Rock climbing on limestone (Photo: Chan Yuen Li)

Scaling Heights

Activity: Rock climbing

Interviewed: Chan Yuen-Li, adventure entrepreneur

(Photo: Climbing Batu Caves’ ‘Circumcision’ in the 1990s – pic courtesy of Chan Yuen Li)

YOU SEE them high up a vast, vertical limestone rock face. These are rock climbers: helmeted, harnessed and with ropes hanging off them like vines.

And while the uninitiated might experience sweaty palms just looking at them, these men and women up on the rock face feel something else. Veteran rock climber Chan Yuen Li describes it.

Chan describes how rock-climbers develop a relationship with rock.

In Malaysia, the sport has a small, passionate following, largely among urbanites. However, unknown to many, Malaysian karst is actually historically significant for rock climbing. 

According to Chan, a single tower karst called Bukit Takun, which is in Selangor, is where rock climbing started not only in Malaysia, but in South-east Asia.

This was in the late 1970s and it was here that the first-generation of Malaysian climbers started teaching the ropes (literally) to enthusiasts from neighbouring countries.

The sport then gained a foothold in countries like Singapore and Thailand.

“The tower karsts are a beacon that attracted the attention of climbers,” says Chan.

This is because these stark blocks rising from the flat ground, tend to be relatively free of vegetation compared to other types of rock massifs. This makes them ideal for climbing.

Moreover, exposed limestone is more abundant and accessible to the sport’s urbanite enthusiasts. In addition, the physical nature of karst makes it special.

The challenges of rock-climbing are not only physical, explains Chan.

Chan did the first ascent of many climbing routes like ‘Circumcision’ on Batu Caves 30 years ago. Today, Batu Caves is the main rock climbing destination in the country.

“It really is a world-class destination with more than enough high quality climbing routes to keep climbers of all skills and abilities well satisfied for the duration of their climbing career,” says Chan.

Nonetheless, Bukit Takun remains special.

Chan appreciates the uniqueness of Bukit Takun.

Chan believes rock climbing supports the conservation of karst ecosystems in several ways. 

For one, the government can be convinced to conserve karst if the economic benefits from recreation and tourism are evident, likewise, the social and health benefits.

However, there is another less logical aspect.

Chan recalls exposing rock-climbing to a “sullen teenager”

The emotional and connective experience that is rock climbing makes karst much more than the climbers’ playground. It is what is crucial to conserving it.


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