In Alpine Climbing, John Barry writes about the defining characteristics that makes a good alpinist. Obvious traits like being fit, hardy, good judgement, improvisation skills are a given, but above all, he notes that they have to be good all-round climbers, on rock or ice or mixed. Lionel Terray’s climbing memoir vividly describes acrobatic maneuvers across overhangs as he traversed classic routes in the Alps culminating in a memorable about ascent of the Eiger; Maurice Herzog recounts his harrowing experience leading dangerous pitches of climbing in their expedition on Annapurna. In each of these books, the authors attribute their success to their fundamentals honed while rock climbing.
TMC was meant to equip us with the necessary skill to ‘climb’ mountains. But in truth, there was more hill-walking that actual climbing done. It took me a while to figure it out that we had it backwards. Learning to understand the subtleties and nuances of a rock face, to extract the best line of ascent was the most fundamental form of mountaineering. Our guided form of mountaineering, was in truth a sort of ‘sporting tourism’. We wanted to know what we could do to learn the ropes and be self-sufficient to lead a climb.
This semester, Nicholas was approached by the Seafarers to support an expedition to Mount Daik. It was conceived as a mini alpine expedition in the heart of South East Asia. We could only retrieve scantly bits of information, but what we found out was that it involved a trek up to 800m to set up base camp, with enough supplies to keep our team self-sufficient for five days. From there we would scout our own route up the final rocky face of the mountain, an estimated 5.10 trad route with its only documented ascent in 1998, found in an obscure Indonesian blogpost.
In a very short period of time we had to hone our skills at Dairy Farm, crash coursing multi-pitch lessons by word of mouth and learning through failure on the crags. Eventually, we did our first traditonal (trad)/multipitch on the Nose. But our expedition was not to be, and we decided to head to the beautiful crags of Long Dong, Taiwan to put into practice what we had learnt.
Long Dong is famous for its beautiful location and the quality of its climbs. The routes are all well documented in an extensive guidebook that you can find in the hostels there, or even in Singapore. We packed our tents, an enormous amount of gear and headed off for Taipei.
The nearest train station is Ruifeng, following which you would have to take a bus to reach LongDong. The whole journey would take you around two hours minimum. More details here.
We reached Hemei Elementary school and where the road ends, is where the trail to the crags start. Many Taiwanese frequent this area as it is a popular diving location too, so you won’t miss it.
Our initial plan was to stay true to our Daik expedition so we valiantly decided to tent it out, despite it being in the middle of Summer and in the rainy season. That first night was a sweltering 33 degrees with a “but feels like 43” caveat on the weather forecast. We settled down amidst the beautiful sunset and mosquitoes that patrolled our tent. Famished from the 20 kilo packs we carried around, we started cooking our first meal, within 5 minutes it too disappeared into the cracks as we fumbled with the stove. (LOL)
On a good day (sadly only the first), the cool weather would keep the sandstone formations dry at Long Dong. The rocks dry very quickly with wind and we found out that even during rainy days, there are caves that were completely dry and ready for climbing.
We camped at the area ‘School Gate’, and to enter the rest of the crags, we had to get past a traverse. No ropes, no safety lines, just a V0 boulder problem. We joked that this was how the climbers kept non-climbers out of the area. Pretty rad.
We were at Long Lane and were greeted with beautiful potential lines. From sport to trad to mulitpitch, they had it all. We could have climbed here all day if we wanted to. The rock was rough and the rubber soles of our shoes stuck well. There was confidence edging on tiny footholds, a far cry from the slippery granite in Dairy Farm that had you cringing with each step. We bagged our first trad climb of the trip here too, a scenic route that took us about 35m up in the cliffs above.
After two climbs each at Long Lane, we headed towards Music hall and spent a good deal of time here, playing around with multi pitch practice lines. The locals started arriving at the crags and we took this opportunity to try out some harder lines they had set. Just ahead laid the Grand Auditorium, a vast amphitheater like formation that surrounded you in almost 180 degrees. The was a 5.13d (8B) trad route with an insane overhang. It was amazing to see it in person.
The clouds loomed over us, presenting ample shade while the sea breeze supplemented this perfect weather for climbing. We had been climbing since 6 am that day and were only held back by our lack of food. We headed out at about 2 pm and heeded the weather forecast’s warning on inclement weather. Climbing ceased for the day, but not a single drop of rain fell. Bummer.
Rain was relentless the next day, so we hid in the First Cave the second day. It was past Long Lane, Music Hall and the Grand Auditorium. Here we found a confusing bolted sport climb that was once a trad route. The locals said it was graded a 5.10b (6A) but confessed it was a bit hard. Three clips in, I discovered why. The beautiful face of the wall turned smoother than usual, and the only inviting line was the crack right of the climb. Trying to put theory into practice, I placed my right thumb inwards on my palm and slid the entire hand into the menacing crack. I started to squeeze my hand such that as much skin clung onto the surface of the rock. Once constricted, I was suppose to be able to lean back, my weight held by the friction between my peeling skin and the rock. Sheer pain. Never do this without tape.
It became our first exposure to crack climbing, and subsequently Nicholas discovered climbing in 3 dimensions (ask him).
On the last day, the terrible rain did not cease and we ventured further in, towards the Second Cave. About the third of the size of the First Cave, it had a short wall of crack climbing, and several bolted routes. We decided to get creative and to make use of the time to do some photoshoots. I redirected the belay from above, and this allowed Nicholas to lead up a route while I took photographs from above. Unfortunately the winds were strong, and after an hour or two of climbing, the walls were soaked. The water streamed through the cracks, while Nicholas furiously chalked his hands hoping to dry them faster than the rain could wet rocks. He placed a second piece of protection above him and took a rest. Looking back, this was the worst condition we could have chosen to crack climb! The water flowed around the camming device and it popped out. I heard a girly shriek and he fell one clip lower. Shocked but unhurt, we both guessed it was time to give this a rest. (LOL) Sadly, the rain carried on throughout the day and we were forced to pack up eventually.
We gave up on tents the second day, and decided to head to one of the Hostel nearby. Two famous ones are The Bivy (run by Singaporeans), and the Crack House. Unfortunately The Bivy was fully booked and we were lucky enough that the Crack House had spare beds for us because the other Dive Shop Hostels were packed too.
It turned out to be one of the best experiences we had, and we strongly recommend it because of the hosts hospitality and closeness to Hemei Elementary School. It costs $800NT a night, but say that you are a climber and you may get a friendly discount.
There are several eateries that cater to diving community. We found one near Bitou, that was recommended by The Bivy’s website, to have pretty good lu rou fan (more recommendations here). The closest 7/11 is there as well. The Crack House has 2 bicycles that we used to get to Bitou, about 2 km away from Hemei Elementary school.
Nicholas and I took an interesting journey into the world of traditional climbing. With the store now equipped adequately for such expeditions, we can only hope that our knowledge gleaned over the last semester would be handed over successfully to the next batch of climbers. Neither of us are good at it, but we have certainly been able to look at climbing/mountaineering in a different sense and definitely gained more appreciation of the modern gear we have now when compared to old school pitons.
Nicholas Goh & Lim Joel
5.8 Crack Climbers