I sat in solitude on the pier, watching the evening slowly draw in from the dusk and listened to the local muezzin’s prayer calls disappear northwards in to the jungle. Behind me some locals sat coolly on their 50cc scooters beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights smoking harsh Malaysian tobacco, playing cards and casually fishing with a rickety hand line.
I had come here hoping to make the third ascent of the Dragon’s Horns only existing route on Tioman Island, Malaysia; two granite spires rising over one thousand five hundred feet above the forest canopy and now only just visible against the silken black sky. I had waited five days for a climbing partner to turn up, each day passing with a broken promise and another nonsensical explanation as to why they failed to show up. The Dragon’s Horns had consumed my mind for two years since reading about the inspiring first ascent of the south face completed by Scotty Nelson and Nick Tomlin in 2000. Without choice this dream had become an all-encompassing part of myself and I was beginning to despair if I would ever achieve what I set out to accomplish.
I continued to sit on the pier musing over these thoughts and tried forget my feelings of disappointment by watching a white-bellied sea eagle draw circles around a ring of cloud that had now enshrouded the main Dragon’s Horns, the larger of the two towers.
A young man sat alone with a face etched in melancholy isn’t something you’d expect to see in a tropical paradise and it certainly wasn’t something I was expecting either. However, what was to happen in the next few seconds was a poignant and symbolic event; the tight ring of cloud that had taken its grip around the upper reaches of the main tower began to steadily flash and flicker and suddenly it released a single bolt of lightning that cracked horizontally across the night sky to then explode against its upper face. I continued to watch the lightning wrap its electric tendrils around the tower as the sea eagle, now silhouetted against the fallen night sky, continued to soar on the warm day’s air rising from below.
In this surreal moment I felt a sense of calm in knowing that, although I could not foretell my future and where the subsequent years would take me, I could still make myself a promise to always carry in me the mystery and intrigue I felt in that moment and to one day use it to bring me back to the Dragon’s Horns.
Three years had now passed since my first visit and despite the general grating of my every-day life and a considerable sense of failure in having not completed my first attempt at University, nothing managed to erode my memories of the Dragon’s Horns and that final evening spent on the pier as my twenty-year-old self. Not wanting lose sight of my dream I formulated a plan to return in the summer of 2009 with my friend Steve Beckwith, but this time with a goal to establish a first ascent and complete the second-only independent route on the Dragon’s Horns and Tioman Island itself.
Eight months of planning and applying for funding finally saw Steve and I in Genting, the final bustling tourist town before one venture’s further south along the coastline on a chartered speedboat to reach the rarely visited Mukut village. In our case we were lucky to hitch a ride with a fisherman’s family and Apu, a forty-something Malaysian-Indian and Mukut local, whose thick white moustache, scraggly beard and sun-weathered skin suggested a life spent by the sea.
After leisurely puttering along the coast for two hours passing by endless swathes of jungle broken up by weathered slabs and crags tumbling in to the sea I finally caught my second glimpse of the Dragon’s Horns. Our original goal was to climb the prominent arête dividing the south face from the west face, a line we dubbed the ‘South-West Pillar’, although we were quickly captivated by the west face for its impressive overhung roof and numerous crack lines snaking their way to the summit.
We soon pulled up at Mukut’s pier and were quickly greeted by friendly locals who helped us schlep our quarter-ton of climbing gear and food from the boat to our rickety shack at the far west end of the sleepy fishing village.
As the locals were more content lounging in the sun, despite offers of cigarettes and money, we spent our first few days carrying all the leg-quivering loads up to the base of the main Dragon’s Horns by ourselves. On our rest breaks we kicked around Mukut drinking iced tea, trying to befriend a disgruntled monkey chained to a phone box and having obscure conversations with our friendly shack tender, Ahmad, who was usually preoccupied smoking hash from a plastic bottle bong.
We returned to the jungle and abseiled four heavy loads down a vegetated gully, making sure not to chop the rope with our machetes whilst cleaning the thick undergrowth. Reaching the base of the wall we broke trail and teetered along with our cumbersome loads over boulders, passing by sandy termite mounds and relishing the thought of knowing that this jungle was entirely virgin. Passing the base of the South-West Pillar, the bullet-hard rock seemed almost featureless so we decided to venture further along to a rubble gully and make an attempt on the west face. We felt more inspired by this line given that twelve hundred feet above through the canopy we could see a series of summit cracks hanging out above our heads. Straining our necks to take in the immensity of what lay before us I felt like the Dragon’s Horns were leering over us and at that point I began to feel pretty small and in the deep end. I now knew that all we could rely on was a decent dose of passion and a sense of humour. This was quickly put to test on our first night in base camp as the petrol pump on our stove exploded meaning we quickly came to enjoy raw bulbs of garlic and choking on canned curry chicken bones.
Over the next four days our goal was to reach the roof six hundred feet above. Most days we were stretched to our limit whilst climbing on the sun drenched wall in 40C° heat and humidity and in order to conserve our sixty kilograms of water we rested whenever possible under our U.V. reflective tarp. Many hours were spent leading through unprotected rock and hand-drilling the few bolts we had on lead until we finally made shelter beneath the large twenty foot roof which signified our half-way point up the west face.
Now down to our last few litres of water we set up our hanging portaledge camp beneath the roof and slipped down our fixed lines to rest back in our base camp and spend another full day restocking our water supplies.
We migrated back up our fixed lines hauling a hundred spleen-splitting kilograms of water, food and equipment to our portaledge camp beneath the roof. By this point both my shoe soles had begun to delaminate, Steve smashed his finger tips with the hammer and a few wounds on my legs were beginning to fester in the heat.
Despite feeling physically worn out and unsure of the final seven hundred feet and five days to follow, I felt at home hanging out high in the vertical realm and we both became engrossed in pushing higher up the face. By now I had taken two forty foot gear-ripping falls from the roof, Steve had been caught out on a hundred foot section of unprotected rock in the mid-day sun and I suffered an inexplicable toilet accident coating myself and my festering wounds in my own body waste. This then seemed to coincide with the onset of septicaemia.
Three hundred feet from the summit I suddenly came down with feverish chills and an increasing heart rate. As I slumped down in the portaledge I could feel a wave of nausea and heat surge up through my body and hit me in the head. The wounds on my leg became hot to touch and red lines began tracking up my leg from the site of infection. With me drifting in and out of sleep we gave us one day to blast to the summit and get back down to base camp for some much needed antibiotics.
I was lucky enough to get the final easy summit pitch and climbed it in a state of euphoria and fatigue with puss now dripping from my wounds and barefoot because my shoes had now completely torn apart and my right foot was swelling from infection. Steve followed up the final pitch swiftly and we modestly shook hands and congratulated each other as we stood on the summit boulder and peered down the sweeping west face marvelling at the canopy now over twelve hundred feet below us.
It was a relief to finally feel a sense of conclusion and to have climbed a virgin face by taking the longest and most direct line up the Dragon’s Horns. I later realised that the single lightning bolt I saw striking the main tower in 2006 had actually struck our new route on the west face. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that moment was pointing me towards a new future, one which later taught me that any goal is possible if you remain patient, persistent and never lose sight of what’s most important to you.