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High Times

Submitted by Juliareynolds on 2008-09-14

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by Julia Reynolds

My introduction to rock climbing was somewhat unusual in the respect that I tried it on something of a whim travelling in Thailand this past winter after inadvertently stumbling into one of the international meccas of sport climbing in Tonsai, in the Krabi province. I landed in Tonsai on the advice of a friend and planned to stop there for a couple of days and then move on to delve into the islands of the Andaman Sea for a few weeks, possibly train for my diving certification. Six weeks later with a few newly acquired muscles, a close-knit and varied group of friends with whom I had bonded both on and off the rocks, and a road atlas of multicoloured bruises and scrapes artistically scrawled across my body, I finally, reluctantly departed, amidst the ubiquitous shouts of “Au Nang, Au Nang!” and “pineapple, pineapple, donut!” echoing along the stretch of palm trees and bamboo mat scattered bars lining the beach. I was there long enough that at my last dinner at my favourite restaurant they made me a “goodbye cake” as a symbol of their well wishes. To be precise, with the lack of ovens and the absence of said confection in traditional Thai cuisine, it was actually a large, American-style pancake with “Good Luck” painted on it in chocolate frosting complimented by an ingenious rose garnish carved out of a tomato with lettuce forming its leaves. Ahh, Thailand, how I miss you and your quirkily incongruous menu items aimed at comforting homesick farangs . But I digress.

The second of January was the day of my initiation to the sport of rock climbing. I remember specifically because I was scheduled for the morning climb on the first but when I showed up fifteen minutes early (somewhat heroically, I thought, as I had celebrated the dawning of the new year downing buckets of vodka and Red Bull and dancing on the beach) the Thai guys from the climbing school were all too grimly hungover to do anything but laze red-eyed in the hammocks drooping from the wooden beams on the porch and told me to come back the next day. As I recall, in my last clear memory of Wee from the previous evening (I had met some of the boys from the climbing school the day before) he had an enormous spliff dangling from his lip and a bottle of Jack Daniels in each hand from which he was alternating swigs, so if that was indicative of the level of revelry perhaps I would be better off not being 25 meters above the ground with a still-wasted climbing guide shouting whiskey-muddled instructions from below.

The next day I went out for a half day top-roping course with a (presumably sober) instructor named Sol and a few other climbing hopefuls. Inwardly I was bitterly cursing my flip flop that had disloyally broken the day before as we hiked over the RAZOR sharp rocks that low tide reveals on the way to Eagle Wall, the crag where we would be climbing that day. We arrived at a tiny jewel of a beach which we crossed into the dense jungle forming its lush backdrop. The crag itself was easily accessible from here from a thickly rooted dirt pathway aided with a rope thoughtfully placed though of dubious reliability.

Rockclimbing Article Image1_largest
my first climb ever
Kathryn Burnett
My first climb ever. Photo: Kathryn Burnett.

We had two climbs, one graded a 5 and to its right a long and beautiful 6A called “Spiderman”. The exact details of the rest of the day after my hands and toes (clad in my borrowed, unfamiliar, and uncomfortably restrictive footwear) made that first contact with that mesmerizing limestone are irrelevant. After that first injection of the adrenaline-releasing exquisite high where you are clinging with precarious balance to a rock face high above the ground, and there is no map laid out to trace your tentative steps, and you are trusting your body weight on a foothold the size of a non-genetically modified peanut, and you are willing the moisture forming on your palms to evaporate because you are not yet fully aware of the presence of a little drawstring bag of chalk hanging at your waist for the express purpose of combating said symptom, and your muscles are strained to capacity, and a little rivulet of blood is making its way down your left shin, and there is no other place to go but the words of the Flaming Lips “suddenly everything has changed”.

I might add for background information that prior to my washing up on a long tail boat on the sands of Tonsai Beach I had been on what one might refer to as a bit of a wander. I had left the United States in November, 2006 to relocate to the small and absurdly picturesque Greek island of Mykonos based on the sort of wispy reasoning that can, if lassoed and combined with the proper timing, catalyze change, namely a loosely placed anxiety about the possibility of “missing out” on something as I whiled away my not-unpleasant days in the lovely beachfront community of Narragansett, Rhode Island and an intense desire for adventure, to open some mysterious box containing sparkling newness. I spent eight months in Mykonos initially, and as the novelty eroded and the sometimes empty, alcohol-saturated reality emerged in the spring I returned to the United States to re-evaluate and recharge my finances.

After three months back in Narragansett busily shaking martinis and batting my eyelashes for the twenty percent tips so crucial to my travel funds, I was as perplexed as ever. I had some money (thank you, eyelashes) and I knew precisely where I did not want to be, the trouble only being that I had not the vaguest idea of where I did want to be, or what it was that I wanted to do when I got there. The idea of whiling away a bitter white winter in New England twiddling my frost bitten thumbs and slipping into one of the existential crises into which I tend to submerge after too much idle time in America was less than appealing, as was the prospect of another soul-crushing red wine-drenched winter in Greece, from which the previous one my liver was still recovering. I found myself online for hours on end, my hands almost of their own avail typing in cheap flight search engines, and after all the accumulated daydreams and ticket prices solidified in a perfect puzzle piece configuration I had in my possession a ticket that would take me back to Greece for two months, Spain for two weeks, New Zealand for two weeks, Australia for one month, three months in southeast Asia, and back to Greece in the spring. Some entrance of credit card details, an exhilarating click on the “submit” button, and my next ten months or so were laid out before me, just waiting to be lived.

When I arrived in Thailand I had, needless to say, been to some pretty spectacular places and accumulated what felt like about four years of experience in four months. Spain was my time of rampant indulgence, filled with endless pitchers of sangria and tapas in Valencia, though I left with a slightly sour taste after being robbed in broad daylight in Barcelona. I had the time of my life hitch-hiking my way first through the jaw-dropping austerity of the south island of New Zealand and then about half the east coast of Australia in a rapid fire montage of pale rainbowed waterfalls, pristine aquamarine lakes and endless beaches, rugged snow-peaked scenery, sleeping under the stars in Castle Hill in New Zealand bundled like a mummy in my sleeping bag, catching a 13-hour lift from Byron Bay to Nararra with a truck driver named Shane and then body surfing on Terregal Beach in Australia on Christmas Day, and all of it was so free, so ME; I was utterly untethered and floating somewhere new and joyous every day. And what had I lost but monotony? And what had I gained but the world?

In that same spirit of enchantment, in the giddy heights of discovery, I climbed my very first rock in Tonsai. Again I had many choices laid out in the crevices and intricate indentations of the limestone I gripped, only this time the destination was a set point, a tangible ring-shaped goal that begged to be tapped in triumph. Here was a turning point, a solid threshold to reach demanding not only my attention but the utmost physical and psychological determination. Every sport-related cliché gained relevance: wanting something so desperately “you could taste it”, “adrenaline junky”, the word “addiction” assuming new and oddly positive associations. I would find my mind wandering at breakfast during the interminable wait for a bowl of porridge (my God, what were they DOING back there, sowing the oats?) contemplating whether there might be a handhold further to the right I had overlooked in the crux of a particular route and I would wake in the middle of the night to find my fists sweatily clenched and my feet pressing soft craters in the sheets, struggling, even in my dream state, to reach that elusive pinnacle.

Those six weeks in Tonsai were a special time in my life. I did some more climbing in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand and in Vang Vieng, Laos and spent some time in Cambodia before returning to Mykonos, and the climbing was lovely and peaceful, absent of the throngs of climbers in cue for popular routes, classes of beginners, and the odd chubby German tourist clicking voyeuristic shots in the Ibiza-reminiscent resort of Railey Beach adjacent to Tonsai, but nothing could compare to the splendour of the Krabi limestone.

Back in Greece I was struck with another impasse. My savings were dwindling at an alarming rate into the “dire straits” category, made even more painfully acute by the transition from the Cambodian real to the euro in the most expensive place in Greece. Two of my best friends from home had met me in Athens upon my return from Thailand, and although we spent a wonderful ten days together in Mykonos my return to a static state caused a loss of inertia that was sadly punctuated by their departure. There I was in this veritable island paradise with nothing to climb, nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one in whom to confide my seemingly self-indulgent melancholy. Close to broke but not yet ready to go back to the States, I gathered my wits about me and secured a decent job at a taverna on the beach and proceeded to work every day for the next three months without a break to climb, write, or even think, functioning on the automatic pilot level that allows us to accomplish what we need but don’t necessarily want to do. At the end of that ridiculously overworked, underpaid, and drearily mundane period I was mysteriously “let go” from my job following an incident involving my informing a feeble-minded male associate that wiping glasses was not, in fact, “women’s work”. When the initial flood of upset and self-righteous indignation subsided it was time to weigh options yet again, and what I kept coming back to was the idea of being somewhere where I would be treated as a human being, somewhere I had contacts with good people, somewhere that wasn’t the United States, and somewhere I could, once again, dig my fingers into an unyielding, strength-affirming rock surface, not on which to vent my accumulated frustrations but with which, in the pure balance of mind and body it created, to render them obsolete.

Five days later I had a stuffed backpack once again, the climbing shoes and chalk bag were still clipped to the outside of the rucksack, the carabiner grown sticky with with moisture and the gathering sad dust of disuse, and I was on a plane to England. Since arriving here three weeks ago I have formulated and discarded several plans, and even now as I sit in the Botanical Gardens in Sheffield in the Peak District of England I find myself pulled in several different directions still, all seemingly equidistant. I have not only donned my climbing shoes again with a resurgence of my initiatory enthusiasm to learn the delicate art of trad climbing here in the pretty rolling hillsides of the English Midlands, with the same sense of renewal and a startling ripple of inspiration like a pebble dropped in a still lake I have finally picked up my long discarded notebook and pen, perhaps metaphorically recovered from that same corner of my bedroom in Mykonos where my climbing gear was gathering dust. Both activities open a valve for me to allow release, both challenge the very aspects of my being I strive most to improve, and both occasionally cause my hands to cramp in exhaustion. Even as I continue my gypsy-tinged vagrancy, I have grasped something even more solid than the intriguing English gritstone, and that something is self, and it is what serves to keep us grounded however high we may ascend.

I remain uncertain of which direction my path will meander next, but when I look up at those gorgeous routes etched in multi-layered stone stretching up to the mercurial English sky, rarely following a straight-line sequence themselves, I am sure of one thing. Wherever I may be in this world, and whatever magnets of the north, south, east, or west poles exert the most powerful pull on me, there is one direction in which I will be perpetually drawn, and that direction is UP.


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11 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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I'll tell you what you should do next... you should write!

Julia, I really enjoyed that. First off, I was excited to see an article about Tonsai. I left the United States last September in search of something different. I too, ended up climbing in Thailand. I fell into a job as a rock climbing guide on Koh Phi Phi (not the place to travel but I loved getting paid) and spent as much time as I could in Tonsai. Wee, Sol, Alex, Yon... the boys... what a solid group of guys!!

The buckets have ruined my memory but I spent most of my time at the bar with the slack line (not the one under Humanality but the one down the beach) and ate breakfast at that restaurant across from Wee's... a girl named Pam owned it. I always stayed in the bungalows up the hill across from that Indian restaurant.

Did you know a British red-head named Judy or an beautiful, blonde American girl named Sarah? Where did you hang out, what did you climb? I am sure I was there at one point at the same time as you. I was there for a week before Christmas, and then off and on from February to May.

Anyways... I returned home to North Carolina in May and have been slaving in the front yards of rich people. I have only climbed 4 or 5 times. I am finally free, and am heading to Red River Gorge next week for a few months, before I fly back to Thailand. It made me so happy to read about that "Krabi limestone." Thailand is the best place in the world isn't it? I miss it SO MUCH!

It is interesting that you are in England because my girlfriend happens to be a British Citizen and just moved back to England after overstaying her visa in the United States. I will be moving there in May to be with her. I'm kind of excited because it gives me a chance to permanently get out of the US, but I'm nervous about not being able to work there, and even worse, not being able to go climb as much as I'd like. I hope you are enjoying it there and getting to climb.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about traveling in general, and especially Thailand. I really loved it. Please let me know how your time in England is going and keep in touch... maybe we will find each other on the rock some day whether it be English grit or Krabi limestone. :) Or Greek limestone!!!!
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wow that brings back memories. Banana porridge every morning, the friends, hanging out all night then climbing all day. Miss it so much it hurts
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To say this story brightened my day is a vast understatement. My first trip to Thailand was right around the time you were there. I went to Bangkok for about 3 days on business and stayed for 2 nights of fun. With in my first 10 hours in the country I was absolutely in love. My second trip took me to Phuket where I drank away 5 nights that I seemingly can’t remember but never will forget. Then shortly upon returning to China (where I was living at the time) I went to a climbing gym and was hooked. I was severely disappointed when I found out that I had missed out on the world class climbing in, what I have found to be; the most amazing country on our planet.

I now found myself in the flat lands of Eastern Europe, with little else to pull on than a few undeveloped boulders, and a sub-par over crowded gym. Your story has given me a glimmer of hope though because in just a few months time I will be taking the journey across the pacific once more, this time I won’t miss out on what Thailand has to offer our sport. Until then I’ll keep pulling on what I have, and with a bit of inspiration from articles like this I’ll try to keep my chin up until I’m some place a little warmer and sunnier.

Thanks for reminding me about the light at the end of the tunnel. Keep pulling hard.

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My, you seem to have a habit of breaking flip-flops, don't you?
Honestly, Julia, you are so gifted and deserve to have only the best life experiences. Is it too much to ask if I can tag along for at least one of them?
Kisses, angel face---Mercy
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Great article. Thanks so much for the brief glimpse into your beautifully chaotic adventures. You have a great gift for words so please continue to entertain the rest of us. Good luck!
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You have superb story telling capabilities. May the journey never end.
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Great story! Just got back yesterday from my second trip to Krabi and I already want to go back. Tonsai is awesome, but my favorite place to climb was on Escher Wall on Phra Nang beach. Beautiful view, not crowded, and in the shade almost all day.
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Great story, sounds like an adventure and a half. I'm glad you are interested in climbing, i hope you stick with it, because the joy you have gotten from climbing so far will only grow.
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That's my girl. Up up & away ms reynolds. I could hear your voice in my head-narrating the story to me, which made me miss you like crazy. You know what we have to do next, right? Experience some damn good climbing in the good ol' US of A!
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Thanks for the great Sunday morning read! Your words flow with amazing grace as a climber tackles a challenging route! If your climbing is anything like your writing..... you'll be a pro leadin' a hard 5.13 soon!
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You're an excellent writer, and this was a great read and brought back floods of memories. Thank you!

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