Behind every route, there is a story. The route is “No Name” at Dairy Farm. It is the first official route established and climbed back in 1987. I had been climbing for nearly two decades and to many Gen-Z climbers I am an old fart and any climbers older than me are considered ancient. I believe it is necessary for every new generation of climbers to know what the pioneers had done to promote the sport, how the sport had evolved and inspire them to bring the sport to the next level. So to do that we will need to start from where it all began… The story of the man who established the first route in Dairy Farm Lawrence Lee.
Meeting the man himself
Most people who had heard of Lawrence Lee is likely from reading the Climb Singapore guidebook. Myself included. However, it was during a school sport climbing program where one of my fellow instructors was a Lawrence Lee. So I asked if he is THE DF Lawrence Lee, yes was the reply and I knew I’ll have to do this Q&A. Lawrence was happy to oblige and he also provided some amazing pictures from his climbing adventures taken back in the 80s and 90s. These pictures are a piece of Singapore’s rock climbing history.
5C – First question that many SMF instructors will like to know. Since you are one of the rock climbing pioneers of Singapore. What is your SMF instructor license number? Is it 0001? If it’s not you then who is it?
Lawrence – Hahaha, no, during that time, SMF was not yet formed. Mountaineering Society (Singapore) [MOSS] was then the de facto National Climbing Body working with Singapore Sports Council [SSC] for a syllabus and a standard of climbing that could be recognised by them (the SSC). We got the president of the NZ Mountain Guides Association to come over to certify us, and SSC hastily prepared a certificate for us which looked like this:
This cert was from the 2nd course, where Anthony, Kim Boon, James Lee and I were converted to Senior Rock Climbing Instructors. It was signed by Robert, the then Executive Director of SSC and David Lim, President of MOSS.
5C – How did you get into rock climbing when rock climbing was an obscure sport in the 80s where not many people even know what it was?
Lawrence – I had always held a fascination for nature and yearned to be outdoors for as long as I could remember. To get around, I sometimes had to climb trees, fences, gates and eventually it led to scrambles up rocky patches. I thought it was so much fun, moving over steep terrain, that I was caught soloing up the Commando Cliffs during National Service and was given 7 extra (for the benefit of non-Singaporean readers extra means confinement in a military camp).
I never seriously looked into rock climbing until one day, inspired by Chris Bonington’s Everest South-West Face account, I started to look into climbing rock as a means of overcoming an impassable face on any hill. Anthony and I took the company’s abseil rope and harnesses and started to top rope one short cliff at Bukit Batok, but that didn’t result in much being put up because we needed to walk up the back and throw the rope down.
Then one day, some Malaysians from the PMM (Malaysia’s National Climbing Body) came to our shop and bought a load of gear. They couldn’t carry all back so they asked if we would help them (and also it could help them avoid getting taxed), by taking the remainder gear up to KL for them. We obliged in return for an invitation to climb with them at Bukit Takun, which led to us getting invited on their ’86 Kinabalu Multi-Peak expedition where 3 of us made the second ascent of Donkey’s Ears South (the one that fell off after the 2015 earthquake).
After coming back, I was delivering some gear to a Sherpa who was staying at Sherwood Towers, when I looked out the window and saw cliffs (they were probably Hinhede Quarry). That very Sunday, we went to search out those cliffs and found Dairy Farm Quarry. We went back the following week and made our first route which we called No Name. That led to more climbing, more multipeak expeditions, and forays into the trekking peaks of Nepal, and the rest is like they say, history.
5C – How old were you when you started rock climbing?
Lawrence – We moved to Blk 22, Sin Ming Road in 1980 when I was 17. In front of the block was Sin Ming School, which sat on top of a retaining wall. I enjoyed balancing myself up that wall… those initial times of fooling around probable gained me the muscle memory of how to move using friction and balance on steep terrain and that came in mighty useful when I started to climb slabby terrain on Kinabalu… by coincidence, I was conducting a climbing lesson for Xin Min School last month. The principal came along and wanted this and that with the Instructors until he stepped up to me, and I described the school and how my climbing experience started from there. Guess he was sufficiently taken aback and he left us alone after that. Hahaha.
5C – Were your parents for or against you going into the sport?
Lawrence – My mom loves to worry. So as a filial Son, I’m doing my best to feed her a healthy diet of what she loves. Not. Hahaha. My dad always told me I was wasting my time and money on a dangerous and economically unproductive activity. But secretly, I knew he was proud of me because after he passed away, I found, neatly filed away in his cupboard, are lots of newspaper and magazine clippings of my climbing interviews.
5C – How different are climbers now compared to when you started back in the 80s?
Lawrence – They are as apart as the two Poles. The 80s was a time that’s not too long after men came down from the trees and walked upright. So we retained our natural ability to climb. But because we were doing it with no physical training and with rudimentary equipment, our grades at best were around YDS 5.10. We climbed for adventure and for exploration.
Climbers these days have nice sticky shoes, thin ropes and light biners. They have climbing gyms all over the island to practise their moves and strengthen their body. They could easily sail up a pitch which would have left us grunting, huffing and puffing, but I noticed that not many would climb for adventure despite their very high levels of technical abilities.
5C – Is indoor climbing making climbers strong but timid when comes to climbing natural crags?
Lawrence – I sure hope not! I prefer to think that indoor climbing brought about the evolution of another species of climbers – one that climbs for the grades and not the adventure.
5C – If you can go back in time and be 20 something again. What is the climb that you will want to complete (can be a rock climb route or a mountain summit)?
Lawrence – I wish to complete my Low’s Gully trip. We had successfully reccee’d a route and made our way into Low’s Gully during our trip in 91, but we didn’t have time to attempt any route up the East Face of Low’s Gully. Given the time and the opportunity, I’d really love to bring a close to that venture.
5C – “No Name” was the route you established and it’s the first established route in DF. Why name it “No Name”?
Lawrence – Anthony was the first up on No Name. We had discussed the route but he got out after he put in the first piton, and I continued from there. So it’s not exactly all “my” route. When we first worked the cliffs there, we had no named routes to make references from. Nothing. It was a new Quarry. So we started naming some prominent features in order that we could understand each other when talking about some part of the Quarry. We had names like The Crack, The Nose, The Cave and the Gulley. When No Name was put up, Anthony and I couldn’t decide on a name for it. We kept putting it off by calling it “no name route” and the name stuck on.
5C – Were there other climbers apart from you and Anthony Seah looking to establish the first natural crag climb in Singapore?
Lawrence – I’m not aware of any others interested in climbing other than us. So we worked at recruiting more climbers: every Wednesday night, we would close shop and have a slide show where we showed our trips to Bukit Takun, Kinabalu Multi-peak, Dairy Farm, Tanjong Berlayer etc. Of all those that showed interest, there were only 4 who had tried looking for climbing venues here. They were: Hugh McClean an American lecturer at NUS, Laurence Huen an ex-pat accountant from Hong Kong, David Lim the President of MOSS and Kenneth Koh the Vice President of MOSS
5C – Where else in Singapore apart from DF do you think has the potential for rock climbing?
Lawrence – The only cliffs that are found in Singapore are either old Granite Quarries or crumbly Sandstone sea cliffs all of which are not ideal for safe climbing. Besides Dairy Farm, we had put up routes at Tanjong Berlayer and Hinhede Quarry. However, Hinhede had swallowed back its routes and now, one need scuba gear to check those out.
In the past, I’d pore over a topographical map to spot cliffs and quarries, then put boots to the ground to confirm the viability. There are still many old quarries around Bukit Timah and Bukit Gombak area… Then, there are the man-made objects; retaining walls, bridges and tunnels, where one can practice crack climbing or chimneying, or smearing… eg, just off Ayer Rajah Crescent, behind the industrial blocks, there’s a retaining wall holding the AYE interchange up. If one is willing to lose some skin, there are some crack climbing opportunities to get busted for… Only if anyone is daring/foolhardy enough to push beyond the boundaries…
5C – You had a list of FA to your name – “Boring & Meaningless”, “Jaws”, “Acrophobia”, “Desperado”, “Tales of Power”, “No Name”, “And Justice for All”, “The Gully”, “Jam Bang”, “Lucky Draw Dihedral”, “Zero Gully”, “No Margin for Error”. Amongst all these routes you’ve established in DF which route is your favourite? Why?
Lawrence – Direct was a favourite because it’s convenient and direct. But most memorable would have been Jam Bang and Dragon Shit because of the wingers I took while working on these two.
5C – So is there a story behind each of those routes that were established back in your active DF climbing days?
Lawrence – Yes, there were a few routes with interesting backstories.
Dragon shit was not done onsight. When I first attempted it, I took a fall that almost hit the deck. I got scared and put it off for quite a while until CNY during the year of the dragon when I plucked up enough courage and completed it.
Zero Gully at the back used to be where we took a shit. One day we decided to climb it but the Gully channelled the rocks coming down towards the rope and the belayer. So I called it Zeroing Gully as none of the rocks were accurate enough to hit its target. Later it’s shortened to Zero Gully
As for the story of Jam Bang. I was just fired from Adventurer (The adventure sports store Lawrence was working at) in the morning. I called up Ken Koh and Hugh to go climb. While trying to onsight the FA of Jam Bang, I fell. 3 protection popped and I hit the deck but miraculously survived with sharp rocks all around me and under my head. I coughed out blood from the fall.
A week after the fall I went to Nepal. After I came back from Nepal I went back to DF and completed the route. On my Nepal trip, I got a bunch of gear from Thamel which included tri-cams and Russian Hexentrics. Hugh used it and climbed the route beside Jam Bang. Feeling lucky for not falling, he called it Lucky Draw Dihedral. The name Lucky draw was because I taught him how to pre-rig the quickdraws before climbing so he only needed to clip and climb on.
Art of noise was made concurrently with Zero Gully. Yoke Fong and I were doing Zero Gully and David (a noisy and chatty chap) was climbing with Wing Fatt a man of few words. I remember shouting across the amphitheatre to ask David to do more climbing and less talking. I’m honoured that he named it Art of Noise.
5C – How old were you when you totally stopped rock climbing? Why did you stop?
Lawrence – I didn’t TOTALLY stop climbing but rather retired from the active climbing scene after 1991. Politics turned me off. However, I was still climbing quietly once in a while and was doing the Instructors’ course until 95 or 96. Then my Wife got into climbing a while later in the early 2000s, so I went to the climbing walls with her, incognito. In 2010, some of my younger staff were talking about climbing, so I went with them, but by then, nobody knew me. Now, I’m teaching climbing at schools and sometimes I would do SNCS classes. All incognito of course.
5C – What activity or hobby did you pick up after you stopped climbing?
Lawrence – I went back to my old hobbies: Fishing, Sailing and Boating.
5C – What is the one thing you miss most about rock climbing since you had stopped?
Lawrence – I miss the times when filled with a vision of exploration for steep rock and the romance of adventure, I’d carry my rucksack full of rope and ironmongery, walking around, looking for places to climb. Each rough texture that I come across, I would fondle it to search for a way to make it a handhold and imagine how I could climb it.
A gift to the man that started rock climbing in Singapore
It was because of Lawrence’s comment on 5C Climbers Facebook post of an article on Dairy Farm, that I found out he had never seen the Climb Singapore guidebook since it was first published in early 2000. I am happy to say that the man that make this book a reality had finally got a copy.