A surreal piece of mountain climbing, up a steep sandstone tower draped in jungle, where the handholds harbor deadly vipers and the line is often unprotected.
Noted rock climber Lightner and his climbing friend Volker “shared a passion for the sport of rock climbing, and the exploration of countries whose names we can’t correctly spell.” This had led them to a backwater’s backwater, a “virtually unknown jungle spire in a remote portion of the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo”: Batu Lawi. For the longest time, Batu Lawi was just a picture in a book without any accompanying information, a crazily steep pinnacle of rock and jungle. But Lightner managed to track it down with the help of an account by Tom Harrisson, who had been dropped into the region with a small team of men in 1944 to gather information for a planned invasion of the Japanese-held island. So fascinating did Lightner find Harrisson’s tale that he braids it, with alternating chapters, into the story of his climb. As Lightner goes about describing the natural, cultural, and political history of the area, along with all the personality and logistical conflicts that arise during the climb—not to mention the climb itself—he recounts the wildly improbable adventure of Harrisson’s drop into Borneo, where he was befriended by locals who declared him their rajah and followed him in guerrilla actions against the Japanese. While Harrisson’s story shimmers with a hero’s aura, Lightner’s is more earthbound, with endless bickering between him and the cameramen sent to document the climb (the price that came with financial backing), and all the minor annoyances that come with tropical mountaineering (like the fly that “lays eggs in your sinuses so that the larva have a food source—your brain”).
Lightner’s unadorned voice manages to keep both these incredible adventures very immediate and utterly affecting.