Mountaineering’s really about an endless pursuit to be the best multi-faceted climber possible, across a range of terrain – which is why we also believe that getting good on rock is important. MIR 19 recently organised a rock climbing trip to the beautiful coastal crags of Long Dong, Taiwan for the NUS community where participants, under the tutelage of none-other than AMGA rock guide QX Cheang, got to learn about and practise multi-pitch and traditional climbing. Here’s an account from one of our ExCo members and participants, Tai Ker:
Before, during and even after the trip, I would often wonder to myself, what is the point of trad climbing? Why would anyone trust some sketchily-placed protection when you could just climb nicely pre-bolted sports routes and not run the risk of having gear pop out if you do happen to fall? QX offered an indirect insight in one of his technical lessons when he talked about the origin of the nut as protection. In the 1950s, British climbers took machine nuts from railway tracks, slung cords through the center and began using it as protection on their climbs. This was long before the inception of sport climbing and the presence of pre-bolted routes at many of the crags you encounter today. It made me think more about the nature of rock climbing and why we climb. Knowing how to trad climb is important in not just allowing you to climb unbolted climbs, but in my mind, it also opens up the potential to climb more interesting routes, potentially even doing first ascents in new climbing areas, with only trad gear at your disposal.
All this sounds fine and dandy in theory, but in real life, the three of us who went to Long Dong to attend the course were (and I think the others won’t mind me saying this) massive gumbies. Minh Anh and I had only started climbing 2 months ago, having only gotten our SNCS Level 1 about three months before the trip. Yik Yi (who was/is much better than us) had never previously even climbed outdoors before the start of this trip. And this lack of experience definitely affected our climbing and what we learned during the course. To QX’s credit, he did a wonderful job adapting the course to make sure that we could keep up with the climbs and learn as much technical knowledge, about trad and multi-pitch, as possible.
Upon arrival in Long Dong, we dropped our stuff at the Bivy, the climbing hostel run by QX and his wife, Kelly, as well as the boss of the place, Chong Chong. Throughout our trip, it served as a wonderful base, a place for technical lessons conducted by QX and also a conducive place to relax after a long day of climbing and lessons.
After this, we headed off for our first experience of Long Dong. Parking in the central car park and taking a short trek to the Golden Valley area, we soon reached the edge of the climbing area, and caught the first glimpse of the beautiful crags that we would be at for the next week. We started off our first day by acclimatising to outdoor climbing in Long Dong – specifically to the hard, grippy sandstone, which was such a different experience as compared to the smooth granite that we were used to back at Dairy Farm. We did a few lead climbs at Dragon Boat Wall, which allowed us to get a feel of the rock and also to let QX judge our climbing levels. It was also a good chance for QX to shore up some of our fundamentals such as belay technique, rope stacking and other skills which you do not think much of when belaying in the gym or in a single pitch outdoor climb, but would really cause you some trouble in a multi-pitch climb.
The second day allowed us to get started on the course proper, but instead of heading out to the crags straightaway, we practised gear placement on what was basically flat ground. We first learnt about the different types of protections, such as cams, nuts as well as hexes. As well as how to look out for the appropriate and ideal features where protection could be placed. QX went through all of this back at the Bivy, but theory and practice are two very different things and it took us quite a lot of time on day two to firstly deduce where we could place protection and then subsequently place the correct piece of protection in the most optimal way. And I think even till the last day of the course, we never became truly ‘great’ at placing gear. Instead, what we learnt in the course was just the basics of gear placement and trad climbing. We would have to go out on our own after the course and put it into practice to truly improve. This was a recurring theme throughout the whole course, everything that QX taught us was the key basic facts and concepts that we needed to know, we would have to improve by repeatedly practicing what we had learnt in climbs after the course.
After much practice in placing gear, we did our first ‘mock’ trad leads: being attached to a top rope, while placing gear for the ‘lead’ rope. And even though the climbs were really simple, it took us about an hour each due to the amount of time we spent trying to place gear.
On the third day, we went to Clock Tower to get more trad climbing practice in as well as work on building anchors, which QX had taught the principles of before we headed out to the crags. One thing that was good about QX’s style of teaching was that he wanted us to really understand the rationale behind why we did everything and he would constantly prompt us and ask why we did things in one way instead of another. This forced us to truly reflect on everything that we did, rather than for example, blindly memorising the steps of anchor building and just regurgitating it and building the exact same anchor every time. Perhaps without consideration for the manner of the terrain that we were in.
After the third day, there was an R&R day which allowed us a bit of a mental rest from the heavy technical content of the course.
The fourth day of the course saw us start on the multi-pitch portion of the course, we went to Music Hall to get in a quick top rope setup by QX, where he elaborated more about belaying from the top and anchor building. Afterwards we climbed an easy trad climb multi-pitch called the wedding route. This was where everything that we learnt started coming together, we combined trad placement with a multi-pitch climb, but this also added to the list of things that we had to remember and I think at this point we often saw ourselves struggling to remember all of the steps and techniques that we had learnt over the past days and began to make some simple mistakes such as removing our safety from the anchor before testing the system or in one instance removing the safety completely to get rid of some tangles in the system. And this goes back to the point about revision, there were so many things that we were just beginning to grasp and now we had to combine it all together, and this caused confusion and a hint of panic to set into the way we did things.
This sort of confusion and panic was also carried into the fifth day, where after rappelling in from the top of Grand Auditorium, we went to the edge of the second cave to attempt the multi-pitch sport climb Agar Jelly, a 5.10b (6A) route. I personally found this quite a tough climb (as I’m not a very good climber) and struggled with the first pitch, both mentally and physically. I found myself hesitating with the fear of falling at some points and this really inhibited my climbs. It is a key aspect of climbing that I need to work on and I will definitely be looking to slay these mental demons (especially with lead climbing) back in Singapore. This mental stress carried through even after completing the first pitch as the adrenaline rush of climbing seemed to affect my thought process of setting up the anchor and belaying from the top. And again, I think this goes back to the point about practice and how more practice and better understanding would have improved the technical aspects of the climb.
Overall, the trip served as a reminder that to be a good climber, one needs to be strong physically, mentally and technically; combining all three aspects to not just send the route but to do so safely. No doubt I have much room to improve for all three aspects. Over the duration of the course, I admit that I made many which serve as reminders that we truly do not yet know everything there is to know about either multi-pitch, trad climbing or climbing in general. What we learnt in the course was just the basics, we have to practice everything and understand everything completely to ensure that we are totally safe out there when climbing. And this is where the course ends and our next chapter in climbing begins, we have learnt and picked up the skills to climb trad multi-pitches, but I would say that we have much to learn and practice before I would be completely confident in trying one by myself. The course has equipped us with the skills, it is now up to us to use these skills and challenge ourselves in climbing new and more interesting routes.
Written By: Teoh Tai Ker
Trip participants: Tai Ker, Minh Anh & Yik Yi