Reaching new heights
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 06 Jan 2012
Walking into the concourse of Batu Caves, one is greeted by majestic structures of Hindu deities, temples and swarms of pigeons flapping just inches above your head. Macaques blend into the landscape amongst worshippers and tourists, making their way up the 272 steps to the Temple Cave.
Located in the Gombak district, Batu Caves is a significant religious site for Hindus and a major tourist attraction. An impressive limestone chunk at the edge of Klang Valley, Batu Caves is believed to be about 400 million years old. Dedicated to the deity Murugan, it was established as a place of worship in 1891 by an Indian businessman by the name of K Thamboosamy Pillai, and since 1892, has been serving as a major congregation centre for Thaipusam celebrations.
For extreme sports enthusiasts, Batu Caves serves another, lesser known purpose - it is also the hub for outdoor rock climbing.
My first visit to Batu Caves was in fact to climb its ridges. I was introduced to Blocx in 2003 and had my first go at outdoor rock climbing. Rock climbing is quite a challenge for me as I’m acrophobic. I was literally shaking to my wits as I climbed up the routes bolted by the Blocx guys who also started the climbing gym, Camp5 in One Utama.
Unlike indoor rock climbing where the boulders are pretty much ready for you to grip, outdoor climbing requires you to find a crack or protruding edges anywhere possible to slip your fingers in or to grip. It was much more challenging and the treat you get once you’ve climbed high enough for a bird’s eye view of Kuala Lumpur beats indoor climbing hands-down. Perched like a lizard on the limestone walls, cooled by the breeze that washes over your sweat, the experience was unforgettable.
My friend Zee is an avid climber who discovered his passion for climbing while on a family vacation to Thailand. Zee also indulges in other outdoor sports such as sea kayaking, hiking, cycling and running marathons.
“Different sports teach different lessons to different people. Kayaking and drifting into the open sea reminds me how small my worldly concerns are. Cycling and marathons over long distances teach me to persevere and ignore distractions. Climbing teaches me to focus my mind, silence doubt and to not hesitate. It teaches you to have faith in yourself.”
Having faith is an integral part of climbing as it is a risky sport not to be taken lightly. There are many routes now charted on Batu Caves, but not all are safe and fallproof. These routes are just accidents waiting to happen. Routes on Batu Caves are installed with bolts and anchors for rappelling and lowering the climber to the ground.
Bolt types and bolting techniques must be specific to the type of rock and the conditions of the environment in which they are used. Batu Caves, being a limestone, is porous in nature, thus a specific method must be used to ensure safety of the climbers.
An improperly-placed bolt or an improper bolt type can result in failure of the bolt to catch someone’s fall. Zee explains, “For limestone, glue in bolts should be used. This involves drilling a hole in the rock, and injecting a chemical mixture into it and then inserting the metal bolt. The chemical mixture will harden into a cement-like hold around the bolt. The minimum length of bolts for limestone is said to be 90mm.”
“However lots of routes now at Batu Caves are bolted using compression bolts that are only 60mm long. This technique involves torquing the bolts in the drilled holes in the rock, which makes them expand into the rock thereby gripping them. For limestone, these are not recommended as limestone, being porous, gives way to this pressure and so these bolts do not function optimally.
Also their short length of 60mm further diminishes their ability to hold a fall from a climber. There is also a lack of maintenance on these routes, and some routes that have had bolts in them for over 10 years are worn and corroded and of questionable strength.”
In many countries where extreme outdoor activities are established sports, safety is a high priority and associations are formed to regulate and provide standardization of the sports.
Climbing associations ensure the safety of climbers by carrying out continuous monitoring and maintenance of routes and replacing worn-out bolts. However, we do not have such associations in Malaysia and thus there are pirated routes charted by inexperienced and untrained climbers.
The Youth and Sports Ministry has encouraged youths to be involved in extreme sports, but Zee feels that it is a half-hearted intention.
“The ministry has built youth and sports complexes all over the country and some of them include facilities for climbing, biking and skate boarding. But when all the ribbon-cutting and media hype recede, maintenance rarely meets the mark and so the facilities descend into a decrepit state.
I think it’s great to introduce and support climbing as a sport, but provisions should be in place such as keeping it independent of politics and race quotas to ensure that it is managed properly by trained and capable individuals. There is a dire need to establish a properly organised climbing association to regulate the sport.”
I feel that extreme sports shouldn’t be in the same camp as other type of sports or activities because there are added risks and dangers that without proper guidelines can be fatal.
Without regulatory bodies, Malaysians who are extreme sports enthusiasts have to go the extra mile and do a little bit of research to gauge how trustworthy and capable a sports operator is before making the decision to use their services. As a scuba diver, I’m careful of which dive operator I go to, checking out websites or asking other divers for advice before I decide to dive with them.
But essentially, trusting your skills and capabilities and trusting your buddy, be it rock climbing or scuba diving, is ultimately ideal. After all, it is your life that’s on line.
With that being said, extreme sports is one hell of a fun thing to do! Regardless of the risks, there are no words to aptly describe the experience and the discovery of new worlds. And you cannot imagine the feeling of finally overcoming your fears until you try.
I’m still fearful of heights, but having rock-climbed and bungee-jumped made me realise that your limits are just mind tricks and all you’ve got to do is to make that one step forward...or upward. Because unless we push ourselves, we can never unlock our abilities.
So as we inch closer towards the New Year, if you’re not already a sports extremist, why not make a New Year’s resolution to try something new? Who knows, you might discover a new love. Just be critical and do your research beforehand, make a decision and then, go for it and just have faith.
Happy New Year to all!