DEVELOPMENT ON MALAYSIA'S GRANITE

Posted on: June 11, 2007


An overview shot of The Alpine Birdy (5.12b, 3 pitches, 140m), St. Andrews Peak, Mt. Kinabalu (4095m), Kinabalu National Park, Malaysian Borneo. The new line, which is the hardest on the mountain, was established by Logan Barber, Brad Stapperfenne and Boer Zhao on February 11. Barber says that the park has the "potential for hundreds of new routes" on cliffs up to 800 meters high. [Photo] Boer Zhao

I had been climbing around North America and Asia for almost two years with all different mates I had met from previous climbing trips and was keen for one last taste of granite before going home to Perth, in western Australia. After concocting a trip to Malaysia with drunken enthusiasm late one night in a bar in China, Brad Stapperfenne, Edd Stockdale, Boer Zhao and I eventually ended up at Mt. Kinabalu (4095m), Kinabalu National Park, Malaysian Borneo, this past February. The last expedition that ascended Mt. Kinabalu had been well-planned and fully-sponsored. Our trip was supported by our credit cards and evolved daily as we began to realize the magnitude of planning involved. Luckily the park service didn’t seem to know exactly what the term climbing meant, so they gave us a permit and insurance coverage thinking we would be tramping 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.

Logan Barber, belayed by Brad Stapperfenne, climbing the second pitch (5.9) of The Alpine Birdy. When Barber first climbed this pitch, it was totally unprotected. Later, the team placed one bolt half way up the runout slab, to make it a bit safer for other parties. [Photo] Boer Zhao

Mt. Kinabalu is the highest point between the Himalayas and New Guinea and is accessed from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah, an hour and a half drive away. The mountain's summit plateau covers a remarkably large area and contains numerous granite spires ranging from 100 to 200 meters high. It is the youngest exposed granite body in the world, having cooled only 10 million years ago compared to Yosemite and Squamish, which formed 80 to 100 million years ago. Yet the granite has similar features—striations, polishing and regular U-shaped valleys—left from glaciation that form gritty rock that generally start as slabs and finish steep. The incredible friction opens up a huge range of possibilities in an area where only a handful of routes have been developed. Although the experience is on par with many of the finest destinations in North America, the area has remained relatively undeveloped due to the spires' inaccessible and difficult-to-protect nature.

Edd, a climbing bum from Perth, Boer, a climber we met in China, and Brad, an ex-marine from the United States, joined me to make the two day slog with packs weighing forty kilograms. Edd backed out after a few days, but Boer and Brad, a very competent leader, made great partners.

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On February 3 I led up, with Boer, the first ascent of Dead Man Walking (5.11c/d, 4 pitches, 200m), which was a conglomeration of variations on and pitches from other routes. It follows what we thought was a reasonably direct line up one of the nicest faces on the plataeu, the south face of Victoria Peak. Boer and I started up an old route with little information before climbing a slab in new terrain and linking into another line, The Italian Route, put up by a team from Italy a few years before. I freed the next A0 pitch at 7a before finishing up the same route with a half-pitch 5.10 slab variation. The route was characterised by run-out slab and one steep crux section, which was a technical masterpiece.

On February 11 we climbed The Alpine Birdy (5.12b, 3 pitches, 140m), the hardest free route on the mountain and the capstone of our trip. It starts with two easy pitches, 5.4 and 5.9, which are exposed and consist of super cool arete climbing. The third pitch, 5.12b, ascends a sustained, near-vertical corner with little in the way of holds for thirty meters and continues with delicate slab for another twenty. The section has three fixed pins and is protected by microcams and one number three camalot. Pulling the moves at 4000 meters makes your lungs burn.

The next day Brad and I freed Welcome to the Rockies (5.11-, 4 pitches, 200m), originally 5.10 A1. It follows a distinctive weakness up the face of a tall, thin spire. It begins with well-protected 5.9 slab and turns into an involved 5.10 corner. The crux comes near the summit where the original party had pulled on gear through a small roof. We freed this section onsight and continued onto a summit platform, which is only a couple of metres in diameter.

Apart from the granite spires that litter the summit plateau, the more futuristic and greatest new route opportunities exist in Lows Gully, a kilometer-deep rift that separates the eastern (slabby) and western (steep) sides of the plateau. Only a handful of ascents—including La Alquimista (6b A3, 800m) and The Crucible (E4 A3+, 800m)—have been made on Lows' walls. The cliffs begin around 200 meters high on the southern side of the plateau and, as the rift extends to the north across the plateau, it deepens to around 800 meters. There is potential for hundreds of routes, but the gully is of great spiritual importance to locals and to conservationists, so permission must be sought for any climbing. Anyone wanting to experience and add to this developing granite paradise should contact the park service at least a month in advance and prepare for some rewarding hard work. A mini guide is present in the Climb Malaysia guidebook although it doesn't give topos, or even very good descriptions of routes. For route descriptions the best resource is the Gurkha Hut logbook on the Western Plateau. The Gurkha hut, which sleeps four, is the primary residence for climbers and must be booked through the park service.

Barber making it to the top of the runout slab on Pitch 2 of The Alpine Birdy. The weather on Mt. Kinabalu is unpredictable and usually very wet; shortly after this photo was taken, the trio had to bail due to rain. [Photo] Boer Zhao



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