When Steve McClure attempted to rope-solo a route in Malaysia this summer, things didn't quite go to plan...
'The Dragon will not let you pass easily.' I read that in the tattered new routes book whilst sat in the bar in the tiny village of Mukut and kind of ignored it; the warning surely wasn't applicable to me. This village on the southern end of Tioman Island off the coast of Malaysia is dominated by the twin granite peaks of the Dragon's Horns.
I'd been there before, way back in 2005, and though I couldn't fail to notice these huge lumps of clean black and white streaked rock, they didn't really register in my climber's mind. There were no routes then, and the cliff base was deep in the dense, impenetrable jungle. And it rained too, leaving a permanent mist and the summit rarely visible. I was there to snorkel and chill, and stuck to that plan! But of course other climbers were more captivated, and of course the weather is generally good, and now there are a good scattering of routes. The Dragon's Horns have become famous for some of the best multi-pitch climbing in Asia, with excellent quality solid granite in a stupendous position way above the jungle and views far out over the crystal clear sea to paradise islands in the distance.
The offer of some work in Singapore this summer planted the seed of a return to Malaysia and Tioman; a family holiday, snorkelling again and chilling on the beach, but maybe I'd get a crack at The Dragon, now firmly established as a must-do summit tick for adventurous climbers. But really? What were the chances? No partner, seldom visited by climbers and slim chance of hooking up. I pondered my options. Travelling light is the way to go, but we were already heavy, with all our junk barely fitting into too many bags. A full rack of climbing stuff was hardly fair. Maybe take nothing and hope to meet others with everything, or take half and meet another half-rack person. I opted for my 80m skinny Petzl rope, just 8 draws, 2 slings, 3 screwgates, GriGri and abseil device. It still seemed like a lot when chances were I'd not even use any of it, but still have to lug it around all over Asia.
But I lucked out. Day one on the island and I met top Chinese climber Daliu Liu, who was guiding two clients up the easiest route to the summit. It worked just great for both of us, as we could move in two teams. A full mist swirled around for the entire climb, but even so, and at a grade of 6b maximum, I could tell the climbing was great, with really quite awesome granite unlike any I've ever seen before; the vast open walls had a rugged texture and were coated in lumps and bumps offering holds literally everywhere. The Dragon was kind to us and gave us just a few minutes' view from the summit to stare down on the beautiful dense jungle and the village and shimmering sea far below. But strangely, or perhaps unsurprisingly, I wasn't satisfied! I wanted more now. As days passed snorkelling and playing in the sand, I looked up and pondered if I could somehow climb again.
Problem number 1. No other climbers were coming. That much seemed clear. The sleepy village of Mukut is not developed for tourism, it's strictly Muslim, a working village; fishing mainly. There are just a few places for tourists to stay and eat. And so the locals know the trends, and were already surprised by the number of climbers. Problem solved – I could rope-solo it. I scanned the guide again in the bar. Damai Sentosa stood out as one of the best; 280m, 6c+, 7 pitches; a mixture of sport and trad. A challenge for sure in the heat.
Problem number 2. My rack was pitifully small, and I had no trad kit whatsoever. Problem solved – I'd just go for it anyway! After all, how hard could it be, and I'd studiously noted that trad kit was only needed on the first 3 pitches between the sparsely placed bolts. If I got scared I could just come down.
Problem 3 was getting to the route, which resulted in a complete failure on my first day, being totally lost in the jungle most of the time, making various abseils down gulleys and generally being scratched to pieces and freaked out by the cobwebs that constantly became stuck across my face. I eventually found the route, but it was too late to start, so I dumped my kit for an attempt the next day. Of course the next day it still took ages and I swore I'd not be coming back ever again.
Problem 4 was immediately obvious as soon as I left the ground, as I quickly realised my DIY rope-solo system didn't work very well, and that rope-soloing is actually totally petrifying! And this was on the totally easy 'tree climbing pitch'. My plan was to adapt my rope tactics as I went along, but I failed completely, and any problems were not really solved at all, just kind of endured, utilising a kind of 'pull up some slack and hold it in your teeth' method while sketching out a few moves. Hardly ideal when 30m up a pitch, the weight of 30m of rope hanging from your mouth and snagging and generally being a complete pain.
Problem 2 initially appeared to be the biggest problem; the lack of rack. But I just pushed on, aware that in more than a few places 'rope-solo' was now in fact just 'complete solo', but worse, as I had a jumble of rope dangling below me trying to pull me off. Luckily it was never harder than 6b-ish.
By the last pitch I'd had enough. I'd been ages, and though the climbing was really cool my nerves were shattered. But luck had been with me, so far. I'd hoped problem 5 would not happen, though was aware there was at least some potential, since I didn't really know what I was doing. Problem 5 was a snagging rope. Then the rope from below went tight.
My solo-tactics were to have one end tied to the belay, and climb away from it, feeding rope from the slack side through the device (via pulling up some rope and stashing it in my gob). Laying the pile of slack rope was key to it working; tricky when there were no ledges, and there was potential for it all to tangle and snag, or just fall into space and pull my teeth out as it went. And now the slack side was no longer slack. I pulled and flicked and cursed and eventually realised I had no option but to retreat to the belay. One of the loops had snagged over a chicken head. Sorted, and more careful laying. This was the last pitch, and the full sun had now given way to full mist. I wanted to be up now.
This had been a real adventure, kind of what I was after. But I pondered my life far below; snorkelling, swimming, eating pancakes, reading, relaxing. I was ready for more of that. Up again, and much further this time, and then - 5m run-out from the very last bolt, finish in sight, and feeling pretty frightened - the rope jammed solid. I pulled hard, harder. Bloody hell. How unbelievably annoying to have got so close. I pulled again, feeling the strain down into my toes while noting my exposed position. Another solid yank before watching as an approach shoe bounced its way down the wall. Horror!
It seemed to stop in a bush maybe 80m below, far away from the route. A full rope length, or maybe more? I'd really like it back. I leaned into the wall in my out-there position feeling deflated. So close. Another few metres and I'd have been up, sat on the summit, taking in the view, and then flying down the easy abseil on the other side, a nicely set series of 30m straight line drops between solid double bolt anchors. But no. A scary reverse to the last bolt, tie it off and rap down again to free the tangled mess, now jumbled around my other lonely approach shoe that was wondering where its friend had gone. Mist swirled around me, visibility was down to 10 metres now, my lost shoe surely lost and any hope of a rescue ditched. I was starting to feel cold, dressed in just a pair of shorts. Things were unravelling. Then the Dragon roared. A deep rumble from the mist below. What was coming? Rain!
The first splats were huge, horizontal, blown in on a rapidly strengthening wind. Panic! I felt the fear wash over me, and scrambled up the rope as it came in; a torrent like I've never seen, water literally gushing from the sky. By the time I reached the last bolt I was drenched beyond belief, shivering uncontrollably. Water was pouring over me so much I could hardly see my hands and feet. Switching back into rope solo mode took an age and felt overly complex; knots to undo, devices to put on, the right way round, on the right bit of rope….I pressed on, now not even sure I was attached to the rope. I had to reach the final belay, I just had to get out of there. And then - 10 metres run-out, with a waterfall pouring over me and the belay almost within touching distance - the rope went tight again. Solid. How could this happen? I stood in total fear as my feet were almost ripped away. I've never been so scared in my life. And for what seemed like an eternity, I was just completely clueless as to what I could do. There seemed no options. I was about to be swept off the face…
I had to do something. But I knew I could not go up. Disconnecting myself entirely crossed my mind, and soloing the last three metres of easy ground I'd probably get away with, but that would leave me on the summit, with absolutely no way of escape, and no real chance of rescue, at least for multiple days or even weeks until other climbers perhaps came to visit. I had to reverse, so I slithered downwards, trying to feel for footholds in the water-runnels, now clearly showing how they'd been formed. Somehow I reached the last bolt again and desperately clipped into it. I could tie off the rope again, go down, free the stuck end, again, and climb back up, but now I wasn't thinking straight and my hands weren't working and my body was shaking violently with the cold. The Dragon roared around me; thunder boomed, and screaming winds were blowing rain horizontally. My only option was to retreat completely.
Before starting the route I'd pondered the escape scenario, with the complex 50m diagonal abseils and just an 80m rope, and I figured I'd be able to figure it out, maybe leaving a few bits of kit here and there. But I'd not pondered an escape scenario involving a waterfall and no visibility. Now I wasn't sure. I couldn't even figure out how to move from where I was as I stared at the single bolt and jumble of equipment all clipped into it and the river pouring into my lap. My family and friends would be far below, sheltering, wondering if I was safe, or in trouble. They were used to me taking risks, used to me getting into epics. They'd think I'd be OK. This time they would be wrong.
It turned out my Chinese partner Daliu Liu a few days earlier was actually on the first ascent of this route with Arnaud Petit way back in 2013. We chatted about it, he said it was great, maybe 7a though. But when we'd climbed together we were on the same route as seven Malaysian climbers. They had an epic, took 18 hours to only get 5 pitches up, starting and finishing in the dark. As we'd rapped past them we had insisted they go down. We'd insisted, because if they got stuck it would be me and Daliu that doing the rescue. No mountain rescue, no other climbers. We'd laughed about it. Now I wasn't laughing. There was no rescue for me if things went really pear shaped.
An abseil descent is always a pain, even when it goes well, but a snagged rope or a jammed knot can turn it into a complete epic. I was already in a complete epic. It had taken me a few minutes to even get over the first hurdle, how to thread the bolt I was sat on when one end of the rope was tied at the belay far below, and the other was snagged somewhere in the distance. It took an age to figure I only had to clip the rope into a krab and just leave the krab behind. I knew I was in trouble. At last I was down to the belay, again. And pulling the rope this time felt so committing, I'd been literally inches from the top, and now I was stranded in the absolute middle of nowhere as rain lashed across me in waves. I felt like I was bobbing in a vertical sea savaged by a storm. And I knew what was coming as the free end began to run and the wind drew it out sideways, flicking the end out horizontally to drape and tangle over the mass of tiny spikey chicken-heads that the entire face of The Dragon's Horns is made up of. As though glued to the wall, the rope jammed solid. My heart sank.
I pulled and flicked in desperation, then pulled hard, with all my weight, and a clump of vegetation appeared from above along with a jumble of soggy rope. Phew. I threaded the end, noted the middle marker, made sure there were no knots in the end of the rope… a cardinal sin I knew, but with the ropes blown out sideways they were just snagging at every moment. Downwards through the gloom, trying to follow spaced bolts to the next anchor. And repeat. But the anchor was not on the route line, set aside to allow a straighter abseil. Bouncing back and forth I tried to get into it, sawing at the rope over the rough granite; wincing as it snagged over the numerous sharp chicken heads, killing my swing. At last, clipped in. Double check, hard to tell now what I was doing.
I'd left at 6.30am, promising myself breakfast (a museli bar) at the cliff base, but somehow I'd missed it, then promised myself a feast on the summit, but now I'd missed that too. It was 3.30pm. I was working on adrenaline alone. Pull the rope again, down it comes, try to pull it in as fast as possible as it arcs out sideways, the free end disappearing, but not coming past me, draping itself over the wall. Please don't, please don't snag…
Slumped there I consider my options. The rope has stuck above me again. It's not coming free this time. I'm missing maybe 15 metres. I have a knife, but I think I need all my rope, in fact I need more than all my rope with a 50m abseil to come. I need to free the tangle, climb back up to the jam. But I'm not even on the route line which lies far out to my right. A rope-solo above? In new terrain, unbolted, facing a factor 2 onto the belay? Not attractive. Best option; rope-solo horizontally across to the route, climb up it to a bolt above the jam, 6c under water, then swing across and free it, abseil down, pull the rope. Simple. Clearly my luck had run out. But I thanked my years of experience as I figured out each problem as it was thrown at me.
Down again, another isolated rap station. I could see it through the mist, below a small roof, the ends of the rope together flicking in the wind, a good distance above the belay. 'A good distance', what was that? Two metres, three? It looked close…I pressed on, the saturated rope sliding sporadically through my hand and belay device in random, unexpected jerks. Closer, closer, the ends of the rope firmly in my sights, the lack of knot blatant. I should have stopped and wrapped the ropes 10 times around my leg and put in a pair of knots, but I didn't, I didn't think, I figured it would work out as I neared my target. This was so wrong! Nearly there. I grasped the ends so tight, just 6 inches of rope left on either line. Swinging in I twisted upside down, stretching for the belay, quickdraw in hand. Big stretch and it's in. But now what? Just let go? And crash into the wall holding a draw?
I let go of the draw, swung away again, and sorted a chain of quickdraws, my breathing coming in shallow panicked bursts. And then I'm clipped in: I'm not going to die. But I have to let go of one rope because if they both go its game over, I'm absolutely stranded. With both hands I keep tight on one, the other springs through and I glide onto the belay, the friction and weight of soggy rope saving me from a crash. I'm pulling again. This time it comes straight down. It has to, I'm past fixing problems now; I'm on my last legs, shivering, freezing, blurred vision, blurred thinking. The last abseil gets me into the jungle. Never have I been so glad to get down, and the rope comes easily despite crashing into a mass of trees and vines where you'd bet your house it would get stuck. Never has being lost in a soaking mess of spikey bushes with just one approach shoe seemed so good. A chocolate pancake would soon be mine, but my rope-solo career is probably over!