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Climbing in Bukittinggi

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We were relieved to see the climbing wall. We had travelled for 9 hours across the width of Sumatra to the mountain town of Bukittinggi on the rumour of good climbing and it seemed we had come to the right place. Not only was there climbing in the surrounding countryside, but the town itself had swelled to bursting point with Indonesia’s finest young climbers, all hoping to do their best at a climbing competition with big money for the strong armed.

Almost without exception, climbers in Indonesia are excellent. Presumably they too go through a learning process, but it’s a mystery to me when or where this learning happens – all the climbers we met throughout Indonesia were great. Looking at 70 climbers attempting the same route up an artificial wall may not sound like fun to you, and frankly up until that point it had not sounded too interesting to me either. To our surprise, though, we thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon we spent watching the climbing competition, largely due to the awe-inspiring athletics of many of the competitors.

On our first morning, we set off around town to try and gather some information on the local climbing. With plenty of experience and all our own gear, all we really needed were some directions. This was to prove more difficult than we expected.

It is unusual to have to pay to climb outdoors. It goes against the grain for most climbers, and not just because we don’t like to spend money on anything except gear. Just as we feel we should be allowed to walk the hills for free, so we should be able to climb on any attractive vertical faces we find there. In Laos we had come up against a government bureaucracy who saw things differently. In Sumatra, though, it was just some guys trying to make a quick buck.

We had managed to track down a local climber in a café. Our difficulty lay in a basic conflict of interest. He ran an adventure tour company, which charged US$35 per person for a day’s climbing. As he saw it, we were ridiculously rich potential customers. Why would he give us information for free? After some debate, he proposed that we each pay him US$15 dollars. In return, he would organise a taxi for us to and from “his” crag.

We were in a quandary; we objected on principle to paying his extortionate fee when virtually nothing was being offered in return, but he had told us the locals would not let us climb without a guide. Given the circumstances, we didn’t take this threat too seriously, but we realised that we’d have difficulty even finding the climbing without someone to show us the way.

We weren’t the only ones in town with this dilemma. Richard, a New Zealander, had been the one non-Indonesian in the climbing competition and he was keen to cap off his success in reaching the finals with some exploits on real rock. Even more fanatical about his climbing than us, he was determined not to cut off his nose to spite his face. As we sat in another café, drinking fine Sumatran coffee and debating our options, I couldn’t help but notice a nearby customer sitting with his back to me. His “Cliffs Man” t-shirt may have looked unremarkable to the untrained eye, but I knew this shirt had come from a Thai climbing shop. Yet another climber in town – perhaps he knew more?

Luckily for us, he did. Like us, Andrea had arrived in town keen to check out the local crags. Unlike us, he had met a local climber who was happy to provide gear and transport for a reasonable price. Soon a deal was struck, and the next morning we headed to the village of Baso, 10km from Bukittinggi.

We walked through a small farm, past paddy fields and maize, with birds singing and colourful butterflies flitting around us. Picturesque but brief, it was the perfect walk-in, and we soon arrived at the base of the crag. It was a small crag, with only a few routes, and I quickly realised that very few of them were suitable for me.

Bolting a climb is expensive – the bolts themselves cost maybe US$10 a pop, and one climb might need 8 or more. A specialist drill is needed to fix the bolts, and the anchor at the top of each climb needs to be significantly more robust and backed up, since the climber will trust their life to it when they abseil down at the end of their climb. All in all, a route costs in and around $100 to set up safely.

Indonesian climbers have little money, and in their attempt to stretch their cash as far as possible, they had cut corners in ways that Caelen and I found alarming. They also have a very understandable desire to devote their energies and their limited resources on setting up tough routes that are interesting and challenging for themselves.

There was plenty in Baso for an enjoyable day’s climbing, but if we wanted more we would have to move on. Harau Valley National Park, 50km from Bukittinggi is an amazingly beautiful sheer-walled canyon with world-class climbing, for world-class climbers. Even Richard, a far, far better climber than us, could scale only a couple of the routes in the park. Caelen and I had to choose between admiring the scenery or humiliating ourselves in front of an enormous crowd who had assembled beside the so-called “easy” routes.

There are numerous climbing grading systems in the world, and Indonesia nominally uses the American system. We quickly realised that secretly they have a system all their own. Routes are either “easy”, for the semi-professional climber who trains continually, or “quite difficult”, by the same marker.

Thailand is known for the relatively easy grading of its climbs, and Malaysia aims for consistency with Thailand. Indonesia, on the other hand, prides itself on its reputation for hard climbing. So aside from the fact that there is little for the weaker climber, the climbs at all levels are deliberately undergraded, making everything harder than you expect it to be. Full of energy, you start up something that should be well within reach. Halfway up, you’re stuck. Have you lost all your skill and strength since you last climbed? Are you just having a really bad day? No, the route’s two grades harder than billed and if you’d known you’d never have started up it.

This is just one of the things that can make climbing in Indonesia a little depressing for an enthusiastic bumblee like myself. Bukittinggi has the potential to be a climbing paradise, but without improved safety standards and a wider range of climbs for all ability levels, its appeal is limited. We found that climbing in Sumatra had more than its fair share of irritation and disappointment, and while our egos may have been a little dented from time to time, it was the money-grabbing approach of some local climbers that left the sour taste in our mouths.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of a climbing competition in Bukittinggi Sumatra Indonesia Travelogues
Photograph of caelen preparing to climb in Harau valley Bukittinggi Sumatra Indonesia Travelogues
A competitor in the Bukittinggi competition

Caelen sorts the gear in front of a large crowd

Picture of Richard climbing in Harau valley Bukittinggi Sumatra Indonesia Travelogues
Photograph of Harau valley Bukittinggi Sumatra Indonesia Travelogues
Richard shows us how it's done

Barbara in Harau Valley

Picture of Harau canyon Bukittinggi Sumatra Indonesia Travelogues
Photograph of rooftops Bukittinggi Sumatra Indonesia Travelogues
Harau Canyon

The distinctive curved rooftops of West Sumatra