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.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story by David Kas­z­likowski Photography by David Kas­z­likowski & El­iza Kubarska

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?

First moves

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.

Hol­i­days rock

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.

Cold shower

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.

Peak spec­ta­cle

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.

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