Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mt. Kinabalu, Granite Paradise

Reports on this trip were published on the Alpinist and Climbing Magazine websites as well as the Base Camp section of a Climbing Magazine issue.
Photos by me and Boer Zhao
I came to Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo keen for one last epedition before my worldwide jounts ended for a while. I had been climbing around North America and Asia and was keen for one last taste of granite climbing before going home to Perth, Western Autralia. The trip had been thought up late one night in a bar in China and all our planning had reflected that drunken enthusiasm we had. The last trip up the mountain had been a well planned expedition with over ten separate sponsors. We had none except for our near empty bank accounts (Credit cards can be wonderful things!). Luckily for us the Park Service didn’t seem to know exactly what the term climbing meant and gave us our permit and insurance coverge thinking we were walking around siteseeing on the plateau. You should have seen the surprise on their faces when we turned up with ropes and aid gear spilling out of our oversized packs!

Mt. Kinabalu rising to 4095m ASL reaches the highest point between the Himalayas and New Guinea. The summit plataeu covers a remarkably large area and contains an abundance of granite spires ranging from 100 to 200m high. It is the youngest exposed granite body in the world having cooled only 10 million years ago compared to 80 to 100 million years ago for Yosemite and Squamish and a couple of Billion years for the granite from Perths Yilgarn Craton. The granite has the similar features that exist in Yosemite, Squamish and the bugaboos that are left from glaciation which includes striations, polishing and the regular U shaped valleys which cause most climbs to start as slabs and finish steep. The thing that stands out is the friction. I have never climbed on grit in the UK but I imagine that the friction that exists there must be akin to the fine grained granite from Mt. Kinabalu. Your feet will literally stick to almost anything. This opens up a huge range of possibilities in an area where only a handful of routes have been developed. The limiting factor so far has been the accessibility and the amount of protection the rock will allow.

Mt. Kinabalu is the centrepiece of the Kinabalu National Park, a World Heritage Site, which is accessed from Kota Kinabalu the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah. The Park contains a diverse and unique biology containing many species that occur no where else in the world. The preservation of the environment is incredibly important to the locals as ecotourism is the main industry in Sabah so any expeditions up the mountain have to be run in full cooperation with the Park Service. I found that during our 2 week stay the Park Service were more than helpful and were always willing to take money off us for permits, hut fees, insurance, guide fees etc etc… After spending time on the mountain though you start to see that the money goes to good use with the park being one of the best run I have ever seen and in imaculate condition. A day hike (2 days with heavy packs) up a tourist trail leads you to the summit plataeu and a fairytale land of granite spires.

When climbing one of the first things you notice is the lack of protection. You tend to climb from flake system to flake system, all which sound hollow, rather than up traditional splitter cracks of which there are few. This lack of fracturing is likely due to the rocks young age and strength. Pitons and Bolts are a must for developing new routes of which most will contain runout slabs (A good headspace is also a must!). Despite this, the quality of the climbing is incredible and in many instances on par with the major granite destinations of North America.

The climbing isn't for everyone… Four of us headed up the mountain, Edd Stockdale, a climbing bum from Perth, Boer Zhao, a climber we met in China, Brad Stapperfenne, an ex-marine from the United States and me, also a climbing bum from Perth. The walk up took us a lousy wet two days as we refused to hire porters and were punished with packs in excess of 40kg. This was almost too much for all and Edd, whos pack was a beaten up Haul Bag, never seemed to recover. Upon Edd and Boers discovery of the run out alpine style climbing they came to a decision that alpine climbing sucked. Edd left after a few days and Boer stuck it out but prefered not to lead. Luckily Brad used to leading sandbagged 5.9s in the states and who had been
improving rapidly to the 5.12 grade on sport managed to stand up to the challenge and provided an awsome partner. The lesson learned here is that climbing on Mt. Kinabalu as in any alpine environment is torturous and to make sure you are crazy and enjoy pain before you commit to any expedition.

The opportunities are endless. During my 2 week stay I noticed an abundance of unclimbed lines, managed to get the FFA on two previous aid routes(now graded 11- and 11+), and put up The Alpine Birdy (3 pitches, 5.12b), the hardest free route on the mountain and named after Edd's views on alpine climbing and the arete also looking like a middle finger. This is hard considering you're pulling the moves at 4000m causing your lungs to work a lot harder than normal. Apart from the granite spires that litter the summit plataeu the more futuristic and greatest new route opportunities exist in a kilometre deep rift seperating thr East and Western sides of the plataeu. This rift is known as Lows Gully and a first ascent of its larger walls is most likely only going to be available to party of skilled wall climbers in siege like expedition style.

Anyone wanting to experience and add to this developing granite paradise should contact the park service atleast a month in advance and prepare for some rewarding hard work. A miniguide is present in the Climb Malaysia guide book although it doesn’t give topos or even very good discriptions of routes. It does help you get psyched though and gives you information on getting to the mountain and the spires on the plataeu. For route discriptions the best resource is the Gurkha Hut log book on the Western Plataeu. The Gurkha hut is the primary residence for climbers, sleeping four, and needs to be booked from the park service.

Yangshuo, China… the new Tonsai?

Logan Barber, Edd Stockdale - Dec/2006
A version of this was published in ROCK Magazine.
Photos by me and Boer Zhao

The climbing community around the world is small and the community of constantly travelling climbers is even smaller. So when we, two West Aussies, left Perth in 2005 on separate endless climbing trips around the world we were bound to run into each other in some out of the way random climbing mecca. Unknown to us we would meet in China's south, in a little known paradise of towering limestone karst based around the ever growing town of Yangshuo.

We were both drawn to Yangshuo in September 2006 with the promise of an abundance of yet to be climbed sweeping limestone walls and cheap to cost free living while working for China's premier outdoor guiding company, Chinaclimb. What followed was three months of climbing, guiding, the good life with an international crew of psyched climbers, free flowing bolts and one overworked Bosch drill. Times were good and unlike the nearby limestone mecca of Tonsai in Thailand, Yangshuo has yet to be tainted by excessive climbing crowds and inflated prices.

Yangshuo is a predominantly agricultural town in the Guang xi Province of Southern China that has a bustling and fast growing tourism industry driven by the local farming lifestyle and the almost mythical karst tower landscape. 300, 000 people in the surrounding area make sure that, like the rest of China, personal space does not exist although like mystery food, hair raising public transport and the occasional hot air balloon landing in the middle of the highway, this adds to the cultural experience unique to China.

Upon introduction to Chinaclimb our first instructions were to have fun, enjoy the laid back atmosphere, and climb hard. With the company growing faster than anyone could have imagined, the 40 staff hired for its busiest season ever made for constant parties and an endless soap opera. You have to respect a company that pays its staff with a constant supply of free beer, accommodation in staff apartments, free dinners from Chinaclimb's amazing chefs and occasional monetary bonuses. We worked two or three days a week guiding international schools from Shanghai and Beijing, Corporate groups, and any tourists interested in giving climbing a go. The rest of our time we spent obsessed with the awe inspiring karst towers and the climbing they offered.

A typical day of climbing in Yangshuo did not start very early. Generally we would get super motivated in a party atmosphere the night before and agree to leave by eight o'clock in the morning for a full days climbing. People would start to turn up at the Lizard Lounge, Chinaclimbs headquarters, around nine thirty and we would be lucky to be packed into a mini bus on our way to the crag by eleven. The more people climbing for the day the later we would leave. Around the crag it was impossible not to interact with the local farmers and Chinese tourists who approach climbing with good humour and would sit and wait hoping to witness a whipper, the occasional verbal rant that comes with falling off after the crux of a route and the comical nature of a climber being lowered into a prickle bush. Old ladies and kids scoured the base of the cliffs in search of any drink container they could lay there hands on (even if we hadn't finished with them yet!) as deposit reimbursment associated with recycling is a major secondary income for many farming families. Any of the cliffs we visited near tourist locations most likely resulted in us turning up in more photo albums than possibly imaginable due to that other Chinese hobby; photograph the foreigner. These and many other random starnge experiences during any typical day just added to the unique experience that climbing in China has to offer. By six o'clock the sun would start to set and we would all get ready to devour a typical Chinese feast served up by Chinaclimbs chefs. Onsights, redpoints and almosts were discussed over dinner which would bring everyone together and mark the start of another nights socialising. Once again we would get psyched and plan another 'early start'.

It all started in the early 1990's when a group of Americans, including the late Todd Skinner, stumbled across the visually inspiring Moon Hill, a gigantic arch of tufa covered limestone. This area was transformed over the next few years to become the most prominent climbing area in China offering climbs such as the enduro testpiece Red Dragon (.13d), the technical Apollo (.12a), and a powerful foray on the underside of the arch in Moonwalker (.12d). These climbs cover a range of angles and styles so that every climber can find something to suit and something to challenge. Access to Moon Hill consists of half an hour of energy sapping hiking up stone steps originally placed for a visit from Richard Nixon while he was president of the United States. Nowadays most tourists visiting Yangshuo make the trek slowly up to the base of the arch and manage to form a peanut gallery whose cheers and camera flashes make you feel as though you are a movie star.

In 2003/4 a bike ride into the country side by a visiting climber, James Potter, introduced what is arguably the best climbing area in the region, White Mountain. The cliff is roughly 200 metres long and 60 metres high ranging from vertical to a sweeping 15 degree overhang. The cliff with its water streaked colours is reminiscent of Ceusé, though with a back drop of orchards, rice paddies and water buffalo wandering
by, definitely has a Chinese atmosphere. Currently 26 routes ranging from .10a to .13b/c exist, most toward the harder end of the scale, of which 7 have been put up in the last couple of months. Many of the classics on this crag have just been nabbed with this seasons additions of the crimpy Phoenix (.12c) by Chinaclimb staff member Colton Lindeman, and the powerful 45 metre long Axeman (.13b/c) by a visit from UK climber Neil Gresham. Chinawhite (.12b) is a not so recent classic worth mentioning involving off vertical big moves on smooth limestone huecos. Potential still exists for many new routes on the wall especially in the .13+ to .14 range.

With the Yangshuo region gathering international recognition and in the introduction of guiding companies the amount of climbing areas and number of routes has increased quickly on the seemingly endless limestone walls. To date 28 crags have been developed containing roughly 300 routes. Most crags have not been saturated with lines and the list of areas to be developed in the future grows every week. It surely will not be long before the number of routes and their quality equals and then surpasses those found in Tonsai, Thailand. The absence of a beach and the larger distances between crags adds to a different climbing lifestyle than the laid back, chilled culture in Tonsai and because of this Yangshuo tends to suit the more motivated climber and those wanting a more cultural experience. The attraction of amazing pristine limestone, great food and cheap costs of living make Yangshuo a destination worth visiting

It’s the end of November, winter has arrived and it has started to get cold and wet. Both our climbing trips are now continuing south in the search of warmer weather. Tonsai is the perfect location for our continued limestone sport climbing indulgence before we both leave on our separate journeys chasing the climbing lifestyle around the world. We wonder when and where the next climbing area will host another of our reunions.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Two West Aussies and a Whole Lotta Bugs

I wrote this in Sept, 2006.
"C'mon it’s a weather window, we're going so why don’t you!" Chris Atkinson, one of the guide book authors, and a hard core female friend attempted to rev us up. "We can shout at each other during the bivvy on the wall tonight". Lawrence and I looked at each other. We were mentally trashed from a series of shutdowns on wet, loose, sandbagged routes and our bodies didn’t exactly feel refreshed. How long since our last rest day I thought to myself, I couldn’t remember. We started to sort our gear.

The Bugaboo National Park is located in south eastern British Columbia, Canada. It is described as one of the best alpine playgrounds in the world and rightly deserves its description. A cirque of free standing spires with walls ranging from 10 to 30 something pitches forms the central Bugaboos and the quality of rock is amazing when compared to other alpine areas. Access is easy, just walk up a great trail for a few hours and you are at the Conrad Kain Hut and Applebee campsite near the base of Snowpatch and Bugaboo spires. A few more hours over a couple of cols and a glacier and you are at East Creek Basin at the base of the Howser towers.

Lawrence and I had planned an onslaught of the Bugaboos for the better part of a year and things finnaly came together at the end of July when we met in nearby Lake Lousie armed with all our gear, a months worth of food and high spirits. Due to the amount of gear we got a helicopter into East Creek Basin allowing us to skip the walk. The object of our trip was and had always been an ascent of All Along the Watchtower (ED2, 5.12- sandbag, 26 pitches + a convoluted ridge). It tops out on the North Howser the highest peak in the bugs and is one of the major hard classic alpine bigwall climbs in the world. According to the locals (we camped with the guidebook authors) it had very few free ascents, possibly only 2, even though it had been tried by many strong climbers.

I must admit after the first few weeks i was thinking that i was insane for ever wanting to climb big walls in the alpine. It was pure torture climbing in the cold stormy weather on suspect rock that was occasionally wet. We were having fun of some sort which lacked the flair of sanity which pops up in most forms of climbing. Anyway we had a bit of an emotional low doubting ourselves about halfway into the trip. We had done some of the classics including the famous Becky-Chouinard (~16 pitches, 10c) on the south Howser and also some not so classics. Shy away from 11+'s put up in the 1970's! I spent 20 mins aiding a 2 meter section of a 5.9! So during a psychological low, while i was on the verge of hypothermia after climbing a Chimney/waterfall (in 0 degree temps!) we thought screw it lets just have some rest collect ourselves and jump on the Watchtower.

The next day, a planned rest day, we woke to blue skies and the news that apparently we were getting a break in the weather and the next few days would be perfect. That’s when Chris started to rev us up. "C'mon it’s a weather window, we're going so why don’t you!" It didn’t take much to convince us. We were physically and mentally beaten but that didn’t count for much. Chris and his partner were preparing to leave for an ascent of the north Howser via a different route. We hurried to catch up to their stage of preperation and quickly packed one nights worth of food and all our gear. We walked and rapped in to the base of the north howser and started to climb at 3 in the afternoon. A good old Alpine start!

After the first pitch we saw Chris and his partner bailing and heading back to camp. They had sandbagged us! Was there whole act a sham? Anyway we were comitted now and we turned our attention to the kilometer of rock above us. We polished of the first 10 pitches to a bivvy ledge over the next 7 hours arriving just as it got dark.
A huge dinner and a hot chocolate later we were cozy on our little ledge. We had dragged up sleeping bags, bivvy bags, a cooker, heaps of clothes and the days worth of food. The leader climbed with a 35 litre pack and the seconder had a 70 litre pack. 5.9 old school offwidth is very hard with a 70 litre pack (Trust me...I Know!).
The morning was awsome, a great view and perfect weather. I woke first and enjoyed watching the moon arc across the blue sky. We had no idea what time it was till we got started and Lawrence looked at his watch.... It was noon! So the rest of the day was spent route finding to the base of the amazing dihedral that has given the watchtower its 3 stars and then climbing the dihedral (4 pitches) while hauling our bags (we took up a huge canvas bag to haul without damaging our backpacks). We made it to near the top of the dihedral (very soft 11+, climbing) before sunset and then rapped back down to a bivvy ledge fixing our ropes in the dihedral so we could jug the next morning. So the entire day we moved our camp up 4 pitches only! Dinner consisted of a couple of cliff bars. We were starving.

After the second night on the wall we had half a cliff bar and half a gell each for breakfast and started to jug up the dihedral hauling our bags. Then to my surprise i hear a Hello! I turned around and theres another party that had bivvied at the top of pitch ten. They were not trying to free the route but just get up it and the seconder was jugging up the rope after the leader. They seemed very strong and were moving quite fast by doing this. They also only had a single pack and were spending very cold nights on ledges with no bivvy gear. One of the guys some of you might know. He is the guy in the Indian Creek guide book and in some BD catalogues wearing the funny glasses in an offwidth placing a huge cam.
Since there were two parties and we were the slowest we offered to let them pass. This led to a very screwed up situation at the top of the dihedral with gear everywhere and Lawrance and I hanging in our harnesses for hours!

Both Lawrence and i had not fallen yet and we where both keen for the lead on the crux pitch which was coming up. We watched the other strong climbers flail on the pitch and resort to aid never pulling the crux. They tagged a line for us and fixed it in case we couldnt pull it either so we could jug pass the crux. Unfortunately for me we were running out of time and i had the whole hanging belay and hauling system set up around me so it was obvious Lawrance was to get the lead. We had a 1 fall policy (you fall you jug pass - no working).

Lawrence gave it a good shot but didnt pull the crux either, the footholds were non-existant. After jugging past he put me on belay. Although i wasnt on lead i still felt nervous and aprahensive, the next 10 meters was soooo important to me. It wasnt on lead but it was still a free ascent that was at steak although not in the best style. I focused taking apart my belay setup and shouted "clmbing!" I saw the crux and knew it was hard, two very strong climbers had just pulled past and a third (the cam dude) didnt even bother to try.

I dont think ive ever been so focused or wanted anything as much. I underclinged a couple of crystals and stepped up onto one of the worst footholds you've ever seen (it was the only thing there). As i stepped up i let out a scream as i felt the tension between my fingertips running up through my shoulders and down to my toes. I brought my right hand into a one finger and a bit tiny pocket and matched feet. Then stepped a long way across to a better foothold and grabbed a better undercling. One more big cross over and i was through the crux.

The rest of the pitch was still very hard and i had to concentrate super hard not to screw it all up. I had done it, not on lead but still free. I looked up and saw the next two pitches, easily the second and third most hardest of the route, at sandbagged 5.11. It was my lead and it took all my strength and will power to keep it together. We topped out the hard climbing as it got dark and did another 5 pitches of mid fifth class climbing in the dark before reaching the summit ridge sometime in the middle of the night only to find the party that had overtaken us. They gave us a bite of salami each which tasted and filled me up as if i had had a roast dinner! We melted some snow and had a tea made from a tea bag they had just given us. Then we passed out.

After the crazy ridge in the morning we stood on the summit, very weak and kinda dizzy. I felt slightly re-energised just knowing the fact we had achieved our goal for the trip. The plan had been in the works for over 6 months. We had done it, an Aussie ascent of the watchtower which included one of the few ever free ascents.
It would have been great to have had the energy to celebrate but all we could manage was a few summit shots before turning our concentration to the descent. Can you believe we got our rope stuck on the last rappel! Lawrence showed his worth by brushing off fatigue and dehydration to lead just one more short pitch to get the rope unstuck. We stumbled and slid across glaciers and past crevasses back to camp to begin a well deserved feast of spam and crackers.