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The Last Climb in Borneo

Sometimes things are hardest right before you reach the finish line. Then you remember that it’s not actually the finish line, it’s just the halfway point. This is an account of my last climb in Malaysian Borneo, but I’ve got many more to come in the Ecuadorean Amazon.

There are times when it feels like the forest is doing things to you on purpose. Roots seem to jump out and grab you as you step over them, spiny rattan vines latch onto your clothes and rip holes in them as you try to pass, mosquitos and leeches find these holes and conveniently take advantage, and muddy hillsides try to convince you that bipedalism is overrated. Over the past couple months I’ve grown accustomed to most of these things, but on my last day of climbing it felt like the forest was once again working against me.

5:15am Alarm goes off. Snooze. What was I thinking?

5:24am Snooze.

5:33am Snooze. Clumsily reset alarm.

6:05am Wake up in a panic. I remember that didn’t have time to prep my climbing gear last night after a marathon day in the field. I put on my headlamp (the power at the station doesn’t come on until 7:00am) and go down to the lab building to inspect and pack all of my climbing gear for the day. 

7:00am The generators begin to rumble, the lights and fans come on, and breakfast is served. I have the same breakfast every day: fried noodles, an egg (fried or boiled, depending on the day), three chicken nuggets, orange juice, coffee.

I have the same breakfast every morning: coffee, juice from concentrate, fried noodles, and chicken nuggets. I already ate the egg.
I have the same breakfast every morning: coffee, juice from concentrate, fried noodles, and chicken nuggets. I already ate the egg.

8:15am Leave for the forest with two of the staff research assistants from the field station.

The staff field assistants at the research station helped me set up cameras all over the forest on the ground and in the trees. Bob (left) and Zeynden (middle) joined me most frequently.
The staff field assistants at the research station helped me set up cameras all over the forest on the ground and in the trees. Bob (left) and Zeynden (middle) joined me most frequently.

8:54am Arrive at tree. This is actually my second attempt at collecting these cameras. I came by yesterday and found that the string that I left in this tree was stuck, making it completely useless. I have to be able to pull the string from one end in order to get my rope into the tree. No matter how hard I pulled, I could not free this string. The only solution was to use my 8-foot-tall slingshot to shoot a little beanbag attached to a new string into the tree…without hitting the $1200 worth of research equipment I’d left up there several weeks earlier.

9:12am Begin to shooting in to the tree. My string immediately gets tangled.

I spend a shocking amount of my time arguing with string.
I spend a shocking amount of my time arguing with string.

9:28am String untangled. The understory vegetation left me with only a small hole to try to shoot through in order to reach even the lowest branches in this giant tree. I haven’t had to use my slingshot all that much so far, and my lack of practice shows.

I didn't actually think to take any photos during the hours I spent slingshotting, but here's a dramatic recreation of the scenario.
I didn’t actually think to take any photos during the hours I spent slingshotting, but here’s a dramatic recreation of the scenario.

10:30am Still shooting.

12:41pm Finally manage to get a string in the tree. Because of the height of the branches, I have to pull all the way down to the ground in order to get anywhere near the branch. In order to get a bit more leverage, I have to put the slingshot on top of a log and pull from well below. I ‘tapped’ a camera on one of my shots; I hope I didn’t destroy it.

12:52pm After getting the rope and performing my “bounce test” I start climbing. It takes about 25 minutes to reach the branch my rope is on (the lowest one, of course), but the cameras are still at least 20 feet above my head. I start throwing a new string to climb higher. More tangling, more untangling.

1:49pm Arrive at the first camera. The wind is picking up, which is a joy. The clouds are coming in; it is definitely going to rain soon. It occurs to me that perhaps the greatest tragedy of climbing alone is that no one is there to witness all of my greatest ninja moves as I move throughout the tree crown. I slam into a branch, which gives me a bruise on my shoulder that lasts a week. ‘Ninja’ may have been a bit generous.

I don’t have any photos of my ninja moves from this day (but trust me, they were amazing), but here’s one from another precarious climb in Panama in 2014. I probably should have taken a photo of my bruise; I obviously had plenty of time. Not thinking to take pictures of things that pertain to my blog posts has become one of my specialties this year.
I don’t have any photos of my ninja moves from this day (but trust me, they were amazing), but here’s one from another precarious climb in Panama in 2014. I probably should have taken a photo of my bruise; I obviously had plenty of time. Not thinking to take pictures of things that pertain to my blog posts has become one of my specialties this year.

2:55pm Arrive at second camera; remove the cameras; can hear thunder; starts drizzling as I begin descent; have to unrig everything I rigged to reach this point before I can start heading down I’m glad I we brought a lunch out into the forest, I’m not glad I left mine on the ground.

3:33pm My feet hit the ground and the downpour begins. Awesome.

4:32pm Heavier backpacks and rain make for slower walking, but we take a shortcut across the river. Waist-deep in the river I see lightning, because of course. As I scramble up the bank on the other side I get smacked in the face by a muddy branch.

4:45pm Return to field station, find a hitchhiker.

Instagram Screenshot
Follow me @mclean_ka to see photos of canopy animals and horrifying side effects of rainforest research.

7:30pm After I unpack, get cleaned up, and have dinner, I head to the lab building to review and back up the cameras. Nothing. This happens from time to time, it’s a reality of the work. But still…really? I also discover that the Health app on my phone does not register my ascent as ‘stairs climbed.’ This seems unfair.

The cameras automatically take photos at noon and midnight. It’s a useful feature that lets you know they are working properly throughout the deployment, but when that’s all you get it sort of feels like they’re mocking you.
The cameras automatically take photos at noon and midnight every day. It’s a useful feature that lets you know they are working properly throughout the deployment, but when that’s all you get it sort of feels like they’re mocking you.

9:30pm I go to sleep in protest.