Tonsai bay is paradise. The calm warm waters of the Indian Ocean lap against soft sandy beaches where couples stroll and babes recline on beach towels in skimpy swim suits and stunner shades. One can pass the day lounging in the open-air bars, reading a book or playing backgammon or chess, and wander down the street periodically for a coconut lassi, a banana pancake, or a cold Chang lager. The establishments—Small World Bar, Freedom Bar, Tonsai Reggae Bar, the ever-popular Jah Bar—are charming in their similarity: a patio with cushions, a sound system leaking 40 oz to Freedom or Exodus, boxes of Chang stacked behind the bar, the obligatory tapestry of patron saint Bob Marley gasping in ecstasy (or coughing?) with a joint smoldering in his hand. This is where the footloose and fancy free of Europe come to relax, flex their Euros, session steep limestone on the beach until the heat of the afternoon and then congregate on the patios, smoking and drinking through the day’s swelter and the cool evenings. It’s a visual and sensual paradise. And for these boys from Colorado, the climbing can be a sweltering hell…in the fun kind of way.
the high-tide route to Railey beach
Quite simply, climbing in Tonsai is the most fun, novel climbing I’ve done and it totally kicked my ass. We discovered to our surprise that our stamina was diminished at least 2:1 in the tropics; we’d go out for a full day and after four pitches we’d be collapsed on the ground, pounding more water and passing the guidebook back and forth with mild interest in tomorrow’s objectives. What’s going on? I’d usually bag twice that many pitches on a standard hungover Saturday at Shelf Road. I think it has to do with the sweat. The perpetual flow of our bodies’ lifeblood out of our entire epidermis, draining our reserves and making it necessary to chalk up for almost every move. In an attempt to quantify this new experience (and provide empirical grounds for permissible bitching on the wall) we developed the Sweat Decimal System (SDS), which covers the entire spectrum of human sweat-states.
S0= Dry. Lying naked on a 50 degree day in the shade in Colorado
S1= moist in dark regions
S2= beads on skin
S3= runs down skin
S4= sweat in eyes
S5= drips off elbows and nose
S6= runs down ear canals
S7= “saturation shake”, i.e. vigorous shaking will spray everyone within a 10 ft radius
S8= other people cannot hold on to your limbs
S9= physically impossible to see
S10= imminent hospitalization
The suffering climber can supplement the YDS rating of a climb with the SDS conditions, for example Humanality at 1 pm (direct sunlight) is II 5.10b S7+, but at 8 pm it is a far more accessible II 5.10b S5. Most importantly, employing the SDS scale allows me to feel more justified as I dangle in the air spewing expletives after greasing off of a jug the size of a steering wheel.
stemming through the crux of Humanality in S7+ conditions
why the long face Noah?
Tropical conditions are tough for dry-country boys, but the novelty of the climbing more than made up for the difficulties. I don’t know anywhere else where one can climb a 300 ft wall that is completely overhanging at the modest grade of 5.11. The stone is blessed with wild features from tufas and pockets to actual chunks of ancient coral; it’s a jungle gym for big kids. Stemming out to a free-hanging stalagtite and looking down between your legs at waves lapping against the jungle is worth flying halfway around the world, sleeping under a bug net, and getting the runs.
The beachside cragging on Tonsai, Railey, and Phra Nang beaches is a pretty intense scene; guide companies run perpetual topropes on the handful of 5.10s and packs of mammut-clad Euros recline in the sand spraying beta at their inverted compatriots. I swear there was a group of Koreans who sessioned the same route, 60 ft from Freedom Bar, for six days! I also think Tonsai bay is the world’s highest concentration of ripped dudes; you can’t turn your head without seeing 6-packs and rippling obliques, whether their owner is strolling the beach, walking a slackline, or chain-smoking knockoff Marlboros and sipping out of a coconut with a pink straw. We were not too psyched on the sun-n-gun show or the ridiculously polished routes at the popular crags, so being Americans and trad climbers, we did the closest thing to western climbing—got on the multipitches, and found that we’d not only shook the crowds but discovered…ta da!... sharp holds.
Noah on the final pitch, Heart of Darkness
Noah and I had a great time on Heart of Darkness, which follows a system of tufas for 6 pitches up a wall on which pretty much every move is overhanging. From a distance the line resembles the dried skeletons of creeper vines crawling up a wall. No move is harder than .11d but some parts—the first pitch in particular—are so overhanging that if the second falls well below a bolt he is going to have to climb the rope to get back on the wall, which adds some spice to this “sport” climb. The route involves lots of wild stemming with superb exposure, and at one point I actually burrowed through a man-size tunnel to belay in the notch of a stalagtite the size of a truck. The guidebook warned that the descent involves “7c rappelling (i.e. 5.12b)” and boy you better believe it. I had to clip every bolt on the way down and keep vigorously swinging so I could reach the next bolt and not end up dangling uselessly in space.
stemming up into the jungle-gym on Heart of Darkness
Perhaps the highlight of the trip was climbing Lord of the Thais, which is so amazingly good that at the time we were eager to admit that it is the best multipitch climb in the world. Presiding over Railey beach, the Thaiwand is an imposing pinnacle of pocked limestone, and Lord of the Thais ascends an ever more challenging line up the center of the shady north face, culminating in “the most aesthetic crux in the world,” as Noah said as he took off from the belay. This pitch follows two parallel tufa rails to the base of a smooth overhanging block studded with tiny corals. Clinging to these ancient skeletal fragments with nothing but air to the ocean below, you throw a heelhook to the edge of the block, crank up on small pockets, set your feet, and fire out for the rail of a tufa. The movement is precise and beautiful, the setting immaculate. The sequence was tricky to onsight, but Noah, Dan and I all managed to send it on our second attempts.
Dan at the first crux of Lord of the Thais
No climbing trip to Thailand is complete without indulging in the ultimate novelty of deep-water soloing. I will say this: committing to insecure moves 35 feet above the ocean is way scarier than it looks in the videos. After sessioning some low problems with consequence-free splashes into the sea, Dan reached upward from the standard line to grab a large fin that protruded from the cliff like a petrified sunfish, and managed to clamber onto the fin before plummeting off. Up next, I got both hands on the fin and was about to relent to the tug of gravity when I decided I might as well take the situation to the next level of absurdity and I swung my hips up and threw a heel around a dangling stalagtite. Thus inverted, I really didn’t want to fall, so I slapped my way up the fin to a vertical position before jumping clear to the waves. Noah finished the sequence, finding a path of crimps above the stalagtite that gained a small ledge, now 50 ft above the ocean. Soon all three of us were perched up there like stranded cormorants and wishing we hadn’t climbed so high; no way we could reverse those moves. It took a collective countdown for us all to leap. Even though I did several long, controlled drops that day and none of them really hurt, I never got used to the gripping fear of preparing for a big jump. At one point Dan and I rested against a stalagtite waiting our turn while Noah groped blindly around a bulge high above the water. His eyes had the telltale gripped focus as his foot pawed on slimy stone for a foothold, and he turned back to us to sum it all up. “I miss bolts.”
Getting organized at the base of Ao Nang Tower, a lone pillar of limestone rising out of the sea graced with a beautiful 3-pitch line Orange Chandeleirs, 5.11b. We hired a longtail boat to drop us off and when it returned we rappelled into the boat.