The Jameses were among a party of 12 British climbers who began the ascent of the mountain on Wednesday last week. About 30,000 tourists climb Mount Kinabalu every year, hoping to witness one of the famed sunrises over the Borneo rainforest from the mountain that the local Dusun tribe call the "abode of the dead". While the trail is well-marked for most of the route, it also runs across granite slabs where there is no obvious pathway. The terrain either side is notorious for confusing those who get lost.