Friday, 18 October 2013

rigor mortis

Between 1974 and 1976, I spent almost all my free time exploring the ‘miles and miles of unclimbed sea cliffs’ that had lured me to Hong Kong (the quoted phrase formed part of a job advert for instructors at the local Outward Bound school). Most of this exploration was carried out with a colleague at the school, Keith Hazelaar, and we soon discovered that most cliffs were composed of loose, rotten, dangerous rubbish. This is because at the latitude of Hong Kong, chemical weathering predominates (mechanical weathering, which is the dominant type of erosion in more temperate latitudes, tends to produce cliffs that are more solid and more stable).

However, we did find some exciting climbs, and this is the story of one of them.

The island of Wang Chau is one of a group of four islands in the east of Hong Kong that forms part of the territory’s National Geopark (so designated in 2009). As an instructor at Outward Bound, I had had a chance, from the deck of the school’s motor launch, to reconnoitre possible climbing opportunities along the entire east coast of the Sai Kung peninsula. Most of these had been accessible overland, but in order to climb on Wang Chau, we would need logistical backup.

In March 1976, I persuaded one of the school’s seamanship instructors to give us a ‘lift’ to Wang Chau. This could be only an exploratory visit, to see if climbing there was even possible, and the section of the island we chose to investigate more closely is shown on the map above, on which the red asterisk marks the approximate position of the section of coastline shown in the following photograph.

The most obvious line is the huge chimney on the left of the photo, which we climbed on a subsequent visit, but I was immediately attracted to the slanting corner in the centre of the picture. It certainly didn’t look easy, but it did look possible.

The first problem was getting from the rescue inflatable onto dry land, although on this occasion it was easier than it usually is, given that out to the right of the photo it’s next stop America, and a big swell is usually running. We quickly scrambled up 6–7 metres to the top of a projecting beak of rock, which we immediately christened ‘the pulpit’ and where we could contemplate the corner at closer range.

There is a huge difference between consulting a guidebook, which provides a description and a grade of difficulty for any intended climb, and tackling a route that may turn out to be impossible. The eventual difficulty can only be guessed at in advance. However, the first few feet looked straightforward enough, as illustrated by the photo on the right, which was taken by Keith with a miniature camera that we used on such occasions.

The delusion that this might turn out to be easier than we’d originally anticipated lasted only as far as the first overhang, which I overcame by stepping up to the left then back right above the overhang. Retreat would now be more difficult, and the last move was only the start of the serious difficulties. The next photo, taken by our seaman colleague from the school’s inflatable, merely hints at just how difficult this section turned out to be.

Almost 40 years on, I can remember few details, except that upward movement became more and more difficult, until I reached the position shown in the photo, at which point I became stuck. I couldn’t work out what to do next, and I spent 45 minutes in that one position. Finally, by a series of precarious balance moves, I was able to reach the point shown in the next photo.

Although I had clearly overcome the crux of the climb, progress still wasn’t easy, and yet another problem began to impress itself on my mind. We were using 45-metre ropes, and on a long runout it’s customary for the second to shout out estimates of how much rope is left when it looks to be running out. I reached a suitable ledge with less than two metres to spare. The rest of the climb was easy.

I’ve written before of how it is the prerogative of the first climber to do a route to assign a name to that route. So what should I call it? I may not have felt that rigor mortis was about to set in after spending three-quarters of an hour in the same position, unable to move, but Rigor Mortis seemed an appropriate name nevertheless. We assigned a grade of extremely severe (E1), with a technical grade of 5c, and it is a fair bet that it has never been repeated.

There is a reason for that. In the 1990s, two expats put together a guidebook to climbing in Hong Kong, and several local climbers told them that they should speak to me. They never did, so to this day very few of the dozens of new climbs that I pioneered between 1974 and 1989 are known about. This one is certainly worth a visit. It wasn’t the best of the climbs that Keith and I did together—that was Nightmare, which is another story entirely.


  1. You really have had some great adventures in your life Dennis. That climb looks like sheer madness to me. I mean, I can't really see anything to cling on to etc, and it looks like a long dead drop if anything goes wrong. I just love the angle of that photograph because it truly shows you the size and scale of everything.

    45 minutes in one position? I would have had the coastal guard/mountain team (not sure what help is called) come and get me out of that situation within the first 10 minutes.

    Rigor Mortis is a brilliant name, but I can't wait to hear about Nightmare. It can't be worse than this, can it?
    Brilliant Post.

    1. Not quite as serious as it might appear to a non-climber Rum. Notice the red slings at five and three o’clock from my position in the main photo. These are temporary protection devices, and (I assume that) Keith would have held me on the rope if I’d come off. Mind you, not every climb is so easily protected. You do need some positive thinking to tackle long runouts without such protection.

      As for Nightmare, I lost all the photos I had of this climb, so it would be difficult to make an interesting post out of the story, although I’m pleased to say that I was able to repeat the climb with Siegfried in 2002. The name came from Keith’s comment on reaching the top: “What are you trying to do? Give me bloody nightmares?”

  2. Oh, I get woozy just looking at those pictures. What an adventure, though!

    1. No head for heights then Kris? Essential in this game.


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