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Thailand, Jan '96

By Anne Smith

Brief Thai Trip Report Alternate Brief Thai Trip Report
Jim and I just returned from two weeks at one of the most spectacular sport climbing areas on the planet. Even to a non-climber, the Andaman Sea off the SW coast of Thailand must be one of the most beautiful landscapes anywhere. Exquisite structure in the countless overhanging limestone cliffs and caves, pristine white beaches, perfectly clear seas, and way-tasty cheap Thai curries combined for an unforgettable tropical paradise vacation. A tropical paradise is definitely no place to climb! Duped by yet another pretty climbing rag photo Jim and I visited the stunning southern coast of Thailand for three weeks of pulldown. We barely stuck it out for two. While it's true that the sheer quantity of spectacular limestone easily outdoes that in Southen France, there's no getting around the fact that every last Thai cliff is in the tropics, where a daytime high below 90 or humidity under 90% would set a record. Just as we were touching down in Phuket I turned in a panic to Jim and asked what we're doing here. We're not tropics/beach people!
As advertised, it is quite easy to get there. Despite two flights, two bus rides, a taxi and a boat, we arrived with no hassles late afternoon. We found my brother Courtney with his girlfried Lisa right away and John and Sidney Scott a short time later. Luckily J&S had reserved a room for us, as all the bungalows fill by noon during the high season. Upon checking in, we were immediately inducted into the soothing Thai-paced lifestyle. During an interminable two day journey en route to Rai Lei beach we did see two Thais. The taxi driver and the boatman. Oppressive western crowds filled every restaurant and bungalow. The first night it took three hours to actually get our food at a restaurant. The next morning breakfast took equally long; we were served about the time the mid-day heat kicked in. In most restaurants the mystique of the orient is punctuated with blasting Stallone or Arnold flicks.
The next day, we began our steady assault of the countless cliffs. The secret of Thai climbing is out so we had the opportunity to meet many like-minded climbers from all over the world. At first, it seems surprising how few of the cliffs have developed routes. But, if it's not in the shade most of the day, or a jungle approach is involved, there's very good reason to forget it! Heading up to Thaiwand wall, there was virtually no place to put down our gear amongst the thronging masses. Eventually we just threw it in the jungle and found an open route, polished smooth from the countless climbers, all gumbies dogging the easy approach pitches for hours.
John and Sid had the beta worked out and helped us adjust to the tropics. We first visited the Thaiwand wall -- it's nice visiting this wall early in the trip as one effect of jet-lag is a tendency to wake up early, the perfect opportunity to get a good start on the brilliant multi-pitch routes here. The King and I (7a/6a+/7b+/6a) and Lord of the Thais (6a+/6c+/7a+/7b) are truly the best multi-pitch sport routes we've ever done. By the next day, all thoughts of returning to Thaiwand were out, as Jim had already succumbed to (king of Thailands?) revenge. It's important to do the multi-pitch routes the first day or two, before getting the runs, or wait a week or so until you're completely recovered. Luckily, John and Sid had extra CiPro, a nice general purpose anti-biotic. No climber was immune; their stash alone cured 8 climbers.
The next week and a half passed in a blur. We did many wonderful routes on all kinds of bizarre features -- fins, pockets, stalagtites -- all on beautiful rock. We learned not to bump our heads on the stalagtites and use them as stemming rests intead. The position of some of the climbs -- in caves with the stalagtites framing the Andaman Sea down below was the most amazing we'd ever experienced. The relaxed vacation atmosphere made us perfectly happy on moderate routes and neither of us set any PRs, despite feeling generally fit. I on-sighted a number of 7a+ routes but couldn't do better on lead (though I got a 7b+ on TR); Jim was reliable on 7b, managed one 7b+, and was close on several others. The approaches themselves could be a lot of fun, often requiring low tide. Nearly every developed crag had at least one ***** climb and sometimes several. Even dazed from the heat, we found most ratings pretty soft due to the frequent rests so at 6 - 8 pitches per day it didn't take as long as hoped to get through most 6b+ - 7b+ routes there. In our first 9 climbing days we did nearly everything 7b+ and easier, barring the routes with known bad bolts, or in particularly mosquito-infested or hot and filthy locations. Given the length of the visit, we'd hoped to undertake some mini-projects, but trying anything 7c or harder was only an excercise in frustration.

We packed two cases of chalk but hardly used any as it was worthless, immediately turning to mud. The most modest of efforts would leave us completely drenched in sweat. The harnesses and shoes began to mold. At one point, Jim couldn't even untie his knot as it had become soaked with dripping perspiration.

It was really incredible to relax amidst such conditions while our friends were presumably shivering back home, breaking their teeth on frozen power bars. We soon learned to skip breakfast, opting to slurp our liquified power bars from their wrappers instead, to get an early start when we thought it might be cooler.
The surreal nature of the rock and the exotic location made even bolt-clipping feel adventurous. The humidity, water-saturated rock, and salt air conspired to make the bolts unusually unsafe. Cases of bolt failure are common. Jim finished the second pitch of a two-year-old climb, clipped the anchor then grabbed the anchor sling, just in time to see the head of one of the two bolts sheer off due to rust. The second one looked no better and these were stainless bolts installed by an experienced first-ascentionist.
Two rest days were spent doing world-class snorkeling. Once from a boat to the small islands very near Rai Lei, the other around Phi Phi Le island, a 90 minute boat ride away. Phi Phi Le is home to the most exciting new route activity in Southern Thailand -- there is a fantastic North-facing overhanging headwall, rising straight from the ocean. The other rest day we visited an incredible cave/forest temple on the mainland. OK, the rest days *were* the best ever. We almost stayed longer for more of these, but what sort of use is this for precious vacation days? The heat prevented bitterness at the use of such spectacular limestone caves as monks quarters rather than all-time grade 8s.
No description of Thailand is complete without mentioning the food! Naturally, $1.50 plates of spicy Thai seafood curry could always be relied upon. Much as we each hate to diet, it may be necessary now, as the unchanging dishes of coconut milk curry fried in gallons of cocont oil must have caused 99% coronary artery blockage by now. Those cocunuts are bound to kill you one way or another eventually. One night a coconut projectile missed Jim by mere inches; he wound up soaking wet from the juice.
-Anne -Anne

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