The climbing atmosphere at Tonsai is all encompassing. From dawn until dusk you pass climbers hauling racks of equipment off to tackle a new route, tribal tattoos and hardbodies are around every corner, lamps and canopies are all hung with old climbing ropes and chalk and worn climbing shoes are littered outside of every bungalow. Needless to say, it’s infectious. Almost as soon as we arrived, Erik and I clambered to sign up for an outing. Just our luck, the early morning Deep Water Solo trip is only held the three days after the half moon due to the tides and we were right on time.
I did an internship at a climbing magazine in college where I spent hours perusing pages and pages of stunning climbing photographs. Some of the most memorable were the deep water soloing pictures, where climbers clung to a wall without the protection of any rope or equipment because the deep water below them would catch them if they fell. Something about the purity of just you and the wall is very appealing to me and it’s been a dream of mine ever since. Unfortunately, deep water soloing is only possible in some parts of the world because you need the perfect combination of rock and water for it to be safe and challenging, and Tonsai, Thailand is one of the more well known.
We were up soon after the sun, throwing peanuts into our mouths and heading over to join the group. Before we headed off to the boats the 20 of us crawled through a pile of very worn climbing shoes to find a pair that would pass. Most of them were crusty and had holes where your big toe should be, but they would suffice.
For half an hour we sped to the first wall on a longtail boat while we chatted and got to know our fellow climbers. It’s always fun to meet other travelers and listen to their plans during their two week vacations from Arizona, or year-long circumnavigations. While we waited for our guides to affix ladders to the route starting points, laminated route maps were passed around showing the various routes and their difficulty according to the French rating scale. Erik and I didn’t know the exact conversion to the US scale, but we could guess. I had prepared myself for some considerable disappointment, as I was anything but in climbing shape, and hadn’t really been in over two years, but I was determined to put my inappropriate competitive spirit aside and just enjoy climbing again.
It was fun to watch people go before me, and I noticed that many of them had no problems with the easier routes they had decided to warm up on, but often were quite hesitant to jump from the heights where the routes ended.
Towards the end of the morning, I couldn’t manage to get up the last of the ladders. To be fair though it’s no easy task to pull oneself out of treading water and up a ladder that is missing several rungs, but I tried until I was thoroughly exhausted.
After we had feasted on bowls of rice, meat and veggies and snacked on fresh pineapple, we loaded up the boats for our afternoon session at a second location. When we arrived I could clearly see that this wall was much more challenging both in route difficulty and mental toughness. All of the routes started much higher up from the water, and required a very tricky navigation when transferring from the long rope ladder onto the rock. Only one of the women succeeded in getting on to the rock where she quickly decided to jump at her current height rather than go any higher. My competitive attitude told me I could outdo her, but by the time I had struggled to the top of the ladder I couldn’t quite get past the tricky transition in my mind, and kept picturing myself falling from here and becoming entangled in the rope mess below me.
Erik did, however, get past this crux and continued on up until he had to have been well over 40 feet up. A fellow climber had described this as the height where his “asshole started twitching”. If Erik was feeling similarly, he did a good job of hiding it and only hesitated twice before he jumped.
There were some fairly strong climbers in the bunch who were great fun to watch as they made their way up some of the overhanging routes, which not only required great skill, but also incredible arm and abdominal strength.
We sped back to Tonsai feeling both completely exhausted and exhilarated. I knew that I would be sore the next day, but was unsurprised to hear people around us already grouping up to go climbing the next day with people, who knew people, who had equipment. If we had been there for more than a few days, it was quite apparent that we would have no problems being sucked into the climbing community for weeks, months. . .
Our day on the wall had entirely awakened my past enthusiasm for the sport, and made us long for winters in Madison when we would visit the climbing gym several times a week. We both agreed that next time, we would love to return in full climbing shape and be able to fully take advantage of the wonderful routes and opportunities that manifest through both the topography and population.