Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Railay, Thailand

Railay Bay, Thailand
sport climbing trip
Jan 24 - Feb 5, 2002

I'm sitting in a rental car at a rest stop somewhere between Eugene and Roseburg, Oregon. After being back in Seattle for two days, I had the pleasure of leaving town again, this time on business. Just kind of a dirty trick the good folks at work played on me. Ha ha. I came down yesterday, and on the plus side I got to visit Sonya in Eugene last night, and it was coincidentally Lizzie's 21st birthday. Strangely though, somehow I woke up about half an hour earlier than I meant to, and as the client I'm visiting doesn't get to the office until 7:30, I have some time to kill.

We left Seattle at 12:50 pm on Thursday the 24th and arrived in Bangkok without a hitch at 10:45 pm Friday. Paid $20 each for rooms at the four-star Mandarin Hotel in Bangkok, getting 4 hours of sleep before flying out to Krabi early Saturday, the 26th. After arriving in Krabi, we took a longtail boat to Railay Bay. Railay is absolutely stunning. Hopefully you will all get a chance to see at least a couple pictures of it, if not several, and if not at least some of the several hours of video tape we have. I'm working on cutting a version down to about 2 hours by picking out the highlights.

Saturday afternoon we went swimming at Phra Nang Beach and were immediately struck by the soothing respite the 80 degree water provided in contrast to the 95 degree air and by the different apparel (or lack thereof) that the Europeans rock at the beach. Also of interest was a shrine at one of the caves on the beach. Striking fabric colors, wooden carvings, and flashes of gold ornaments were clearly visible inside the cave. I first thought very reverently, "Wow, a buddhist shrine. The people here are so spiritual." So I walked over to the cave to check it out. Upon closer inspection, all of the wooden carvings were falicly shaped objects ranging in length from several inches to several feet. A placard on the wall of the cave explained that the shrine had no relation to Buddhism or Islam, but instead was the result of the superstitious fishermen of the area who believed a goddess resided in the cave. If the fishermen have a good day on the seas, they thank the goddess by placing a falic symbol on the shrine. Not quite what I expected.

Later in the afternoon we did a little climbing. My first lead was on a 6A+ at Hidden World. They use the French grading system -- the most widely used system around the world, and a 6A+ would be around 5.10b in the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) -- the system used in the States. That is an aggressive warm-up grade for me normally. We had been told a few times that the routes in Railay are on average a little soft for the grades they are given. But I was completely stymied by the crux topping out over this bulge, even taking a small whipper at one point -- on my first route! Not a good way to start the trip. I was thinking, "What is this soft route bologna?!" A Canadian at the wall assured me that this route was unusually stiff and not representative of other climbs of that grade. Looking at the guide book later I discovered the name of the route was "Satanic Alliance." Ahhh, it's a bit more clear now.

The next day, Sunday, we went to Tonsai Beach where the most overhangiest of the overhangs, which Railay is famous for, are. Some of these routes rise up 10 feet or so, then extend out almost parallel to the ground for 20 feet or so. They were just a bit beyond our ability. We did a few routes next door on Dum's Kitchen, and I was still a little frustrated by the routes, but I started to figure out that most of the cruxes seemed to consist of big, long, reachy moves. Then, finally, I flashed a 6B+ (5.10d YDS) on top rope, and felt like I was getting the hang of it. Mike, by the way, on-sighted that route, in what was an impressive display of persistence, at one point taking a rest by literally sitting down on a ledge (that would normally be considered bad form, but in some situations who cares).

Okay, I had to go to work, but now I'm waiting for a large email to download over an incredibly slow modem connection so I'll continue...

All of the walls we climbed at had their own unique asthetic beauty. At Tonsai/Dum's Kitchen you're on the beach. At Eagle Wall the approach takes you through a tropical grotto with palms and massive plants. At Escher Wall you have a large cave with gigantic stalactites hanging down to your left and on the right there are a couple very cool routes inside a smaller cave. At The Keep you hike up a steep slope then descend fixed ropes to a ledge next to the wall where you're pretty much isolated from the rest of the climbing areas and climbing high up with a view of the entire Bay behind you. One of the most impressive walls appearance-wise and situation-wise was Hueco Wall. The wall is littered with huecos (Spanish for "holes") and stalactites, and at high tide, the water crashes up against the bottom of the wall. This doesn't present a problem for climbing, however, because you begin several of the routes by walking through a short tunnel out to the middle of the wall above the water level (you belay from there too). One route involved stepping about 4 feet from the opening of the tunnel out onto a stalactite, then climbing up the stalactite. Quite unique!!

On Tuesday we took the day off. Craig, Jen and I went snorkeling while Steve and Mike went scuba diving, but Sean had to stay behind because he got pretty sick. The seas were pretty rough that day, which made the boat ride out in those small longtail boats pretty exciting, if not completely unnerving. My left collar muscle was balled up in a knot from gripping the side of the boat so hard, and I actually put my mask and snorkle on because of the constant stream of water spraying in my face. The snorkeling was pretty nice--lots of fish and coral. After dinner, when it became clear that day had shifted into night, we decided that the rest day was officially over, so Mike, Steve, and I went to 1-2-3 Wall and did some night climbing. It was actually quite nice because that's one of the most crowded walls during the day. It's where all of the guides take beginners because it's close and there are lots of easy routes, but there was no one there at night. The tide came in while we were climbing and we ended up walking back to the resort in knee-deep water. It took my shoes two days to dry out.

On Thursday, Craig, Mike and I (Sean was still sick) went to The Keep, where I think we did our best climbing. All of the routes were really long (all around 30 meters) and high quality (most of them are rated 3 or 4 out of 4 stars). Genghis Bond, a 4 star 6B that we warmed up on, was 32 meters long! We use a 60 meter rope, so the only way the route is doable is because of rope stretch. Mike and I both onsighted 6C's (5.11a YDS) there, which is my best onsight (or even redpoint for that matter) ever! I was psyched! Onsight means you successfully lead the route with no falls or hangs with no prior knowledge of the route. Craig lead a 7A (5.11c YDS), he didn't get the onsight, but it was impressive nonetheless. It had an extremely difficult, runout crux -- about 12 feet between bolts. In fact, Mike lead it again after Craig and took about a 20 foot whipper at the crux (I got that on tape). That says something about the route because Mike generally does everything he can to keep from falling. That solidified my decision to top rope it. It was so rad though because you have this EXTREMELY pumpy crux section, it lets up BARELY, then suddenly you're finessing a traverse across this little ledge with super thin handholds, then you're going vertical again and getting totally pumped again! So much character! We were toast after that. As far as quality of climbs go, The Keep was definitely my favorite.

Sean was feeling better by Friday, thank goodness. He had gotten quite sick -- bad fever among other things. For example, on Wed, he met us out at Escher Wall. It's about a 25 minute hike, and he did it in the 95 degree heat and humidity with full length pants, shirt, and a hat and never even broke a sweat. That's not good.

After The Keep, we pretty much took it easy, doing fewer climbs per day, although generally harder climbs. We also did some easy routes at various places like Hueco Wall. Sunday morning we went to Tonsai and worked a 7A+ (5.11d YDS). It pretty much ate us for breakfast, but it was really cool working something that was that hard, but still doable. We were inspired to do it when we watched two hot-sh_t climbers warm up on it! Bastards. Later in the day we went up to Fire Wall and climbed Groove Tube, a 4 star 6A. The name is very descriptive, imagine a 20+ meter section of luge or bobsled tube standing on end -- that's what it was like. Adding to the enjoyment were a few families of monkeys foraging around in the trees within 15 to 50 feet of us the whole time. You'd be hard pressed to find a situation like that around here.

Clearly, I thought the climbing was phenomenal. I wasn't super excited about Thailand itself, though. It's just so touristy. I guess you have to take the good with the bad though. It certainly was nice to have a toilet and a shower, even if there was no hot water. But seeing how their culture has been changed by the tourism industry was a little disappointing. All the boatmen that taxi people around the area used to be fishermen, but gave it up because there was more money in ferrying around tourists. Like a lot of places, everywhere you went nearby the resorts, locals were trying to make a living by walking around selling food, drinks, and trinkets. I had heard that learning some Thai was a necessity because English isn't spoken very much there, and I was a little excited about being forced to pick up a bit of another language. Garbage. All I learned while I was there was how to say "hello" and "thank you," but I didn't even need to learn that much because all the locals knew enough English to make it unnecessary.

One thing I found cool was all the Europeans that were there. It was nice to be on vacation and not be spending the entire time with the same type of people you're constantly around when you're not on vacation. I'd say that Germany had the strongest representation there. The food was fantastic. I had Thai for every lunch and dinner we ate. And a typical meal was about 80 baht, or about $2. All the restaurants served bottled Coke! Mmmm...

Finally, on my last day in Railay, Monday, Steve, Craig and I got up at 6 in the morning and went to the Ya Ya Bar and watched the Super Bowl live. That was a really cool experience. Pretty good game too.

To wrap it up, I loved the climbing, loved the scenery, loved the food, and enjoyed all the interesting people. The unrelenting heat and psychotic mosquitos got to me quite a bit by the end. I'm very glad I went, but I don't have a burning desire to go back anytime soon. That's just a long freaking plane ride, man. If I did go back, I would want more time and I would plan on doing more touring around the country.