Flouting the law of the jungle: They broke every rule in the book. No wonder, says Hugh McManners, that the Low's Gully army expedition turned out to be such a fiasco

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YESTERDAY Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Neill, commander of the near-disastrous army expedition to Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, said he was 'extremely critical and angry' at colleagues who broke away and left him to cope with novice soldiers.

He might well be angry. From the start, the adventure-training expedition seems to have been split into two groups that had very little to do with each other. And what began as an attempt at the first-ever descent of Low's Gully, the sheer 2,000ft canyon below Mount Kinabalu, ended in an eleventh-hour rescue operation, with worldwide media coverage - and a very lucky escape from death.

Lt-Col Neill, 46, and his second-in-command, Major Ron Foster, 54, had set up the 10-man team that set off up the mountain on 21 February. The group's technical expertise was in the hands of the non-commissioned officers whom the two older men had recruited. Three young, strong and capable corporals were at its core: Steve Page and Hugh Brittan (aged 26 and 24) worked together for the Royal Logistics Corps, and Lance Corporal Richard Mayfield (25), an expert survivalist and rock climber. Also with them were a Territorial Army sergeant, Robert Mann, 37, Corporal Pete Shearer, 26, and three Chinese soldiers from Neill's old unit in Hong Kong, Lance Corporal Cheung Yiu Keuong and Privates Lam Wai Kee and Chan Wai Keung.

The first requirement for any serious expedition is to get the team to gel. For big mountaineering challenges, this is usually achieved through training weekends, culminating in a training and selection expedition prior to the real thing. Team members need to learn each other's capabilities, strengths and weaknesses, developing the mutual trust necessary for strong team spirit. While some members of the Kinabalu team did know each other, others did not.

The three Hong Kong Chinese soldiers apparently learnt to abseil only a few days before the expedition started, and were physically unfit. Language problems apart, they were outsiders from the very beginning. The other sub-group was the officers, Neill, 46, and Foster, 54 - the 'oldies'. To compound the potential for damaging splits, Foster and Sgt Mann were 'part-timers', serving with the Territorial Army, whereas the others were Regular Army. The para-trained Brittan was 'airborne', and Mayfield commando-trained - as they would see it, a cut above the rest.

The Low's Gully expedition was official, MoD-sanctioned adventure training, one of many small-scale sorties encouraged by the armed forces to develop leadership, team spirit and other intangibles required of service personnel in war. What may appear to be outdoor holidays are in fact based on detailed proposals vetted by the Army, and paid for by grants from regimental and other funds. Equipment is borrowed from special adventure-training stores, using military transport whenever possible.

For an expedition to be officially classified as adventure training confers important benefits on its members. Expenses covered include all rations, special overseas allowances and accommodation. Annual leave entitlements are unaffected and pay continues. Most important of all, however, if disaster strikes, being on official duty leaves the MoD liable for any mishaps - including the cost of searches, medical care and repatriation, and any subsequent long-term care or compensation.

The aim of official adventure training is more to give novices a chance to experience something new than for experts to chalk up yet another exploit. There is an emphasis on mixing the ranking and ability of groups, to prevent the training being hijacked by highly qualified, virtually professional military expeditioners, climbers and adventurers. But being a novice amid experts is uncomfortable and difficult: under extreme pressure normally sympathetic experts can forget your lack of experience and knowledge. On Mount Kinabalu, it is quite clear that whereas Lt Col Neill and Major Foster quickly came to appreciate the limitations of the unfit Chinese soldiers, the other fitter and more expert members did not - they formed their own elite advance party, intent on achieving the aim of the expedition.

Leadership in adventure training is often very different from usual military practice. Rank is often dropped, and first names substituted - as they were on the Kinabalu expedition. Where people know each other well, dropping rank can serve as a useful break from the regimented social hierarchy of barracks life. The more junior members are encouraged to exercise leadership, and individuals with skill rather than rank may take temporary charge.

This loss of formal address can make life difficult for the leaders, however, as it may encourage some of the led to be less considerate or respectful than usual. A key element in the hierarchy of authority is immediately undermined, obliging the leaders to establish their status in other ways.

In many respects adventure training puts military discipline and rank into a strange kind of limbo: it is still there, but few dare invoke it. Lt-Col Neill had to make an early effort at reasserting military discipline when on the first day he gave the fitter members 'a good bollocking' for abandoning a Chinese soldier when he collapsed. Neill then subsided into six days of bronchial sickness, during which period the most important errors appear to have been made.

Army rank and responsibility are earned, and paid for, and should not be discarded or ignored. Until subordinates come to respect those in authority in person, they must respect their rank. They are not entitled to suspend that respect - and they know it. When people are getting to know each other under the pressure of doing something dangerous, you need as much social structure as possible. Without it, even in military expeditions, an aggressive Darwinian anarchy can develop - literally, the survival of the fittest. The Low's Gully trip, although classed as adventure training, was a serious attempt to do the near- impossible. Foster had recce'd the place three times, Neill twice. They both knew what it was like, and the kind of real military leadership they would need.

Yet Major Foster's own account of the expedition points up some serious shortcomings. At the beginning, even the steep tourist path to the summit of Mount Kinabalu separated the fitter members from those who clearly were not up to the task. At 35-40kg, the backpacks would certainly have been heavy but in line with what you would expect for this kind of mission. The Chinese soldiers evidently felt overburdened, though, and started ditching rations to lighten their loads. This is a heinous offence in any parachute or commando unit.

Neill and Foster were pacing themselves at the rear, looking after the Chinese, but over the next six days failed to impose on the fit, younger men the requirement that the team stick together. Yesterday, Lt-Col Neill said that he had not authorised the younger members to go on ahead, but denied losing control: 'There appears to have been a breakdown in communications which will be investigated, but without first talking to those soldiers, I am not prepared to comment further.'

After the best part of a week climbing Kinabalu and recce'ing the descent into Low's Gully, the five fitter men decided to start the abseil down the gully without the others, clearly contravening their leader's intention. Time was of the essence, and they must have had in their minds the possibility that the success of the enterprise might be thwarted by the less-prepared individuals. To achieve the aim, they took some of the second group's ropes and all the expedition's parangs (jungle knives).

Had this been a desperate wartime raid behind enemy lines, the junior NCOs' effort action might have been judged commendable - perhaps deserving of medals. It was, however, peace time - with only the lives of participants at stake.

If the behaviour of the breakaway group was irresponsible, the decision of the men left behind to follow them rather than walk back down the mountain to safety is inexplicable. The danger of wet rocks in tropical rainstorms is hard to imagine until you experience it yourself. Perhaps they believed that the first group was waiting for them, going on ahead preparing the pitches for their arrival.

But by this stage nobody appeared to be thinking clearly. After abseiling down a few rope lengths, the second group would have committed themselves to making the full descent, since they couldn't climb back up again. But neither could they escape from the steep, slippery gully to hack through the jungle to safety. So the five men, all injured or ill, remained trapped in Low's Gully (despite escape attempts by Neill and Foster), waiting passively for rescue - or starvation.

Meanwhile, the forward party did what NCOs do - got on with the job without thinking too much about it. They reached the bottom, achieving a world first, and got out; but, having contributed to the plight of the first group, they contributed nothing at all to their rescue.

It was a very close-run thing, an adventure certainly - but in the event, who was doing the training and for whose benefit? Clearly the Chinese were too unfit and ill-prepared to be taken on the expedition. So why were they there? One has to wonder whether their presence was required for other reasons, related to the need for the expedition to have access to essential local logistics support - or the 'mandatory' rest and recuperation period in Hong Kong afterwards.

Those who succeeded in the conquest of Low's Gully succeeded in the mission as they saw it. But as an exercise in military command and control the mission was an abject failure.

The writer is a former Commando Major who ran the British Army's Jungle Warfare Training School in Belize. His book 'The Commando Survival Manual' is published on 21 April by Dorling Kindersley, pounds 15.99.

(Photographs omitted)