After graduating from college I spent a few years working intermittently as an outdoor educator, and witnessed first hand the simple power of nature to heal and steer a young soul in a more positive direction. I am a huge fan and believer in nonprofit organizations like Big City Mountaineers which each year gets thousands of urban teens from San Francisco, Denver, Portland, Minneapolis, and Chicago outside on sponsored week long wilderness expeditions. They have a great fund raising program called SUMMIT FOR SOMEONE, and I put together this trip to Malaysia’s Tioman Island to climb the Dragon’s Horns specifically with the program in mind. My main sponsor The North Face generously helped finance the trip, and offered to match the first four thousand dollars we could raise in the name of our climb!!! We hoped to climb first ascents on the legendary dragons horns said to be an ancient petrified Chinese Princess. The fact that only one of the two horns had been climbed was quite alluring, and being able to raise money for a good cause while doing what I love was a definite win win.
Above is Lucho Rivera. At first I planned to go to Malaysia with an old friend from Humboldt, but when he wasn’t able to make it, I realized that my homie Lucho would be perfect and pulled him in! Since it is the modern age, I invited him while chatting on facebook! Lucho and I shared a lot of adventures together in years past with numerous first ascents in Yosemite and the Sierras including the F.F.A. of The Camp Four Wall 5.12 and The Gravity Ceiling 5.13 a huge roof on Higher Cathedral Rock. Lucho is one of the few people these days still putting up new routes in Yosemite Valley. He’s got an adventurous spirt and an infectious if not overly zealous sense of confidence.
There was no doubt Lucho’d be a great climbing partner, but what tipped the scales and made it kind of karmic even, was that Lucho grew up in the Mission district of San Francisco amidst the negativity of gangs and violence, and was headed down a dead end road until he was exposed to the mountains by an organization similar to Big City Mountaineers called The Urban Pioneers. Soon instead of hanging with his thug friends in the Mission, Lucho was spending his free time in Yosemite climbing. I bought Lucho’s ticket on half airline miles and half personal cash , and a few weeks later we were on a plane. I’ve been living the playboy dream for nearly ten years now, traveling and climbing on the regular, so it felt great hook a brother up, wasn’t so lucky to have those opportunities. This would be Lucho’s first trip overseas, and I knew he would be hungry and psyched to get shit done, which for me is invaluable. On big trips I like to drop the motivation clutch. I know I won’t go home happy unless I give it everything.
After putting up the first route to the summit of the North Dragon’s Horn on our first full day in Malaysia, (see previous blog) which involved wasp attacks climbing in the rain, a dicey descent and a horrifying lightning storm, we turned our sights to the more impressive South Tower and one of the proudest looking lines on the entire formation, a wild unclimbed “nose like” white buttress. Scotty Nelson who with Nick Tomlin did the first ascent of the tower in 2000 when he was only eighteen mentioned to me that this was the line to do, after seeing it in person it was love at first sight. A dream line, which is rare in this modern age of climbing exploration. On our recon day we traveled heavy with 60+ pound bags filled with first ascent supplies. The Jungle in Tioman Island is pretty treacherous, with heinous spiky ferns dripping spiny tendrals that manage to consistently grab your clothing and skin as you attempt to weave through unscathed! ”OUCH!”
Above is my make shift rain vest, constructed out of a heavy duty trash bag. The fact that I own probably twenty North Face rain jackets and managed to not bring a single one up our climb was certainly equal parts exasperating and comical. But actually it worked alright… waterproof, but not breathable…just don’t be looking for TNF to be coming out with one soon! But I digress…As we attempted to approach our second objective, I realized just how hot it is in the jungle. If you want to train for Tioman island, just get in a Sauna with a heavy backpack and do jumping-jacks and pull-ups!
We passed all kind of heinous creepy crawlies; ants the size of my thumbnail, angry monkeys, a black snake that we later learned was a poisonous pit-viper, bizarre frogs, and this oddness all highlighted by the constant screech of mysterious bugs (or were they birds?) that sounded like really, really loud car alarms! ”RUHEEEE RUHEEEEE RUHEEEE!!!”" Lucho did not mention it to me until we were on the island, “Dude I’m afraid of Spiders and Bugs.” Around each corner, Lucho would scream and jump back like a scared little kid, at some real or imagined threat to his existence. I had one main concern, the hummingbird sized wasps or hornets or whatever they were that had attacked me on the previous climb.
Above is a carnivorous plant, that waits for ants or other bugs to get a drink, and then it DIGESTS THEM. There is a lot of wild flora on the island. You half expect a dinosaur to pop up!
We had some loose beta on how a british team had approached the general vicinity of our proposed line, but it was going poorly, with lots of machete work, backtracking and thorny bushwhacking. At one point Lucho looked at me and said “Do you ever wonder what the point is?” “Man Down” I thought to myself…time for a pep talk. ”Lucho” I said, ”their are different types of fun…and sometimes the most fun you can have isn’t fun while it’s happening, but it’s SO FUN when it’s over.” Err was that motivational? ”Well right now this sucks,” said Lucho as he tried to extricate his hair from one of those damned ferns. Every ten feet or so, along the approach we’d encounter another “fern from hell.” These ferns look friendly, but THEY ARE NOT, they are evil and their thorns are hidden on the bottom side of the leaves so they can trick you into a false sense of complacency. They grab on and don’t like to let go.
This is a poisonous Frog…don’t lick him!!! Actually I don’t know if he’s poisonous for sure!
So, anyways, about four hours into our hike even I was losing a little bit of psyche and I live for this kind of stuff. Of course I wasn’t going to tell Lucho, and I continued to stumble aimlessly under the increasingly heavy feeling burden of my pack. I mumbled “we’ve got to be close!” ”ARGHHH” I yelled, “Damn you thorny fern.” Sweat dripped down my face fogging up my glasses. Lucho helped me pull the fern out of my hair and pack, and then a glorious moment!! I noticed the remnants of the British teams camp. We were probably the second party ever to stand here at the base of the west face, and it was AMAZING. A bit of scrambling, and tree climbing and a wild traverse later, and we were at the base of the beautiful white buttress that we had been singing it’s sirens song.
Above, this Monkey found out we were roguing his line on the dragons horn and was very upset!!!
And so after four and a half hours of circuitous spiral/slogging , fern whacking, and a lot of whining from Lucho, we collapsed in disbelief at the base of our proposed line. It looked steep, gnarly, and….maybe not even possible! “Dude this is SICK,” said Lucho, having already forgotten how heinous the hike had been. After a little food and water I racked up as I eyeballed a wild corner that lead to a series of impressive roofs. Soon I was run out and at the top of the corner, but unsure if I was going the right way. I pounded in a pin, lowered down, and pengied around a corner to see if it looked easier. It did look easier, but their was a giant Hornets Nest right in the middle of the path with several of my friends buzzing around it. ”Definitely not the way,” I yelled down to Lucho.
I brought Lucho up and then began making my way out the roof. It looked to be hard 5.12 at the easiest, but every edge and ripple seemed to be placed in a divinely perfect alignment, and after installing one quarter inch bolt with our hand drill I managed to free the pitch at hard 5.11! The line went out a roof, onto an arete, and then out another roof, on perfect golden stone. Some of the best climbing on the planet really! At the lip of the second roof there was a hero jug and you could hang like Sylvester Stallone in Cliff Hanger and enjoy a nice view of the South China Sea!
Right as I got out the roofs, something happened that would become a theme of the trip…. it started to rain. For a while I just huddled there getting soaked and hoping it would eventually stop. Finally I realized the rock was soaked and it was time to go down. I fixed the line and rappelled back to Lucho who was completely dry under the roof! ”Were, back on it tomorrow if the suns out” I said hopefully.
After the four and half hour epic stumble thrash to the base the first day, we got the approach dialed and could make it to the base of our route in around an hour and a half. Each day I could literally squeeze the sweat out of my t-shirt from the “SAUNA APPROACH.” Over the next five days we established one of the best climbs I have ever done, first ascent or not. The rock on the white buttress was nothing short of impeccable and offered up diverse, unique and specific movment, characterized by tricky boulder problems out mini roofs and big run-outs on wild flakes, pockets and nob features. At some point every day the rain and lightning would come, and we would nervously head back down our fixed lines hoping that the next day would be clear.
This is me drilling on lead, eventually we got the power drill up there. Putting up the route involved lots of running it out while searching for a flake you could hook off of, and then gingerly weighting it. At one point I had two marginal mini-hooks and a dubious looking slung nob that somehow together held my body weight. I began gingerly towing up the drill, praying that I didn’t whip and break my legs, or worse, and drilled a bolt with a genuine sense of risk and urgency!
Each day we’d either push the route a couple pitches higher, or realize that the sky had opened up, and we’d huddle into our little cabin that we’d rented. I’d read “The Smartest Guy in the Room” about the Enron scandal, or manage and back up all of the video I had been shooting. The reality was that even though we were nearing the top of our route, we were there late season, and any day the Monsoon would come shutting the Dragon Horns down completely for climbing. My worse nightmare was getting rained out before we could climb the route bottom to top in a day. For Lucho and I getting to the top would be a small victory, it was only when we climbed it all free in a day that the project was done.
On our fifth day we headed up the fixed lines, and finished the final two pitches to the end of the white buttress. The final pitch involved climbing out overhanging tufa runnels, then manteling onto the top of the buttress. From there we scrambled up about three hundred feet of easy fifth class and then bush whacked to the summit up vertical steps of grass. The view from the top was a kings view of the town of Mukut where we were staying. Fishing boats looked like little toys far below.
Every pitch on the route turned out to be a five-star classic! It was hard to believe just how good the climb we had just put up was. I equate it to going to Yosemite and doing the first ascent of Astroman, or going to Squamish and doing the University Wall. It was a MEGA-CLASSIC!!! Now all we had to do was free it in a day! An awesome challenge no doubt.
On the way down, the weather came in hard, but we figured that was fine… we were both exhausted from a week of toiling, and enjoyed some fresh local seafood and napping in our cabin. But when the next day, it was still raining, we started to get worried. Was this the Monsoon? Were we going to sit there in the rain for a week and lose the plot. After three days, I came up with a plan. ”If it’s not raining at 3 a.m. tomorrow morning Lucho, we start hiking up and hope for the best.” At midnight it was dumping, but by 3, there was no rain, we also couldn’t see any stars as they were covered by a blanket of clouds. It didn’t look good. It was a hail Mary, but we reached the base of our route at the first inklings of light and began to climb earnestly. The weather looked less then optimum, and the thunder and lightning was dancing and singing out on the sea. I prayed that the sky didn’t unleash half way up the climb.
Re-climbing my pitches I realized just how much I had run it out. ”Damn it Cedar” I said to myself, “what were you thinking,” and then I’d commit to another dicey move with incomprehensibly huge whipper potential. Four and a half hours later we were on top of the buttress having completed the first ascent of the route. The weather had miraculously held, but looked ominous and we toyed with the idea of descending from the top of the buttress and not summiting, but I knew we’d regret it. An hour later we were on the summit of the South Dragons Horns for the second time, having summited in just under five and a half hours! We were the first people to climb both horns of the Dragon which felt pretty special, and both of the routes especially this one were world-class! I gave Lucho a big hug on the summit and new that this would be one of the best climbs of my life!
Repeating parties should be ready for big run outs on 5.10 and easier ground, and not be afraid to be creative with their gear, including, shallow cams, weird R.P. placements, and slung knobs and flakes. The 5.11 and harder ground however is relatively well protected, and this really is one of the best routes in the universe. Perfect stone on a beautiful buttress in a wild location! ENJOY!!!
We called our route Batu Naga, which is Malay for “Stone Dragon,” and rated it 5.12a R. We think from the base to the summit is about fifteen hundred feet of elevation gain, but only the first 900 feet or so is technically challenging….but there is some proud bush-whacking to reach the summit!
I highly recommend a trip to Tioman Island to climb the dragons horns. Where else in the world can you sit on a beach eating fresh seafood, snorkel through the wild coral reefs that surround the island, bivy in a sweet little cabin, and then an hour later be climbing on a world class granite big wall. Just watch out for the Wasps, poisonous snakes and Spiky Ferns!
Lots of Love for the Journey! Cedar Wright.