The Philippines – The Order Of Things

It’s funny to think about the development of certain areas, or why 1 area might become popular whilst others lay forgotten.  Take Kalymnos as an example, where the first cliff to be bolted was Jurassic Park, one of the smallest (almost hidden) sectors with arguably the longest walk of the island.  Or the famous old school French crags of Volx or Orgon; incredibly (overly) popular in the 90’s, when not so far away lay the amazing modern areas of Lourmarin and St Leger, completely untouched.

The amazing cliffs of Kalymnos, with The Grande Grotta (foreground) and Jurassic Park (way, way in the background).

When we first began to search for DWS around Palawan the only information we could find online related to the Northern Island of Coron. There were a few articles and references in traveler’s forums, and even a few pictures of people climbing. Every Filipino contact we spoke with suggested we check out Coron over El Nido, telling us that the rock around El Nido was just too sharp.

I’d like to say it was good judgment, or maybe even a 6th sense that held us on our original path, but the truth is it was only stubbornness with a certain helping of good luck that took us to El Nido first. There just seemed to be so much rock! There had to be something… anything…

“Dirty” Ice Cream – One of our many discoveries!

And so we arrived.  El Nido itself is a small town devoted to tourism, but just a few 100m out from the shore, the islands begin, allowing a motivated few the chance to really loose themselves in paradise.  There is rock everywhere, as each and every island meets the water with steep, impressive cliffs.  We spent around 8 or 9 days out on the ocean, searching for the perfect line, and sleeping on many a deserted beach.  There is so much climbing to do, but we had precious little time, and even after opening around 30 awesome routes we know there is so much more out there…

Some of the best routes of El Nido…

Coron on the other hand looks more similar to my home in England.  Ok, perhaps that is a poor comparison and obviously England is not a land surrounded by tropical islands!  Non-the less, the lay of the land in Coron is very different to El Nido and instead of dramatic cliffs, the islands are more rolling hills, that gently fade into the water.  That means there is not much rock, and subsequently not much climbing.  The few pictures we had seen online showed practically the full extent – around 6 or 7 routes – which although of a really high quality, don’t really make an “area”!

There is some scope for further development along the East coast of Coron Island, but the ocean is notoriously rough, and currently climbing is not allowed by the local villages, who use the cliffs for collecting very valuable birds nests.  The small villages along this coastline were some of the worst hit in the local area when Typhoon Yolanda battered the country last November.  It was incredibly moving to visit the people of these villages and listen to their stories.  Restoration was largely underway, but the aftermath of snapped trees and torn down buildings could still clearly be seen.  The people told us the worst thing about this Typhoon was the lack of warning.  They knew a Typhoon was coming, but they were not informed it would be anything out of the ordinary (the Philippines is hit by 10’s of Typhoons per year).  When it hit, the winds were so violent trees were literally sucked up into the air, and in less than 30 minutes, the sea level had risen over 4 meters, submerging half the village!  It’s difficult for me to write sincerely about the weight of this experience and I would be the first to point out the irony of including it between photos of us enjoying the sun and eating Ice Cream.  At first I was a little uncomfortable about coming to the Philippines to have fun after such massive disaster.  I wondered if it were lacking respect, and if I would not have been better to pay my quiet sympathy from home.  But its not sympathy that the Filipino people want, or need, its support!  They are strong, proud people who have dealt like things like this before, and will undoubtedly deal with it again, thanks to the support of each other, and that of strangers.

The destruction… Mother Nature can be cruel!

So what can we do?  Aid and relief goods like food, medicine and clothes are undeniably essential, especially during first days/weeks. Later on, once day-to-day life has returned to “normal”, it’s construction supplies that are needed, to repair and replace the damaged buildings.  Obviously its difficult to post a bag of cement,  but there are fortunately many great organizations like The Red Cross who will be happy to take your donation and put it to use where its really needed.  Another way is simply to visit the country and keep the tourism industry alive.  A huge percentage of the Filippino economy is based on tourism – lets not let what happened to Thailand happen again here.  Despite all that has happened, there has never been a better time to pay the Philippines a visit.

Ok… Back to the climbing…  We also heard that Black Island, a small island 3 hours by boat to the North, could have some potential for both trad climbing and DWS.  It was on our original plan, however with time and money running short, and after struggling to find any trustworthy photos we couldn’t justify the trip.  It’s there, waiting for the next team to discover, and I hope it brings them something great.  Unfortunately for the “climbing scene” of Coron, its remoteness, size, and often rough open water is never going to make it truly popular.

Climbing on The Arete, one of the best lines of Coron

Reading this, it might seem like we are a little disappointed with our time in Coron, however the reality is quite the opposite.  Coron is a beautiful place to travel and discover, and the town itself is much more authentic than that of El Nido.  There is some of the best Ship Wreck diving in the Philippines, just off the shore, and if you come here as a traveller/tourist/diver you cant help but be happy.  If you are in Coron for whatever reason, and happen to have your climbing shoes in your bag, you wont be disappointed by a day or two of DWS.  However, Coron is not a “climbing destination” and I would never recommend anyone travel here only for climbing – for that you have to go to El Nido!

Visiting Coron has also given us some perspective, and we can now all see just how good El Nido was!  Thinking back, I have spent so many days sailing coastlines around the World, searching for even a single DWS route, and found practically nothing.  In El Nido, we were climbing 3* routes day after day, and even then only climbing the very very best, leaving so much still to develop.  Discovering new spots for DWS can be a pain in the ass!  There are so many aspects that have to fall into place such as the rock quality, the steepness, the ledges, the water depth, the clarity, the access, and with just one or two of these missing, DWS just doesn’t work!

With crystal clear water its easy to see when DWS won’t work… time to bring out the Trad gear!

In my opinion, El Nido is a great venue for DWS, easily on par with, or maybe even better than other well-known destinations like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.  The (relatively) easy access to El Nido, the cheap cost of renting boats, the simple logistics of camping on the beach, the crystal clear, usually deep water, and plentiful amount of quality, steep rock are all great assets for a new DWS venue.

I can’t understand why it took so long for someone to come here to climb, but once the word gets out, I don’t think it will be long before somebody comes back!

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