Lee's New Year's 2006 Thailand Climbing Trip

(An old 2006 trip report saved here to my blog for posterity -- Lee)

“Okay, that’ll be $24.80”. Without thinking, Sam replies “Kop Koon Ka” to the woman in the Morningside Fruit Shop who stares with a blank expression. I can’t believe we’re back in Australia. Thailand was so awesome.

We left for the Land Of Smiles on Christmas night. Sam, Erik and myself had been before for three weeks in 2003 and were itching to get back. We were joined by Duncan and his wife Shannyn. Thailand would host Duncan’s first climbing on foreign soil. Rumours were kicking around the grapevine of an Australian invasion to southern Thailand’s Phra Nang Peninsula in late December, and that proved to be true when we arrived and saw a bunch of familiar smiling faces.

“What about accommodation?” Duncan had asked beforehand. “Shouldn’t we book something in advance – it’s peak season?” “Nah, she’ll be right mate, there’ll be plenty of rooms available.” Of course that statement backfired on me when we found only one place on Ton Sai that had three rooms available. Luckily it was the same place we had stayed at in 2003, which was very nice – essential for the girls. Unluckily, the price had nearly tripled since then – 1000 baht per night - roughly $35. “Outrageous!” I proclaimed, which then became a regular catchcry.

Day two and our first day of climbing saw us head to One-Two-Three on Railay East, one of the oldest and most accessible crags in the region. We like to think of it as the Kangaroo Point of Thailand due to the crowds, noise, amount of top ropes and general chaos. Local Thai climbing guides use the area every day to take paying backpackers on their first climbing experience, complete with instructions of every move yelled at the top of their lungs. “Move yo lef foo far to the lef. Now reach up wi yo haan, higher, HIGHER, YAHHHH!” Non stop. Duncan was unimpressed with his first Thai crag experience, so after climbing a few routes from 20 to 23 and failing on a crappy 25, we headed up into the jungle to the small but superlative Hidden World Wall where we whiled the afternoon away on some nice routes between 20 and 26, with Duncan and I both having a couple of shots on the hardest route, Banana Ship.

Day three dawned hot. Damn hot. And sticky. Up on Melting Wall that afternoon we attempted a 30m long, wildly overhanging stamina route called Affenhitze, grade 24. About halfway up on the onsight, there was a small cave I was able to wedge myself in. Problem was, as soon as I got in it, my sweat production (already high) skyrocketed until I was counting the drips off my nose at a steady rate of one drip per second. I had to weigh up the sweat against the pump, and after a few minutes eased myself out of the cave onto the overhanging headwall, only to fall off a few bolts later. After getting the rest of the draws on, I lowered off in a sweaty mess. Duncan proceeded to take to the air for long, impressive lobs at least 10 times before blaming the smoke from the longtail boats way below. He didn’t realise that 'The Smoking Room' was located just around the corner and was inhabited by ganja-smoking enthusiasts sitting around a large fire. I was dead tired and was begging Duncan to finish the route and clean the draws but no luck, I would have to go up again. Somehow I hung in and finished the route cleanly. Thank god it was a rest day the next day. Swimming, shopping, massage. Ahh!

Day five was more hot jungle action with my highlights being my “almost off, almost off” sweatfest send of Banana Ship before heading up to Thaiwand Wall. Thaiwand was my fave crag from the 2003 trip and hosts a series of classic long single and multipitch climbs in a great position on the peninsula. I managed to onsight a great route called Out Of The Sticks, recently upgraded to 25 after a key hold broke. This was 30m long and with several roofs to crank through, definitely in my top five for the trip. This put me in a great position to take photos of Duncan on the route next door, Caveman (24). Sam’s never-say-die battle to the anchors on Space Head Gone Ape (20) was also memorable.

Day six saw me take a nice fall from the final moves of Reminiscence (24) on the onsight attempt in the morning. It actually had some small holds and was, like, vertical! That’s not right! Erik did some great work hanging in for the ride on Speaking Out Loud, a 30m 20. I did that route in 2003 and thought it was the best route on Eagle Wall. Duncan finished off his day in very sweaty fashion in some bizarre grade 22 trench called Mentally Deranged and Hiding, which pretty accurately describes the ascent. That night was New Year’s Eve and we chilled out at the Freedom Bar with a very extended dinner. I managed to talk Sam into doing the multipitch classic Humanality (21) with me first thing in the morning. We even almost made it to midnight. Erik snuck back out later to take photos of the fireworks and lanterns, and we’ll never know what else he got up to.

The alarm went off before 6am and I dragged Sam and the gear down to the beach. The party was still going at the Freedom Bar, with music blaring and people dancing around in various stages of drug-addled intoxication. How's the serenity? We were the first ones on the route (the first party of 2006), and climbed as quick as we could to put some distance between us and the German party who’d just arrived behind us. I led each of the five pitches and Sam climbed about half of them cleanly and had a few rests on the others. The third pitch is amazing, stemming out from a smooth wall to a huge stalactite behind you. Sam really felt the exposure! As Sam met me at the final semi-hanging belay she was absolutely spent, which of course was part of my plan, and I asked her to marry me. She was obviously too tired to think clearly and said yes. Two 50m abseils saw us back at the bar where Erik was waiting with the camera, breakfast and congratulations. The rest of the day was a happy blur of phone calls to parents and other 'rest day' activities, which included fishing where I racked up a pretty impressive queenfish.

Lee and his queenfish © E Smits 2005

Day eight saw us discover the joys of Cat Wall. Man that is a sweet piece of stone, which amongst others, hosts three really brilliant, pockety 30m resistance routes – Black Cat (23), April Fool’s (25) and Gillies No Limits (27/8). Erik onsighted a nice 20, Duncan fired off April Fools on his second try and I got the flash. Thinking I’d found a bit of form, I jumped on Kitty Paw (26) which went on the second try, cool! Duncan went for volume and onsighted Black Cat and King Cat, an overhanging line of deep pockets.

The following day saw us pottering around on some of the smaller crags at Railay in the morning. I actually did okay with an onsight of Alter Schwede! (25) where I was laid out horizontally hanging from a very shallow kneebar between a big tufa, and another tufa flow that was about 10mm thick. Strange climbing! I also onsighted another strange route called Lost Lek (23) which reminded me of a diagonal version of Orestes at Arapiles. Fingerlocks up an incipient crackline. No fiddling in wires though, thank god – I was way pumped! Back up to Thaiwand Wall so Duncan and I could take on the route on the cover of my guidebook – Orange Juice (26). It’s like Pump Action at Serpent, but on steroids. Perfect orange rock with bullet hard, scalloped limestone. Sweet! I’d been on the route once in 2003 and wasn’t quite good enough to put it together. This time I decided to take it easy putting the draws on, resting where I needed to, and figuring out the best way to grab the sometimes slippery pockets. Duncan had his shot and worked the moves. I towelled myself off, chalked to the elbows, and headed up. Stuffed the sequence trying to use an unnecessary fist jam and downclimbed to a rest. Back up and flowed through the moves pretty well. The crux traverse with a pinky-lock felt hard, but I went through and got a shake above it. Got my breathing back and climbed quickly to the anchors. The view from the anchors was all the sweeter.

That night, I ordered chicken with cashew nuts with an entrée of Thai fish cakes. Big mistake. Woke at 1am in, let’s say, discomfort. The bathroom was my home until the following morning. No climbing for me! While I was confined to bed, the others went and saw a local Monkey Show. The monkeys had been taught to untie knots, and the audience was encouraged to tie knots and have the monkeys untie them. Duncan managed to assert his superior place on the food chain with a threaded figure eight. The poor monkey would make a vague attempt before cocking its head and looking at Duncan as if to say “Why are you doing this to me?” before making another half-hearted attempt.

Monkey business © E Smits 2005

Duncan fired off Orange Juice on day 11, as I lay on the beach and took pictures with Erik’s 400mm lens. He also came super close to ticking Gilles No Limits, with one “stupid” fall on his second shot. Erik worked his slippery-footer project The Lion King (22/3) on the beach.

Duncan sending Orange Juice (26) © L Cujes 2006

Day 12 was the third day of me feeling dodgy. Snorkelling it is. We went out on a big speed boat to three different snorkelling spots, lunched at Phi Phi, and checked out the tourist debacle that is Maya Beach (i.e. the place where The Beach was filmed). At one of the snorkelling spots, the guide threw some bread in the water to create a damselfish melee. If you held the bread in your hand, 100 fish would instantly be swarming all over it. The obvious next move for me was to quietly swim up and stuff the bread down Duncan’s boardshorts. Ahh, good times.

At lunch, I stuck with pasta and watermelon, while Iron Gut (aka Erik) ate everything in sight. As I gave Iron Gut his wakeup call the following morning by bashing on his door, I was greeted only with moans and groans. The glory of Iron Gut was no more. Well at least Duncan would be right to climb. Bzzt! Wrong! Duncan was sick too, blaming spring rolls from the night before. So a leisurely breakfast with Sam was had, before I got back into the swing of things by onsighting a 21, three 23’s and two 24’s before lunch. I was finally feeling better! The best thing was that the routes were all located within 40m of where we had breakfast. Beat that access! That afternoon, while climbing at Wild Kingdom Wall, I discovered the greatest invention of modern times, the Mozzie Bat. A European climber had one he had recently bought (“100 baht, 100 baht!”) and I was fascinated. A Mozzie Bat is a handheld device the size and shape of a squash racquet with a short handle. Instead of strings, it has three layers of thin metal wires in a grid and a button on the handle. Press the button, hit the mozzie, see the tiny explosion, smell the smoke. Way more fun than Aeroguard. I vowed to get one.

Day 14 was a weird one. We went up to Tyrolean Wall to watch Chris and Karen (Blue Mountains climbers) work their project, Tyrolean Air (27). The route next door, K1 (27) was the only route free and the sun was almost on the wall. I don’t know why, but I decided to give it a go. Chris had said they had given it a try, but the bouldery opening moves on pockets had shut them down. So I taped up good, hopped on, and the moves went surprisingly well. There was a move at the fourth bolt however that was a very tenuous and dynamic throw to a small three-finger tips pocket. If you missed the pocket (poor accuracy) or didn’t get your fingers in properly, you were off. I sussed that move and climbed to the top and lowered down. The sun was now fully on the wall, but I felt strangely confident? I climbed through the pockets and got to the throw and just stuffed it up. Threw a hissy fit and came down. It was about this time Chris and Karen went to breakfast. My third shot, I was stunned as I made the move, cranked up to the sloping ledge that is the next hold, only to watch my hands uncurl. Argh! Fourth shot, nothing. Fifth shot fell off the first move. Hmm, pattern emerging. Shoes off. Harness off. Pack up. Go home. Duncan (still sick) manages to make his way back up to Cat Wall to try to send Gillies No Limits. Up on the ledge we encountered a circus. Duncan was fifth in line to get on Gillies. Eventually his number was called, he presented his ticket, and began climbing. After three falls on the crux it became obvious he wasn't as recovered as he thought. Shoes off. Harness off. Pack up. Go home.

Rest day. Maybe? Erik, Duncan and Shannyn go on a tour to James Bond Island. I’m not sure what went on there. Presumably they met James Bond. Did a mission of some kind. I was never clear on that. Anyway, Sam and I went to nearby Ao Nang and bought CD’s like they were going out of style, which I think they are, what with MP3s and the like. Was a bit bored in the arvo though so managed to sneak in five pitches. “But it’s still a rest day because nothing was harder than 23!” Yes, that’ll do.

My project draws (old set of quickdraws) were still up on K1, so the morning of day 16 was the time. I had a bit of boulder to warm up and then tied on and went straight up it. Wow! That’s the hardest I’ve climbed outside my home turf of Queensland! Success breeds confidence, and while Duncan worked a long 26 nearby, I racked up at the base of Just Call me Helmet (29). The start section seemed pretty easy, leading into an inverted staircase of a roof, complete with juggy holds, nice. The headwall above looked smooth, vertical and intimidating. Duncan, who was about 10m up and right of me was saying “There’s more black marks from shoes on there than there is chalk!” It did seem strange. But once I sorted myself out and oozed my body close to the wall, I seemed to be gaining height; some tricky holds to hold plus more oozing had me to the next bolt, wow – cool! Eventually and with more oozing and bizarre body positions I had all the draws on. A final top rope of the hard moves was in order. Of course, as I pulled into some wacky Karma Sutra move, I felt a spasm in my back. Owww! Stupid back! Lower off.

Lee sending K1 (27) © J Martin 2006

Day 17 was Duncan’s final climbing day, and we’d been talking about The Keep as a nice crag to finish up on. It has a host of 22/3 ish routes which are all great climbing. When we climbed down the ladder that leads to the wall we were stunned with the amount of people we found. There was roughly 20 people at a crag that has eight routes.

“Let’s bail!”
“Hang on, hang on, there’s some routes down here on this other wall”
“They look shit!”

Long story short, Gym Bean (23) was the best route in Thailand and comes thoroughly recommended. During the time it took me to bandage my bleeding hands, one route had inexplicably become free on the main wall. Duncan was at the second bolt before we knew what was happening. We then slithered our way through the crag like snakes, with Duncan finishing off onsighting Tongue Thaid, a dead sexy 24 on the end of the wall. Beautiful pocket moves with nothing too hard characterises the 25m of climbing. After such a nice finale Duncan felt content to fly out to Bangkok on the morrow.

After a rest day in Krabi where I purchased a Mozzie Bat to call my own and found a KFC and were stunned by table service, cutlery and glasses, it was time to get back to Helmet. I really had no idea what to expect. My back hadn’t yet returned to normal and I was needing to stretch it out every 30 mins or so. The shopping day hadn’t helped. Thinking back, Helmet seems like a route you’ll either love or hate. There aren’t an abundance of grade 29 routes where the crux comes on what is essentially a slab. For the sake of brevity, I’ll say I like the route, because I went straight up it first go of the day, second go overall. My hardest route. Weird feeling! The 27 took six shots and this took two. Oh well, whatever, I’ll take it! I then went down and did Reminiscence and German’s In Tights (25) - a route I had tried earlier in the trip. I managed to almost get horizontal after latching the final dyno. It was sending day and Sam had a ripper of an afternoon at Diamond Cave onsighting a 19, probably her hardest onsight, and redpointing a 20 on her second shot. In between belaying, I walked the ten steps to the restaurant/bar where the staff were lazing around.

“What you need?”
“Nothing, just looking around. Have you got Diet Coke”
“Yah. We got you drinks. We get you lady?”
“Umm, no I’ve got my own lady, thanks.”
“What about Lady Boy? You want Lady Boy?”
“Ummm, nooo."
[uncomfortable pause]
So, how about that Diet Coke?”

After looking at the map, Erik and I decided that instead of walking all the way around the peninsula, it would be possible to walk from Diamond Cave straight over the hill and down into the back of Ton Sai where our accommodation was. Sam said she’d buy us a drink if it worked. We both had a Sprite. Walking through the mozzie-infested jungle, the newly purchased mozzie bat really came into its own, sometimes getting up to five mozzies in a single swipe. All fine and dandy until the batteries ran out. “Oh my God … Run you fools … ARHHHHH!”

Putting the draws on something one day and climbing it another day was my new pattern. I’d put the draws on Tyrolean Air (27) the day before and after a quick boulder to warm up, it went down after breakfast on day 20. We met a cool German guy and his girlfriend at Tyrolean that morning who was working No Have, a nice looking 26. We got to talking and the route sounded nice. I had zero luck on the start of The Zephyr (28), so I inquired as to whether I could use his draws and have a go before we headed down for lunch. He was cool with it so up I went. The route had a similar pattern to Helmet, and after some worrying, smeary footholds, I managed to slap my way to the anchors for my first flash at that grade – awesome! Extra good to do it on a very long pitch of climbing which I prefer. Rest day for the remainder of today! Let’s go for a swim at Phra Nang Beach. Okay! Hmm, low tide, we could get across to Happy Island. And we have our climbing gear. Err, guys, will you give me a belay on something? Sigh – okay Lee. King Fisher (24) is such a fantastic route. 30m long, pure resistance and scalloped, scoopy rock like Orange Juice. It’s like someone took an ice-cream scoop and just scooped out the rock. I’d fallen from the final section on the onsight in 2003 and had a score to settle. Pure enjoyment the whole way up (except for the wet pants from wading across). Somehow I convinced Sam to have a crack on toprope. By the time all the draws were off and she was back on the beach she had some very handy wear marks on her fingertips.

We caught a boat back around to Ton Sai and I was still buzzing from the great day we’d had. The sun was going down. I glanced up at Cat Wall. Empty. Glanced at the sun. Hmm. “Erik?” The draws were already on, and I ended up doing all the moves on Gillies quickly, and felt good about having a shot tomorrow – our final climbing day!

Day 21, third day on. Uggh! Up on the terrace after brekkie I’d identified a route that would really suit Erik - Trade Winds (23). Nice and short, steep, with long reaches to good deep pockets. I put the draws on and E roped up. With a lot of encouragement he clipped the anchors of his hardest lead - and he flashed it, how good? We were all stoked. Once shade fell over Cat Wall, it was time to head up. As I came around and looked up at Gillies, I was shocked to see the perma-draws that had been on it the entire trip had been removed. Oh no! I now had a dilemma. I’m pretty damn tired and have limited energy. Do I climb the route to put the draws on with the least amount of energy possible, resting on every bolt, and then have my serious attempt to send? Or do I go all-out putting the draws on which will be more strenuous, possibly falling and not having enough energy for another shot? I decided to go all-out and it worked. Climbed the route straight up putting the draws on – the first time I’ve done that on a route that hard. I couldn’t believe it – I felt exhausted but elated. I came down and climbed the 23 and 22 on the ledge as well, before running around to Fire Wall for an onsight solo of the beginner classic Groove Tube, just to cap things off.

So that marked the end of a fantastic few weeks of climbing in the tropics. I was just feeling like I was hitting my straps and would have loved an extra week or so to see what else I could have done. I definitely learnt a few things this time around. Rest days make you climb better. Contrary to popular opinion, eating western food such as spaghetti bolognaise in Thailand is not a bad thing! Going through half a block of chalk per day is acceptable. And finally, Australian Customs will confiscate your Mozzie Bat!

-- Lee Cujes, January 2006

Grades in this story were converted to Aussie from their actual French ratings