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Ascent of Bukit Pagon on 2019-09-07

Climber: Eric Gilbertson

Date:Saturday, September 7, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Bukit Pagon
    Location:Malaysia/Brunei
    Elevation:6070 ft / 1850 m

Ascent Trip Report

Bukit Pagon (6,070ft)

Highpoint of Brunei

Eric and Serge

Sept 6-7, 2019



Link to full trip report and pictures.

Bukit Pagon is a peak on the southern tip of the country of Brunei, straddling the border with Malaysia. On the Brunei side is a vast expanse of virgin jungle off limits to all but scientists. On the Malaysia side, however, the jungle is open for logging, with roads reaching relatively close to the summit. 


Until roughly 2013 around 50 are thought to have climbed bukit pagon, all from the Malaysia side (according to Lyngve Skredes report from 2013 and his discussion with guide haddy). Active logging roads stretched from the town of Limbanf, Malaysia to points just southwest of the summit. Local guide Haddy had cut out a 2.5km trail through the jungle from the highest logging road to the summit approximately following the northwest ridge.


Sometime after 2013 the roads fell into disrepair and Haddy stopped leading trips. I was looking to climb bukit pagon in the summer of 2019, and emailed Haddy. However he said the roads were too bad and he had stopped guiding there. 


I was already planning to climb kinabalu, the Malaysia highpoint, and thought I would postpone bukit pagon until the roads got improved. 


Serge was able to join for the trip and suggested we look into bukit pagon in more depth, since it was so close to kinabalu. 


I was looking around at satellite images and noticed logging roads on the southeast side appeared to reach a point just 2.1km from the summit. But it was impossible to know their quality.


Then my friend Steven introduced me to the sentinel hub website with high quality daily free satellite images if the world. I zoomed in and the roads closest to the summit appeared browner and more distinct than in the old Google maps satellite photos. This seemed to indicate the roads were being driven, possibly in preparation for logging. 


Another useful data point was I found the mararap hot springs lodge on Google maps was located only 30 road km from the point closest to the summit. If the lodge was open that meant the road was driveable to least there. That meant a possible plan could be to rent a jeep and mountain bikes in kota kinabalu, then after climbing kinabalu we drive to at least the lodge, or farther if possible. From there we could mountain bike to the point 2km from the summit. That distance should be feasible to bushwhack. 


I found that a guided group runs 4x4 trips from the town of lawas to mararap lodge, which they said is a 2 hour drive this was consistent with the Google maps predicted time, which meant the Google time of 5 hours from kota kinabalu to the lodge was probably accurate. 


We still would need to somehow acquire mountain bikes, which would be critical if tyhe road were washed out just after the lodge. I emailed all the bike stores I could find in kota kinabalu and luckily the specialized store rented bikes for $20 per day. (No other stores rented bikes)


Going in from the southeast had the added advantage that we could start driving whenever we got off the trail from kinabalu and didn't need to cross any international borders. If we had tried to come from Limbang as all other ascents had, we'd either have to drive through Brunei or fly to Limbang from kota kinabalu. Either of those options would be less flexible, take more time, and have the disadvantage that we had been told the roads were not driveable and the route not being guided. 


The disadvantage of the southeast approach was that it had never been done before and would require bushwhacking instead of following an old trail to the summit. But the bushwhack would only be 2km, so seemed doable.


This all seemed like promising enough information that I rearranged my flights to give enough time to squeeze in bukit pagon between my kinabalu climb and my later trip to the Sri Lanka Highpoint. 


At this point in my research I had to leave for another expedition to Labrador, so passed the baton to Serge. Serge contacted the lodge via their Facebook page () and verified they were open and the road driveable. He reserved an SUV from the kota kinabalu airport and got flights to synchronize with my schedule. 


Serge also carefully created GPS tracks based on satellite images for our exact route on the logging roads and the bushwhack. This would be critical especially on the roads, which had many intersections with no signs. 


By Sept 5 we summitted kinabalu as planned and made it back to the Klagan hotel in kota kinabalu at 1pm. We took a taxi to the airport and picked up the SUV from europcar. 


Unfortunately it was 2wd and only had a donut spare tire, but that was the best we could find. (In hindsight I suspect rental places in town, not at the airport, would rent more hardcore vehicles). Luckily Serge had his international drivers permit since they required that.


We then drove to specialized and picked up two mountain bikes, a helmet (they just had one for rent), spare tubes, and a bike pump). We paid RM80 per day ($20) up front, plus RM200 deposit. We left the store at 3pm Thursday planning to return the bikes by 7pm Sunday. The store is closed Mondays. 


The store is in a mall complex and we next bought a bunch of food at a grocery store nearby and bought a big pizza for lunch. 


We took turns driving on good paved roads to Lawas. I was surprised we had to pass through an immigration checkpoint just outside town where they stamped our passports. We never left Malaysia, though, but it was 20km from the Brunei border. 


We topped off gas in town, then Serge took over for the start of the logging roads. Unfortunately it started raining hard. 


As we hit a few bumps kind of hard we started regretting not having a full size spare tire. By about 20km along the road the wheels could not gain traction up a long steep stretch. We pulled over, unable to continue. 


About that time a truck coming the other way pulled over and Serge went out to talk to them. He had to get in their truck to get out of the pouring rain.


It turned out the driver worked for the lodge and thought his brother might be able to drive us there the next morning. He said with the rain the only way to make it would be with high clearance, 4wd, and special mud tires. 


He told us to go to the pendara hotel in lawas and he would meet us there at 10pm to arrange the transport after he took care of some errands. 


This was great news. We figured a local would know which logging roads were open and have a vehicle capable if driving them. 


We made it back down and to the pendara hotel by 930pm but it was full. After calling around the receptionist found the nearby Mega Inn had space for $15 and she would send anyone looking for us over there.


At the mega inn we told the receptionist to call our room if someone came for us. We stayed up til 11pm but nobody came, so we fell asleep with uncertainty looming over whether we would get our summit. 


The next morning we went to The reception at 7am and the girl said sometime in the night the driver had come looking for us and left his number to call back.


We had the receptionist call, and the driver was in Limbang by then, but he gave us his brothers phone number. We called his brother, but it turned out he was busy and couldn't drive us. 


The receptionist offered to go next door to the restaurant and see if anyone wanted to make some money and give us a ride, but she couldn't find anyone. 


My next idea was to call up Merarap lodge. Surely they would be able to help arrange transportation. 


I found their number on their Facebook page (https://m.facebook.com/meraraphotspring/) and we got ahold of Tommy. He was in lawas and would come meet us at the hotel. 


Tommy arrived about 10 minutes later and we discussed our plan. We proposed if someone could drive us as far as possible friday and drop us off, we could bike the remainder to the start if the bushwhack, then meet the driver saturday evening either where he dropped us off or at the lodge. Then we could either ride back to lawas then or stag at the lodge if it was too late. 


Tommy had heard of bukit pagon and looked skeptical when he first heard our goal. Nobody had ever climbed it from that side and it would be difficult to navigate all the unmarked logging road intersections. Plus, the road wouldn't be passable the whole way, he said. But after we showed him our satellite images, detailed GPS route planned, and our mountain bikes he seemed more trusting that we were prepared. 


He made a few phone calls and said his friend Victor would come by in 30 minutes with a truck and could take us as planned. Price would be RM1000 total ($250). 


Tommy said there are places in town that rent 4x4 vehicles, but we thought it would increase our chances of success to have a local with knowledge of which roads were passable to be driving. Victor had lots of experience taking the logging roads to hunt in the jungle so would know exactly which roads were passable. (Note: I was not able to find any of these online so they may not have websites).


Tommy had a lot of experience driving those roads and told us we could likely make it to a washed out bridge that was about 5-10km from the end of our planned route. That was excellent news! We could certainly bike that distance to the start of the bushwhack. All the cards were beginning to fall back in our favor.


Surprisingly, Tommy said that two days earlier a Danish man had coincidentally called from kota kinabalu asking about bukit pagon. But the Danish man then decided instead to visit a park to see orangutans. I'm curious who the other climber is and what hid plans were. Hopefully this report helps him if he returns. 


Victor came with a hardcore truck with lots of clearance and big knobby mud tires. It looked capable of getting through very tough terrain. 


We pulled into the seri Malaysia hotel lot, which would be a safer place to leave our rental car, then loaded up the bikes and all our gear in the back of the truck. Victor tied the bikes down and we were rolling by 11am.


It had been a rollercoaster morning. 7am it looked like we wouldn't make it, then 8am that we would, then 9am that we wouldn't, then 11am we were sitting in the back of the truck cruising into the jungle. 


This time luckily it wasn't raining. There were actually quite a few vehicles on the road, and they were all trucks. I later learned the road continues from lawas all the way to the town of longbawan about 7 hours south, so this may explain some of the traffic. A few full logging trucks also passed heading north. 


Victor stopped to pick up some leche fruit at a roadside stand, then at 1230pm we stopped at another stand for lunch if fried plantains and durian.


Around 130pm we passed the turnoff for mararap lodge and the nearby Menangang  place (menangangplace.com, customer@menangangplace.com) which I bet could also arrange transportation. 


From here we carefully followed our progress on our GPS units as Victor expertly navigated the maze of logging roads to the agreed upon washout. It turned out he followed the exact route we had planned based on satellite images. Some stretches were incredibly steep, sustained, and muddy, and would have been impossible without 4wd, high clearance, and mud tires. Mud sprayed into the back sometimes and I ducked to avoid it.


By 2pm we reached a river with no bridge across. This was the spot Tommy said was as far as we could get. There was a mobile house nearby (a wooden building on mud skids that is towed in for workers to live). As we were unloading a friendly guy named Francis came out and said that there was on fact a way through the river, and we could drive up several more km. Francis was supervising work on a bridge that was supposed to be finished on November, and he was living on site. He said once the bridge was completed he expected the government to issue a loggijng permit and logging operations would start in the area. This is probably why the roads leading to the bridge were in such good shape, to prepare for logging operations. It seemed we had come at the perfect time, just before operations started, when the roads were in good shape, but the jungle was still untouched and nobody cared that we were in there. 


Victor was up for trying to get through, so we loaded back up. Francis hopped in the back with us and directed victor on the route. Because it was the dry season the river was low downstream of the bridge area. We drove into the river, then drove downstream a few hundred feet right in the middle of the river. Then we turned left onto a rough muddy track through the jungle that eventually met back up with the main road. 


We continued deeper into the jungle until we encountered a tree fallen over. Victor jumped out and cleared a path with his machete and we went a bit farther, but it turned out to be the wrong spur road. We returned to the tree, which was only about 2km from the end of our intended spur road. However, another small bridge was washed out here and that was definitely as far as the truck could get. 


Serge and I were thrilled. We had originally thought we might have to bike up to 30km starting from the lodge, but now it was only 2km! 


We unloaded and agreed on a pickup plan. Victor said he would spend the night at mararap lodge then meet us at that same drop off point starting at 1pm if the weather looked dry. If it was rainy he was worried about getting stuck, so would wait for us down at the big river crossing with Francis. We told him we would likely be back later in the afternoon but he was ok with that. 


By 3pm Victor and Francis were driving down and we were heading deeper into the jungle with our bikes and overnight gear. 


We pushed our bikes up the steep parts and rode the more level parts. We bushwhacked with the bikes through two overgrown washouts, then ditched them at a third washout. It seemed more efficient to just hike from there the short distance to owashout,


By 400pm we reached our waypoint for the start of our bushwhack. The road continued traversing a bit farther, but did not get any closer to the summit. We had briefly discussed starting up that evening and camping on route or even on the summit, but with only 2.5 hours of daylight left it seemed unlikely we could reach the summit. We instead decided to camp in the road, then start at sunrise the next morning. 


The summit was only 2.1km away line of sight, and in our previous bushwhacking experienced a rate of 1km was reasonable. So we conservatively estimated 3 hours up and 2 down for 5 hours round trip. From several topo maps (Google terrain, Gaia, peakbagger global topo) it looked like the southeast ridge of bukit pagon went from our camp to approximately the summit, and seemed like a reasonable route. The other option was to follow the main gulley left of this ridge. 


I walked along the road past camp until it dead ended at the creek in this gully. I saw a bunch of fallen trees in the creek, and was worried based on my experience with other steep-walled creeks that it would be clogged with deadfall and make for very slow going. The jungle at the base of the ridge looked reasonably open, and so we decided on the ridge route. Little did we know what hardship we were in for. 


We ate dinner of canned meat and bread and jumped in the tent at sunset when a heavy rain set in. 


Saturday morning we were up at 530 and moving at 6am. I led the way, initially following and old logging trail that eventually petered out. I then started up an increasingly steep and narrow knife edge ridge. The jungle got very dense at times, requiring pushing branches apart to squeeze through while doing pull ups with slippery footing. Many of the plants had very aggressive thorns that gripped our clothing very tightly and wouldn't let go. The only we to get loose was to spin in the opposite direction the thorns were angled. 


Sometimes the whole branch got stuck to my cheeks or forehead, and that took more care to extract myself. I really wish I had brought leather gloves, and my hands paid the price. Whenever I stumbled it was a tough call to catch myself on a branch that probably was full of thorns, or to just fall. 


Eventually after two hours we scrambled up to a local maximum. Here we first realized the topo lines on our map were not very accurate. That first ridge didn't even show up on the map, and we had just now reached the main ridge. 


We could see the summit in the distance, but it looked like two or three peaks between us and the summit. These did not show up on the map. We had only covered 600m, so were going much slower than anticipated. 


I still thought the ridge would be a simple route to navigate and would lead to the summit, so we stayed on the ridge.


We climbed down from the peak, then climbed up another peak and down, then up another and down. It was tough work with so much extra elevation gain through very steep and sense jungle. There had to be a better way. 


So we decided to instead traverse around all the intermediate peaks. The jungle was a bit less dense off the ridge, but this option had its own problems. Spur ridges extended from all the peaks, and it added a lot of distance to traverse around these. Also, quite often we encountered steep impassable cliffs that we had to go below or above. The ridge and the traverse were both hard and there was no clear best option. 


I decided to return to the ridge. At least there were occasional faint game trails there. Though I think the animals making them were short, since I still had to crawl under lots of branches.


By 1pm we were finally at the last col before gaining the south ridge of bukit pagon, about 500m line if sight from the summit. Just when I thought we had experienced the toughest terrain, we finally reached the technical crux of our route. 


The whole slope in front of us had slid off exposing a huge cliff. To go around would require bushwhacking very far down and around, which did not sound appealing. It looked like a 4th class route cut across to jungle to the right. This was the option I thought looked best. I would much rather scramble than do a bunch more bushwhacking. 


Serge liked  route on the left that had a bunch of bushes sticking out. In the end we split up but stayed within yelling distance.


I scrambled up to my preferred exit, but the branches to gain the jungle looked too sketchy. It was a no fall zone and I trusted the rock more than those branches.


There was a good hand crack above me, though, so it looked like I could just climb straight up the cliff and enter the jungle at some solid living trees. I did some solid hand and foot jams and soon wriggle into the jungle. The route was low 5th class and I knew without a rope I would need to take a safer bushwhacking route back on the return. 


I waited at the top of the cliff and eventually Serge caught up. By now we were 8 hours into the ascent that we had only thought would take 2 or 3 hours. We hadn't brought enough water and were both basically out. I had saved two swigs and Serge had zero. Serge said he was feeling like fainting from dehydration and there was talk of turning around. I was also dehydrated but still feeling ok.


However, with so much effort expended, and the summit only 300m away by then, I wasn't ready to turn around. I proposed Serge wait while I go for the summit. But we didn't want to not be able to find each other. The easiest place to be certain we met up would be on the south ridge, which was just above us. 


I led the way crawling over, under, and through dense growth to finally emerge on the ridge.


Amazingly I stumbled upon a trail! Not just a little animal trail but an actual human trail with machete marks to show it was maintained. The marks were years old, but the trail seemed like a super highway compared to what we had been through so far. I was certain this trail would lead to the summit. 


Even better, I found dozens of pitcher plants overflowing with water from the previous n8gjts rain. Our bushwhacking and water needs were taken care of all at once.


I yelled the good news down to Serge and he soon made it up. With the good fortune we were both energized to push on to the summit.


We filled a nalgene worth of water on the way up. It was kind of nasty looking with dead bugs and dirt in it, but we didn't complain. Our plan was to filter and purify it on the summit. 


We soon created a small peak and looked down at bukit pagon, the last peak on the ridge. Interestingly, bukit pagon clearly looked much shorter than the peak we were on. We noted our GPS elevation readings for future reference.


Past this peak the trail dropped steeply until it turned into a 20ft tall mud cliff. Luckily there were some sturdy roots we used to carefully lower ourselves down. 


By 3pm we at lasted crested the summit. There was no doubt we were on it, with the concrete block and 15ft tall metal pyramid structure. It had taken 9 hours to cover just 2.1km line of sight distance, though our net distance with the roundabout route was more like 6km. 


My first priority was water. I took off my shirt and first filtered the pitcher plant water through that to get rid of the bugs and dirt. Then i plopped in 2 aquatabs for 4x strength purification and set my timer for 30 min. Meanwhile we split my last two swigs of pure water.


We took pictures and I sent an inreach message from the top. By 330pm we carefully sipped the pitcher plant water, and when it tasted ok I started chugging it. 


We then started back on the trail, filling up, filtering, and treating another liter of pitcher plant water. 


Back at the next peak we verified that that summit is actually about 25m taller than the peak with the summit marker. This presents an interesting question. Is bukit pagon the name of the mountain,  or just the name of the subpeak to the north? I trust that the boundary marker was probably surveyed carefully enough that it is in the correct location, since it is an international border so pretty important. So that market is indeed on the highest point of land in Brunei. 


But it seems odd that a subpeak of a summit with only 30m of prominence would be named bukit pagon while the main summit, just 300m south with 902m of prominence would be unnamed. 


I think the most likely explanation is the taller peak is named bukit pagon and the summit marker is on a subpeak of bukit pagon. Thus, I would propose that the highpoint of Brunei is on a peak that could be called bukit pagon North, or something similar. 


I recall Lyngve Skredes report also noting that the peak south of the summit marker looked taller, and this is consistent with multiple topo maps of the area. 


We continued south from the highpoint until the trail petered out. For the rest of the return we certainly did not want to take the same route if at all possible. There were only 2.5 hours of daylight left and we really wanted to avoid bushwhacking in the dark (or worse, in the dark and rain).


We agreed going down the gully was worth a shot. At the very least we would soon reach a creek with better drinking water. And there would be no ups and downs like on the ridge, just down. 


I skirted well around the cliff and the jungle wad surprisingly open. The bushwhacking was considerably easier. 


As we descended more the gully got more defined and we started seeing pools of water. At the first running water we stopped to chug what we had left and fill up more. 


The jungle was open but it seemed like almost all the plants had vicious thorns on them. I kept getting stuck and cut up all over my body. Eventually I dropped into the creek, and the route got 10 times more pleasant. The creek wad actually very wide with few blowdowns. It felt like a casual hike compared to our ascent route. It reminded me of scrambling in the creek at anglin falls at home in Kentucky.


Occasionally we had to downclimb or bushwhack around waterfalls, but nothing was too difficult. Finally by 630pm, just at sunset, we arrived at the road and staggered back to camp. It had been a tough 12.5 hour round trip. Much more difficult than it would seem to get a peak 2.1km away. 


It would have been great to camp there, but we knew Victor was waiting and I didn't want him to worry about us. We quickly packed up and started down with our headlamps on. 


We soon reached the bikes and had a thrilling ride down in the dark. We soon made it to the drop off location, but Victor was not there. I figured he was worried about muddy roads from the heavy rain the previous night so was probably down at the river ad we agreed. 


We continued biking out. Unfortunately there were quite a few ups to bike, though mostly it was cruising down. By 815pm I reached the river, waded across, and saw Victor eating dinner with Francis next to a big fire. We were all relieved that everything had worked out.


Serge soon caught up and we ate a quick dinner. Francis boiled us some eggs and we split some bread and canned meat. Francis had a microphone and karaoke app on his phone and sang "hotel California" and some philipino songs whole we ate. 


Victor was eager to get back to lawas before the weather and roads deteriorated, so we loaded up the truck, hopped in the back, and headed out. 


It was pretty thrilling riding out on the rough roads at night in the back of the truck. Victor had tied a piece if plywood down so we could sit on it and hold onto the rollbar for a more comfortable ride. 


We got back sometime around 1am, and after calling around to a half dozen hotels (all full) we stayed at the seri Malaysia. 


The next morning we met Tommy at the lobby and paid for the trip, then drove back to kota kinabalu. We had enough time that afternoon to drop off the bikes and tag a few more peaks around town (INS peak and signal hill). The next morning we parted ways, with Serge flying our to Singapore and me to Sri Lanka. 


Recommendations:

-The status of the logging roads seems to change by the month, so I recommend hiring a local driver and vehicle. It's probably about the same price or cheaper than renting a vehicle capable of handling those roads.


- in kota kinabalu rent a cheap little car and rent mountain bike from specialized. 


-call or message mararap hot springs lodge in advance to arrange transportation and ask about road conditions.


-drive to lawas, leave car in seri Malaysia hotel lot, then transfer to truck


-from the end of the road we started on take the creek up. Email me for the hard earned GPS track of the easiest route. 


-go in the dry season. 
Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Bushwhack, Stream Ford, Mud/Swamp, Rock Climb
    Gear Used:
Bicycle, Headlamp, Tent Camp
Ascent Statistics
    Route:Southeast Ridge
Descent Statistics



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