Monday, 21 December 2015

nightmare story

I’ve written previously of how I was originally attracted to Hong Kong in 1974 by the following statement in a job advert:
There are miles and miles of unclimbed sea cliffs.
This statement turned out to be true, but most of these sea cliffs were unclimbed for a reason: the rock was so friable that we named one area that we explored Weetabix Zawn to reflect the obvious danger of climbing such vertical rubbish. ‘Zawn’ is an old Cornish word that describes a sea cave at the back of a narrow inlet (Cornwall was the first place in the UK where climbing on sea cliffs became popular).

However, one area that I investigated with my colleague Keith Hazelaar was explored in the mid-1950s by two captains in the Green Howards, James Ward and John Bunnell. This was Promontory Rocks, which is located in the southeast of the New Territories. It is the obvious promontory linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus shown on the following map, which I drew in 1974:

After Ward was killed in a motorcycle accident, Bunnell produced a guidebook to the climbs that the pair had pioneered together, in which it was suggested that the climbs they had done at Promontory Rocks were to be accessed by swimming (“spice is added to the approach”). I don’t think any of these climbs were ever repeated.

Another, more comprehensive, guidebook to climbing in Hong Kong was produced in 1968, but the section it contained on Promontory Rocks was repeated verbatim from Bunnell’s guide, so it is safe to assume that the author of the second guide never visited this area.

The situation began to change in the early 1970s, when Promontory Rocks came to the attention of noted alpinist Dick Isherwood, who was attracted to the massive slab of rock shown in the following photograph of Great Zawn (for an idea of scale, the hill had a spot height of 441 feet on maps of the period):

Isherwood pioneered two good climbs up the left-hand side of this big slab, although the best adjective to describe the approach, down the slope on the left of the photo, would be ‘dangerous’. Isherwood also attempted the obvious groove in the slab behind the inlet on the right, having reached the base of the climb by swimming across the zawn, but his attempt was repulsed by a difficult section near the top. Note that this inlet is referred to as ‘No. 1 Zawn’ in the above map, but when I finally started climbing on this section of the cliff in the 1980s, I decided to rename it the Devil’s Cauldron, because the noise level created by the ebb and flow of the swell in this zawn is almost overwhelming—it made communication with your climbing partner difficult, and it created a most intimidating atmosphere.

There are two reasons for wanting to attempt a rock climb that nobody has done before: the rather vain thought that you might be establishing a climb that everyone wants to do once a description has been circulated; and the desire to experience the tension created by uncertainty (is this climb actually possible?). Most of the climbs that I did with Keith Hazelaar between 1974 and 1976 failed to meet either criterion, but there is one route, which we climbed at the end of 1976, that would certainly justify a visit to this area (see below).

There is just one tiny problem: the above map has long been out of date, because since the late 1980s the area south and east of the fishing village of Po Toi O has been a golf course, and the last time I applied to the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club for permission to cross its land to access the climbing areas, I received a peremptory refusal. The fact that I was climbing here more than a decade before the club came into existence does not seem to have been considered a reason to grant such permission.

I imagine that it may be possible to hire a sampan in Po Toi O to reach the climbing—it was how we reached Promontory Rocks in the 1970s, when it was a two-hour walk from the nearest road, and a sampan across Clearwater Bay was the preferred choice. Mind you, some of the crossings were quite scary, given the relentless swell rolling in from the South China Sea. I remember that on one occasion we spotted a larger than usual wave coming towards us. The elderly man piloting the sampan, instead of pointing the boat into the wave, turned so that we were broadside on. We must have been very close to capsizing.

The photograph above shows the main climbing area; however, there is a lower, steeper section of cliff on the other side of the hill, facing in the opposite direction. This is the East Face, which is separated by a spectacular zawn from Cannonball Buttress. This latter feature was named by Bunnell and Ward, who called the climb they did Jolly Roger. Needless to say, Keith and I followed the nautical/piratical theme when naming the climbs we did on the East Face (Mainbrace, Black Spot, etc.), which at least made a change from the names we gave climbs on the main cliff. Keith was keen to name our climbs after characters and places in The Lord of the Rings, while I preferred names that reflected something of the nature of the climb.

On the edge of the spectacular zawn, at right angles to the rest of the East Face, is a narrow wall of rock that I thought might just be possible. However, I couldn’t reach the base of the wall at sea level, so instead I climbed the face directly above until it began to overhang. At this point, a line of handholds led round the corner onto the narrow wall. This is where the real difficulties started. First, the rock was caked with salt; it also felt surprisingly hot, being directly in the sun, so I kept leaving wet palm prints wherever I placed my hands. Second, the handholds were tiny, and I didn’t fancy trying to use them to make upward progress given the slimy feel engendered by the wet salt. Gymnastic chalk was not then in widespread use by climbers.

There was only one thing I could do. Wait. I’ve no idea how long I waited, but eventually the sun disappeared behind Cannonball Buttress, and the rock began to cool down. This made progress easier, but not easy. ‘Precarious’ springs to mind as an appropriate word to describe the rest of the climb.

“What are you trying to do? Give me bloody nightmares?” was Keith’s first comment on reaching the top.

And Nightmare was the only name I would accept for this climb, which is easily the best at Promontory Rocks. For anyone wishing to repeat it, the grade is E1 5b. I lost my best photographs of the climb many years ago, but here are two of Pete Hamer seconding the route in 1984 during an Outward Bound staff training session. The steepness is obvious. To spare him any possible embarrassment, I haven’t used the photo that was taken just as he reached the top. His eyes are bulging.

Although it isn’t possible to reach the base of the cliff in the Devil’s Cauldron by either scrambling or climbing, in 1983 it finally occurred to me that with a spare rope we could abseil (rappel) to the bottom. Consequently, I paid a visit with Pete Hamer and did three climbs: the groove that had defeated Isherwood, which we named Demon’s Groove (VS); The Alchemist (HVS 5a), which takes a parallel corner to the right; and Sultans of Swing (E1 5c). The following three photographs are of two unknown Chinese climbers on The Alchemist, taken during a visit I organized in the mid-1980s to let local climbers know about recent developments here.

Sultans of Swing takes the smooth slab right of the climber, while the diagonal crack to the left of the climber in the third photo is the line of Our Father (E1 5c), a climb that I did on a subsequent visit. If you do this climb, you will understand immediately why I gave it this name.

Keith Hazelaar and I explored Promontory Rocks fairly systematically in the 1970s, but we missed a few obvious lines, so I will conclude this post with three photographs of those missed opportunities. The first is of Pete Hamer seconding Pieces of Eight, on the East Face, on the first ascent. The second is of me climbing Autobahn, which is located on the section of cliff directly above Cannonball Buttress, while the third is of me on Rainmaker, an undercut groove at the outer end of Great Zawn.

Pieces of Eight (MVS).

Autobahn (HVS 5a).

Rainmaker (HVS 5a).

I have used the British grading system, which is the only one I’m familiar with. ‘VS’ is short for ‘very severe’, with prefixes ‘M’ for ‘mild’ and ‘H’ for ‘hard’. ‘E1’ is the easiest in what used to be the ‘extremely severe’ category (it now extends to E12, which is well beyond the ability of almost all climbers). The numbers are a technical grade for the hardest move on the climb.

Another guidebook to climbing in Hong Kong was produced in the late 1990s. I wasn’t in the territory at the time, but several local climbers told me subsequently that they had suggested to the authors that they contact me for information on climbs in this area. They never did, so the climbs referred to here remain undocumented, even though I had written (and typeset) a complete guide to the area in the 1980s, which also included the sea cliffs at the far end of the Sai Kung peninsula. It was never published.


  1. There are double excitement climbing in the sea cliff, the challenge in climbing up before the sea wave reaching you from below!!!


Please leave a comment if you have time, even if you disagree with the opinions expressed in this post, although you must expect a robust defence of those opinions. If you don’t have time to comment but enjoyed the post, please click the +1 button on the right-hand sidebar (near the top of the page).