Team: Mark Synnott, Alex Honnold, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Kevin Thaw, Renan Ozturk
When: April 2-May 1, 2009
Where: Low’s Gully, Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia
“Where’s your helmet?”
“Uh, I don’t have one,” Alex replies, looking me square in the eyes and without apology.
“What do you mean? You forgot it back in camp?”
Before I finish my question, I know the answer.
“Uh, no. I mean I didn’t bring one on the trip.”
We haven’t even begun our ascent of the tkthousand foot face that rises out of the depths of Low’s Gully in northern Borneo, and it’s already clear that sharing a rope with Alex Honnold will be interesting. I counted on this, of course — it’s why I invited him. I didn’t, however, foresee being cast as the overly cautious authority figure or that Alex would decide all on his own that my expedition was helmet-optional.
Three days in and he’s already dubbed me “Mr. Safety”.
Alex Honnold has turned the sport of rock climbing upside down with a series of ropeless, free solo ascents, so far beyond the realm of what was considered possible (or sane), that people at first didn’t believe him. At just 23, many are already calling this quiet kid from Sacramento the best climber of his generation, and they may well be right. He’s certainly one of the boldest climbers I’ve ever met but like most people who take extreme risks for a living, he probably finds it impossible to really grasp the idea of his own demise. The idea of a little slip is totally abstract. And I’m pretty sure he hasen’t given much thought to little things like getting hit by a rock while not wearing a helmet.
I watch as Honnold grabs onto his first handful of rock and starts up the pitch. I’m immediately struck by the way he moves – fast and confident. The pitch culminates with a large roof that forces him to hoist himself up using the protection he’s placed into the cliff instead of the rock itself, but he does it while dangling from his arms only, and ascending pull-up style. I call up to offer some advice on making it easier. He’s laughing. “I want to do it the hard way,” he yells back. “So I can get more of a workout.”
I can’t help but laugh, too, and recall the times in my own climbing career when I’d bend over backwards to make my life as difficult as possible, just for the hell of it. I remembered a time when I was so desperately trying to find my own identity, something that felt so bottled up inside, I’d push the boat out a bit just to feel like I was getting the real me. Obviously, I still have a little of this inside me or I never would have talked the other five guys into to rappelling into the world’s deepest slot canyon, just to climb back out, in the first place. But, at 40, having climbed steadily for the past 25 years — and become a father of three, along the way — I’ve gained some perspective. Watching Honnold, as he reaches the first belay, is a stark reminder of how much I’ve reeled things in.
The next pitch is my lead. As I’m getting into a good rhythm, I look up to find several big loose rocks blocking my path. I’d like to avoid them, but the walls on either side are crackless and covered in lichen. I feel around for handholds, but they’re worthless. Honnold is shouting up at me, telling me to just go for it and climb around them without placing a new piece of protection, but my gut tells me that if I do, I’ll fall. I carefully slide a small camming unit into a tiny crack at the base of the block, then give it a little tug.
The block shifts and a basketball sized chunk comes loose, slamming into my shoulder as it rockets down toward Honnold at the belay.
“ROCK!” I yell. Honnold nonchalantly leans to the side, and the rock sails safely past him, then explodes into the base of the gully 200 feet below.
My body is shaking with adrenaline as I inspect the damage. The rock tore through my jacket and two shirts, scraped away a bit of skin. In all my years of big wall climbing, it’s the first time I’ve actually pulled a big block onto myself, and for a brief moment I wonder if playing it safe means losing my edge. I gaze down at Honnold. We share a look, but nothing is said.
Before landing in the capital, Kota Kinabalu, or KK , as the locals call it, my idea of Borneo was pretty much the common caricature: A primitive jungle island crawling with hungry cannibals with bones stuck through their noses. For the rest of Asia, it’s a common beach vacation destination. The truth is, it’s a little of both. Cannibals still exist in the country’s most remote pockets and the surrounding islands are jam packed with tourists. In fact, hundreds of tourists, mostly from Japan, make the trek to the summit of the very mountain we came to climb every year. At 13,500 feet, Mt Kinabalu is the highest summit in Southeast Asia and the daytrippers can do it in an easy tkhour loop from a luxury hotel perched at tkfeet. On a clear day you can see it as you come in for a landing in KK.
But there’s another far more forbidding side to this mountain called Low’s Gully, a deep, 10-mile long rift that slices into Kinabalu’s north face, having been scooped out by massive glaciers 10,000 years ago. It’s prone to devastating flash floods and known to the local Kadazandusuns as the ‘revered place of the dead’. I found myself As a starving professional climber, I rely entirely on sponsors like The North Face to fund my expeditions and the more bizarre the proposition, the more likely the funding. Borneo, I thought, was sure to be hidding one of these rare gems and research immediately pointed me toward Mt. Kinabalu, but info on the gully itself ranged from non-existent to downright scary.
I quickly learned that, to date, only three parties have successfully descended Low’s Gully, and the first party to try it, a 10-man British Army expedition back in 1994, turned what was supposed to be a six-day training exercise into a 31-day fight for survival. The epic is documented in a book called Descent Into Chaos in which the narrator describes the men’s darkest moments. “Back in Kevin’s cave,” “Morale sank,” he wrote. “Thoughts turned to loved ones at home who might never been seen again. Of one thing, thankfully, they were not short, and that was water – one of the sources of their misfortune.” And, as far as I could tell, only two parties had ever tried to climb out again, one of which was spent a month just looking for the way down.
The first person I invited on the expedition was Conrad Anker, a fellow member of The North Face climbing team and arguably the most experienced and talented adventure climber in world. At 47, and with 44 expeditions behind him, Anker probably has the most finely tuned mountain sense of anyone I know. Anker, in turn, suggested we invite Honnold, and I have to admit that I was apprehensive at first. Over the years I’ve done just about all of my trips with older, more experienced guys and I’ve always been wary of going on big expeditions with people I don’t know. But Anker had just returned from climbing El Capitan with Honnold, where they had completed on of Yosemite’s hardest free climbs, and was immediately seduced.
“Honnold could be our secret weapon,” Anker suggested, selling him as a young, fearless gun to send out on the sharp end when the silver backs are tapped and a tough pitch needs to be fired. “I guarantee you’ll learn a lot from climbing with him.”
Anker has a well-deserved reputation for having a brutal and tireless work ethic in the mountains and there aren’t many who can hang with him. If nothing else I was curious to see what Anker and scores of others climbers saw in Honnold. His steep rise began with what will probably go down in history as the best rookie season ever in Yosemite Valley. He fired the infamous Salathe Wall on El Captian then followed up with a soloing binge that included the 1000-foot crack climbing testpiece known as Astroman. Then, as people were still trying to figure out where this kid had come from, he took things to another level altogether, with a free solo (ropeless) ascent of the Moonlight Buttress, in Zion National Park. This 1200-foot monolith is rated 5.12d, and culminates with a searing, fingertip layback nearly 1000 dizzying feet off the deck. Until then it was considered big news that someone had made it with a rope. Some consider Honnold’s climb the boldest ever.
Before he started his big soloing binge, Honnold was an engineering student at UC Berkeley. But college life didn’t suit him so he dropped out and moved into a white cargo van. I’d seen a photo of him in one of the mags sitting in the van in Yosemite. The interior was spartan: some bins filled with climbing gear, a plywood bed and shelves covered in books — many about atheism. It was in this van that Honnold plotted his climbs and from where he suddenly emerged as the world’s best free soloist. He’d never been on an expedition before.
Honnold was actually the first to arrive in Borneo and when I showed up at midnight at the hotel in Kota Kinabalu he was asleep. I sat down, popped open a bottle of duty free vodka, and was just taking my first sip when he staggered out of his room in his boxers. Lean, of average height, with short black hair, his eyes are deer-in-headlights huge. I offered him some vodka, but he declined, saying that he didn’t drink. In fact, he’d never had a buzz of any kind, he admitted, apart from adrenaline. In the UK, where he recently spent a few weeks ticking off a slew of their hardest routes, they nicknamed him “the monk.”
The next day we were joined by the remaining members of the team, Anker, Jimmy Chin, Kevin Thaw, and Renan Ozturk (as videographer), all of whom are North Face team climbers and all are guys, with whom I’ve shared more than a few epics. Only six months earlier, he, Chin and Ozturk had nearly climbed one of the most difficult routes in the Himalaya, a last great problem called the Shark’s Fin in India’s Garhwal Himalaya. They spent 19 days on the 4000-foot face, many of them without food, coming within a couple pitches of the summit.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this again,” Anker announced with a mixture of excitement and resignation as he walked into the hotel.
*********** “I can’t believe I’ve been here for a week, and all I’ve done so far is pack and repack bags,” complained Honnold during the three-hour drive to the park entrance.
Get used to it Alex,” replied Anker, blank and matter-of-factly. We’d been festering in the tropical heat for a week, and Honnold, in particular, was starting to lose it. In addition to the usual logistical hassles of a seven-member team in a foreign country, we had to sort out the permits to make the climb, which I hadn’t been able to do before landing in country. Because so few attempt an expedition into low’s gully, and because of the international press coverage (and inordinate cost) of the 1994 rescue, it’s now almost impossible to get permission to go anywhere near the gully. Even by the time we arrived at the park entrance, we still didn’t know if they’d allow our expedition to happen. We decided to wing it.
Finally, on the afternoon of our eighth day in Borneo, we set off from park headquarters with 20 local porters, with permission to ‘recon’ the route. The trail was muddy and narrow, twisting and winding its way below waterfalls and along spiny ridges bordered with wind-stunted trees and colorful pitcher plants.
The porters led us up a steep and slippery slab towards a thin col between two rock pinnacles. Of course, the skies had waited until we arrived at this, the sketchiest section, to unleash on us. When Chin and I finally crested the col at sunset, after 6000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead, we found Anker and Honnold sitting next to our small mountain of luggage in the rain. There wasn’t a lick of horizontal ground anywhere, and we were perched on the spine of a rocky ridge in a mountain range famous for spectacular electrical storms. This was where we would spend our first night on the mountain.
The following morning, Anker and I got up early to start scouting for the descent route into the gully. We knew about a route established by a Spanish team back in 2000 and when I was researching Low’s Gully, I discovered that two other expeditions – British and Spanish — had done what we were attempting. The Spanish team spent two seasons pioneering a rappel route into the gully, then forging a line up a stunning big wall back out. The British followed shortly thereafter, with another new line on the same cliff. Nonetheless, finding two tiny steel bolts among the grey jumble of rock would still require a good deal of luck.
As we scanned the uneven ground, focused on the task at hand, we hadn’t realized that the cliff we came to climb had come into focus across the misty tk-foot gap. We stood face to face with the upper reaches of the wall, the spire rising, like something out of a Tolkien story, from deep inside the seemingly bottomless chasm. It was a clean, unbroken, 2500-foot sweep of golden orange granite, streaked with tiger stripes of white, green and black. Meanwhile, Anker remained tuned into our surroundings.
“Got it,” he yelled, from a small ledges hundreds of feet below.
For the next two hours, we slowly worked our way down into the abyss. At one point we touched down on a small patch of hanging jungle, which we had to bushwhack across. It had been eight years since anyone had stepped foot on this ledge but within seconds Anker unearthed an old trail, which led right to the next set of bolts. I had anticipated the descent into the gully would take a couple days, but with Anker in the lead, we had it sussed out in less than three hours.
The ground was covered in green, water polished stones through which a small clear stream was running. We wasted no time in plotting our ascent, craning our necks up at what appeared to be thousands of feet of overhanging rock. The angle seemed to ease for the final 500 feet, then culminated in a cloud-piercing pinnacle. It would require a capsule-style ascent — fixing ropes to a point on the wall where a camp can be established, then moving the ropes up and repeating the process. Once we found a sheltered spot for a hanging portaledge camp, everyone would move up to the hanging bivy. The hope was that we could complete the climb with four or five nights on the wall.
After just two days of working our way up the route’s lower section, I was in awe of Honnold’s boldness. He appears to be able to hang on indefinitely and have a sense of exactly what will work and what’s going to cause a fall. He’s amazingly savvy for a climber his age.
Even with the mile-wide generation gap between us, we were both beaming as we ascended into the unknown. Whether it’s your first or fiftieth expedition, there’s nothing like pioneering up rock never before touched by human hands. With only two expeditions before us, it was likely that our line was entirely new.
Tkfeet up the cracks we’d been following began petering out and the next system was hundreds of feet away. We had hit the crux of the route. Honnold was trying to climb across a long section of blank, dubious looking grey and black granite. There were just enough holds for him to climb it, but there was almost nothing in the way of natural protection. The only way to provide any security at all was to drill a few holes for bolts. Honnold had never placed a bolt.
On overhanging rock, the only way to get your hands free for drilling is to suspend yourself from a tiny piece of metal the size of a thumbnail called a hook. Honnold had never placed a hook.
“Is it normal for it to flex?” he called down, sounding nervous, as he dangled 30 feet above me with nothing but a quarter inch of chrome-moly between him and a huge fall.
“Perfectly normal,” I yelled back.
Truth be told, I was more scared than Honnold because I knew that if the hook did blow, he’d be falling 60 feet, right onto the belay. I just kept reminding myself that he wouldn’t be considered the best free soloist in the world if he didn’t have a cool head in situations like this. With the hook in place and a bolt secured, he set off again, confidently navigating another 30 feet of overhanging rock.
Two hours later he reached the shelter of a small roof, 150 feet above me. It was, hands down, one of the best leads I’d ever witnessed. Honnold later named it the “Emily Pitch — Clean and Beautiful”, after a famous female climber with whom he was more than a little enamored. In the small world of the climbing community, everything gets around, and he knew that Emily would eventually hear about it (from one of us – she did). I wish I’d thought of that when I was single.
Anker was right. I was learning things from Honnold. Well, not so much as learning from him as I was relearning. He brought something to the expedition none of us anticipated. Every jaw dropping lunge, every inhuman pull, even every rookie mistake — it all rekindled the fire that we had back when we were his age. And it showed me, at least, that the fire was still there.
Later, as we settled into our sleeping bags in the portaledge, Honnold needed to get something off his chest.
“You know, I’m kind of feeling like a pansy,” he confessed.
“How so?” I replied. “You just did the sickest lead I’ve ever seen.”
“I know,” he replied, “but it scared me. I shouldn’t have gotten so scared.”
************ After our first night on the cliff we woke up to clear skies, high above the clouds of the jungle lowlands. But our weather window was short-lived. Anker, Thaw and Chin had set off up a series of free hanging ropes that were set the day before to push the route ahead, while Honnold and I dropped down to try and free climb more of the Spanish line (by re-climbing sections that had only before been gained with the help of gear like hooks and bolts, we could deem our ascent ‘free’, as opposed to ‘aided’). By tktime, a cloud had boiled up from the gully below and soon everything — the rock, the rope, my eyelashes, the rim of my hood — was coated with tiny droplets of water. Then something eclipsed the sun and suddenly everything went dark.
The squall came in from the north, driving the rain hard into our faces. Massive waterfalls were now pouring off the cliff, and the gully below started to roar as it transformed into a raging rapid. Even if we had wanted to bail, there was no way out but up. Above, I could hear muffled yelling, followed by an alarming amount of rockfall. Anker was somewhere above us doing battle in the chaos.
Honnold and I retreated to our portaledge to find that our rain fly had a few leaks, and our beds filling up like a bathtub. Sitting on my helmet, I bailed as fast as I could, but there was little I could do to stop the stream of water pouring through. Honnold had already climbed into his sleeping bag, which was now soaked. Mine was still safely tucked away in its dry bag — a fact I gleefully shared with my shivering young friend.
The big question on everyone’s mind was whether we could dash to the summit before the following day’s afternoon downpour. Without the protective overhang of the lower wall, we were sitting ducks if a storm arrived. In fact, the final pitches of the climb follow a big gully that clearly serves as a drainage system for the entire top section of the peak — drowning, not falling, would be our biggest concern.
But the weather cooperated, conditions were just right for us make some real progress, and we were all really beginning to enjoy ourselves. Once we had breached the overhang the rock morphed from orange and white to dark grey, from smooth to some of the most prickly rock I’ve ever climbed. The holds were suddenly huge, weirdly shaped cobbles that we called “chicken heads.” Best of all, the climbing was suddenly easy, so easy that I could enjoy a magnificent view to the north, where Low’s Gully snakes a serpentine path towards the sea. Further out, I could see, for the first time, a huge peninsula that jutted off Borneo’s northern tip and I thought I could even make out the Philippines in the hazy distance. If the weather would hold, we were just a day away from the summit.
Sharing a rope with Honnold had made me think a lot about what I was like when I was his age, and I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to myself. I was never close to as talented as he is, nor was I as bold, but I did have a youthful hunger and my tolerance for risk was more than a little excessive. Honnold reminded me that climbing without risk isn’t really climbing at all.
More often than not, the summit is anticlimactic — you’re so completely frazzled by the time you get there, that all you can think about is getting down as soon as possible. Not this time. When I topped out around 2pm, mantling over the lip into a round of high fives with my crew, it was one of those rare summits when we had the time and weather to actually savor the moment. Instead of hastily setting up a rappel and getting the hell out of there, we settled down into the rocks and simply sat back to enjoy the show. It had been about two years since I had personally succeeded on a big expedition objective, but the familiar euphoria came flooding back.
Looking over at Honnold, I couldn’t help but wonder if he understood the arc that we all seem to follow as climbers any better after hanging out with a bunch of old-timers; If he understood that he would have to ultimately accept the fact that if you’re going to climb as hard as he does now his whole life, and live to tell the tales, he was going to need a little bit of luck. These days I’ve got kids waiting for me to return from expeditions like these, and there’s a line I just don’t cross anymore. The problem is figuring out where that line is at any given moment. Honnold is one of the brightest and most talented climbers I’ve ever met. If nothing else, I think he knows that climbing is the kind of sport that will sort you out, one way or another.