Tahan IV: The Longest Day (Part One)

We tell stories for many reasons. We draw from unstable, uncertain memory to weave these narratives together. Structured by a confluence of many needs, and polished by the glow of nostalgia, we tell stories for many reasons. Stories remind us of our past selves; they tell about a brighter time, offering a circle of light we can draw around, against the cloudy darkness of tide and time.

Nearly one year ago, a group of JC friends and I embarked on an audacious attempt to climb the tallest mountain in peninsular Malaysia, Gunung Tahan. It wasn’t just the six/seven-day traverse of this peak that was so difficult; it was also the fact that it had been years since many of us had climbed a proper mountain; had carried a backpack for such extended durations. In fact, despite the fact that we had been from CJC ODAC, none of us had spent more than three nights camping outdoors, much less in the formidable, humid, muddy conditions of the Malaysian rainforests.

Nearly one year ago, after our successful summit ascent (and subsequent descent, which was another victory unto itself), I set out to write something of a chronicle of our time on Tahan. As the Expedition Secretary and nerd, it was a responsibility I took on…and then later left half-done, as school and other life commitments caught up with me. [You can read about our ascent here, here, and here].

Nearly one year on, with a sizable chunk of time between the end of undergraduate school and graduate school, I have decided to continue telling the story of that one time we decided to climb into the skies, in one of the densest rainforests in peninsular Malaysia. We tell stories for many reasons; here, once again, let me try to draw a small circle of light against the encroaching gloom of tide and time.

Previously, in Tahan III…

“We would be crossing eight rivers tomorrow, and then finish the day off not only by summiting another mountain, but by descending it and camping near its base. The US Navy SEALS have a saying, that “The only easy day was yesterday”. The enormity of the endeavour stunned us into momentary silence.

And then someone said, “I guess tomorrow is game day then.”

Eight river crossings and a mountain to climb. Indeed, it looked set to be.”

Game Day: Breakfast and Beginnings

It is 5am, and the sky is already beginning to lighten.

Blearily and creakily, after the bruising, sodden descent of yesterday, we rearrange our cramped, sleeping postures into slightly more awake ones. All things considered, it had not been a bad night, but what lies ahead today sits grimly in all our minds.

It had not been a bad night, but it would really have been a bad morning, if we had not been struck by inspiration and desperation. I had realized the night before that I had forgotten to bring the bread for this morning’s breakfast.

Talk about Murphy’s Law: of all the things I had to forget to pack, it had to be our group’s first meal on the most taxing day in the six-day expedition. It was a testimony to my batchmates’ magnanimous spirits that very little time and emotion was expended blaming me for this potentially grievous oversight – instead, realizing that we had packed a little more rice than we needed, and having watched in astonished envy at the generous meals Atan (our mountain guide) cooked for himself, we decided to get creative with our breakfast menu.

Inspired by Atan, we cooked some extra rice the night before in preparation. Mildly peckish the next morning, we mixed pork floss and bacon bits to the cold grains. The result was surprisingly tasty – a little like sushi with pork floss, if you used just a bit of your imagination. And this substantial shot of carbohydrates early in the morning did much good to us for the long day ahead. Rice on a cold, grimy morning can do a lot for one’s mood.

Morning Peace

Discipline in some areas gives you the luxury for some slack in others. Forcing ourselves to wake up so early gave us the space to do things more slowly: from personal things (like changing out of our dry, warm sleeping clothes into disgusting, more robust “action gear” [read: dirty clothes], to agonizing about putting on disgusting wet socks…) to ‘group’ things (like cooking breakfast and striking tents). We did our things slowly and surely, taking turns to get things done.

Despite the numerous, tiny tasks that needed our attentions, the pre-dawn silence was rarely broken by shouted instructions or simmering conflict. If one needed more time to do their things, another would take over to start the fire first, or make the milo. Perhaps I misremember; perhaps tension and urgency are dimmed by time – but my memory of that morning so many months ago is largely of amiable, almost-unspoken cooperation and mutual help. It was a stark contrast to your standard break-camp scenario: of confusion, of yelling, of lost things, of sullen,unhelpful people and general mess.

Game Day: The Difference a Day Makes

0705: Depart WRAY’S CAMP. The night before, Atan had told us to be ready by 0700. One minute to 0700, we had cooked, eaten and washed up our utensils. Our tents had been dismantled, their parts distributed separately to all our backpacks. Nature’s various calls had been settled, and we stood around peaceably, watching as our guide packed up the last of his tent and equipment.

Fortified by the most substantial breakfast we have had in days, and mentally prepared for “Game Day”, the most difficult day ahead, our morale is up. We are ready for whatever the day will throw at us. At 705, we begin our longest day of the Tahan Traverse.

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Final preparations before we start our long descent down

We commence the day’s descent in a lilac half-light, as the sun begins to flood the gaps in the trees. What a difference a day makes. One morning ago, the sky had filled our horizons with glorious, rolling clouds tinted by the ascending sun. Where there was the sky overhead and granite underfoot, this morning, Tahan offers us trees overhead, leaves and slippery tree roots underfoot. The gradient is generally quite gentle, mixed with some occasionally steep descents.

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Early morning descent: when you finally understand what “golden rays of the sun” mean

0740-0755: BUKIT SARSI & TONGKAT ALI

We arrive at our first checkpoint for the day twenty minutes ahead of schedule. By now the sun is up, and everyone is sweating in earnest, but this promising start cheers all our spirits.

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Checkpoint Sarsi: Day 4, and 20 minute ahead of schedule.

Atan finds a tongkat ali herb at this checkpoint, and lets all of us chew on a bit of the bark. It is novel, it is traditional and it is supposedly medicinal, so we all chew enthusiastically and curiously….the surprising bitterness of the bark wakes us all up subsequently.

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Better (or bitter) than coffee: Tongkat Ali on the mountains

Languid and relaxed and ahead of time, we take a longer-than-usual break here for 15 minutes before starting again. Atan tells us it is 1 hour to BUKIT BOTAK, our next checkpoint, and 2 hours to KUALA TEKU, the first river we have to cross.

0910-0920: BUKIT BOTAK & SOME FRENCHMEN

We arrive slightly behind schedule. The BOTAK checkpoint is a narrow cleft on a slope, distinguished only from the surrounding area by its slightly wider space, terraced by tree roots. We meet two Frenchmen here with their guide, who are climbing Tahan from the opposite direction. They have spent three days in the mountain, and plan on spending another two more. The ten minutes we rest here is a well-earned break. The slopes have started to get steeper, after an initially gentle descent. One hour to the riverside at KUALA TEKU.

1010-1030 KUALA TEKU, FINALLY!


After a harrowing series of steep, slippery descents, fringed by an unnerving, serrated armoury of rattan thorns, we arrive at the riverside checkpoint of Kuala Teku. The evening before, our ambitious plans had been to descend to this point in the half-light of the evening. Having slipped and slid our way down in bright sunlight, we all agree that mediocrity was not always a bad thing when it came to descending a mountain. As we near Kuala Teku, the ground starts getting muddier and more waterlogged. Selaginella glimmer from the sides of the muddy, narrow trail like the emerald treasure troves of some rainforest dragon.

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One of the first plants any CJC ODAC-er learns in his Level 0 plant lessons: the ubiquitous fern-ally, Selaginella

As we approach TEKU, strange cries fill the air, either the joyous, throaty calls of some forest bird, or else the lusty, exuberant entreaties of some howler monkeys, known locally as the siamang.

“ELOP, ELOP, ELOP,”

they urge. But in the rainforest, there is no other direction for us to elope to. The only way out is through. At TEKU, we take an extended break, celebrating how we have made it to more-or-less flat ground. From here on, the terrain will no longer be vertical so much as horizontal. The mental strain of continually watching one’s step, of making sure you don’t slip on a treacherous root or accidentally grab a spike full of small, cruel thorns for three hours, along with the physical strain of bearing a sweaty backpack against gravity, has started to take its toll. We celebrate by refilling our bottles…

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contemplating our journey in exhausted disbelief…

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and just taking more pictures.

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Twenty minutes later, a little more rested and recharged, with our morale and mood following in the same direction, we hefted our backpacks up.

1030 KUALA TEKU: The Beginning of the Beginning

We are going to cross the rivers now, said Atan in his characteristically laconic way.

In other expeditions, we’d crossed rivers before. You just walked across a body of moving water. After a whole morning of sliding down mud in steamy, hot rainforests, the rushing, icy waters of the Tahan rainforest looked beautifully lovely, dark and deep.  How hard could it be to cross rivers, even if there were eight of them? It couldn’t be any more difficult than climbing up up up, and falling down, down down, right? Right?

Right?

Before “Game Day” was over, we would realize how complicated it would be to answer that question.

Stories

We tell stories for many reasons. We draw from unstable, uncertain memory to weave half-remembered narratives together. Stories remind us of our past selves; they tell about a brighter time, offering a circle of light we can draw around, against the cloudy darkness of tide and time.

The danger of adventure is arrogance, of becoming a hopeless bore – but in having read so far, I hope you will not see it that way. The point of this post, this story, these stories, is to leave a trail on the road less travelled, to remind ourselves that although:

“We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Draw closer, into this small circle of remembered light, because we tell stories for many reasons. We listen to them for even more.

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