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Breakthrough in Mulu


Staff member
My final story from Mulu. In two parts :)

The climb

This is a story more about a climb than a cave. However, the intention was to discover caverns measureless to man. So how did that turn out?

It was back in 2015 that others, not me, first recorded a cave entrance high in the cliffs on the south east corner of Gunung Benarat. Attempts at that time to reach it were unsuccessful due to the verticality of the cliffs. A photo of the entrance was taken from the other side of the gorge, nearly a kilometre away, which had everyone convinced that the chances of discovering a major cave was high. Adding fuel to this conviction was the discovery near the base of the cliff, directly below, of a strongly draughting choked entrance. A sign, it was thought, that something big must lie behind this part of the mountain.


Photo taken from the 2015 report showing the cave from the other side of the Melinau Gorge. We would attempt to climb the clean cliffs to the left. All attempts amongst the trees below had ended with bad rock.


A telephoto from the other side of the gorge. The X marks the approximate spot previous attempts had reached.

A major attempt to reach the entrance was made during the 2020 expedition. In fact, two members of the team spent nearly their entire expedition on the project. This ultimately failed as well but much was learned on how best to approach the climb. The problem was that the only known route to the base of that cliff was via the river which involved a paddle and a wade in swift water that involved 13 river crossings. This was a glorious route when water levels were low but impossible to life threatening when the river flooded. From the river it was then a very steep slog up a gully and forest covered screes to the base of the cliff. Much time was spent trying to find an overland, all weather route, to the same place but this was never achieved. On the one trip in 2020, when I accompanied the climbers as an observer, the need for this all-weather route became obvious. As the climbing floundered on loose rock the rain started to fall. It soon became a free-for-all back down the river before a flood pulse washed us away - or forced us into a night clinging to a tree or rock ledge. We made it back only half an hour before the pulse came.

With all the effort that had already gone into reaching this cave it became impossible to ignore and so it was made a major objective of the Benarat 2024 expedition. My plan was that others would do it and Mark, Will and Frank seemed keen to take it on. They had a couple of attempts at cutting a new track on the north side of the river but found themselves in difficult ground. An attempt up the river proved the level was too high when they were washed off their feet at one of the crossings. Then Mark received news from home which meant he had to return without delay. That left the Corner cave team, as it was known, short of a climber. So, as someone with the right skills, I reluctantly became involved.

The first thing to do was to find that dry route to the cave. However, just finding any route there would do to start off with so with river levels down, me, Will and Frank set off up the gorge on day seven of the expedition. It is a fabulous route in the right conditions. The crystal clear, fast flowing river is a beauty. The forest hangs thickly to the sides and overhead, sunbeams abound, and it offers the largest space around, so makes such a pleasant change to our other walks amongst thick forest.


Starting up the gorge with river levels very low.


One of many crossings. Great fun in these conditions.


Sticks are essential in the faster flowing water.

The first kilometre is on a flat track right alongside the water. Then small cliffs pinch in from the sides and the rest of the route zigzags in the river itself. There are 13 river crossings where the main flow must be crossed, usually directly above sections of rapids. Then on a notable bend in the river you strike off due north, up a gully at first, then up steep screes directly to the bottom of the cliff. On this day I cut track and we arrived just below the draughting cave – spot on. A cairn, built in 2020, was still obvious. The previous climbing attempts had all taken place on the righthand side of a cleft which scars the face all the way up to the entrance. These had floundered on bad, dangerous rock. I had a hunch that the lefthand side would present solid rock as this was above the rising cleft and it was not my first experience of a climb up to an entrance in the gorge. Consequently, we found a ‘viewing platform’ on this side where we would start the climb from. There was a strip of clear rock leading up to three consecutive overhangs which all looked passable to the side. That would be the challenge for another day.

Before we left I climbed up into the choked entrance to look at the prospects there. It took a very tricky manoeuvre from a tree to swing into the rift perched just 8m off the ground. Lying inside there was a twisted up sling and snaplink karabiner and it awoke a forgotten memory of losing it on my other trip there four years ago. Back then, I realised, I had dropped it but was not prepared to risk the dodgy climb again just to recover a sling and krab. Now I had. Inside the entrance it was standing height and narrow, but barely 2m long before a complete choke. However, the rocks were clean and all of a manageable size and digging prospects looked excellent – well if we were back home they did. I joked with Will that we should sack off the climb and go get some crowbars.

The next day Will was already committed to another trip so I took on the job of finding a dry route to the foot of the cliff. For this I had already recruited Jimmy and Jarah a father and son team from the Penan village down river. Jimmy was a young, modern Penan but his dad was definitely old school Penan still in tune with hunting and gathering. The only way I could brief Jimmy on where I wanted to go was to direct him towards the prominent prow in the upper cliff line. He translated this to Jarah and we set off early. I took a radio to test comms back to our camp 5 base and a GPS to track our…er…track. Jarah led the way and I took the opportunity to slow Jimmy down with a bag containing 100m of rope and 25 hangers and krabs. It certainly didn’t slow him down at all and we were soon setting a brisk pace. We crossed the bridge and Jarah stayed close to the river at first, then, as we reached the rising ground he headed up on a rising traverse. I could see we were following a very feint track, but in several places it was destroyed by tree fall. I sensed this was a track that would lead us right around Benarat, a route I had taken once many years ago. We happened upon an old hunting camp where just the roof pole of the shelter remained. I was looking out for our track from the day before as we were certain to have to cross it. Sure enough, we crossed a gulley shortly after the camp and there were our blazes heading up the hill.


The hunting camp with Jimmy in the background. The horizontal stick is the ridge pole.

We followed it to the top and found the cairn. It had taken just two hours. I tested the radio and made contact with camp 5. After a rest, we set off back leaving the bag of gear on the viewing platform. Jarah cut a new, shorter track back to the hunting camp and from there we followed our same route all the way back. We both marked this track heavily so we could follow it in all conditions. Every few metres of the route you need to be able to see either saplings cut and bent over, blazes on trees, upturned leaves or chops on fallen logs otherwise it is very, very easy to lose the way. The golden rule is never to lose the track. If you can’t see the next mark, go back until you do and search from there for the next one. Never, ever just blunder on in the hope you’ll find it again. That is how to get completely lost.


Jimmy and Jarah at the base of the cliff where we will start the climb. Cairn from 2020 in the foreground.


Great write-up, Tim, it all comes flooding back! ;) Looking forward to the next episode!
p.s. I tend to agree that digging the lower cave might be worth a go, it was quite tempting at the time!


Here are a couple of snaps from the river tramp - Will and Tim and then Tim with the Benarat cliff and the Corner Cave up above in the too bright sunshine.


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Staff member
A rest day followed and then it was me and Will off to the climb. It probably only took an hour and a half’s fast walk to get there but then it was at least another half an hour to cool down enough to do anything. I stepped up for the first stint and loaded up with drill, hangers and rope. We were using HKD drop ins which require a short 10mm hole and a setting tool to fix. We were also self-lining with a shunt. I’ve done a lot of aid climbing like this and it is my preferred method. Will, as an IRATA level 3, as well as an experienced caver seemed happy with the system.

I placed 20 anchors. With each one I gained about 1.2m in height. I tied off the rope and abseiled down recovering all the hangers on the way down. As the climb headed slightly over to the right I had to leave one hanger in for a deviation otherwise we would land in the trees below. Will swopped with me and set off up. After another rack of bolts had been placed he came down dripping in sweat.


Will on the face, taking over from me after my first stint.

I went back up for one last stint. The heat was now incredible. Not just from the direct sunshine but the ambient heat radiating from the rock. It was like bolting in an oven. Will had got up past a tree which offered a little bit of shade but then it was back on the hot, bare face. I didn’t last long. Five more bolts and I was cooked. We headed back to camp pleased with progress. We must have gained 50m up the cliff and were already level with the second overhang. On our way back we startled a large beasty. It startled us too. It moved so fast it was impossible to identify what it was other than a noisy, blurred streak of grey.

Next morning walking to the entrance we disturbed it again, at almost the same place. This time we could see what it was – a great big monitor lizard. Scared the hee bee gee bees out of me as I nearly trod on it.

We still didn’t really know where the entrance was in relation to our climb. You couldn’t see anything from the face. Frank volunteered to walk up the south side of the gorge and see if he could find a viewing spot through the thick forest where he could see us. When me and Will got to the bottom of the climb it was already too hot. Luckily for me it was Will’s turn first so I could sit and try to reach a body equilibrium. He was gone for a good two hours. In that time I sat on the leafy ledge. It would have been nice to have a snooze but the forest has other ideas. There is a constant buzzing from the dozens of bugs and bees which surround you, mainly attracted by sweat it would seem. You are investigated endlessly by a constant stream of big ants and other weird bugs. There are some more pleasant things to watch. Butterflies flitting around and we seemed to be located under the favourite perches of a number of hornbills. They squawk and chatter and fly overhead like Lancaster bombers. That and snacking passes the time. Frank, somewhere on the other side of the gorge comes on the radio every now and then but he can’t find anywhere to get a good view.


A selfie I'm afraid, showing the fine view.

Will comes down. He’s had quite a battle. The wall is steeper with dodgy rock over to the right which unfortunately is where we want to go. I head up with a new rack of gear. I also take my camera phone and parang (local bush knife) to make the way past the tree easier. It takes quite a while to prussic to the last bolt. It’s hot, slippery and difficult to stay out of the vegetation. Will’s high point is level with the big overhang but we are to the side of it so it is only a small step out and then vertical above. I sense that we really need to be over to the right more but I have to go vertically up to a vague line of trees which will hopefully allow us to traverse that way. It is a long way up but there is a good view at least – you don’t get many views in the forest. The bolting is more strenuous and the distance between some moves is reduced to barely half a metre. Just one move below my target tree, where it looks like we can traverse rightwards at last, I run out of bolts. I take a few snaps and some video. It hasn’t rained here but you can see thick cloud and hear a rumble of thunder over Mount Mulu some distance away. I do a bit of rerigging and head down to join Will and we trek back to camp. As the track levels out it comes very close to the river. It looks so inviting and we discuss plunging in. The track moves away from the river into the forest and after a few meanders around obstacles it is back alongside it again. Only now, in those ten minutes, it has turned into a violent raging brown torrent. Without warning a flood pulse has arrived from higher up the catchment. Sure glad we didn’t go for that swim.

Our study of ‘the’ photograph, published in the 2015 report, suggests we are at the right height but too far over to the left. A traverse from our high point makes sense, so we are back at the cliff the very next day armed with more rope and fixings. Just as we arrive at cliff base the heavens open and it pours down. There is nothing to do but soak it up and hope it is over soon. We both sit in silence with a tackle bag on our heads waiting for it to stop. After half an hour it does and Will heads up.


We sit out the rain with a tackle bag on our heads. Will says it all.

There are small streams now running off the overhangs and the rock on the face has become as slippery as ice now that the algae has become soaked. This is definitely type two fun now.

A long while passes before I hear the distant sound of the drill. Will must be 80m above me now as I know there is not much left of the 100m rope we started the climb with. Frank has headed up the gorge again and makes contact with me on the radio. He has found a gap in the trees and can see Will. He is 20m away from the entrance directly to his right. I head up with more rope and all the remaining gear we might need. I’m sure it is going to be easier to pass Will somewhere on the traverse. It is a horrible slippery climb and takes me an age. I eventually get to the high point and pull up behind the tree. Will is out of sight around a buttress but he shouts to say he is out of rope and coming back.

I sit there taking it all in, chatting to Frank on the radio. I get him to put his light on and amazingly we can both see it in a dark gap in the forest way over on the other side of the gorge. Will appears around the buttress and we manage to pass at the tree. I head to the front. The buttress is a swine, dropping down and around, then up on the other side. There is then an ascending ledge of vegetation to the end of the rope at the top. Will has removed a couple of the hangers from the ledge so a good tension and balance is needed to avoid being thrown over the edge. I get the parang out again to chop some of the vegetation back making sure the rope is well out of the way!


More great views. Will rounding the buttress with cloud covered Gunung Mulu in the background.

I tie on a new 25m rope and descend a shallow series of vegetated steps. A few bolts are needed but it’s pretty easy compared to what has gone before. There is a final spongey ‘step’ and I am at the edge of a drop into what must be the cave. The rope is gone, all bar a few metres, so there is no chance of getting down. I place a final bolt for a good hang and swing out for a look. It undercuts below and is maybe 15m to the floor of a gulley that then heads up into what might be a cave. There are lots of hanging stal, like dragons teeth, with black spaces behind them. I can’t see any of the leaves from the creepers moving which suggest a lack of a draught. That’s worrying, but it will still need checking out. I head back to where I tied on the new rope and bag up the gear just as the rain starts to pour. It is quite an experience and I take a quick video. Getting back around the buttress is bloody awful, not because of the rain particularly, it is just a really difficult bit of rock. I rejoin Will at the bottom and we trudge back to camp without further ado. In the rain, it is pleasantly cool for a change, however, it has brought the leeches out and by the time we are back at camp, two of them have had a good feed on my belly and back and I’ve removed another couple of hopefuls from my tracky bottoms. No one likes leeches but you’ve got to admire their sneakiness and determination.

It has been three solid days climbing on the face and time for a rest day. I wonder how Leo Houlding, the famous climber, got on when he put up a route on the Benarat cliffs a few years ago. He can’t have found it easy either. There is no internet or phone signal in the gorge so I can’t Google up his story but I make a note to do so when I get home. I wonder if the leeches found him up there in his porter ledge?


Staff member
What with the track cutting, rest days and three days climbing it has already been a week of effort. Not to mention all that went on before I got involved. I hope it has all been worth it. Today we will find out. Will goes up first and I follow a short while later. He has another 60m rope to tie on. By the time I get to the overhanging drop Will is already down. He has managed to grab a tree branch and swing over to the other side of the gully. He gets a bolt in and makes a bit of progress upwards and then traverses into the gully and free climbs up to the top where we hope a cave will be. He disappears before coming back to shout that there are three ways on, all small, but I should come down for a look.


The entrance at last. Great spot. Shame about the cave.

I follow. Will has used all of the 60m rope getting up to the top of the gully. He has already been to the end of the best looking route and that closed up. I look at the two higher routes, both flat out. They close up with the only point of interest a solitary bat hanging from the ceiling. So there we have it. Nothing more than an alcove after all. Will derigs the gully and the traverse and then I pull down the ropes in four sections. Nothing gets stuck, despite the trees and veg, at least we are fortunate in that. The climb took 185m of rope in all. Our bags are packed full, loaded on top and very heavy for the long walk back.

That’s it, a big disappointment, but them’s the breaks. At least we now know and it puts an end to nine years of speculation.

Many thanks to Spanset Ltd for providing the expedition with 550m of rope for free. This was used on the climb and elsewhere during the expedition and remains in the Mulu Project Store at HQ for future expeditions to use.


Some Spanset rope heading up the face. This is the last vertical section before the traverse.


Great story, Badlad, and excellent effort (another example of extreme alcoving in Mulu! ;)). Just been looking at my archive and found some photos of early attempts to get up into Corner 'Cave' - these may provide an idea and a bit of context of the epic efforts to reach this alcove - it's been a long time coming.

These are from 2015 - Hugh 'Darklord' St Lawrence, the instigator of the Corner Cave expeditions, along with other caving luminaries and Corner Cave adventurers - Matt Kirby, Louise Koorsgard and Cat Moody. Mainly river snaps though one of Cat and Hughie climbing up to the draughting slot in the joint / fault that holds the Corner Cave, way above.


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And here are some from the 2019 - 20 trip - another epic effort to reach our 'dream cave'. These are snaps in the river of more caving luminaries and legends: Mark Burkey, Di Arthurs, Rachel Findley, Dave Rose - and Tim was also part of this effort.


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And here are some of Dave and Rachel on the attempted climb up the vertical forest directly below - first attempted by Hugh and I in 2015.

Again, great climb by Tim and Will - and early push to get up there by Mark Wright.

Overall, a marvellous effort to scale a corner of paradise - days of wonder!


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Staff member
Second day of climbing, hot and sunny with fantastic views. At Will's high point before I start the final vertical section.

Third day of climbing finishes in the pouring rain. Half way back across the 'traverse'.

David Rose

Active member
Great account. What a pity so much effort has come to so little, but that's how it goes. I will remember my outings to this same objective with Franklin and others in 2020 with fondness. No caving, but many great conversations! And walking up and down the river was great - it carried a sense that here was a place that had not changed for many thousands of years.


I missed those amazing conversations, Dave. On the days I followed Tim and Will's climb from the other side of the gorge, I wound my solitary way to the gap in the trees - different gap each time as they keep growing - and kept my lonely watch. If you expand the snap attached you can see Tim (I think) to the left of the Corner Cave 'cleft' in an open groove. Communication via the radio tended to be brief ... no chance of a literary or philosophical natter! :censored:;)


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David Rose

Active member
Very impressive. I have to say, it does look like a cave... Of course Moose and Colin had a similar experience on the other side of the gorge.