Thursday, 13 June 2013

from the archives

When I worked at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School between 1974 and 1984, I was frequently given copies of photographs that had been taken by students. Most of these were simply group photos that the students had posed for, but the occasional one was much more interesting. I’ve been looking through some of these photos since I came back to the UK last month, and I thought that relating the stories behind a few of them would be a worthwhile exercise:

When I applied to work at the Hong Kong Outward Bound School, I was attracted by two statements in the job description: that there were ‘miles and miles of unclimbed sea cliffs’, and the requirement that the successful candidate be able to lead climbs with a difficulty rating of very severe (VS), which, incidentally, was uncommon among Outward Bound instructors at the time. When I arrived, all the school’s rock-climbing activities took place on Spider Crag, a cluster of small outcrops within easy walking distance of the school. The climbs were short and easy, and impossible to take seriously.

On the occasion when the above picture was taken, I’d been climbing up one of the routes that the students would be climbing later, without a rope or other encumbrances, when I decided to call for a top rope. This is usually a last-gasp emergency procedure, but my colleague clearly thought that I wasn’t being serious, which is why he dangled such a short length of rope down the rock face. What else could I do but grab it with my teeth?

It wasn’t long before I’d started exploring the unclimbed sea cliffs, and within three months we were taking groups to Fat Tong Point, a remote headland in the southeast of the New Territories, for two-day climbing expeditions. For several months thereafter, I wondered whether it might be possible to jump from the top of the cliff, across the descent gully, onto a flat-topped pinnacle about 4 metres away. The landing area was significantly less than 1 square metre, the take-off sloped towards the camera at about 30 degrees, and there was the small matter of a 15-metre drop onto some particularly nasty-looking sharp-edged boulders below the jump, so I was hesitant.

The remarkable aspect of this story is not that I did finally succeed in making the jump but that when I did, someone photographed me in the act!

After a first day climbing as many shorter and easier climbs as possible, the program for the second day was straightforward: four climbs, each graded VS and about 30 metres high. This photo is of one of these climbs, Cumbrian’s Chimney, which I named after my native county in the UK. The rope hanging down is for the benefit of the next student to climb up—the only reason I’m on the climb is that it’s a more enjoyable way to the top of the cliff than slogging up a crumbling hillside.

Chimneys are usually climbed by a technique known as back-and-footing, which the photo illustrates quite well. However, at the top the chimney closes to a narrow crack guarded by a pronounced overhang. It appears from my expression that I’m just about to make the crucial move: which involves stretching for a bomb-proof hand jam in the crack above my head. It’s easy enough if you know how to jam, but this is a technique that’s counterintuitive to most non-climbers, so I saw many improvised alternatives in the years that the school used this climbing venue.

While the first three photos were taken between 1974 and 1976, this one was taken after 1981. I know this because it is a shot of me crossing the eighth and final waterfall in the traverse of Luk Wu Ravine, which I didn’t discover until that year. It is straightforward under normal conditions, such as are depicted in the photo, but in flood conditions the traverse is potentially very dangerous and should be tackled only by people who know what they’re doing. Ropes are essential.

I used to attach a rope sling to the tree root above and right of my right hand to assist those students who weren’t tall enough to keep hold of the root and get their foot onto the big foothold where my right foot is in the photo. However, on a course that I ran for the American International School, several students decided to ignore my briefing. In turn, they grabbed the sling with both hands and launched gung-ho into space. At the end of the swing, they had no option but to let go and thus drop into the pool below the waterfall. I recall that I found it difficult to conceal my amusement.


  1. Good grief Dennis, this is pure madness to me. Hanging off cliffs, jumping across rocks and dangling on rocks with river running in between your legs. You have surely lived a life of adventure and I admire you for that. I wouldn't jump that rock for a million pounds.

    It must be such a joy to look back at those old photos remembering what you did back in the day. The pictures are clear enough for me, and any enhancement would only serve to make my heart beat faster.

    1. You’re quite right Rum. It’s great to have such reminders of that period in my life. Giving people copies of photos you’ve taken is a long-established custom in Hong Kong, perhaps because photo-processing was always ridiculously cheap. I would do it all again now too, apart from the jump, which wouldn’t be good for my knee.

  2. Hi Dennis! No need to apologize for those photos. They are fantastic. I think this post tells us that you've always had an adventurous side to you. Great post!

    I went through an Outward Bound program many years ago in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California. I've always been a pretty physical person, but I did some things there that really surprised me.

    1. Hi Pat. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m sure that some of the stuff we did back then wouldn’t be permitted by modern safety boards, but I had a reputation for pushing students beyond their self-imposed limits. That was always the traditional Outward Bound philosophy, but it’s become more touchy-feely in recent decades. I’ve been thinking about writing about some of my experiences in Outward Bound while I'm in the UK this summer.

  3. Great photos, Dennis. The one of the leap reminds me of scenes from my favorite cowboy movies when I was a kid. I think a good alternative career for you might've been as a Hollywood stunt man.

    1. Thanks Marty. Although some of my strongest memories are of times when I didn’t have a camera, I think that I’d have forgotten these incidents if I didn’t have these photos.


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