THE nation watched spellbound as the Place of the Dead was finally conquered.

It had been one of the world's undefeated territories, Borneo's killer ravine, writes Karen Barden.

That was until acclaimed Dent mountaineer Pat Gunson set his sights on Low's Gully, pledging its hideous beauty would not get the better of him.

After last week's compelling Channel 4 documentary To the Ends of the Earth, expedition leader Pat was once again hailed a hero.

Many have tried to do battle with nature's lethal cocktail of massive sheer rock faces, vertical jungles, giant waterfalls, death trap whirlpools and extreme temperatures.

Until Pat's offensive, all failed. And it was easy to see why.

The chasm is as deep as Everest is high, an infamous two-mile deep gully ripping though one of the world's most hazardous terrains.

When British explorer Sir Hugh Low first set eyes on the vast drop in 1851, he described it as "a horrible abyss, a veritable devil's cauldron of incredible depth".

Its dark secrets were to be kept for nearly a century and a half.

Locals knew all about the risks and wouldn't mess with the route to the bottom of the world.

Villagers' souls passed through the ravine destined for heaven or hell. It was guarded by dragons and a place where no sensible beings ventured.

Four years ago, five UK soldiers went missing for 30 days and came within a whisker of perishing.

Rescue costs were so colossal, the Malaysian government said it would sanction no more explorations.

It hadn't reckoned on coming face to face with adventure junkie Pat Gunson.

This was the man who brought two snow-blinded, frost-bitten SAS men safely down Everest, saving their lives.

He went back to the Himalayan peak in another expedition and was 4,000ft from the summit, in -40 degrees, when he suffered a heart attack.

Team mates told him to walk or die. He walked and underwent a quadruple bypass.

Watching TV's 999 reconstruction of the army rescue on Low's, Pat knew it had to done.

The 58-year-old Sellafield support worker went on a recce to the Island of Borneo two years ago. He risked prison by abseiling over the gully edge, before clinching permission.

"With Everest you look up and see your obvious route. Here you are going down into green darkness. Views are hidden by vertical jungle and every step is a step into the unknown and unseen."

Before the team of 27 could set foot in the devil's domain, there were spirits to be assuaged. Sacrifice was the only way.

"Whenever I look back on this, I will be haunted not by the sheer scale of the expedition, but by having to stand by while six white cockerels had their throats sliced," lamented Pat.

"I couldn't watch, I had to turn away."

Vegetarian Pat's distress was seen by viewers across the country, as fellow climbers attempted to comfort him.

The high priestess and six attending witches had to give their blessings and prepare souls for the invasion of The Place of the Dead

"We also had to be whipped with soggy, wet branches," said Pat.

He had headed out to Borneo with an advance party of six. In training, he had smashed his leg so badly his foot was almost knocked off. He had been out of plaster for just two months.

The hard, wiry explorer knew he would not be able to lead from the front and that every step was going to be tortuous.

"Buying our supplies, finding porters and getting everything up to base camp for the rest of the party was as challenging as the descent.

"I went into their equivalent of Asda and asked for 600 bars of chocolate."

Pat admitted he'd had scant regard for the Army's aborted attempt on Low's.

"Until we got into it, I thought they were a load of idiots. Now they have my deepest sympathy and admiration.

"This was nature at its most creative and colourful. Huge sheer sculpted rock faces leading to spectacular water carvings.

"I've had the experience of virgin peaks before, but nothing quite like this. It was bigger and better, hotter and colder than anything you could imagine."

The leading party was at the cutting edge. While the Channel 4 documentary suggested the front "fit family" were mutineers in their race to charge ahead, Pat said they had been carried along by the excitement and were not glory seekers.

"They were selfish, that's all."

The descent was made all the more precarious when communications between the three groups fell down. Satellite telephones and state-of-the-art radios were impotent after batteries were lost.,

"It was the only logistical disaster," said Pat.

Every move was painful for him. He recalls 13,500 agonising steps and with everyone came a silent prayer pleading that his leg would hold up.

"I didn't take painkillers. They dull nature's warnings."

With day-time temperatures of 100 degrees and nights plummeting to freezing, the adventurers fought for ten days to get back to civilisation, before the rains started.

Rising waters could have spelled catastrophe

Pat praised the film crew, which included Brian Hall, whose parents live in Kendal.

"Top class adventurers, as hard as nails, who quite often got ahead of us," laughed Pat.

"But their hardest task must have been condensing 50 hours footage into 59 minutes."

Hospital plumber at Westmorland General Steve Kelley was also on the expedition, and said what they had done was beyond explanation.

Driving away from the conquered gully, Pat looked back at 4,101metre Mount Kinabalu, rising above the Place of the Dead.

A shimming, untouched face winked over at him. And Pat winked back.

"That's one for the Millennium," he grinned.

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