Expat pair lays claim to record for fastest Oral Mountain climb

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Jacob Sims (left) and Julien Brewster reach the summit of Oral Mountain in two hours, 26 minutes and 36 seconds. SUPPLIED

After reading a newspaper article that claimed the record time for climbing Oral Mountain stood at three hours, 27 minutes and six seconds, an American and Australian duo decided to try and beat it as a gesture towards the revival of ecotourism in the Kingdom, which remains limited in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Jacob Sims and Julien Brewster decided to challenge the climbing record together as a team, saying that it wasn’t a race or a competition.

On April 3, 2022, the pair began to climb Cambodia’s highest mountain at 5:55am and they reached its summit at 8:21am.

“We spent 2 hours, 26 minutes and 36 seconds climbing,” Sims told The Post. “Julien and I finished at the same time. We didn’t race each other, we worked as a team. Six of our friends from the same dormitory were waiting at the bottom of Oral Mountain to congratulate us.”

Sims, who has been running since he was a university student, said their ascent time was confirmed by Chhim Chheun of the Sre Kan III village-based Phnom Oral Tourism Community, as well as a GPS watch.

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Chhim Chheun of Sre Kan III village-based Phnom Oral Tourism Community. Hong Menea

Sims, 34, works for an NGO and has lived in Phnom Penh since late 2019. He has run competitively and engaged in endurance sports since his university days and has always enjoyed unique challenges.

He has participated in ultra-distance races, the famous annual American hike DHMH and long-distance cycling trips across Europe, Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Julien, 36, has been working on and off for an NGO in Phnom Penh since 2011 and plays “Aussie Rules” football here in Cambodia.

“We got the idea from our friend, Luke Weatherson, who found a news article about the old record and he told us that he thought we were too weak, fat and slow and that there was no way we could beat the record,” said Sims. “So we had to prove him wrong.”

Fred Zalokar, 59, and David Minetti, 42, are the pair of “international adventurers” who set the old record back on February 17, 2020, according to Zalokar’s website.

The account on the website says that they left Oral village around 1:45am to reach the established base camp at 225m elevation and began their climb around 3:00am. They summited Oral Mountain at around 6:30am.

The timing of their ascent was monitored by Jean-Benoît Lasselin, the president and founder of fashion brand Colorblind and others with a first checkpoint set-up at 1200m and a second at the summit to record the exact time of their arrival.

Though several climbing-speed records have been claimed on Oral it was C4 Adventures – a Cambodia-based tourism business and the organiser of the climb – that established the first claim to the record.

“Overall, starting from Oral village, David and Fred made a round trip of seven hours, 46 minutes and 14 seconds with an elevation gain of 2024m in total,” concluded Jean-Benoît Lasselin in prior media reports.

Two local guides from the Phnom Oral Tourism Community paced them for portions of the hike.

One of the two local guides – Vott Sar – started climbing with the two expats at the trailhead and paced them for the first 45 minutes before he had to slow down. Another local guide, Sambo Sar, met the adventurers at a higher checkpoint and kept pace with them for a ways further up the mountain.

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Tourists heading to the Oral Mountain base camp being driven by a local guide. Hong Menea

“We also really want to help Chhim and his agency with publicity. Due to the Covid-19 downturn, local tour guide agencies have had a tough time making ends meet,” Sims said. “We hope that this record will elevate their profile and generate more business for the Oral Mountains tourism community.”

The trail to the top of the mountain is 10 km in length and ascends from 225m to 1813m. Beyond just the distance and vertical gain, it is made significantly more difficult by rough ground conditions and Cambodia’s weather, according to Sims.

“Heat and humidity are the primary factors. However, there are also sections of the trail which are very steep and require fixed ropes to ascend. Some parts are impassable due to fallen trees which requires some trailblazing,” he said.

He says it is also quite muddy and slick in some areas due to the weather, but he still feels that it’s a manageable hike for casual outdoor enthusiasts.

“There are two camps – one at 2 km and one at 7 km. Most groups choose to do the hike in two or three days and when broken up over a longer period of time it is quite manageable,” said Sims.

Although the record-setting pair work for NGOs in Cambodia their accomplishment was purely a private initiative.

“It’s just a group of friends’ training and trying to break existing records,” said Sims. “Oral Mountain is in the middle of a national park so people should come on in and take a look and enjoy the views.”

As one of the top mountaineers in Cambodia, Phirom Choun said he appreciates Sims’ and Brewster’s accomplishment and says he might try to best it, though he’ll need some time to train and gain muscle strength

“That’s great that two foreigners could succeed in a very short time. I normally hike on Oral Mountain for leisure and to enjoy the scenic views and I don’t really care about the time spent. I could take the challenge but it requires time to train,” said Phirom.

Phirom, who recently took this eight-year-old son to climb the highest mountain in Cambodia, has summited several other mountains in the Kingdom and abroad, including Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and Gunung Kerinci in Indonesia.

And as an adventure tour guide, he has led a 250 km trek across the Cardamom Mountains through Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Pursat provinces. All of the above makes him a good candidate to challenge the Oral Mountain climbing record if he chooses to do so.

For their part, Sims and Brewster said they would be happy to see their record beaten by a Cambodian and would sincerely offer their congratulations to anyone who beats it.

“We want to encourage Khmer athletes from Cambodia’s vibrant hiking and running community to go out and beat our record. We think it is a solid record which will require a bit of talent, training, logistical prep and a window of decent weather – but it is totally beatable.

“We hope people will get out there and explore Cambodia’s beautiful natural places while you still can. Despite Oral sitting on protected land, there was marked deforestation in the area and we could hear chainsaws coming from multiple directions throughout the hike,” said Sims.