American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Malaysian Borneo, Sarawak, Batu Lawi, South Face

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2000

Batu Lawi, South Face. On March 5, Volker Shoeffl, Scott Morley, photographer Chris Noble,

videographers Jim Surrette and Ken Sauls and I began the first leg of our ascent of Batu Lawi (6,703'), a remote spire in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo. After a hair-raising flight (one engine failure) to the Highland community of Bario, then a short walk to the longhouse at Pa Ukat where we hired porters, the group began trekking toward the spire. We hiked for four days in an almost continuous downpour before reaching the base of the spire.

Our first attempt was on the east face, the largest and most striking side of the spire. Not much is known about this part of the world, and despite a scientific study claiming the spire to be of karst limestone, we found it to be Melingan Sandstone. Being porous, this rock absorbs a lot of the 300-plus inches of rain the Highlands receive each year and can thus be very weak. We had a limited amount of time, and after a few days of attempting to aid on hooks and knife blades up thin, water-weakened cracks (something none of us specialized in), we were forced to attempt the more moderate-looking south face.

The ca. 800-foot south face had its own difficulties. Large clumps of thick vegetation hung over many of the cracks like seracs, and their overhanging

undersides thwarted us on numerous crack lines. We eventually made it up via chimneys, hand cracks and occasional face climbing. At one point, two of us passed over a bamboo viper, one of the world’s deadliest snakes. We reached the summit between storms and were given a clear view of the unspoiled rainforest.

Batu Lawi had been climbed twice before, once via the south ridge in 1986 by a British Army team and again by an Australian team in 1996. Our route went just west of the Australian line on the south face, then connects with it for the last pitch. The difficulty is hard to say as the standard rock ratings don’t fit. The hardest rock pitch was 5.10a or b and with good protection, but the true crux was in dealing with the jungle, both on the trek and on the wall. Climbing over the overhanging clumps of moss as they pull away from the wall deserves its own rating system! One overhang near the top that had no gear was perhaps 20 feet long and would probably get the jungle rating of J4. The wetness of the mountain, its remote location and the difficulties of climbing in the jungle will no doubt steer other ascentionists away, but it shouldn’t. Batu Lawi is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, and getting to see the ever-shrinking rain forest in its pristine state truly makes this a worthy objective.

Sam Lightner, Jr.

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