Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | South Thailand | Krabi – Walking on Thin Air
26.12.2003, Friday, Krabi
Its the moring after, my legs are bruised, my knees scraped and my hands covered in blisters, but yesterday was the most wonderful Christmas Day Id ever had.
I went rock climbing in Ao Railay. Out of sheer need to do something. And by then Id done cooking, trekking, elephant riding, bamboo rafting, diving and plain sun-basking on the beach. I was left with snorkeling, kayaking and rock climbing. None but the latter seemed exciting enough, and rock climbing mostly because I was afraid of hights. I was laughing and trying to look casual when I had to make my way across the hanging bridge on the third day of the trek, but in fact I was terrified and close to tears. A couple of weeks later, I decided to do something about it.
Early morning I was sitting in the Area 51s restaurant, anxiously stealing glances at the clock. I booked my climbing trip a week in advance through some obscure travel agency and now I was hoping that they forgot all about me. Pick up 7.30, said the girl in the agency, smiling. She wrote it on the bill too. 7.35 the car came. I didnt have the time even to hope it wouldnt.
We drove nearly for an hour, picking up other people at Ao Phranang, which looked far more busy than Krabi, and continuing on the boat to Ao Railay, where we were herded into the office, packed into harnesses, given a bag of chalk, a pair of climbing shoes and a bottle of water each and led straight to the wall.
I was scared but at least I wasnt the only first-timer. With one exception, all of us were. We sat next to the 1-2-3 Wall, with disbelief watching other climbers make their way up the smooth vertical face of the rock. To be precise, vertical is never as vertical as it seems. The rock was leaning towards us, dotted with overhangs and ragged stalactites, worn on the outside like gigantic teeth.
The first climb we were to make seemed easy enough from the bottom, or rather from one and a half metre up. The lower part had been washed away by the sea, offering no support for the feet. One had to pull oneself up, climb another metre of an bulging overhang, before reaching first shelf, already panting and red in the face.
By the time it was my turn to put on the shoes, feed the rope through the harness and make the knot, I had been securing two people up, so terrified with the responsibility of keeping the rope tight to prevent them from falling, that my hands were already red and painful at the joints. Nonetheless, I made the knot in five seconds, trying not to think that Id learnt how to make it only minutes before and if I got it wrong I would come crashing down like the nut I was. Instead, I clutched to the rock and tried to pull myself up. I fell off. I tried again and fell off again, my feet dangling for a minute in the air, not finding any support. My arms were so weak with fright and lack of exercise, I thought, that that would be the end of my climbing experience – I wouldnt make it through the first step. But somehow I did, and I scrambled onto the shelf and stood there, with my face to the rock, trying not to show how scared and weak I was. But my body betrayed me as soon as I climbed a metre up and hung there, sprawled like a starfish between sparse supports, with my fingers clutching the slippery rock, feeling a film of moisture cover it and loosen my grip. My leg started trembling frantically and I laughed, unable to make it stop. I climbed a little higher, to where I was supposed to do splits, and felt I wouldnt be able to reach into my chalk bag without falling off. The girl who was securing me was doing a poor job out of it and the rope I was on was looping below my waist, so I chose not to continue. I didnt believe I would make it, anyway. Me? Splits? Not in the last ten years! So I shouted at the instructor that I gave up, finally looking down. I was maybe three metres off the ground, but to me it seemed like thirty, with outcrops as sharp as knives sticking out below and waiting for my fall. Khop, the instructor, came up to the girl and pulled the rope tight telling me to let go. I did, carefully, one sweaty hand after the other and he eased me down. I thought I would burst into sobs. I lost, I couldnt make it, I was terrified and a weakling. And I didnt want to climb anymore. Ever.
I sat on the mat, watching other people go up or attempt to do so, some aready starting at the other wall, and the anger was rising in me. I wasnt going to give up so easily. I asked Khop to let me do that wall again, I put on the shoes and made the knot and was over the overhang in no time. My legs were still trembling at times, but Khop kept the rope tight and I felt safer, so I kept looking for the next ledge, wedging myself between the stalactites, scrambling up till there was nowhere to go. I did it! The secret was not to look down.
Then I tried at the other wall and it was as easy as walking the stairs. It was shorter too, and with no overhangs. The third face gave me trouble, as I was already tired and my fighting spirit was dying in me, having proven the point. The climb started with an overhang and continued in three wide-apart shelves, each one of them like a mean overhang itself. I cheated. Not being able to make it through the first overhang, I went around and heavily threw myself at the second shelf. I made it to the third, but there the wall above me was smooth. Apparently I was supposed to find a grip for my right hand somewhere high above my head, but I couldnt reach it. I had enough. I went down.
The rest was starting at the fourth climb by then, fifteen, maybe twenty metres up the rocks smooth surface, and I was looking with jealousy. I could make it, I knew. When my turn came to climb, I secured the rope to my harness and nearly ran for the first couple of metres, as that was the detour Id taken while attempting to climb the shelves. I knew the cracks where I could squeeze my fingers in and how to balance myself to safely reach for more chalk. I was ten metres up by the time I slipped and fell off. But then I knew it was allowed, so I just had a seat, as Khop called it, caught my breath, smeared more chalk on my hands and the tips of the shoes and grabbed the rock again. The rest of the climb was just a blur. I know Id done a few tricks which suprised even me, hoisted myself higher than I believed I could, found the right way without being told where to look for and scrambled to the very top, where some more experienced climbers were resting before continuing up.
Hey, how are you? – asked one of them, as I groped for support on my last metre up.
Tell you in a second – I said breathlessly and pulled myself up. He laghed.
Great, just great! – I said, throwing myself on the shelf next to them. Rarely I was that happy in my life before. I won with myself. I knew I loved rock climbing and I loved the view, no matter how high it was. I was tied to a rope with my own knot and I knew it would hold, so I was free to let go and go down, pushing myself off the rock with the tips of my feet. It felt like walking on the air and falling off and starting all over again felt like being immortal. I was drunk with happiness.
After lunch the three of us who headlessly signed up for the whole day despite being novices trekked through the peninsulas maze of rocks and jungle, filled with screeching monkeys, up a steep rocky hill to the cave. We didnt understand right and followed Khop into the darkness thinking we were just exploring the cave before climbing the rockface in front of it. The inside of the cave at the beginning was as spacious as a cathedral, but soon it narrowed to tight passages, where the air was thick and hot and soon we were so wet with our own sweat we might have been swimming. Only Khop had a flashlight and he would make his way first, then stop somewhere where it was safe for us to gather together and show us the way one by one, down the slopes dotted with ragged stones and up bamboo ladders, beneath stalactites and onto a narrow dusty shelf, where the wind from the sea came and cooled us down, as we looked down a two-hundred-metre drop. We looked at one another, dirty as if we were crawling all day long through the tombs and fighting in the mud, with black smears on our faces from where we wiped our sweat off, then looked back at Khop.
How are we going to go back? – asked Kirsty, whose hands were already swollen from the morning strain and who came along only to watch her friend climbing.
Down the rope – said Khop, smiling and pointing to the drop. I could see from Kirstys face that her breakfast turned in her stomach. Claire, her friend, although in better shape and braver, didnt look much more eager. I, on the other hand, for the first time in my life wasnt feeling any vertigo standing on the edge and looking at the majestic rocks, white sandy beaches beneath and the deep azure blue of the sea. I felt excited. While Khop was messily explaining what abseiling was about, I put my shoes on and sprang to my feet, ready to go first. Secured, I leaned backwards and looked down. It was maybe fiften metres down to a wide shelf, from where there was a path leading off into the jungle. People were sitting beneath, looking up at us and smiling. They were resting after their climb and abseiling and I could see more coming from the enormous outcrop far above me, dangling in the air from the ropes that suddenly looked thin and fragile. That must be really exciting, I thought exhilarated, suddenly making nothing of my own abseiling. Piece of cake. Just going down.
Claire came and Kirsty too, given no choice, as Khop was not planning on going back through the cave. Then we sat at a bench, looking up at the Thaiwand Wall.
Anybody wants to climb back? – said Khop, and I was already making the knot. I was nearly two metres up when I got stuck. I didnt know how to make it over to the next ledge. Khop told me to go to a wide crack to my left and use it as a ladder. I wedged myself in, sprawled like a starfish again, but this time in the air, pushing against the sides of the crack not to fall out of it, slowly moving upwards till the crack abruptly closed above my head.
What now?! – I shouted.
Do like Jakie Chan! – Khop shouted back.
But I dont have a tuxedo! – I said and flung myself over the edge and onto the shelf above. Smug and smooth. I was so exhilarated with my percieved immortality, that I climbed like a monkey, giving no thought to the possiblity of the fall, suprising myself time and again and the acrobatics I was suddenly able to perform. Once in a while I would shout at Khop to hold me tight, as I couldnt see the next ledge and wanted to hoist myself up or fling far to left or right, but that was all.
Back down, happy as one can be, I asked Khop how hard the face we climbed was.
Five- he said. I looked at the guys lowering themselves from the top of the rock..
Seven b plus
I didnt need to be told more to know that they were doing real climbing and we were just struggling over baby-easy stepping stones. Well, one has to start somewhere…
Afterwards we walked along the beach towards the office, from head to toe smeared with mud and with the shoes and chalk bags dangling from the harnesses we still had on, feeling like the only survivors of a daring mission just out of the dungeons and into the world of clean red turists, who knew nothing of the sacrifices we had to make so they could just lay on the beach and sop up the sun.
You look like Lara Croft – Kirsty told Claire and it was true. A couple of guns through the harnesses and we all would.