Island of the Gods

Bali, Indonesia, is known for its vibrant culture, yoga retreats, epic surf breaks, and lush jungle. However, there’s also a thriving climbing scene in this most unlikely of venues, proving that climbers will find community the world over.
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The active volcano of Mount Batur looms in the background as M. Isryad scales an unnamed 5.10 at the Kintamani crag, Bali.

The active volcano of Mount Batur looms in the background as M. Isryad scales an unnamed 5.10 at the Kintamani crag, Bali.

Whenever I mention my winter sabbatical in Bali in 2018/2019, I imagine my friends picturing me as Julia Roberts from Eat Pray Love: in Downward Dog, dining with handsome Aussies, and attaining enlightenment on this island paradise. With about five million foreign tourists visting each year, the majority from the USA, Europe, and Australia, I understand their assumption. Search for Bali on social media and you’re flooded with images of bikini babes drinking from coconuts or yoga teachers encouraging everyone to #liveyourbestlife.

However, Bali is much more than an Insta-famous beach destination. It’s home to a vibrant people—the Balinese—and is one of the most sensorially stimulating places on the planet. On the streets, the scent of exotic meats sizzling in coconut oil and the aroma of fruit waft from vendor carts, while monkeys rustle through palm leaves high above in the jungle canopy. And then there’s that unmistakable air. With the island sitting just below the equator, it can feel like being dropped inside a sauna, the dense, humid atmosphere coating the skin in a warm heaviness.

One of 17,500 islands in the eastern Indian Ocean, Bali belongs to the Republic of Indonesia—the largest archipelagic country in the world, comprising 33 provinces. The region offers countless adventures, from world-class scuba diving to magnificent, ancient structures like the ninth-century Borobudur Buddhist temple. Out of all the islands, however, only Bali is crowned the Island of the Gods. The first time I visited was in 2014. I’d been working as an intern at a private resort in Thailand when a military coup broke out, sending me fleeing to the tropical paradise.

At first, I spent time in the beachside villages of Kuta and Padang Padang, where I found myself frustrated by the stereotypical poor tourist behavior, especially in the face of this deeply spiritual island. Spirituality is important in Bali: According to a 2017 census, 87 percent of Indonesia identifies with the Muslim faith, yet the majority of Bali’s population practices Hinduism. Despite this, many of my fellow tourists were behaving in a disrespectful manner, from wearing bikinis in public while local women cover their shoulders and knees, to getting belligerently drunk and trying to purchase sex from the locals.

Bali’s onetime speed-climbing champion Faizal Lonthor lays back the corner crack of a 5.10, Kintamani. 

Bali’s onetime speed-climbing champion Faizal Lonthor lays back the corner crack of a 5.10, Kintamani. 

Almost instantly, I packed up to head north toward the cultural capital of Ubud. Here, magnificent stone temples dot every street, while incense wafts through the air from daily offerings—canang sari, crafted from leaves, flowers, rice, and small candies—scattered in front of homes and businesses. I became enthralled by the culture and the thriving yoga scene, and began practicing at a small studio called Radiantly Alive. There, in that wooden studio with salamanders crawling on the ceiling and a jungle breeze cooling the skin, each class was a deep exploration of the inner self. I stayed on the island for nearly four weeks.

Nowadays, I live in Seattle where it rains—a lot. When my seasonal depression kicked into gear in winter 2018, Bali lured me back. My first 10 days were spent introducing my mother to her first international travel experience as a celebration of her sixtieth birthday. Spoiler alert: Traveling with your parents is a challenge, and by day four I was ready for some space. While staying in the hip surf town of Canggu, I desperately Googled “Climbing in Bali,” figuring I wouldn’t find much—but that anything I found would give me an excuse for some alone time. The island was so lush and tropical that the very concept of cliffs, much less a local climbing scene or rock gym, seemed impossible. Then, as I looked at my phone, a bouldering gym popped up on the Canggu map.

* * *

Dripping wet with salt crust on his face, a surfer ducks underneath a pink beach umbrella. A downpour has arrived, rain so dense it blurs his vision, transforming the seascape into a stormy watercolor. Patiently he crouches, board on lap, waiting out the gale as others attempt to beat the elements, only to be swallowed by the ocean’s turbulent tubes.

After weaving along narrow, rice-paddy-lined streets with mopeds whizzing by, I found myself sitting on the chalk-covered crashpads at Bali Climbing, an open-air bouldering gym in Canggu. With its small, garage-style layout, the gym hosted roughly 15 to 20 problems, none rated. Triple-blade fans hummed in the background, nominally dispersing the soupy Balinese heat while a handful of climbers pulled on plastic.

Balinese cuisine often incorporates fresh, local ingredients in artful ways, such as these smoothie bowls from BLU cafe in Ubud.

Balinese cuisine often incorporates fresh, local ingredients in artful ways, such as these smoothie bowls from BLU cafe in Ubud.

Owned by the French ex-pat Lucas Galliot, the gym draws climbers from around southeast Asia, including the head setter and climbing coach, Ponti Hardiyanto. Originally a competition climber in Singapore, Hardiyanto moved to Bali in 2003 on an “athlete transfer” sponsored by Bali’s climbing federation, the FTPI. Today, in his role as a coach, Hardiyanto instructs local and international climbers focusing on bouldering and sport competitions.

Indonesia has been fielding climbing teams for years, including junior teams. In April 2019, the country sent 10 climbers to an IFSC World Cup in Moscow. Hardiyanto’s young pupils are beginning to see the world stage, with one rising star, known simply as Himalaya, already earning gold in one of Singapore’s international bouldering competitions for the youth division.

On my fortuitous day uncovering the local climbers’ hangout, Hardiyanto was there sharing beta. The climbers gathered around their instructor, eagerly awaiting the next challenge. Spontaneously, Hardiyanto would jump on the wall, pulling on footholds, heel hooking, and improvising fluidly, creating new problems. All eyes followed him as he climbed, and each disciple traced the new line, laughing in disbelief at his strength. It was inspiring to watch this diverse group of climbers hanging out, pushing each other to learn new skills. I joined the shenanigans, only occasionally making it more than a move or two past Hardiyanto’s contorted sit-starts.

As it turns out, Hardiyanto isn’t the only celebrity who calls Bali Climbing home. The famous French Spiderman, Alain Robert (see sidebar below), routinely drives two hours from his house in Bali to visit the gym. It’s not uncommon to see him and Galliot hanging out at the neighboring café, covered in chalk and sipping espresso. Robert is a sort of unofficial spokesperson for the growing climbing community, stopping by between his worldwide skyscraper free solos to interact with the locals, offer advice on setting, and pull on plastic.

Kintamani’s “parking lot”: a dirt road cutting through fields of cabbages, tomatoes, paprika, and peppers.

Kintamani’s “parking lot”: a dirt road cutting through fields of cabbages, tomatoes, paprika, and peppers.

In Bali, there is a gym in each of the eight regencies (the island’s version of counties), with the sport growing at an exponential rate. And there is a relatively long history of rock climbing as well. The locals have been developing sport crags since the 1990s, with tremendous efforts given by the elusive Mbah Edi Agung. The island has a communal culture, and Balinese villages typically operate under a principle called the Banjar—at its core, the Banjar and the government help to administer day-to-day responsibilities amongst the community, ranging from temple ceremonies and cremations to farming and the creative arts. Thus, when it comes to climbing, the objective isn’t to send a hardcore line or get a workout. Instead, the Balinese view the sport through the prism of the Banjar—it’s a way to deepen their connection to the land while supporting their community. Some regencies even have a Federation of Climbing, which helps manage localized development.

There are popular bouldering spots on Padang Padang Beach (or Pantai Labuan Sait, as the Balinese call the area). Nestled on the northwestern coast of the island’s Bukit Peninsula, this white sand beach with rolling turquoise waves is one of Bali’s most famous surf spots. Scattered along the coastline are droppings of limestone boulders and sea-carved caves. While some of the beach routes have bolts, the climbs are very short (three bolts max) and the hardware is rusty. Thus most visitors stick to sipping on coconuts while playing on the 20-odd spiny lowball boulder problems from V1 to V8.

Local climbers have also been developing basalt sport crags: two in the north—Pulaki and Kintamani—and one in the east called Karangasem. Since there is no formal guidebook, your best bet is to meet up with a local. Fortunately, Bali Climbing organizes day trips as well as overnight camping tours. The moment I learned I could climb on actual rock, I asked Galliot how to get there, and he enthusiastically offered to take me.

Balinese local M. Isryad moves with focus through the crimpy midsection of a 5.11d at Kintamani.

Balinese local M. Isryad moves with focus through the crimpy midsection of a 5.11d at Kintamani.

* * *

In the early morning, rays of sun break through the jungle air, creating slices of gold. Gowned in white lace shirts and vibrant sarongs, Balinese women stroll side by side, carrying woven baskets atop their heads. Reaching an ancient stone structure, they light incense and pray. In the silence and golden light, the smoke wafts their offerings up to the gods.

In the days following my visit to the bouldering gym, my mother returned to the USA while I transitioned farther north to Ubud. I had spent most of my original trip in this centrally located jungle town and was eager to re-immerse myself in the yoga culture. A few days later, the Bali Climbing crew was kind enough to drive the hour and a half from Canggu and pick me up at 3 a.m. so that we could beat the midday heat and sneak in a sunrise climbing session.

In addition to picturesque beaches, Bali sports a chain of formidable volcanic mountains dividing the island from west to east. Some are still active, including Mount Batur (5,633 feet) and Mount Agung (9,944 feet), which last erupted in June 2017, spewing smoke and ash nearly 6,000 feet into the air. The crag we’d be visiting this day—Kintamani—sits far north near Lake Batur, about a one- to two-hour drive from Ubud depending on scooter traffic.

After a gang of locals charging a village-access fee (100,000 rupees per person—or roughly $7 US) brought us to an abrupt stop 30 miles into our drive, we continued swerving along the winding road, tracing the Lake Batur shoreline. Once around the northern shore, we turned onto a dirt road overgrown with grass where, minutes later, a field unfolded. There, silhouetted against a campfire, three figures waited. Galliot had called his local contact, Kris Hendrawangsa, who would be meeting us at the wall along with two other Balinese climbers.

Ponti Hardiyanto, head setter and coach at the Bali Climbing gym in Canggu, trains on the gym’s open-air wall.

Ponti Hardiyanto, head setter and coach at the Bali Climbing gym in Canggu, trains on the gym’s open-air wall.

Climbing since 2013, Hendrawangsa is a decorated competition climber on both the regency and national stage. Now assuming the role of crag guardian at Kintamani, he checks the stainless-steel bolts for damage or loosening every time he climbs, and cleans away vegetation each spring. “My goal is to make climbing in Bali big so everyone in the world who loves climbing can enjoy their excitement in this special island,” he told me that day. “I do this not only for me or the climbers, but to also help the local people.”

From the field, a two-minute stroll took us to the cliff—a band of gorgeous clay-colored basalt stretching nearly 300 feet tall and spanning out of sight. Jungle surrounds the crag, at times covering the cliff. From above, vines and bushes grow downward, while towering trees stretch up like fingers. Currently, no names exist for the routes or walls, but Hendrawangsa described three different sectors the crew has been working to reclaim, having so far lined out eight routes from 5.5 to 5.11d. While many of the lines were likely first climbed in the 1990s, there is no documentation. In any case, in 2015, the Skygers School of Rock Climbing rebolted the lines with stainless steel, making them safe again.

In addition to Hendrawangsa, two other Balinese climbers, M. Isryad and Faizal Lonthor, joined our group. Short and thin with a climber’s build, Isryad wore his long hair pulled back. A climber for over eight years, he first tried the sport while camping with friends. Randomly scrambling outside, he sought to overcome his fear of heights.

Lonthor, on the other hand, is tall and built like a weightlifter, with close-cropped hair and metal-rimmed glasses giving him a look of intense inquisitiveness. A speed climber, Lonthor was introduced to the sport in 2010 at his junior high school. “The first time I tried it, I knew this was an addictive sport,” he told me with a beaming smile. After Lonthor had been on his school’s team for only three months, coach Dani Hamdani recognized his potential and encouraged him to pursue competitions. In 2015, Lonthor won his first title of Bali Champion for speed climbing; in 2017, he traveled to Singapore for the international bouldering competition Boulderactive where he walked away with silver.

Surfers in Canggu pause to soak up a vibrant Balinese sunset.

Surfers in Canggu pause to soak up a vibrant Balinese sunset.

The cliff was silent, save the occasional clink of carabiners as Isryad geared up. His first objective was a 5.10 at the center of the crag, featuring a jagged arête and an adjacent wall that creates a near-90-degree corner featuring a splendid crack. Above the third bolt, the route gets interesting. Here, Isryad traversed left to the edge. Balancing on a slight protrusion, he palmed a bulbous feature while iron-crossing to a sloper. “I am so scared of going high,” Isryad had confessed earlier, “but I like that fight with myself. I struggle until I feel like screaming, and that makes it fun.”

After Isryad had lowered, Lonthor pulled the rope and began to tie in. I asked what he was going to climb, and he looked baffled, as if to say, “The same route, of course.” I explained I was hoping to jumar a fixed line to shoot photos and needed to know where he was headed. “Climbers must have their own way to solve a route—sometimes it is the same, sometimes it is out of the box. It all depends on how we each figure out and act toward the problem,” he said. “That’s why it’s the most creative sport to me.”

As I shot Lonthor, a sprawling view of farmland, jungle, and mountains unfolded—on this clear day, mounts Batur and Agung loomed in the distance. The crag hides amongst land used for farming vegetables, from cabbage and tomato to paprika and peppers. Soon, ready for the next objective, our team strolled to a different sector to tackle a 5.11d with an ominous overhang.

On this 125-foot climb, a crimpy start leads to the crux roof, followed by a mono pull to the anchor. Hendrawangsa volunteered to go first. Cruising the lower section with rehearsed precision, he quickly reached the daunting protrusion. With a near dyno, Hendrawangsa cut his feet, launching to the lip as his body whipped around and then contorted into an artful heel hook. Pulling through the final moves seemed easy (I’ve never seen a one-finger move look so effortless), and Hendrawangsa clipped the anchor with an exhalation. “Climbing makes me excited and relaxes my mind,” he’d told me. “This is the challenge that makes me feel alive.”

* * *

Glistening in sweat and bathed by rays of strong sunlight, a climber clips the chains on a basalt face high above sprawling farmland. He hangs for a moment, taking in the view of the nearby volcanic peaks.

In American climbing culture, there is a current push to diversify the outdoors. While the debate continues to unfold over how best to accomplish this, I think of Hendrawangsa, Isryad, and Lonthor working within the concept of the Banjar to develop Bali’s climbing.

Kris Hendrawangsa at Kintamani, where he tends to the upkeep of the crag as part of the Balinese communal culture of the Banjar.

Kris Hendrawangsa at Kintamani, where he tends to the upkeep of the crag as part of the Balinese communal culture of the Banjar.

Sometimes, we get so caught up in following sponsored athletes and consuming commercialized content that we start to think if a Westerner hasn’t climbed somewhere, the sport must not exist there. As the conventional narrative goes, American and European climbers travel to “discover” a new hot spot at which, in reality, the locals have been climbing for decades. I encourage us all to take some time to process the fact that climbing isn’t a sport only for white people or Europeans or Americans—or any defined group, for that matter. Climbing is a passion shared globally, amongst culturally rich communities who existed long before Western media or sponsored athletes brought a spotlight to their region.

At the end of our day at Kintamani, I asked the group if drawing attention to Bali’s climbing would be a positive thing. While they all agreed that growing the community would be beneficial, Lonthor’s response summed it up best: “Climbing is supposed to be good for all people. All we need here is tolerance and understanding.”

Allez, allez! 

The French Spiderman's new home in Indonesia 

“I aspire to be like Zorro or Robin Hood. And even though what I’m doing might not be as beautiful as Robin Hood, at least I am still kicking the ass of society.” So says the famed rock and skyscraper free soloist Alain Robert, 57, adorned in a snakeskin suit and his iconic turquoise necklace, as we meet up at the Bali Climbing café. (His barista fans light up upon seeing him, cheering, “Hey, it’s the Spiderman! What up, Spiderman!”)

Originally from France, Robert moved to Bali in 2014 to be with his Indonesian wife, Ira, and their son, Achilles, age 5. Free-soloing notable structures from the Sydney Opera House to the Cayan Tower in Dubai, Robert has earned the nickname the French Spiderman. But before his international renown, he was also a badass free soloist on rock. Climbing for nearly 45 years, Robert was the first person to ever free solo an 8a+ (5.13c), La Nuit du Lézard in Buoux in 1991, and claimed the first (and to date, only) free solo of the heinously thin Pol Pot (7c+ or 5.13a) in the Verdon in 1996.

Robert has been seriously injured three times, with perhaps his worst accident occurring in 1982 in Cornas, France. While soloing there, Robert agreed to secure a rope for a pair of students. He climbed to the cliff top and clipped in an anchor system that the students’ instructor had premade on the ground; as Robert rappelled, a bad knot in the anchor gave way, plunging him nearly 50 feet to land on his wrists, followed by his head, on solid rock.

Robert spent five days in a coma and was hospitalized for two months. The accident left him with two broken elbows, two smashed wrists, and 66 percent paralysis. The road to recovery was arduous, leaving Robert with physical limitations, including visual impairment from vertigo and a loss of feeling in three of the five digits in each hand—it took him nearly two years to fully retrain himself with a metamorphosed climbing style. Yet Robert was soon back on the rock and sending hard, including the free solos cited above. Eventually, he shifted his attention to buildings, where he found thrill and passion once again. To date, he’s free soloed 160 (and counting) skyscrapers worldwide. Just days before our coffee-shop hangout, Robert had been arrested after soloing the 47-story GT Tower in the Philippines.

“The problem with the Philippines climb [was] at the top there was nothing, so I knew I’d have to climb up and then back down,” he explains. “On the ground waiting there were a lot of cops, there was my lawyer, and there was a lot of journalists.” Charged with “alarm and scandal,” Robert was detained in a conference room with a mattress for nearly two days while the mayor debated what to do.

Famed French free soloist Alain Robert, who’s now based in Bali.

Famed French free soloist Alain Robert, who’s now based in Bali.

“It was really crazy. They brought me champagne, and I had access to a shower,” says Robert. “But the problem in this police station is there are 30 people in one cell. There are 10 inmates who are sleeping while 20 are standing having to wait. [But] for me, I’m comfortable …. ” Robert was eventually released with a 1,000-peso fine (roughly $20) and returned to Bali.

Today, Robert and Ira own a home in Bali’s southern peninsula with a custom-built climbing wall, and he says he’s happy to have left his native country behind. In Bali, says Robert, “The people, they are much more relaxed. There isn’t much hurry.”

While Robert doesn’t climb much on rock anymore, he uses his skyscraper solos to raise awareness for positive climate action by sometimes hanging informative banners, like the one he strung on the New York Times Building reading “Global warming kills more people than 9/11 every week.” Still, he holds passionate opinions on the direction the sport is taking.

“Twenty-five years ago, journalists didn’t care about rock climbing,” he says. “And I feel frustrated because when I was soloing 5.13d, Alex Honnold was wearing diapers!” Not that Robert has a feud with Honnold—the two are supportive of each other’s achievements. Instead, he has an issue with the mainstreaming of climbing. Says Robert, “I prefer the ‘80s and beginning of the ‘90s. In the ‘80s, the famous rock climbers wrote this manifesto against competing. Nowadays, that’s just unthinkable. The sport is going to be in the Olympics.”

At the end of the day, whether he’s the most famous climber or no longer recognized, Robert concedes that it’s the sport and its impact that matter most to him. On his Philippines climb, workers inside the building gasped as they saw a man ascending past their office windows. Seeing the crowd forming on one floor, Robert put on a show. Slotting a kneebar into the building’s framework, he stretched out hands-free, inducing a roar of alarm from the crowd. Then he continued to blow away his onlookers with moves like lying down on a window ledge and sipping water while tossing about his magnificently feathered hair.

Much like the climbers in Bali, Robert does what he does because he’s passionate about it and appreciates how it sparks joy in others. With a new documentary on Robert called The Web of Life releasing soon, he has no plans on slowing down. “I’m going to climb until I die. Hopefully, until I’m 90 or so,” Robert chuckles. “I may only be climbing stairs by that age, but still, I’ll be climbing!”

Brooke Jackson is a Seattle-based writer, photographer, and video producer who specializes in adventure sports and travel lifestyle.