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On Malaysia’s high point, Mount Kinabalu (13,435 feet), lurks a climber’s paradise, a granite plateau beetling with unclimbed aiguilles and rent by a 2,000-foot-deep canyon. On February 11, the Australian climber Logan Barber, accompanied by the Americans Boer Zhao and Brad Stapperfenne, put up the three-pitch Alpine Birdy (5.12b), a mostly-trad line on the flanks of St. Andrews peak, one of Kinabalu’s many spires. The business comes on the final ropelength, with palmy moves up a blank corner and insecure fractioning throughout. The second-pitch arête had an unprotected friction crux above a ledge (a “complete headf-k,” says Barber), but the team re-routed and retrobolted this it. “This is the youngest granite in the world,” Barber noted. “The rock doesn’t have good crack systems, so a lot of the climbing is on suspect flakes.” Barber adds that the potential here is limitless.
Climbing sat down with the team to pick their brains about this magnificent and wild place, and their new route.
Where are you from? Who are the other members of your party, and where are they from?Boer: I’m from Florida, but I started rock climbing when I lived and worked in Maryland. There are two other members in our party: Brad Stapperfenne who is a North Carolina boy, and Logan Barber who is from Perth, Australia.Logan: Logan here. I am from Perth in Western Australia. It is one of the most isolated cities in the world and is super flat which is why I don’t spend much time here anymore!Boer: We all met while working as climbing guides for Chinaclimb in Yangshuo, China.
Photo by Boer Zhao — elementalphotos.com
MS: Why Mount Kinabalu? How did you find out about it?
One drunken night in Yangshuo, China we were sport bashing (even though that’s all we were doing at the time) and decided we needed to move on to some granite walls (after a month or two in Thailand sport climbing of course!).
Logan had seen pictures of Mt. Kinabalu before and looked it up online to show us. After seeing the granite summit plateau with its spires scattered about, we were hooked.
We noticed some info on Low’s Gully which was this mythical 1km deep chasm through the granite plateau of Mt. Kinabalu. That started the interest, and it grew from there.
They talked me into going with them to photograph the climbing there.
MS: What does it take to get there? This looks like a very remote place? What brought you there in the first place?Logan: What brought you there in the first place? You fly from KL in Malaysia to Kota Kinabalu which is more known for its amazing diving. From Kota you get a 2-hour bus to the Mt. Kinabalu base headquarters, and from there, there is a tourist trail to the top that takes a day and a half with packs. You need special permission from the Park Headquarters to leave the track so we had to apply for a permit to explore the spires on the summit plateau.Brad: Mt. Kinabalu is actually a huge tourist destination for Malaysia. Mt. Kinabalu is very similar to Mt. Fuji in this regard. There is a tourist trail that leads from the gate (1500m) to the summit on Lowe’s Peak (4095m). If I remember correctly, we were told there can be as many as 200 people on the mountain per day during the high season. The vast majority of the tourist hike to the summit and down in two days. On the western plateau there is small hut where we stayed. The Gurka Hut is only about 1km from the tourist trail. Very few tourists stray from the trail, so despite the close distance we did not see anyone else the while were we staying in the hut.
MS: How long were you guys there for, and was your main objective this route?Brad: We didn’t have one main objective. We went up there knowing there was potential for first ascents and some routes with a few aid moves we could most likely free. This is the mentality we went up with. We definitely wanted to put a route up, but we just needed to find a good line.
Photo by Boer Zhao — elementalphotos.com
MS: What style did you do the route in? On what day did you complete your free ascent? Did you free all three pitches ground-up, onsight, or did the route take some preparation?
It was a redpoint ascent. Logan freed the crux pitch on March 11th, placing gear on lead.
The route was tried ground up which was no problem for the first pitch which is mid fifth class. The second pitch had this awesome arête which had no protection whatsoever. I tried it anyway but backed off after getting to the crux with Brad at the anchor 10m below me with no gear in between. It really was quite easy (5.10-) but really exposed and so a complete head fuck. I ended up going up a harder, different way which was a friction slab; at least the fall was onto a ledge. So the third pitch was a step up, and we started by aiding it but soon used up the six pins we had (the seam is really thin) and could see some blank sections where the crack ran out, and it changed to face/slab climbing. So, we soloed an old route (5.4) nearby and rapped in placing a bolt in the upper slab and also a bolt on the arête of the second pitch. (Hand-drilling in granite sucks!). The next day we came back and climbed the route ground up but it took me a couple of goes to get the crux pitch.
MS: Tell me about the climb, what style of climbing, what type of protection, who freed the crux pitch and what does this 5.12b involve? This looks like very rough, unique granite — grey, almost, like limestone. Does is see much weathering?
It really is a beautiful route. And I am not saying this just because we put it up. Honestly, it’s really good. To protect you will need a full set of cams from a purple TCU up to number 3 C4. Plenty of extenders are a must. The route is a great mix of technique and power. The first crux involves smearing your feet on the slab, while cranking on small underclings at about head level. For the second crux, you must take a more technical approach. Smearing again with you feet on the slab, then back stepping onto the outside of the corner. A big move to a small slopper crimp will set you up for the last move — a small dead point to a great undercling. From there it is relatively easy to the top.
The granite is the youngest granite in the world and has been weathered by glaciations. It has amazing friction, a heap better than the Valley or the Chief or in the Bugs where I also went last year. The other thing that stands out though is the occasional lack of protectability. Be prepared to run stuff out for 10m or more on occasion.
MS: The rock and colors and place are very amazing. Is there more potential there?Boer: The granite is very textured and offers a lot of friction, more friction than the granite I’ve seen elsewhere. Since Mt. Kinabalu is in a tropical region, even at 13,000 feet it doesn’t see any snow and ice, so there isn’t much weathering on the rock. We were only doing routes that can be done in a day, but there’s potential for much longer routes. The infamous Lowe’s Gully is lined with massive granite walls on its north and south sides, probably around 2,000 feet high. As far as I know Lowe’s Gully hasn’t seen a free ascent yet. There’s a huge amount of potential for multi-day big wall ascents in Lowe’s Gully.Logan: Just remember to take a drill so you can reap the areas full potential (not a hand drill, you’ll be there forever.)
Photo by Boer Zhao — elementalphotos.com
MS: How tall is the cliff?
Most of the Spires on the plateau are up to and around 200m. But you can always look down into Lowe’s Gully from these and dream.
MS: What other climbs are on Mount Kinabalu? Is St. Andrews Peak a sub-peak of Kinabalu? Brad: Mt. Kinabalu is just the name of mountain. The summit is made up of a granite plateau. The peaks rise out of the plateau sporadically. This creates an amazing and entirely unique landscape. The actual summit is on Lowe’s Peak (4095m). There are various other peaks scattered around the summit plateau.Boer: Besides St. Andrews Peak, there are Victoria Peak, No Name Peak, Donkey Ears, Tsukushi Peak, and many more. There are climbing routes on almost all of them.
MS: Can you tell me about the name, Alpine Birdy? Brad: Logan came with this name and we all agreed on it. St. Andrews itself resembles a finger sticking up. Originally, we were a four person party. We had a very strenuous hike up. We were too poor to hire porters and each of us had about 40 kilograms on our backs. Edd, our other party member, almost did not make it up. After we were up, Edd and I went climbing. We decided to run up some easy lines and get used to the rock. Edd led a very short 5.7 with very bad gear. In short, Edd lost his head on his first climb and never climbed there again. After about 5 days, we woke up to Edd packing. So we decided Edd was not made for alpine, and promptly named the route The Alpine Birdy in Edd’s honor.Logan: Edd gave the birdy to the whole Alpine type climbing environment when he left early. The arête that looms over you as you climb also looks like a middle finger. (A big fuck you from St. Johns Peak!)
MS: How was the weather up there? Brad: I met a Spanish guy, Pep, on Ton Sai and he had put up a few routes there. He warned us of rain every afternoon. But despite us being in Malaysia during monsoon season, we were only rained out for, I think, three days. Other than that we had beautiful weather. It could be windy at times, lending to cold temps. The coldest was, of course, at night when the temps would drop to around 0 degrees Celsius.
MS: What is the exact height of the peak?Boer: Mt. Kinabalu is officially 4095.2 meters tall, at its highest point – Lowe’s Peak. Since St. Andrew’s Peak is a sub-peak, I’m not sure of its exact height.Brad: Our hut was at around 4000m.
MS: Anything I didn’t ask? Boer: Beans were a very bad choice as food to bring. They took forever to cook, and were never soft enough to be palatable. Not to mention it forces us to keep the door and window open when it was very cold outside.Logan: My favorite color is blue.