On the surface, it mightn’t sound like the most rigorous challenge on the planet – to hike, cycle, kayak and rock-climb from Singapore’s highest point to the highest point on Pulau Tioman off the coast of the Malaysian peninsula. But, as Kiwi expat, adventurer, mountain climber and Everest summiter Grant ‘Axe” Rawlinson reveals, there was much more to this human-powered “Peak to Peak” expedition than you might imagine. Read on for the exciting details, and don’t miss the details at the end of the article about Grant’s big adventure plans (some might say “mad adventure plans”) for 2016.
This is your third personal “Peak to Peak” adventure (we’ve covered all of them here at EX mag); the previous two were carried out in New Zealand and Europe. Why did you decide on something more “local” this time around?
This time around, my wife was heavily pregnant and I did not want to leave for an extended period abroad – our last two Peak to Peak expeditions have been 22 and 24 days respectively. Also, I have harboured a long time a fascination to attempt an adventure, starting from my own house right here in Singapore. I hear many people say there is nothing to do in Singapore and they are bored. Well, I think this Peak to Peak proved that there is incredible adventure awaiting, if only we have the creativity and courage to get out there and try.
What are the “rules” of your series of Peak to Peak adventures?
This is our third Peak to Peak expedition and the rules (which are entirely self-imposed) are fairly simple:
1. Make a journey, starting on the peak of one mountain and finishing on the peak of another mountain.
2. The journey is to be completed entirely by human power.
3. The journey is to use as little support as practically possible – with no support vehicles or vessels.
4. The journey is to be completed on a shoestring budget within the time frame of our annual leave entitlements.
Who joined you for this particular P2P?
I’ve been lucky enough to be joined by the same crazy Australian for this and the last two Peak to Peak adventures – Alan Silva. We also invited along a big wall aid-climbing specialist, Andrew Cook, for the climbing section on Tioman. Andrew is a 100kg strong man from Australia, very good at technical aid climbing and also a down to earth, no-nonsense character who I get along with superbly, which is very important on expeditions.
You kicked things off at Bukit Timah; is it open to the public again?
It’s open at the weekends; however, during the weekdays it is still closed for upgrading.
We’re guessing that summiting Bukit Timah wasn’t a huge challenge; but small though it is, aren’t we right in saying that you have used this hill and the nature reserve in general in your past preparations for getting up Everest?
No, it’s not a massive challenge. However, it is Singapore’s highest point and has a special place in my heart – I have spent so much time over the years in Bukit Timah. Some people laugh when I tell them I train in there to take on peaks like Mt Everest. One chap in particular was ridiculing me about it so I invited him on a two-hour training workout with me. He lasted 20 minutes before he vomited and quit. He stopped teasing me after that. It’s a great place to train, actually: easily accessible with lots of cool little hidden spots where I get up to all sorts of things from technical rope work, rock climbing, abseiling, swimming and stair run training.
Give us a brief outline of the cycling route from Singapore to Mersing. Highlights of the ride? Lowlights? Any technical issues?
After we climbed Bukit Timah, we jumped on the cycles at 5am the next morning and set off into Malaysia, heading for Mersing – a ride of around 150km. As we were doing this cycle leg in one day, it meant we could travel very light as opposed to our previous Peak to Peak trips in NZ and Europe. On these trips we cycled thousands of kilometres while weighed down with tents, camping gear and food. For this trip, I had a banana, my wallet and my passport!
We raced over the main causeway with no queues that early in the morning, then set off for the east coast of Malaysia. The road conditions for cycling were generally excellent: a nice wide shoulder with lots of room to safely ride out of the way of the heavy traffic. It was definitely much safer than riding in Singapore.
We stopped for roti canai and teh tarik in Kota Tinggi. I speak pretty good Malay for an ang moh, and my favourite part of the cycle is probably seeing some new countryside and interacting with locals in their own language. They get such a surprise to see a sweaty “Mat Salleh” ride up in lycra tights and a banana then start chatting to them in Malay. I find the people from the smaller kampongs very friendly and love the relaxed pace of life compared to Singapore.
The low point was definitely the heat. By 11am it was seriously hot. It took us 7.5 hours in total to ride the 150km, including two long rest breaks, and by 12.30pm when we arrived it felt like we were in a furnace. My legs were just starting to cramp. Trying to keep hydrated in heat like that is tough as you pour the water down your mouth and it drips out your skin just as fast. A couple of beers definitely helped later that evening.
Did the sea-kayaking leg go pretty much to plan? How were the conditions? How was the heat?
I planned the sea-kayaking leg in detail – mainly because it scared me. We had no support vessel and if we did get into trouble I wasn’t confident of any help being available for assistance. For this reason, I knew I had to get it right.
We split the 58km paddle up into two days, a short first day of 16km then a longer day of around 42km. The paddle is directly offshore, and the conditions get very rough out there as anyone who has enjoyed a ferry ride to Tioman in a storm can testify.
We were lucky on day one, with absolutely no wind at all; it took 2.5 hours to paddle the 16km out to a small island called Pulau Besar where we stayed in a tiny resort on this beautiful little island. There they told us that it would be very dangerous to try and paddle to Tioman and they definitely thought we were very odd. The paddling on the first day was easy but the heat was a killer. I had a headache when I arrived, from dehydration, and I spent the rest of the day hiding in the shade and drinking and drinking. Finally around 7pm I started to pee, which is the sign I am hydrated enough. Then I never stopped peeing the whole night, which kind of wrecked my sleep.
Anyway, we were up again at 3.15am, back in the boats and paddling by 4am. Paddling off in the pitch dark from dry land into the open sea is kind of scary and yet very exciting at the same time. I love moments like this in my adventuring life. Life becomes so simple and I am completely in the moment, 100 percent focused on the task at hand.
I navigated using GPS initially to set the direction, then I changed to my deck compass to save battery on the GPS. It was pitch dark so I had to shine my head torch on my deck compass for long periods and concentrating on the compass dial made me feel a little nauseous. So I would then find some stars to line up in the general direction we were heading and use these as navigation markers. Following stars was also difficult however as I had to continue looking up which made my neck sore! At night-time in the pitch black you have no reference points on the horizon to aim for. Eventually the sun came up around 6.30am, and we then really felt like we were in the middle of the ocean, with no land anywhere in sight. Alan became seasick in his boat and vomited. He slowed down considerably for a few hours while he fought through this. But he is made of tough stuff and battled through it.
The haze made navigation very difficult. Normally, we would have expected to see Tioman from around 20+ km away, on a good day. However after 7 hours and 36km of paddling we still could not see Tioman at all. I was relying heavily on the GPS to navigate – without it we would have been struggling. We finally found this tiny rocky outcrop called Pulau Jahat, which we had been aiming for and stopped here for a quick drink. This little island is literally made up of only a few slippery boulders, and indeed I slipped on one as I tried to re-enter my boat. I fell hard on my pelvis and broke the GPS all in one foul swoop.
When you are doing adventures of this nature, sometimes the difference between having the time of your life and your worst nightmare can be one small mistake. My pelvis was very painful, however this was overshadowed with my concern and self-directed-anger at my clumsiness for breaking the essential piece of equipment – the GPS. Luckily I had a map and my compass, and I knew if we continued at a 15-degree bearing we should get close to Mukut Village on Tioman. It was a little freaky paddling off again from the small island purely on a compass bearing with no sight of land in the distance, and no GPS to rely on. After 45 minutes paddling, we finally could just make out the outline of Tioman through the haze – it was less than 4km away by now, yet we still could hardly see it! After 7.5 hours on the water we touched down on the south coast of Tioman, right at the tiny kampong of Mukut.
I was absolutely stoked to arrive at exactly the correct place! It had been a brilliant day, just the right balance of risk, uncertainty, hard work and excitement to make a great adventure. My sore pelvis and anger at breaking the GPS was soon forgotten.
Tell us a bit about the “kit” in your sea-kayaks? What do you eat/drink? What do you have for emergencies?
We both paddle sea kayaks from a NZ company – the models are called Mission Eco Bezhigs. These are designed for long, touring voyages, are very rugged and can carry lots of gear. They have nice comfy seats that I can sit in for hours at a time, and I could even squeeze down into the cockpit to sleep in at a pinch if I got stuck out overnight. They have foot-operated rudders for controlling direction. Strapped to the deck of the boat I have a compass and GPS for navigation, a hand-operated pump to empty water from the boat if it fills up, and a short pole with a navigation light and flag with a GoPro camera mounted on top.
Inside the boat there are storage compartments where we keep food and water. I carried six litres of water with me, in case we got stuck somewhere for a night, as well as extra food. While paddling, we mainly eat snack foods – nuts and sweets, easy accessible things that are simple to hold in your fingers.
Sunburn is a real concern out on the water for long periods. I cover up with a long-sleeve quick-dry top, gloves and a kayaking type sunhat with wrap around protection, which completely covers my neck, ears and most of my face. I always wear my Sworke sunglasses – they’re a local Singapore brand of adventure sunglasses fitted with optical inserts that I couldn’t do without.
For safety, we both wear life vests and I carry a GPS SPOT Tracker (separate to the GPS navigation unit), which sends out our position every ten minutes to a real-time map display. This also has an emergency button that, if pushed, would send an SOS signal to my wife and another friend whom I had informed of our plans.
On each boat we also have a towline, so if one of us gets into trouble, the other paddler can simply clip his towline on, and tow that person. It’s really important you have the planning, preparation, practice and risk protocols in place before attempting something like this, as open water is not the place to find out your weaknesses.
I knew my one major weakness this trip was not having a backup GPS unit. I am very thankful that when it failed I still knew how to use my compass and map to navigate. In the future I would probably consider a backup GPS also.
What’s the climbing “history” of the Dragon Horns on Tioman? Is it commonly summited?
The Dragon Horns and two massive granite towers stand proudly up to 700m+ elevation on the southern tip of the island. You can trek up the first 300m or so through the steep jungle to the base of them. This is where the climbing starts. Then it becomes extremely technical rock climbing. Vertical to overhanging for a few hundred metres – in climbing terms, we call it a “big wall” climb.
It was first climbed in the year 2000 by two guys after a number of attempts. Since that time it has been climbed by only a small number of people, mainly due to the difficulty of the climbing. In climbing terms, big wall climbing is as technical as it gets in this sport.
For our readers who are climbing fans, what are some of the noteworthy technical aspects of the climb?
Well, the climbing is so difficult on the Dragon Horns route we were attempting (Grade 5.13a, if you know climbing grades), that we were using a system called “aid climbing”. This involves inserting removable pieces of gear into any tiny cracks or ledges, then attaching short slings to stand in and step up into. This way of climbing is very, very slow, and reserved only for super-difficult routes.
It’s a few hundred metres of climbing like this up vertical to overhanging rock for our route on the Dragon Horns, which takes a few days. This means we needed to haul lots of water, food and sleeping gear with us also. So it becomes a very meticulous, slow, tiring and potentially risky (if you make a mistake) environment to be in for days on end.
Another massive factor that makes the Dragon Horns climb more demanding, is that when you get to the summit, you still need to get back down again. And this involves coming back down the way you went up, which is a lot of tricky traversing abseils, suspended hundreds of metres off the ground. All in all, it’s a very serious climb.
Take us through the climb: what was the plan? How did it unfold?
We had only six days in total for this entire Peak to Peak adventure. It took three days to get to Tioman Island then we had three days to try and make the climb and the descent. We carried all our equipment, including 30 litres of water, on Day 4 to the base of the climb, then began climbing in the afternoon. We made around 50m vertical progress that day before abseiling back down and retreating to the village for the night. The next morning we had an early start and climbed to Pitch 3, which we reached just after lunch. This was Day 5 and the speed we were going at we knew we would need at least two or three more days to climb to the summit and descend. But we only had one more day. With our commitments for ferries, return flights and work, as well as the fact we had a limited supply of water and food on the wall, we made the decision not to climb any higher. We spent the night camped on the portaledge on the wall, and retreated the next morning.
What’s it like sleeping on the side of a mountain?
Well, I would honestly say it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea and I don’t want to over-glorify it. I got very cold during the night to the point I was shivering, the haze got quite bad making my eyes irritated and it’s also not the easiest place to get up and go to the toilet. But apart from that, I loved the whole experience. It’s such a unique and magical environment to have the privilege to spend the night in: suspended so high above the ground, looking down at the lights in the villages far below, with only the sounds of the bush and Mother Nature – I really felt at peace.
What did you like about or learn from this Peak to Peak that was different from the other ones?
It was disappointing not to summit; at the same time, it was an amazing experience. We embark on these Peak to Peak challenges not because they’re easy and success is guaranteed, but for entirely the opposite reason. All sections, from the cycle to the kayak to the climb, had their own unique risks and challenges, and to line them all up together and pull them off successfully and safely is a massively exciting challenge.
On our first two Peak to Peak challenges in New Zealand and Europe, we were very successful, but I knew that as well as our good planning, preparation, focus and drive on the expeditions, it was also down to a great deal of luck to get the weather windows lined up to climb the mountains and kayak the English Channel and New Zealand’s Cook Strait.
This third Peak to Peak was the first where we weren’t successful in terms of completing the final objective. But, in a way, I still feel it was a success because I confronted and overcame my fears –especially about the kayaking and the climbing. I love this about adventure: it pushes me out of my comfort zone and generally makes me a more humble and stronger person. I like to encourage everyone to keep trying new things. It doesn’t have to be climbing, cycling or kayaking, of course; whatever is important or interesting to you in your life, once you step outside your comfort zone into that unknown zone, the magic starts happening and all sort of amazing opportunities open up – like being invited to write articles for EX magazine!
What ideas are bubbling away for the next P2P?
It saddens me deeply to see our beautiful planet’s resources raped, burnt and pillaged for short-term gain. There has to be more sustainable ways for us to live on Earth. I also love human-powered journeys through Mother Nature’s more extreme and beautiful environments. So my next expedition is an attempt to combine this passion with a good cause – to show we can still achieve amazing things in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways. It’s called ROWING HOME, and I will be attempting to row a boat all the way from Singapore back to my home country New Zealand – a journey of 12,000km. As with my previous expeditions I will use no support vessels and travel completely by my own human power! My boat arrives in January 2016 in Singapore where I will be training, fundraising, and giving talks about our expedition before we depart in December 2016.
Grant’s amazing Singapore-New Zealand expedition, ROWING HOME, has a much bigger budget than his recent adventures: around S$200,000. He plans to raise the funds through professional keynote-speaking services. If any groups are interested to have Grant as a speaker – about his incredible Everest expeditions, including his successful summit, and his other achievements – contact him through his speaking website.