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A captivating, utterly original combination of travel adventure memoir and historical re-creation, All Elevations Unknown charts Lightner’s exhilarating and at times harrowing quest to ascend the mountain Batu Lawi in the face of leeches, vipers, and sweat bees, and to keep his team together in one of the earth’s most treacherous uncharted pockets. Along the way, he reconstructs a fascinating historical narrative that chronicles Tom Harrisson’s adventures there during the war and illuminates an astonishing piece of forgotten World War II history. Rife with suspense and vivid detail, the two intertwining tales open up the island of Borneo, its people, and its history in a powerful, unforgettable way, taking adventure writing to new heights.
FOR SOME REASON which I will never bother to ascertain, European phones make different noises when you call them compared to American phones. I sat in my office and listened as bleeps and honks came over the Atlantic in pairs, waiting for my German friend Volker to pick up his end. It was seven o'clock in the evening at my home in Wyoming, but some ungodly hour in Germany, so Volk was taking a while to answer. I had important news that couldn't wait, and since he is a doctor he would have to answer the phone. For all he knew I might be a sick person needing a bleeding or something. Suddenly the honks stopped.
"What?" He said in a startled tone.
"You can't answer the phone that way," I replied. "How do you know I don't have a bratwurst stuck in my larynx or something?"
"I know because if this were a medical emergency, my handy would be ringing." He paused long enough for me to remember that a "handy" is what people in civilized countries call a cellular phone. "Only you call me at three a.m. on this number."
"Well, you should be more polite," I responded. "Project Misty Mountain has just cleared its biggest hurdle."
"You found The Tower?"
"Yes I did," I replied. "Now suck up to me for a bit or I won't tell you where the thing is."
Volker Schoeffl and I had originally met while on independent climbing trips to the coastal rock spires of Pha Nga Bay in southern Thailand. Volker had been there a month before my climbing partner, Mark Newcomb, and I arrived. He had established a number of climbs on the steep limestone pinnacles with his brother Gerd and another German mountaineer named Frank Dicker, but had just sent Gerd home with a medical emergency. While they were climbing a three-hundred-foot vertical wall on a remote island, a small stalactite had detached seventy feet above Gerd and speared him through the kneecap. Volker was only in his first year of medical school, but even Germans have the education to realize that a twelve-pound chunk of limestone through the femur is a bit of a handicap, so he shipped Gerd off to be pieced back together, minus the extra geology, in Frankfurt. Mark and I stumbled onto him and Frank just days afterward, and we all wound up climbing together for the next few weeks. Meanwhile, orthopedic surgeons, clean linen, and probably a geologist helped Gerd to recover nicely, and I was later introduced to him while visiting Volk in Germany. The three of us have since traveled across the US and Europe, through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Laos, and the Philippines, all in a quest for good rock climbing in places that were exotic and unexplored by most of the world's climbers. Our shared passion for the sport of rock climbing, and the exploration of countries whose names we can't correctly spell, had made the late-night phone calls excusable, if not expected.
"So where is the mountain?" Volk was now decidedly more energetic. He went on, "Wait, are you still in Malaysia?"
"No, I'm back in Wyoming," I said. "Now go get a map." He dropped the phone and went off searching. I could hear this and that being thrown around as he cursed in German, and it occurred to me how amazing it was that Volker could slip back and forth between languages. He spoke English fluently, which was a good thing since my German was barely sufficient for ordering a beer. When we were off traveling together he made a constant game of correcting me in my mother tongue. It is embarrassing to have a foreigner correct you in your own language, but it was something I had to get used to when socializing with an overachieving German.
Volker had been somewhat of a child prodigy on the twelve-string guitar, and he and Gerd, who was a pianist, used to entertain at parties by playing their instruments in classical duets. They were eleven and nine years old at the time. Volker gave up the guitar but went on to medical school and got his degree, with honors, in the standard amount of time. The difference between him and his peers was that during his Western education he spent a year studying in Sri Lanka and China, surviving a nasty civil war and a bout with malaria and getting a degree in the Eastern art of acupuncture. He simultaneously received his doctorate in medicine in Germany, then went on to do an internship in an emergency room in Johannesburg, South Africa. These days he is a doctor at a sports-medicine clinic in Bavaria, nationally ranked in sport climbing, and an odd glint in many a beautiful woman's eye.
"I found a map of Malaysia and Borneo," he said when he returned to the phone, "but it's not very detailed."
"Then you won't find our mountain on there," I said. "To be honest, I haven't been able to locate it on any map yet, but I'm pretty sure I know where it is. Just look for Brunei, then look south to the Malaysian border. Right there is the Mulu region, where Gunung Benerat is. Just south of that, on the Indonesian border, are the Kelabit Highlands. The peak is one of the higher elevation points somewhere in there."
"How do you know?" he asked. "And how big is it?" He was mumbling in a way that told me he was actually focusing on the map.
"No two maps give the same altitude, but it's big enough that the Kelabit, the locals, have legends about it," I replied. We knew from experience that this was a good sign. Every major geologic anomaly, from Devils Tower in Wyoming to Mount Everest in Tibet, is the focus of legend by its local inhabitants. Volker and I had discussed this fact on numerous trips and eventually decided that there was a general mountaineering rule that could be applied: anything the locals have designated worthy of worship, a climber will, too (though services will generally be held in a different manner).
Volker and I, like so many of our peers, had been completely enamored with the sport of rock climbing since our first attempts at it in childhood. We had both grown up in the mountains and as a result had all the basics of the sport down by the time we were out of high school. As eighteen-year-olds, newly blessed with the freedom to decide what to do with our lives, we each made it a priority to visit all of the world's best and most popular climbing areas. Places like Yosemite, Canyonlands in southeastern Utah, southern France, and northern Greece had all been featured on our quests, and to date we had decided that the best climbing could be found in southern Thailand and central Germany. However, we had not seen everything. Not by a long shot. And so the search continued.
Though climbing has always been the guiding light on our excursions, the process of travel itself has become a strong rival. In an effort to alleviate the hateful spells of boredom that settled in on the days when we needed to rest from climbing, we began to travel to places where the culture, the history, and the natural beauty of an area were themselves our rest-day entertainment. Eventually this evolved into a kind of objective-oriented climbing trip. Reflecting on those trips, one might easily confuse our exploring with a masochistic desire to get lost, sick, or shot in the developing world. But those are the costs associated with exploring, just as tendinitis and fatigue are the costs of difficult climbing, and had we not endured those pains we would certainly not have seen so many of the world's wonders.
For example, if we wanted to see a city or place, such as the Forbidden City in China or the Kruger Game Preserve in South Africa, we'd page through geologic atlases and old travel guides in an effort to find photographs of interesting rock formations. In some cases, as with our trip to Cambodia, the idea that we just might go climbing drew us to the ruins of Angkor Wat, an eleven-hundred-year-old temple complex that is one of mankind's greatest architectural achievements. This approach to the sport of climbing had given us the opportunity to ride camels in the Sahara, trek the high plateaus of Xinjiang (Sinkiang) in western China, and even scuba dive deepwater reefs in the Indian Ocean. It had also opened our eyes to some of Earth's wildest geologic formations, the most striking being a phallic-shaped spire we had come across in an old French atlas. The caption beneath the black-and-white photo merely read "Mount Lawit, Borneo." Shrouded in wisps of water vapor, the sides of the spire were perfectly sheer, its summit barely piercing a ceiling of clouds. The mountain's height, location, rock type, and even the angle of the ridge that had faced the photographer could not be ascertained from the grainy photo, but it was a wild-looking peak that called to us like a Siren. With one glimpse, Volker and I decided that even though further research was called for, we would someday climb the shadowy tower. To keep it a secret from our climbing peers who might get their own ideas about the mountain should they hear us speak of it, we code-named our search Project Misty Mountain.
"As best as I can figure," I continued, "the peak is in the most remote part of the Kelabit Highlands. I don't think you could get any farther from civilization without working for NASA." I could hear him rummaging around, paging through a book, trying to find a map that would reveal the peak's location. At this point I had done far more research on the mountain than Volk and had all of the same maps, so I knew he wasn't going to find it. I could almost feel his frustration through the phone line. Finally I said, "You're gonna have to accept that it isn't on a map."
"Fine," Volker responded. "But is there something I can read about this mountain that will tell me what you seem to know? I'd love to talk about it all night, but I just got off a twenty-four-hour emergency room shift and I'm absolutely smashed."
"I've found only one book, but you're going to have a hard time locating it," I replied. "It's called World Within, and it's about this British guy named Tom Harrisson. The last printing was in 1958, as far as I can tell." I paused a moment to flip through a few of the first pages, dropping the phone in the process, then dropping the book and losing my page when I stooped to retrieve the phone. "Apparently, this guy Harrisson was dropped near the mountain during World War II. I've only just begun reading the book, but it appears that there are some large peaks in the Highlands."
"So why do you think we should assume the mountain is there?" Volker asked.
"Well," I began, "for a couple of reasons. The first is that we've looked everywhere else and there are no mountain ranges left in Borneo. The second is that there is a description of a peak in World Within that sounds similar to what we saw in that photo. I also remember just getting an impression from people, when I was in Malaysia, that the Kelabit Highlands was our place. I think this has to be it." There was a pause, and I could almost see the synapses firing in Volker's mind.
"I'm going to try to find some sources on these Kelabit Highlands in the morning. Let's talk in the afternoon," Volk said.
"Okay," I agreed, and hung up the phone.
I felt bad for Volker. I knew he wanted to learn every tidbit of information about the mountain, but there was no way I could go into all the details that made me realize we had found the peak. I had now made three trips to Borneo that involved climbing and general exploring, and on each of them I had asked people about the mysterious mountain. On the first trip I had wanted to explore a region where the peak Gunung Lawit, the name given to our spire in the old French atlas, was said to be. I had flown into the town of Kuching, then caught a boat up the Rajang River. The Rajang is enormous, big enough to let oceangoing container ships sail through its delta to gather millions of tons of hardwood timber. In places it is almost a mile wide. Twenty years ago the water flowed as clear as any mountain stream in Wyoming, but the rains that feed it are now washing away large amounts of soil as logging tears away the trees that hold the earth in place. I traveled up the Rajang as far as Song, a one-street town so small that a one-legged penguin could walk its perimeter in five minutes and see a few things twice. I spent a day there watching a wedding, then watching the bride and groom cruise back and forth on the town's hundred-yard-long street in a Daihatsu minicar. The next day I left with a guide, moving up the clear waters of the Katibas, a tributary of the Rajang that flowed out of the untrammeled slopes of the Malaysian/Indonesian border. It was there that Gunung Lawit lay, and I spent a week or so approaching its base only to discover once I got close that it was not our Misty Mountain. The French geographer had misnamed our spire in the atlas.
I returned to Borneo the following year with a friend, this time traveling in the northern province of Sabah. While there we climbed Gunung Kinabalu, a 13,450-foot peak that reaches its summit less than fifty miles from the island's north coast. Kinabalu is a relatively young granite mountain, perhaps only a few million years old, and though it rises steeply and has some enormous walls to its credit, it was not as stately or proud as the mist-shrouded spire in the photograph. A trail complete with ladders and marked signs runs all the way to its crest, and there are guest houses to stay in along the way. My friend and I spent a few days climbing near the summit, then retreated out of the intense tropical sun that frequently traded places with monsoon downpours and visited an orangutan rehabilitation center. We never found the spire.
I had all but given up, although the mountain remained in the back of my mind on my third trip when I went to Mulu National Park to investigate the climbing prospects of another mountain, Gunung Benerat. Benerat had never been climbed, and after numerous days in the jungle I found what I thought was its most promising line of ascent. Numerous parties had attempted to ascend the mountain by way of its lowest angle slopes, all failing miserably and running from Mulu's jungle in fear of snakes, disease, and horrible swarms of ground hornets. They most likely had good reason to run, but it sounded to me as if they had approached the mountain from the wrong direction. I reasoned that Volker and I would want to climb the mountain via its steepest possible line, avoiding the jungle and the karst limestone slots that crisscrossed the peak like crevasses in a Himalayan glacier. While I was there I described the Misty Mountain to my guide, Jacob, a local from a nearby village who had spent much of his life traipsing through the jungles of northern Borneo. He thought he knew what peak I was talking about and directed my search toward the Kelabit Highlands and a lone tower that stood above the headwaters of the Limbang River. He said that the locals called the mountain Batu Lawi, and that it held some religious significance for them. He, like just about everyone else, had never been there or seen it up close, but had heard descriptions of the mountain that were very similar to mine.