Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sweaty palms in the Heart of Darkness

Dan Rothberg, Noah Gostout, myself

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.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dripping Stone

Dripping Stone
Tonsai Bay, Thailand
Noah and Zach Gostout, John Collis, myself

Last night was a prime example of the bond of mischief, risk, and camaraderie that joins us young goons.  First, the situation: after a relaxed day of cragging on the sultry coast of southern Thailand, John Collis and I decided to cap the day off by ascending a line of pockets and tufas dubbed Humanality that climbs the sheer limestone wall directly above Tonsai bay’s “Freedom Bar.”  Enter the absurd factor.  We set off at dusk with a rope and a rack of draws, monkeying up a large banyan tree slinging branches for pro and scrambling across mossy ledges to the first anchor.  The night air cool, the wall’s overhang sheltered us from the drips cascading from the jungle above.  Guided by ambient light of the bar below I let my headlamp dangle unused around my neck as I searched the soft glowing face for telltale shadows betraying pockets and edges.  Progress was rhythm, movement constant, mild fear of the vertical sharpened senses and the runnout, the dark gulf of air below, didn’t matter. 
John stoked on Humanality

Four pitches up the holds petered out.  Confronting the puzzle, sweat slicked on my limbs and ran rivulets down the sockets of my eyes.  Not until I leaned out and took in the whole situation did the next puzzle piece fall in place: smearing my feet on the polished stone I fell out, arresting downward momentum with my palm at arm’s length on the base of a gargantuan stalagtite.  Thus braced, I could stem between the slick wall and the gnurled dagger of stone.  This compressed position was secure, but the shimmer of the next bolt lay further out on the face, beyond the security of the stalagtite.  I matched hands on the one pocket within reach and beared down as my feet swung through air to the wall, strained a toe out to a tenuous smear, tightened everything and groped for an edge at arm’s reach, caught it, and leaving the previous pocket experienced a dizzying moment of balance, caught between the inertial barn-door swing into the night and the tension binding hand to foot through the curve of my spine like a drawn bow.  The moment mastered, I reached my free foot through to backstep a glassy nubbin and stood up, hugging the bulging stone, to stand secure in an alcove. 

Below, the stalagtite glowed in the bar light like a misshaped gargoyle dripping from the cliff, the mountain’s own lifeblood oozing from its craggy pores with the incessant tropical rain, but arrested in space and time by chemical wizardry.  If it weren’t this alchemy of footloose ions and monsoon rains and the tropical heat this cliff would never have sprouted such grotesque offspring; at the crux of the wall, where the holds dissapear, there would be no way to keep the rhythm upwards. 

I clipped the belay and started bringing John up, settling into the soft moment of the evening.  The cliff glows amber, bristling with fanciful creatures of dripping stone.  The melodious hum of the bar below, travelers relaxing, the banter of many tongues blend with the soft vellure of beer and rum, the crackle of chicken thighs sizzling on braziers, the bassoon croaks of frogs and primate sonatas in the surrounding jungle.  In the bay longtail boats drift at their moors, and the occasional growl of their naked engines reverberates from the islands which perch silent and black on the horizon, lit by the passage of firefly vessels. 

Even though it is night, my body is sticky with sweat.  Drops periodically run down the inner curve of my eyes, and even into my ears while pumping on the pitches.  Everything is wet or sticky somehow, cascades of drops still rain from the stalagtites that crown the cliff.  Earlier that afternoon we lay on our backs on the patio of the Freedom Bar, watching drops plummet towards us.  If you focus hard and track one in its motion you can catch it in its perfect shape, a pearl of pure water, exquisite in its geometry before obliteration on the deck. 

John makes it to the crux and gapes incredulously at the blank wall and menacing finger of stone which seems to hover in space.  He leans out to the stalagtite and finds he’s still on, and as I illuminate the holds for him he stems toward me; several hard pulls later he joins me in the alcove, dripping sweat.  We soak in the night’s ambience for a while, but the whisper of the bar below sounds inviting and we soon began our rappels. 

After gathering snarls of rope from the branches of cliff-dwelling palm trees, I looked over the edge to toss them again and was surprised to see the glistening limbs of a human scaling the wall beneath, and then I am not surprised at all, because I know before hearing his voice that it’s Noah.  “You too!”  “We have beer!”  John and I wait on the ledge as the brothers Gostout nimbly ascend the next pitch and join us.  The silence of night drifts higher above us as we crack beers, first wiping the cool bottles over our foreheads for relief.  We discover that a climbing shoe clipped to the anchor makes a fairly secure beer coozie, and the bond of mischief sizzles on the flicker-lit wall.  We toss our ropes and are rewarded by a dull thump as they hit the roof of the bar, then spin and harry each other with flying ninja kicks as we simul-rap to the bar.  As I’m shouting “off rappel” for the next two, Noah is already ordering another round. 

Again we’re on the patio aglow in the effervescence of beer and the aroma of noodles; as bottles crowd the table so do our memories emerge and fill the conversation, risks and laughs shared.  The cliff looms silent and soft above us, dripping its lifeblood off stone gargoyles to the tin roofs and patios below.  

Noah demonstrates the "tethered shoe coozie".  Safety first!