‘The mountain is the mountain, tomorrow is tomorrow.’ Reflections from Mt Kinabalu

written by Lucy Piper June 10, 2015

The awful news that a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck Mt Kinabalu on Friday has affected the entire Intrepid community of staff and travellers.

Although we didn’t have any passengers on the mountain at the time, we were told the tragic news that one of our former guides, Robbi Sapinggi, was killed by a rock dislodged in the quake. The Sapinggi family has been a big part of Intrepid Travel for many years, and we were deeply saddened to learn that Robbi had been killed in the earthquake.

Robbi’s father, Sapinggi Ladsou, has been Intrepid’s main guide on Mt Kinabalu since we started running trips in Borneo twenty-five years ago. As one of the most senior guides in the area, he has been integral to the success of our trips in the region throughout the years. Working as our main mountain guide, he rotates the guides on trips, so that the work is shared within the community of professional guides.

Robbi on Kinabalu.

Robbi on Kinabalu.

Sapinggi has ten children, and three of his sons followed in his footsteps of assisting climbers on the mountain. His eldest son began guiding for Intrepid Travel, before several of the younger brothers, including Robbi, began to work as porters and train as assistant guides, later becoming guides themselves. Robbi worked with us for many years before moving on two years ago to guide for another specialist company on the mountain.

Over the years, Sapinggi and his wife, along with their ten children, have also welcomed Intrepid travellers into their home as part of a community village stay in Borneo. The whole family has been overwhelmingly generous with their hospitality, and they are well known and loved by the past travellers and staff who have visited them. It is no overstatement to say that they have truly helped shape the Intrepid experience in Borneo and beyond.

I recently returned from Borneo, where I was introduced to Robbi by his father Sapinggi, who was our guide on Mt Kinabalu. And I felt privileged to spend time with a family who had been so welcoming and generous to our travellers, and who had such a deeply established heritage on the mountain. The climb up Kinabalu itself is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever completed. And although it’s a comparatively accessible climb compared to some other mountain treks around the world, the physical agility and mental strength required to both summit and descend Mt Kinabalu is considerable.

Robbi's father, Sapinggi Ladsou. Image Melissa Findley

Robbi’s father, Sapinggi Ladsou. Image Melissa Findley

About the challenges of the climb, Sapinggi reassured and reminded us when we were uneasy to think only of the mountain when we were up there: “The mountain is the mountain, tomorrow is tomorrow.”

And due to this, and because you start summitting in complete darkness around 2 am, guides become more than guides – they are coaches, mentors, protectors, motivators. They keep you calm and focused, hand you their gloves and coats if you are cold and keep you entertained and energised when you think you will never make it to the summit.

The earthquake on Friday morning hit at around 7:15 am, as the sun was still rising. Travellers and guides who were enjoying the spectacle of sunrise and who had not yet started their descents were trapped on the mountain for many hours without supplies or rescue. But reports claim that the mountain guides who were present acted bravely and responsibly in order to coordinate the perilous but critical descent to safety. None more so than Robbi Sapinggi – now hailed as a hero for assisting his clients at the time of the quake and putting their safety before his own. Robbi’s older brother, who was also on the mountain, told journalists “when he saw the rocks falling down, he pushed the guests to safety, but got injured. After that, he couldn’t walk, but he told the guests to leave him there and go down the mountain to safety”.

Sunrise over the peaks of Kinabalu. Image Melissa Findley

Sunrise over the peaks of Kinabalu. Image Melissa Findley

At the time of writing, Sabah Parks has announced that Mt Kinabalu will be closed until further notice. The earthquake has left the tracks up the mountain inaccessible and unsafe, and it may take several weeks of work and assessment to be able to reopen the climb again. The communities at the base of the mountain that are home to the many mountain guides rely almost solely on income from the tourism that Kinabalu draws. And although it is not possible to climb the mountain at this stage, it is important that travellers return to the communities and surrounding areas – whether it be to trek through some of the lowlands in the nearby national park areas or to visit the local community villages. The climb itself, although exhilarating and challenging, can’t take anything away from the imposing sight of the mountain peak from the basin. And visiting the area without the climb will only do more to whet your appetite for an adventure when it is safe to return.

The mountain guides on Mt Kinabalu spend their lives conquering the summit in service to travellers like us. The entire Intrepid community sends their sincerest condolences to the Sapinggi family and the extended team in Borneo for their loss. Without guides like Robbi Sapinggi, the adventures that we sometimes take for granted would never be possible. So from all of our travellers who have climbed before, and from those who will climb in the future, thank you Robbi.

We are collating a book of condolences to send to the Sapinggi family, so if you climbed Mt Kinabalu with Robbi Sapinggi, and have a memory to share, email us your story and any pictures to friends@intrepidtravel.com by 22 June 2015. 


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