Friday, November 11, 2011

Adventure Climbing on the Dragons Horns - Tioman Island Malaysia

What an incredible year! A first free ascent of a big wall in Hetch Hetchy, a finished mega-pitch project in the High Sierra, and now to top it off with my first trip out of the U.S. to go climbing! I feel lucky!

Though I live for first ascents and adventure climbs, my international trip was a little different and special; I was going overseas to rock climb with a long time friend, Cedar Wright.

Cedar invited me sort of last minute on a trip to Tioman Island, Malaysia to put up first ascents for a bigger cause than just climbing rocks! We were climbing to raise money for the Summit for Someone program a fund raising organization that supports the Big City Mountaineers. In addition The North Face pledged to match the first $4,000. Finally a way for me to give back to the organizations that truly see the potential in future generations; I was proud to be a part of this.

Big City Mountaineers supports and mentors youth in inner city areas like the San Francisco Bay area, as well as other big metropolitan areas throughout the country.  I attended a similar program called the Urban Pioneer Program based out of San Francisco.  It impacted my life in more ways that I could have ever imagined. I thought about this a lot on our downtime while getting to our destination.

Almost there! 71 degrees F and almost midnight
After a 19-hour travel excursion we finally arrived in Singapore.  It was the longest time I had spent traveling to get anywhere and was wasted. The time difference also meant I wasn't going to be able to sleep at my normal bedtime, so an exploration of Little India was in order.  Little India is an area in Singapore that hosts the most hostels and attracts a younger crowd of travelers to Singapore. I went back to the In Crowd Hostel where Cedar had booked us a couple nights while we figured out the second part of our trip- getting to Tioman Island. The next day we went to an amazingly enormous market not far from our hostel to look for some basic supplies.

On the third day we boarded a bus that would take us to the city of Mersing on Malaysia's east coast. From Mersing we were to take an hour and a half ferry ride that would bring us to Tioman Island, the final destination for the remaining 3 weeks of our trip.

Upon the first site of our climbing objective, the Dragons Horns, I thought to myself "oh those things don't look that big". As we got closer I thought, "Wow, those formations are actually looking kind of big now". Funny how perspectives change so quickly and you never truly know the size of a chunk of rock until you're actually at the base or climbing on it.

The ferry dropped us off at a jetty on the west coast of Tioman where we loaded onto a very small dinky boat that would bring us to Mukut a village on the south coast of Tioman closest to the Dragons Horns; our gear on one boat and us on the other. The half hour ride was fun but wet, and then it began to rain. By the time we got to Mukut we were soaked, holding onto our electronic devices like babies shielding them from the water that came from everywhere. Luckily it was a tropical climate so we weren't cold just soaking wet. We dragged our loads to our room, changed our clothes and prepared for the first of many delicious dinners at Tanoshi Resort. At first I think the staff was worried we weren't going to like their simple laid back little resort, but for us it was perfect. What the locals didn't realize is that Cedar and I were simple ourselves and compared to what we were expecting (canned food, top-ramen and biving in the jungle) this was good living to us. We were psyched to have hot water every morning for our coffee and the occasional massive feast laid out before us of freshly caught fish, squid, crab, pretty much any edible creature from the ocean. It was paradise!


The next day Cedar and I woke up pretty early to have a look at the north unclimbed Dragons Horn. After a couple hour jungle trek and some angry wasp encounter we started up what looked to be like the cleanest line of the cliff. The first pitch was a little bushy and I wondered if this was going to be the characteristics of the climbing here on the Dragons Horns. After a short mossy first pitch we arrived at a ledge that gave us a view above tree line and were able to see the rock above. It was clean and featured and there were many options for a good adventure. We both led and followed with light packs staying prepared for whatever would come. Twice on our ascent we were rained on, heavy at times but it never lasted more than half an hour.  We covered as much ground as we could between breaks in the rain quickly making our way to the top; the possibility of free climbing the first ascent of this formation in a day was becoming a reality! Some six hours later we found ourselves staring at the summit.  We scrambled up jungle-y steep forest then bushwhacked our way for a couple hundred feet onto a bushy jungle summit. By this time the sun was setting so we stomped down a bivy near some flat boulders to lie down for the night. Somewhere through my iPod play list we woke up to the sound of thunder in the distance, it was coming. The flashes of lightening and sounds of thunder that were previously off in the distant South China Sea were now creeping over to the Dragons Horns.

The coming storm made it hard to sleep and we sat awake, thinking about heading down before the rain came again. We were visited by fireflies and noticed an interesting luminescent glow-in-the-dark moss on some pieces of wood around our heads. We finally made the decision to go and set up the first rappel.  We feared the rain might make it difficult to descend if it rained any harder. Eventually we came to the conclusion we needed to get down and started our rappels at about 3am. We figured we would be finishing our rappels around the time of first light and sure enough we arrived at our start point around 7am. It took us about two hours to hike back down to Mukut. About halfway down the trail it started to heavily pour, by the time we got down to the village we were soaked but relieved that we hadn't waited until first light to get caught in this downpour on our rappels.

After coming back down from the mountain, we rested and powered up by eating some of the freshest seafood I had ever been treated to. I discovered I really liked squid and couldn't help to take in the beauty of this tropical paradise. After a couple days of rest we headed up to the south Dragons Horn to find the approach to a clean white buttress we had scoped the day before. Another party had previously climbed a line to the left of the buttress we had our eye on, so we knew there would be some sort of trail or at least signs of travel. Bushwhacking for hours with heavy loads took its toll on us physically and mentally and after about four hours I started losing my psych. Not long after that we stumbled onto the previous parties abandoned base camp.

We found their old fixed ropes leading up to the base of their climb. We took this approach up and slightly right to where we thought we would start our new route and were happy to find clean-featured granite right from the start. Cedar headed up to what would be our first pitch a steep discontinuous crack with multiple roofs. Not long after building the first belay it began to rain. We descended and waited for a break in the weather. It eventually stopped raining but with only a couple hours of daylight left we decided to come back early the next day.

We returned the next day excited to push our route higher. With the approach fresh in our minds what took us four hours the day before only took us an hour and a half. Our routes second pitch was hard technical face climbing right off the belay. I hooked and free climbing through featured rock into a short corner that led up to a sloping ledge. Unfortunately, I was only able to push our route one pitch higher that day before the rains came back.  We rappelled down to our first pitch to find shelter under a big roof in hopes of waiting it out but after an hour of constant rain we bailed. In two days we had only gone up two pitches and were hoping this wasn't going to be the pattern for the rest of the climb.

After another day of rest and drying out our soaked clothes we returned to make major progress on our route. Cedar and I both led amazing pitches on our third day hooking on small features, stance drilling and connecting featured face climbing to crack systems. The summit was closing in and by the end of our third day on the South Dragons Horn we figured we might have one or two pitches left to the summit.

After two short pitches we unroped and scrambled up jungle-y ledges and wandered our way up through thick forest to reach the summit ridge. Within an hour we were standing on the incredible summit of the South Dragons Horn being the first team to summit both formations! Clouds quickly moved in and rain looked to be quite possible that day… Who would've guessed? But we spent a couple hours on the summit-block eating, snapping shots, and enjoying what was left of the view.

We enjoyed the accomplishment of our new rock climb by resting for two full days. There was a great feast of red snapper, rainbow fish, squid, lobster and crabs galore during our rest days. Some local fisherman, friends of the employees of Tanoshi Resort had brought tons of freshly caught sea creatures to share with us. After another unforgettable feast I felt powered up and ready to go. I was psyched the toiling was over for now and the treat of just going up our route to free climb was a great reward for all the hard work. We knew we could easily be shut down by weather so we woke up around 3:30am the next morning, which would put us at the base of our climb at first light. The climbing went smoothly and swiftly and we made quick work of our pitches. Thankfully the clouds moved over us, broke apart and never settled in. We had an amazing day of climbing. Our second summit of the South Dragons Horn that week and flawlessly freeing our route at 5.12!


We named our route on the North Dragons Horn, "Tanoshi Buttress" III 5.10 after the Tanoshi Resort in Mukut that took care of us throughout our stay on Tioman. Our route on the South Dragons Horn we named "Batu Naga" IV 5.12- , both routes had excellent face and crack climbing.

With some time left in our trip we wondered if a monsoon was coming or if was already here. In the two weeks we had been in Malaysia we had only experienced 4 days of no rain. I was excited to explore the island, relax and of course eat some more seafood. Days after our free ascent it started to pour rain like never before, and it was obvious the monsoon season was here. We made our preparations to leave Tioman. We were told, in the past it had been difficult and or impossible to leave the island when heavy rains and big swells shut down the ferry service altogether.


 The plans were made and we were set to leave Tioman a week after finishing our climb. I was sad to leave but relieved that we were going to make it off Tioman and not miss our flight out of Singapore. The smaller boat came to shuttle us from Mukut to a ferry in a bigger village on the west part of Tioman and eventually back to Mersing.  From Mersing we took a cab instead of a bus across the boarder to Singapore which made the crossing between Singapore and Malaysia much more pleasant and painless than on our way in. Back on the mainland we enjoyed the big city life of Johor Bahru and Singapore for a few days before heading back to the U.S.  

This trip was such an amazing experience for me; I'm very thankful to Cedar for inviting me, for sharing his travel experiences and being a great climbing and travel partner! I'm thankful to La Sportiva for providing me with the best climbing and approach shoes on the planet, my family and friends who have given me endless support while I chase my dreams, and organizations like The North Face and Big City Mountaineers who support individuals with an adventurous soul! Last but not least I would like to thank the Rain Gods for holding off for a few more days while we worked our way up the Dragons Horns!