Ropes and Ladders: The Pinnacle Climb, Sarawak Borneo

2°51'55.4"N 115°20'31.3"E
2°51’55.4″N 115°20’31.3″E

Gunung Mulu National Park, Malaysian Borneo. A World Heritage site, located in the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo. A place filled with wildlife, jungle, and home to some of the largest caves in the world. There are many activities to do in the park, and one of the most amazing challenging things to do there, is the pinnacle climb. After about a 1-2 hour boat trip (in the wet season) on the Melinau River from the park headquarters, and a 5.6 mile (9 km) hike through think jungle to a distant and remote camp, your pinnacle adventure will begin. Watch the video of the hike to the camp here.

From there, you will be briefed of the dangers of the climb and it’s perilous sharp rocks that it contains. With it’s discerning input of warnings and a mention of it’s failure rate of 60%, it can start to be hard to believe that you’re there in the first place.

Our boat captain that took us from the National Park to the Hiking trail.
Our boat captain that took us from the National Park to the Hiking trail.

The camp consists of mountain vista views, a large well-stocked kitchen, bathroom facilities, and basic dorm-cabin style sleeping quarters. Not to mention hundreds of bees that would swarm you as you arrive! Depending upon the time of year you are there, ( we were there in mid-March) there is a possibility that you will be attracting jungle bees by your sweat, and they will swarm you in minutes of arriving in the camp.

Upon entering the camp, we were told immediately to strip down, put our clothing out to dry in the sun, and jump into the river. After hastily and frantically stripping down, we dove head-first in the cool, somewhat clear, refreshing water. Upon doing this, you will automatically deter the bees from chasing you, and will be free of any onslaught of insects buzzing around your head.

The bees were a problem throughout our stay in the camp, especially when we ate, and while we were trying to ready our sleeping quarters. They however, were less frequent in the evenings, and during and after a rain storm. Even though the bees were everywhere, we heard of only one person getting stung, because they accidentally stepped on one.

Sign pointing towards part one of your pinnacle climb adventure
Sign pointing towards your pinnacle adventure…

The climb itself is only allowed if you are accompanied with a guide that the park arranges for you. The only part that is not supervised is the hike from the river to the camp. You can arrange special guides that will take smaller parties, as well as providing cooked meals before and after the climb itself.

However, you end up climbing with the other groups anyway, but having your meals prepared was a bit of a luxury. We opted for the cheaper route of going with a guide but not paying for food services. It ended up working out okay for us to bring our own food, but be aware that there are not any giant supermarkets outside of the park (or at the campsite). Slim pickings, and a lack of transportation combine to make this a bit of a challenge in itself.

I would recommend bringing at least one change of clothes and cotton gloves. The gloves can be purchased at the local market store for about $2US. The store is located to the east, on the south side of the park. Locals can point it out to you, or you can stock up at the National Park headquarters canteen, but it will cost you slightly more to do the latter.

If you can bring your own food in, do so, and allow for some extra hunger pangs after your climb. You will need more than you think. Energy bars, or even candy bars, will help give you the energy you need to make the climb. We had chocolate filled crackers, and they worked like a charm!

One of several river crossings on your hike to Camp 5
One of several river crossings on your hike to Camp 5

The pinnacle climb is an all-uphill climb, traversing over roots, rocks, and jungle. With the occasional rope there to help you, you must pull yourself upward for 2.4km (1.5 miles) to the iconic 45 meter (148 foot) high limestone structures. You are not provided with any climbing equipment, and so you must prepare yourself with any provisions that you may need. It is recommended that you bring plenty of water with you.

About halfway up the climb, you can leave half of your water in a separate bottle to save for your way back down. Carrying less uphill is always a good idea, and being able to leave non-essentials in camp helps. Bring your energy bars and any rehydrating salt or tablets that you can toss in your water bottle. Boiled sterile water is provided in the camp, so bring two water bottles with you to the climb, and you’re good to go.

A pair of gloves is highly recommended and a pair of non-slip shoes is imperative. Be aware that leeches are everywhere, especially if it rains, and we had our fair share of them on us as we came down. (I had at least 4)

View from Camp 5, before a heavy rainstorm…the day before the climb.
View from Camp 5, before a heavy rainstorm…the day before the climb.

Here is the list of items that the National Park recommends you bring with you on your trip:

  • Food and Water ( 2 bottles and energy snacks + breakfast for 3 days, lunch and dinner for 2 days)
  • Torch and spare batteries
  • Personal first aid kit with insect repellent
  • Towel and toiletries
  • Light weight sleeping bag or blanket
  • Mosquito Net
  • Waterproof hiking shoes with good grip (no sandals)
  • Raincoat
Camp 5, your home away from home for 3 days - 2 nights (recommended), or if you're an amazing athlete, 2 days - 1 night.
Camp 5, your home away from home for 3 days – 2 nights (recommended), or if you’re an amazing athlete, 2 days – 1 night.
R&L18a
Looking out onto the river from the sleeping quarters during the rain storm…

You have to reach what are called the ‘mini-pinnacles’. If you are unable to reach them within an hour of climbing, you will be forced to abort the climb. This will show that you will not be able to reach the top and descend in time before dark, so your guide has the right to make you abort the climb. Two people in our group had this happen to them, and they were much younger than us! In fact, I was the oldest person to reach the top in our group of seven people.

If it had begun to rain on our way up to the pinnacles, we would have all had to turn back. Thankfully, it did not, but coming down was a different matter.

The Mini-Pinnacles, about half-way up the trail and reachable if you're in good shape and the weather holds out.
The Mini-Pinnacles, about half-way up the trail and reachable if you’re in good shape and the weather holds out.

We managed to reach the Mini-Pinnacles in good time, and were allowed to continue our way to the top (minus the two climbers in our group). I was completely soaked with sweat and humidity and I was getting dehydrated quickly. Due to this, my guide handed me two small packets of hydrating salt (that we ourselves neglected to bring) and added them to my water bottle. This, combined with the small chocolate bars we had, managed to give us the strength and energy to finish the climb.

The climb was ‘Indiana Jones’ style, using both arms and legs to heave yourself up slippery rocks, logs, and the occasional (and very helpful) ropes and ladders. Let it be noted that the last sections of the climb were very vertical, which is where most of the ropes and ladders are located. If they were not there, it would have been near impossible to finish the climb without proper climbing rope or carabiners. Watch a small excerpt of the climb up to the pinnacles here.

One happy climber…
The helpful ropes and ladders, just waiting to be climbed...
The helpful ropes and ladders, just waiting to be climbed…
We reached the top in about 2.5 hours, this was our 2.3km marker from Camp 5.
We reached the top in about 2.5 hours, this was our 2.3km marker from Camp 5.

Upon reaching the top of the climb, if you are lucky, you will have amazing views of the Pinnacles, and will be able to get some spectacular images. If the weather is not so great, you may find that the pinnacles will stubbornly hide behind the clouds and will only show you a glimpse at their awesome splendor.

The latter was our case,  in which they showed themselves for only a few minutes at a time, like a burlesque show, teasing their audience for more of their natural wonder and beauty. Watch my reaction here as I reached the top of the climb.

We came across a Borneo Mountain Ground Squirrel that was enjoying some peanuts we tossed down for him. Watch the little guy come out of his hiding spot here.

 

At the top, posing for the moment of truth!
At the top, posing for the moment of truth!

After spending about 30 minutes at the top of the climb, it slowly started to rain. We looked at each other and knew of the dangers coming down on wet slippery rocks, aluminum ladders, and moss covered wood. If it had rained on the way up the climb, we would have been told to turn around.But on the way down, you had no option but to go down as is. So, off we went, slipping and sliding down, watching our every step, for at least 4 grueling hours.This is where having shoes with good traction, and cotton gloves comes in handy, and made our journey down a lot less precarious. Watch an excerpt of the descent from the pinnacles here.

By the time I was about 3/4 of the way down, my knees were starting to buckle. I had to slow down and watch EVERY step individually to avoid falling and hurting myself. It was very dangerous, and nerve wracking. But, as time went on, I began to stop for a minute or two to catch my breath and to take in the beauty of the jungle as the rain became heavier and heavier by the minute.

My feet imitating prunes.
My feet imitating prunes.

By the time I finally reached Camp 5, I was soaked to the bone, my feet were prunes, and my legs were like jello. In conclusion, the climb to the pinnacles was one of the hardest climbs I had ever done in my life. It is not for someone who is in bad shape, has asthma, or someone who has limited will power. There is a reason why only 40% of the people make it to the top, and after doing the climb, I could see why.

But don’t let this stop you! It was worth it and is an adventure you will never forget! And just remember, the best things in life are when you take risks, and this by far is one of the riskiest things you could ever do! Happy climbing!

The reward, the amazing pinnacles of Gunung Mulu. Shot with my Sputnik 3D Film camera.
The reward, the amazing pinnacles of Gunung Mulu. Shot with my Sputnik 3D Film camera.