Friday, February 29, 2008

1st Tahan Expedition, part 9....Our 1st CRISIS.

Continuing the story of previous Blog

16th April 1969 - Malang Hills to Kuala Puteh

Photos: At the end of that tough day of climbing, we rewarded ourselves by plunging into the cool waters of Sungei Puteh. The water was very clean and pure.

We had a crisis on our hand as Tng K G said something to the effect that he " could not take it anymore " and wanted to return to Kuala Tahan Hqrs for no apparent reason....seemingly. Though hearing it came as a shock to all of us as it was so sudden and completely took us by surprise, we did not overreact ...especially negatively. I remember the 3 of us Twang, Balbir and myself removed our packs and gathered around give him immediate emotional comfort and support. The rest of the party, the 6 NJC boys, realised that this would be a much longer break and also removed their packs. We told everyone to have a good rest while we spoke quietly with Tng about the problem. Apparently, it wasn't any physical or physiological mechanism that was causing him problems. If that were the case as say in a serious injury or medical condition that is life-threatening, then our option is limited to only one....abandon the climb; saving life is top priority.

When we gently prompted him, he said he was "overwhelmed by all these green in the jungle, too much green and my mind cannot take it anymore". He requested for Ahmad to take him back to Hqrs or if that wasn't possible to leave him there with sufficient supplies while we carry on our trek to the peak. Ahmad, our only guide, stayed his ground and said he could not possibly escort Tng to Hqrs while we all camp there awaiting his return. There won't be enough food and time left for resuming the climb, after that. Ahmad also added that for him to camp alone while waiting for our return, perhaps a week later, was also out of the question. It was simply too dangerous for someone untrained, to be alone in the deep jungle and on Malang Hill of all places [ the 'unlucky' hills]. So...we were faced with the proverbial Hobson's choice....meaning no choice but one. Somehow we needed to use all the leadership qualities we collectively possess to help him and the whole group out of this matter how long it would take.

My first aid training and own reading on common medical problems had served me well so far.
In my mind, I was trying to process all the outward signs for the cause of his problems. Diagnose the problem...come out with a prognosis. If we know the cause....we can find the solution!
Not physical, not physiological.....then psychological maybe ! Something was affecting his psychological behaviour or balance . But what was it? What caused it? A person, especially someone as strong as Tng, just doesn't break to pieces mentally in a split second....out of the blue.
Bingo! I came to the conclusion that he may be on the verge of severe dehydration and perhaps lacking in blood glucose too. We were all told to drink sparingly at the beginning of that day's climb as no water is available until we reach our destination at Sungei Puteh., 14 km away over the toughest terrain. Severe dehydration can cause a number of problems including those symptoms displayed by him.

I conferred with Balbir and Twang...and advised that we all rejuvenate ourselves with some water and chocolate bars. These special chocolate bars are not the usual bars sold in shops. I went out of the way to the NAAFI British military outlet in Changi, through a friendly contact, to buy them. They were wrapped in small rectangular blocks and were very solid and thick. They were a source of high and quick energy, when needed. And boy , did we and Tng especially, needed this instant energy boost!
We unwrapped the bars and munched on the chocolate., even Ahmad had some. Then we all rested for quite awhile, conserving and building up energy levels again.
Going over to Tng again, we gently coaxed him with positive thoughts and the idea that we will see this challenge through as a team, all 10 of us, we won't leave anyone behind...especially him.

All he needed was to rest and recharge his "battery"...which was depleted.
We also offered to carry and redistribute the items he was carrying amongst all.
To his great credit and for the 1st time since we rested, he said "No" and added that he was"OK". Bingo! He had somehow recovered. His battery had been recharged!

Today, if Tng KG should ever read this excerpt he should feel relieved and vindicated. What happened to him can happen to almost anyone else. The effects of severe dehydration and low blood sugar level. I have known Tng a long time....he was and still is mentally very strong!
Not once during the crisis did we panic. We dealt with the matter cooly and calmly. But it could have turned out otherwise had the wrong approach been adopted or had we panicked.
Once, he was well-rested and recharged, from that moment on, he was back to normal through
out the expedition.

The trek over these 27 Malang hills [ actually mountains ] continued and tested us to our limits.
It can be very demoralising at times. Just imagine....struggling up to the top of a peak and descending again, gaining altitude and losing it soon after, this incessant up and down pattern was physically draining on the body and also the mind. It reminded me of the campfire song,
" The Bear went over the Mountain " [ A repetitive song ]
The lyrics:

The bear went over the mountain [ x 3 ]
And what did you think he saw?
He saw another mountain [ x 3 ]
And what did you think he did?
He climbed the other mountain [ x 3 ]
And what did you think he saw?
He saw another mountain [ x 3 ]
[ ...even singing this song is quite tiresome ! ]

By late afternoon, most of us had little water left in our waterbottles. And we were never certain how far more it was to our final water source, Sungei Puteh. The only one who really knew was Ahmad. We were all looking forward to that great water source. Whenever any of us asked him this," berapa jauh lagi boleh sampai tempat air? " [ how far more to the water source ]....
his standard reply was either, " tak jauh lah " or " sudah dekat lah" [ not far more or nearly there ] . Even though in real time, we were still hours away !
I believe Ahmad understood good and simple jungle psychology in his own way.
For it definitely was most reassuring to hear him say that our destination was very near rather
than saying it was still a million miles away, right?
He showed us how to use our bottle cap to scoop up water caught in the base pocket of huge ferns. The water was drinkable after we sterilised it with our tablets. To divert and distract us from our mental exertions on this torturous ridge, he pointed out interesting tit-bits along the way....elephant droppings and some animal tracks.

Then we arrived at our penultimate obstacle....Gunung Rajah at 576 metres with a steep incline.
We attacked this slope in zombie -like fashion. Having gone up and down 25 times since we started the day, this was the 26th hill and the toughest. With Tng, holding up well, spirits were high as we assailed that mountain slope. There was still much daylight left when we clambered over the top of G Rajah. The top was slightly flat and afforded a good view of the surrounding peaks and valleys. Then Ahmad pointed out where we were heading for....way down below, the Sungei Puteh. We could not see it as everything was enveloped by the green jungle.
How far more we asked Ahmad. " Banyak dekat lah!" [ very near ] was his reply. This time we were quite certain and confident.
It took about an hour for us to descend and make our way to the increasing loud sounds of roaring water. The sounds were music to our ears!
Then we came out from the jungle fringe and before us was another magical sight to behold...
the raw beauty and splendour of this river... Sungei Puteh. The water wasn't too deep as we went into the water and over to the other side where we scouted around for a suitable campsite.
After securing our camp, setting up our makeshift tents, all of us headed straight for a nice spot in the relax in the nice,cool waters which come from the mountains.
[ See photos ].
Whenever I think back about this stretch of the climb, though some of us had practically run out of water and the rest with little left to quench our dehydration and acute thirst, I recall the training sessions we went through with the boys back in S'pore. They obviously helped in more ways than one. For example during the selection process, to test their self-displine, endurance and capacity to withstand great discomfort, we took them on long,hot treks and hikes, each carrying only a standard water bottle. No further top ups were allowed during the trek. At the end of the journey, we measured the remaining water each bottle. Some had long finished off their water by mid-point of trek.This kind of training taught them to sip water rather than simply gulp it down at one go. It paid off handsomely for all of us as no one fainted or was to the point of delirium due to lack of water. Tng's case was slightly different. In any case, at no point was he in delirium or needed to be evacuated. He needed only to replenish his low energy levels.....and was ok after that.
For myself, whenever we stopped to rest, I kept my mind away from thinking about water by
concentrating on our immediate surroundings...the various interesting jungle sounds and calls, the foliage and fauna, the insects and spiders on the trail....such things. With each passing day, we were all better able to adapt to the tough conditions we faced.

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