Monday, June 30, 2008

Scaling the Dragon's Horn, Tioman Island. Malaysia

It all began in the year 1996 when, leafing through a magazine, I saw an aerial photo of Nenek Semukut, an awesome 690 meter granite spire towering above the jungle at Kampong Mukut on the southern tip of Malaysia's Tioman Island. That peak, and another lesser pinnacle, are collectively known as the Twin Peaks, or the Dragon's Horn. From the moment I saw it , it became my dream to climb Nenek Semukut.

In June 2001, a friend of mine, shared my enthusiasm and decided to attempt the peak, but lack of funds meant our equipment was extremely limited. Our attempt came to a halt at 300 meters, but we were determined to return better equipped and succeed.

It took me a full year to put the next expedition together. Because no Malaysian had ever climbed a "Big Wall" like Nenek Semukut before, we had trouble persuading gear manufacturers to sponsor us. Eventually, with the support of the Ministry of Youth and Sports, and the Johor State Sport Climbing and Outdoor Association(OUTCAXT), the expedition began to come together. Sponsors were found, and the Malaysian Mountaineering Federation lent us camming devices, pitons, nuts. We also recieved fleece inners from a previous Everest expedition - to keep us warm on the rockface at night. Three support climbers; Abdullah Danial a.k.a Pakla, Akmal Noor and Al Haleq, would follow us to the summit, hauling the equipment up after us.
A week before the climb we had a press conference, and suddenly everybody knew about us. With the whole nation watching us, our personal deadline of reaching the summit on August 31st (Malaysia's National Day), immediately took a new significance.

The AscentOn August 25, we were finally on our way. A two hour catamaran ride brought us to Kampong Mukut, and from there we trekked through the jungle for two and a half hours to reach the base of the mountain. With each of us carrying 35 to 40kg of food and equipment, this was no easy task. We camped at the foot of Dragon's Horn, preparing for the following day's climbing.

Early the next morning, we began our assault. We free climbed 60 meters until we reached a large roofed ledge, where we set our ropes. We then descended to the base to hold discussions with our support team and volunteers from Mukut.
On August 27th we hauled 110kg of gear and supplies up to this ledge, which would be our home for the night. It turned out to be home to hundreds of nesting birds as well. The noise as they all took wing was like a low flying aircraft over our heads. We had no portaledge, so during the evening, lying in hammocks tied securely to the rock, we entertained ourselves by communicating with the people of Mukut using torchlight. As we flashed our torches towards the coast far below, our friends replied, pinpricks of light flickering back from the jetty, houses, and even from fishing boats leaving before dawn.
On August 28, the real climbing began; a difficult section of the wall, including a technically tough crack, took us the whole day to climb. As we climbed, a fog rolled in, completly blocking the view of the sea, trees, and even the belay team 10 meters below me. I felt as if I were climbing through clouds. At 6pm, we gathered on a tiny 2 X 3 meter ledge; our second bivouac. Our bodies were aching, but limited space did not allow us to move, so the night passed slowly and uncomfortably.

August 29th dawned, and the climb continued. Hoping to reach a larger ledge for our third bivouac, we forged ahead, but the wall was playing with our heads now. This section was a sloping blank face with many small cracks, and eventually we were forced to stop at a very small cavelike ledge big enough for only two people to sit with their legs dangling.
It was midnight before the rest of the team reached us. Abdullah and I slept on the ledge, while Man, Akmal and Haleq set up hammocks on a sloping rocks few meters below. We had precious little time to rest though, and at 4:30 am our willpower was tested to the limit. A thunderstorm hit us with no warning and we lay soaked, silent and shivering with cold as the lightning and thunder crashed around us.

The fifth day of the climbing involved real concentration and mental commitment. It was difficult to place pitons, and we had to climb long runouts from one protective piton to the next. I finally reached a garden like terrace of stunted trees, where the whole team set up the fourth bivouac. From here, we could see a line of about 120 meters that would lead us almost to the summit.
The final day broke clear and sunny, and we set to our tasks confidently; but at around 560 meters, I nearly came to grief. I had placed a piton 7 meters below, and was trying to grasp a handhold on a 30 degree overhanging face when suddenly the rock broke away. I toppled backwards, and as if in slow motion, could vividly see first the blue ocean, and then Man as I fell about 14 meters. The piton held, and despite some bruises, scrapes and a swollen ankle, I thanked God that I had escaped any serious injury.
After freeclimbing about another 100 meters, we came across a tricky scrambling section of about 25 meters before emerging in a garden of bushes, bonsai trees, and pitcherplants.

At 1:30pm on National Day, I summitted on the Dragon's Horn. An hour later, the rest of the team were standing on top. Five days of hard work culminated in a proud moment as we waved our national flag for the camera. It took us eight hours to abseil down, but our hearts were still up in the clouds for many days