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Limestone Paradise

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“Is this adventurous enough for you?” asked Barbara, looking at the waves crashing over the rocks we had to cross to make it home. We had lost track of time whilst climbing in the jungle and the tide had come in, blocking our escape. There was no way to walk, or even climb, home – we could either camp out for the night or swim. The problem was that we had twenty kilos of climbing gear that salt water would do no good to and swarms of mosquitoes, sensing our tasty white flesh, were silently drifting from their jungle home to our rapidly eroding beach. As we surveyed our options I couldn’t help but think of the circumstances that led our present dilemma

Being from a country where grey is the second national colour and lead rock climbers that want to live till the next season are expected NOT to fall, Krabi, in the South of Thailand, had the potential to be a climbing paradise. It was reputed to have everything a sun-sick climber could want: crystal blue skies and seas and spectacular limestone cliffs, made safe by metal bolts, rising directly off the beach. I was looking forward to climbing without the usual hassles, no trudging across bracken and sludge trying to find the next climb, no staring alternately at map and rock face, trying to determine if the vague crack really is the route we're looking for, no worrying whether the last piece of protection would hold a fall.

From the moment we set eyes on the cliffs we were in awe, they were just so different to anything we had climbed before. The limestone seemed to rise hundreds of meters out of nowhere and with no warning. These weren’t the granite slabs we were familiar with; these were overhanging beasts made monstrous by ominous stalactites and menacing caves. The first few routes did nothing to settle my anxiety; I was climbing terribly, just like a beginner. The rock felt soapy, almost wet; handholds weren’t the familiar hand jams and crimps, but were pinches and finger pockets. The rock didn’t simply rise up to meet me, but surrounded me, forcing me to turn to find a protruding foothold to lessen the overhang.

Easy access to hundreds of routes and the puppy-like enthusiasm of Benjamin, a young beginner who had adopted us, soon had me back on form. I was leading up every climb, bringing up the rope and making the climb safe for the second. Although nerve racking, leading is still relatively safe, with the rope being clipped into protection whenever possible.

The advantage of bolted climbs is that the protection is metal bolts drilled regularly into the rock. The technology used for bolts today offers an almost complete guarantee that they will hold your fall. This is unlike the traditional climbing I am used to, where every piece of protection is hand placed and the level of security varies between “bomber” and marginal. Despite the assurance of bolts I still couldn’t get myself to push it, I just couldn’t climb to the point where I fell. Somehow the traditional maxim “The lead climber never falls” wouldn’t leave me.

I became used to the idiosyncrasies of limestone and my climbing continued to improve but the crowded crags made the atmosphere more like an indoor climbing wall than an exotic location. Despite myself, I was starting to miss the aspects of climbing that I thought I hated: the walk through the country, the isolation and the thrill of placing my own protection. To make matters worse my climbing partners had been infected by the lethargy typical of beach resorts. Barbara was almost restricting herself to cat-like stretching on the beach, while Phil was sleeping at odd hours, seemingly only getting his harness on moments before the tropical storms of the monsoon hit.

The less frequented crags were only accessible at certain times of the day and our previous attempt to escape the crowds had been foiled by miscalculating the tides. So when the opportunity arose for one of the “cool” local climbers to guide us to an unfrequented jungle crag, I jumped at the chance. We waited until lunchtime, when the rocks by the cliffs became passable, and quickly made our way across to a deserted beach fringed by rainforest. The jungle was amazing, just like Jurassic Park it was full of huge plants with the sound of wilderness all around, but one of the details you miss on the big screen is the mosquitoes, thousands of the bastards, big as bees. Two leaf fires, four mosquito coils and several applications of skin burning DEET later, we were mosquito-free enough to safely concentrate on climbing.

The climbing was fantastic, each route was led by the local climber and designed to stretch us. Seconding up each pitch, I could really push it and for the first time I felt at home on the limestone walls. The remoteness of the crag and surrounding jungle intensified the experience and after three climbs I reluctantly conceded that it was time to go home. Shielded by the thick jungle canopy we hadn’t noticed that light was fading fast and it was too late by the time we reached the beach. We were stranded with no way home.

Next: Abandon the weak – striking out alone for the shore

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of caelen climbing ton sai Krabi Thailand travelogues
Photograph of beach yoga ton sai Krabi Thailand travelogues
Caelen bridging the gap - 20 stories up

Barbara being cat-like on the beach

Movie Barbara on Groove Tube ton sai Krabi Thailand travelogues
Photograph of ton sai Krabi Thailand travelogues
Barbara on Groove Tube movie - you NEED quicktime

120 meters of towering, overhanging and scary limestone

Picture of Barbara after  she finished Groove Tube ton sai Krabi Thailand travelogues
Picture of Phil ton sai Krabi Thailand travelogues
Buzzing after climbing Groove Tube Phil - checking to see if there are any girls about