Kuching, climbing on Malaysia’s Borneo Island

kuching (1 of 5)

Published in Gripped, Sept 2015

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo

He reached into a large pocket and gained a tenuous grip on what felt like a mud bucket. With his other hand, he took a wire from his harness, and fought through cobwebs to fiddle it into a slot in the wall of slime.

“This is retarded,” he muttered to himself, inspecting the placement, before turning to his belayer and crying out, forcefully: “This is fucking retarded!”

This is ground-up trad-climbing in Borneo, and it’s the only way to put up new routes on the abundant limestone walls in the countryside about 50km outside of Kuching, Malaysia.

But to do so required some nerve. The humid tropics are unsurprisingly a haven for layers of grime and spooge, spindly spider nets and all manner of creepy crawlies; it was not uncommon to see a snake poke its head out from a hueco.

The lead climber, Ryan Weller, and I had arrived for the annual Rock On festival, made some friends, ate some gastronomically-spectacular noodles, roti and laksa, and stayed longer at the invitation of Malcolm and Eunice Jitam, the driving force behind the local climbing scene.

They had spotted our trad rack and, in our immediate future, saw spiders in our hair and moss clinging to our limbs as we attempted to establish new lines.

Climbing in Kuching kicked off in 1999, when Malcolm began developing the area around the Fairy Caves – a popular tourist destination amid a wealth of featured limestone. He invited an Australian crew to bolt and climb the impeccable rock in the middle of the Batman Wall – a 50m slightly overhanging wall that starts with a virtually unclimbable 6m-long roof hovering several meters above the ground.

It makes for a unique vertical experience. A long stick-clip and ladder are needed to get the climber to the first clip at the roof’s lip, via batman-style, grigri-assisted hoists. Then you may start linking the wall’s many features, from tufas to giant holes that may or may not be hiding a snake.

The climbing torch was later picked up by German expat Alex Holke, who put up a number of lines to 5.13b on the Batman Wall, which, in spite of the climate, stayed relatively clean.

Today, there are more than 80 sport routes in the area, with more coming – so long as Malcolm and Eunice can find anyone with a rack and big enough cajones.

Enter Ryan. Stocky, rugged, and with fingers the girth of ancient Greek marble pillars, he wouldn’t look out of place storming the beaches at Normandy. He started up one line, placed some gear, and sat on it while drilling a bolt. Sometimes he drilled as he held onto a plant or two.

“My hand is in slime,” he calmly reported at one point, with only a slight hint of desperation.

Once he topped out and drilled an anchor, I had the honour of top-roping and then cleaning on the way down. Steel brushes. First, the outer layer of dust, then whatever life-forms lay beneath. It was an unenviable, exhausting task – but not terrifying in the slightest.

While I was cleaning a route, Ryan started up a neighbouring line. He was about 15m up when I heard him yelp. His tiny brass RP, wedged behind a flake, was well-placed, but the rock blew when he weighted it. He flew six meters onto a bolt he had just drilled. In light of his choice of pro, and the testicularly-challenging nature of the ascent, he named the route Brass Balls.

Another route we established was short, starting in a small chimney with a roof crack that fit Ryan’s chunky digits perfectly, but which swallowed mine whole. Fat Fingers seemed an appropriately flattering name.

Aside from cranking on jugs up the overhanging jewels of Batman Wall, we ate everyday with the local tribe in their thatch bungalow, immersing ourselves in the local customs. Fish and rice, vegies, and rice wine. Sitting on the floor. Eating with hands.

One of the last routes we did was three-pitches up the front of the wall that guards the entrance to the Fairy Cave. We rappelled in and climbed back up as busloads of tourists walked into the cave directly below us, their necks craning to see these the two figures above them, wrestling with rope.

It had been climbed two days ago, but that had achieved little in terms of keeping the line clean. By the time we had finished, the grins on our faces could plainly be seen through a mesh of dirt, cobwebs, and sweat on our faces.

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Getting there:

Fly into Kuching, Malaysia. Air Asia is a cheap, reliable airline. The climbing is at the Fairy Cave, a 45-minute drive from the city. You can taxi, hire a scooter, or organize transport through local pioneers Malcolm and Eunice Jitam. On your rest day, you can easily walk into the Hilton swimming pool area without raising any eyebrows.

Must-do routes:

Kapur Chimney – 5.11a

Temptation – 5.11d

Bas Laichi – 5.11d

Johnny Be Goode – 5.12d

For further info, contact Malcolm Jitam at borneo4x4@gmail.com

About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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