HIGHS ON THE HORNS
It’s taken almost a decade of exploration to put the dramatic paired peaks of Tioman Island onto climber’s maps.
It’s taken almost a decade of exploration to put the dramatic paired peaks of Tioman Island onto climber’s maps.
AS WE UNLOADED OUR BULKY BAGS AT the island’s main jetty – over 100kg of gear between two of us – clearly all around were guessing at our intentions. One boatman knew more than the others. “Are you going to climb there?” he asked, nodding towards the imposing pair of rock spires to the south. “You have to stay with Uncle Sam. Only he knows the access trail through the jungle.” The man from secluded Mukut village had it right. We had come to Tioman, off Malaysia’s eastern coast to climb. Why not? Those iconic free-standing granite towers top out at 700 metres above sea level, yet had hardly been touched. Local residents call them Bukit Nenek Simukut; to the rest of the world they are known as the Dragon’s Horns. One time back in the 1970s, Time magazine put Tioman at the top of a list of the world’s most beautiful islands. Since then, many islands among that top 10 have become overbuilt and overcrowded. Tioman though remains relatively intact, a fact I was surprised to discover on that first trip back in 2010 and which has scarcely changed since. Even today, visitors prize the still-sleepy feel, especially divers and snorkellers who find better reefs here than along much of the peninsula’s eastern seaboard. That sense of sleepiness was only deepened on our arrival at Mukut where Uncle Sam was already waiting for us on the beach. Gray-haired, 60-year-old, resort manager Sam Sudin turned out to be a very hospitable host, instantly inviting us to explore ‘his’ trail. It was him who, in 2007, cut the first regular path to the pass between the two towers. Later, he went even further, chopping out a circumnavigation, creating an exciting trail used by guided tourists today. The southernmost of the Dragon’s Horns
was only climbed for the first time in 2000, and when we got there next day the mountain felt abandoned, quiet, forgotten. Aside from vegetation at the foot of the wall, most of its 300-metre length looked strong and clean – the kind of a rock every passionate climber would dream about. It was clear the place had serious potential. So, why were we alone at the foot of one of the highest granite towers in Southeast Asia? Was the scale of the wall too overwhelming? Were we too far off the beaten track?
Over the next days, my wife and longtime climbing partner, Eliza Kubarska, and I came to understand just how important Sam’s trail was. Deciding on our first project on the wall, we quickly realised we were in virgin territory. After leaving Sam’s trail we simply couldn’t make a single step without a parang (Malay for ‘machete’). A mere 15 minutes of trail took three hours to cut. Swing and hit, swing, and hit. My hand went numb from squeezing the handle. It was a sweaty fight, mostly with spiky rattan with its thousands of little needles which catch on you, hang on you, and finally cut you as you try to reclaim your freedom. Some call rattan the ‘wait a minute’ plant. It surely delayed our mission by many, many minutes as we cut trail and fixed permanent ropes along the steepest sections. The jungle here is safe compared to other tropical forests – some impressive venomous centipedes but few dangerous snakes. Still there was no day that went without fresh bruises and scratches, new tears and holes in our clothes. Exploring remote or inaccessible mountains is as close to discovering a new land as is possible today: your every step is uncertain, yet full of promise and excitment. While we plan all our trips as best we can, inspecting the wall from a distance, or poring over photos at our computer, it is so easy to overlook obstacles you can’t see from those perspectives. So it was on Tioman. Reaching the wall of
the Dragon’s Horns, the jungle was so dense, we couldn’t see the mountain at all. We knew the wall above the trees was featured with cracks that should make climbing possible. We had seen them on pictures and through our own long lens the day before, but where were they now? How could we find the preplanned start point? Overcoming the intervening 25 vertical metres of jungle-shrouded rock cost us a full day of searching. Finally we climbed clear of vegetation and installed our first safety anchor. We progressed more smoothly then, drilling and hammering in stainless steel bolts with hangers, from which we could clip carabiners to secure our ropes. Then we were able to arrange proper protection to continue our climb, placing higher bolts only as protection, climbing beyond each time using only the strength of our fingers and feet to inch our way up the wall. The opening of a new route on a big wall – the term used for long multi-pitch climbs – typically takes several days. Over successive trips to Tioman, we probed different parts of the wall, abseiling down to rest on the beach, in hammocks at our jungle bivy or, as we got higher, on portaledges.
It was not all thorns and rock rash. Sometimes we woke late, tired after our latest foray. Then we would head instead for a lazy breakfast in the village: roti canai, or banana pancakes, then off to a beach. There are many to choose from on Tioman, some remote like little paradises. No crowds, no lines of beach beds and umbrellas. Just nature unsullied and undemanding. In t he jungle b e hi nd t he b e a c hes we encountered the rare Malayan colugo (a sort of winged lemur), monkeys and lots of tropical lizards including s car y-big monitors that nevertheless completely ignored us. There were tiny mouse deer too: delicate-looking, 30 centimetres tall, with the misfortune that its meat is tender and tasty so it’s coveted by village hunters. Back at the beach, we could watch turtles coming ashore to lay eggs, or could snorkel the reef with its colony of anemone fish, though the best snorkelling in the south of the island is near
Nipah, a few kilometres from our mountain trails. We wondered if this forgotten corner of tropical island is the only place in the world where you can climb huge granite horns and dive beautiful reef on the same day.
We returned time and again to the wall, stretching out our routes metre-by-metre. ‘Adventures’ naturally followed. Once, we were abseiling down around 150 metres above the ground with a thick, column of cloud stood tall above us. The sky darkened as drizzle turned into a regular downpour. With the temperature rarely below 30˚C, we were wearing only shorts and t-shirts. Without waterproof jackets we were quickly sodden – and almost as quickly discovered that in the tropics, rain can feel shockingly cold. We soon began to shiver. The belay anchor below us was a ‘hanging’ one – which meant that on reaching it, our only connection to the rock became the nylon sling running from our harnesses to the steel bolts we had placed there. Such was the steepness of the wall that our feet barely touched the wall. From this exposed spot, there was no quick escape. We carefully began to organise a further abseil but with every second there was more water falling on us, out of the sky and off the rock, flooding our eyes, choking us . . . ‘Where’s Eliza?’ I thought at one point. With so much roaring water, I lost her for a moment, though she was there, swinging from her bolt, just a metre away. It was increasingly difficult to breathe. We needed some sort of shelter. Eliza dug frantically in her backpack. Camera, lenses were all flooded, but we were past caring. We faced drowning while dangling hundreds of metres above the ocean! Luckily she found a small piece of waterproof cloth we had used at our jungle camp. We quickly stretched it over our helmets and we panted, relieved, in the shared shelter. “We can’t move from here until it stops,” Eliza shouted straight in my face, words I half-heard, half-guessed at. The ground lay two rappels below,
but the next drop would take us into the midst of a torrent bigger than any we had negotiated so far. There was no way to avoid it, but there would be no chance to draw a single breath in there either. We had to wait. For half an hour, thousands of litres of icy water poured down on us. My body was ‘break-dancing’, racked by involuntary and uncontrollable twitching. ‘To drown while climbing in the tropics,’ I couldn’t stop thinking. What a terribly stupid end. Eliza – somehow – stayed calm. I had been fearing for her more and more on our expeditions as she led scary pitches, dragging heavy haulbags. My best and equal partner in all things, she had shown such mental and physical toughness. But how much more could she endure? We looked deep into each other’s eyes. “Just relax, do not do stupid things, focus,” I shouted to her, though we both knew I was the one who needed this advice most. Finally the storm broke, the flow down the face eased and we were able to continue down, numb with cold and fear. It was almost dark as we touched ground. Our jungle camp has been washed away. Water had torn our hammocks and mosquito nets, snapped small trees and pushed our half-packed backpacks further into the wood. With nothing for us there, we decided to slither down the sodden trail to the village.
Over subsequent trips we cleaned and bolted one route after another: Sam Sam, Polish Princess, Damai Sentosa, Fever Dreams. Future climbers will be able to use our routes to climb Dragon Horns in just one day, but to establish these climb had taken weeks of effort over five trips in all. The v i e w f rom t he t op i s , of c ours e , incredible. Stood hundreds of metres above the steaming jungle you started from, you are in another climatic zone entirely. It’s much cooler, sometimes penned in by low cloud. The often-wet conditions have allowed carnivorous pitcher plants to find a niche, their graceful bulbous bodies heavy with water from the last rains. One day, tormented with thirst, we even contemplated drinking from them. Another evening, we watched the Dragon’s Horns cast spiky shadows over the jungle below, lengthening into shapes still more like real horns. Exulting in the view, we waved at tiny fishing boats at work on the sea. They probably couldn’t see us, and certainly wouldn’t have expected to see anyone stood up on the strange, forgotten, double-horned mountain we had dragged from our dreams into the half-light.
POINTS OF INTEREST The Dragon’s Horns rear up over the village of Mukut. The approach hike up through the jungle takes 1.5 hours.
TIOMAN TREASURES An incredibly clear freshwater pond discovered recently under cliffs at Mumbar. Left: Uncle Sam – resort manager Sam Sudlin – with a map of the access trail that starts at his resort.
HEIGHT OF EXCLUSIVITY (RIGHT) The first commercial clients are guided up the Dragon’s Horns, the tallest free-standing towers in Southeast Asia, only climbed by a handful of people.
TRAIL MIX (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) Huge rhinocerous beetle; pitcher plants; Tam, one of the development team, with a rafflesia on the access trail; the author after an accident with a machete.
ROCKING IT Eliza Kubarska, 200 metres above the jungle, on a previously unclimbed cliff in Mumbar. It was climbed for the first time in 2016 by Swede Jonas Wallin and David Kaszlikowski.
ON THE TO-DO LIST Mumbar cliff was first accessed only in 2016. There the team discovered a 250-metre granite wall. Exploration is on-going.