Monday, January 11, 2016

Prepping to Climb Abroad

As we blaze -- or maybe lollygag for all I know of tracking one's speed through water -- across the wide-open sea, I realize it's just two days until climbing in Puerto Rico will commence. This cruise ship wedding reception thing has been a fun enough (albeit strange) way to pass 60 hours or so, but it's got me itching to get my feet back on land and my fingers on some stone. So, as a means of whiling the time, I'm pondering the importance of preparation for international climbing trips. Here are a few tips we've learned along the way, as well as considerations that have come into play this time.

The Beta
Before Mike & I even decide whether or not somewhere will make a worthwhile overseas crag for us, we browse the beta, much as we would for a new-to-us area state-side. This means combing Mountain Project, investing in guidebooks and scouting for climbing or other outdoor shops in the vicinity. I've also posted in online forums to double check safety and get the latest info.

Together, all this research should at least let you know about the ascents -- are they your style, is there enough climbing at your grade? -- the approaches and the extent to which the sport is accepted and supported locally. It'll also warn you of any particular dangers that may be deal-breakers. I.e., questionable bolts just aren't an option in our book, so we decided against climbing in the Dominican Republic for now (the conditions create similar conditions to those found in Thailand's southern climbing areas, but the much smaller local climbing community means retrofitting hasn't been prioritized as it has in SE Asia's climbing mecca) yet. Weak, unpredictable bolts present too high a risk for us so we simply won't climb where we can't count on our protection. That said, nosey monkeys or the occasional bee swarm are manageable, though they can certainly be unpleasant. So, as you plan, think long and hard about which risks you find acceptable (and how big they are) to take when you're a long way from home.

The Planning
Once we've decided where it's appealing to hit the crags, I start looking into feasibility. How long will it take us to get there? What type of transport will we need? What will accommodations be like? Are there good rest-day options? This work is more like typical travel-planning so grab your preferred guidebook and get to work. Sometimes, climbing guides will have enough detail that if this is your sole reason for a visit you don't need another book, but I like the travel as much as the crags, so I always check out what else there is to do in an area. If you're going for a whirlwind visit or heading out during peak seasons, you'll probably want to reserve accommodations ahead of time (at least your first night or two) but sometimes the budget spots are walk-in only so you'll just have to wait if that's your preference. If you're booking early, I find sites like Tripadvisor and Agoda to be just as handy as Lonely Planet for actually selecting a spot to sleep.

Your Gear
We decided that we'll always bring our own gear when climbing overseas. First, we know its history and can thus vouch for its safety. Not so with outfitter-owned gear. Though in some cases I'd absolutely trust it, that'd require additional research that is tough to do from afar. Still, if you're packing, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, we have to consider weight limits -- typically, they range from 44 to 50 pounds for checked bags. When we went to Thailand, we put all the equipment -- from rope to shoes -- in Mike's backpack and tried to guestimate weights. Turns out we showed up at the airport with my 15-pound bag while Mike's weighed 60. To avoid airport hassle and luggage re-arranging, we now weigh the bags at home. It's worth it! Second, make sure you pack weight-bearing metals on the inside so they're well-padded. This means carabiners, belay devices, etc. To keep things simple when we get to our destination and for any additional traveling we do, Mike packs his climbing bag and puts it inside his gigantic travel pack. This does double duty of protecting important gear and keeping everything separate for when we hit the crags. I usually take on the stuff that put us over weight -- shoes, sunscreen, bug spray, etc.

If you decide you'd rather not lug around all this extra mass, there are certainly reputable services out there and many rent gear. Just do all the legwork you can ahead of time. Find out what their policies are on retiring gear -- how many years for each piece, what about if it hits hard ground, how do they decide when something is worn, things like that. It's also worthwhile to make sure they carry harnesses and shoes in your needed sizes as it may be worth bringing this stuff of your own and using the shop's rope and quickdraws.

Go Guide? Or Go Solo?
This is another personal decision. Usually, we grab a guidebook and hit the crags on our own, just like we would in the US. In fact, I've only gone on a guided "climbing" trip once anywhere and it was a joke. That said, it was in northern India as a day excursion from my ashram-base for yoga teacher training. This was not climbing. Yes, we were belayed and yes, there was a rope, but the 20-foot roadside rock was not a crag. But places like Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures or Basecamp Tonsai will get you out safely and save you the time of navigating new areas. Which may be an ideal strategy if you've got limited time or really want to climb as hard and much as you can. Or, of course, if you're not that familiar with climbing outside and want a more experienced hand present. But again, dig around to make sure your chosen escort is of suitable quality. Read reviews, ask in online forums, give them a call before you get to town or drop in when you do. Make sure they'll be able to provide the service you're looking for.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Rock Climbing: Out of the Gym and Into the Wild

*This piece originally appeared at Misadventures Magazine. While it targets women, there's plenty of  useful info for all!*

I checked my knot—through two, two in, two out, a clean and sturdy figure-8—and sank into the heady reality of my present. Bamboo stalks clacked with the breeze and dried leaves clattered noisily to the forest floor. The swirling limestone cliffs towered above me, as much home to wax bees and honeycombs as tufas and overhangs. An anthropologist and lifelong wanderer, I always figured one day I’d wind up in Thailand. But I’m quite certain I never imagined I’d eat my best meal from a metal to-go bowl, lounging on a hand-built bamboo shelter beneath Crazy Horse Buttress. I never thought I’d establish my own ritual, each summer stemming up a flawless vermillion corner beside a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe in southern Colorado. And I never pictured myself, suspended from webbing 100 feet in the air, wind gusting and sun blasting as I belayed my partner up the next pitch of soft Vegas sandstone. 
Multipitch in Vegas!
Following on my first multipitch route in Vegas.
Rock climbing devotees glean a slew of concrete benefits and untouchable joys. Since coming to the sport over eight years ago, I’ve gained confidence and resilience, built unexpected physical strength, and reveled in the elegance of movement and the power of moments. It’s a great way to deepen trust and develop new social networks. But those of us who step out of the gym and shimmy up some real rock may reap the finest gifts our vertical playground has to offer: the chance to interact, intimately and adventurously, with some of the world’s most enticing landscapes. 
Leading Crynoid Corner at Shelf Road
Leading Crynoid Corner (5.7) at Colorado's Shelf Road.
An estimated seven-million people climb on artificial walls each year, and just over one-third of these take the sport outside. While women may benefit the most from getting out of the gym and into the wild—climbing is increasingly used in empowerment trainings—we remain outnumbered by our male counterparts five-to-one at the crags. But getting outside for the first time can feel intimidating, laden with insurmountable obstacles. Below are some tips, tools and resources to help rookies safely and joyfully take their love of ascent outdoors.

What you probably already have:  
    • Shoes
    • Chalk bag
    • Belay device
    • Harness
Other stuff you (or your partner) should have: 
    • Rope (70m is ideal for most single-pitch, and make sure it’s dynamic)
    • ATC (if your belay device is something different)
    • Rack (14 quick draws should get you up most sport climbs; a trad rack will require a much larger investment in an assortment of nuts, cams and other gear)
    • Anchors
    • Helmet
    • A system for clipping into your anchor when cleaning.

Building the skills you need to climb safely outside can be daunting and overwhelming, but there are plenty of resources out there to ease the process. Former wilderness guide and avid rock climber, Kristin Anderson recommends taking a class through a local gym or climbing guide service. These organizations “usually offer some intro outdoor classes to get you solid with the safety skills you need to start climbing outside (top rope anchors and/or intro to leading). Though they can be expensive,” she explains, “knowing how to do things safely, or at least knowing enough to make sure that your friends are being safe, is worth a lot of $$ and can save lives!”

There are also some great books out there. I like any of Craig Luebben’s work, including Rock Climbing Anchors, Knots for Climbers, and Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills, for a solid intro to all levels of skills.

A quality climbing partner or group is the ultimate key to a great introduction to the outdoors. If you’ve been climbing in a gym, you may already have a partner whose skills and knowledge you trust. Otherwise, gyms and websites often host “partner search” boards, which can be a great place to start. You may also find a compatible partner if you choose to take the lead or anchor classes mentioned above. And don’t be shy about approaching people. Most climbers love sharing their passion and introducing newbies to the joys of climbing outdoors. Regardless, I prefer to climb with a person inside first, just to make sure I’m comfortable with their skills and that we communicate well. 

Once you’ve got your gear, practiced skills and found a partner you trust, it’s time to get outside. But where? Choosing the best climbing area for your experience level is important. Some places offer routes for all levels, while others appeal to moderate or perhaps advanced climbers. To get started, unless you opted for an outdoor class with a climbing service, ask around at gyms or climbing stores or post a question in an online forum. 

The best way to select climbs within the area and to find them on-the-ground is to fork over the standard $25 fee for a guidebook. Guidebooks are written by people who have spent the time developing and climbing in the area. They provide a history of the area, an overview of the rock, approach information, route descriptions, and quality photos of the cliffs. It’s well worth the investment and supports the authors’ efforts. Websites like Mountain Project provide updates and supplement details.

To avoid getting lost once you find the actual cliff (sometimes too easy to do!), pick a prominent feature in the book—a large shady overhang, boulder at the top, or tree—then find it on the wall and use this to orient yourself. Stay oriented as you comb the base of the cliff! 

Climbing ethics center around protecting gear, environment and experience at the crags. I’ve included some of the key do’s and don’t’s below, but The Access Fund is a great resource for more detailed information.
    • Don’t top-rope on fixed gear. Use your own anchor!
    • Try to rappel off once you’ve cleaned the anchor.
    • Respect the sanctity of the outdoor experience—this typically means no radios, making sure kids or dogs don’t harass other climbers, things like that.
    • Leave no trace: Pick up your trash and use designated toilets when they’re around. If they’re not, bring a shovel and dig a hole.

Sender Films’ awesome series of climbing films
The annual Women of Climbing calendar

Daila Ojeda’s blog

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thailand 2014 Part 2: The Seaside Crags and Deep Water Solos of Railay/Tonsai

Dreamers hoping to climb in Thailand often imagine the seaside cliffs and mid-ocean karsts of the Phra Nang Peninsula. The jungle-topped limestone boasts features reminiscent of melting wax, including stalagmites and stalactites. But most aren't considered living and thus aren't protected from human contact as they would be in their more typical cave environment. This promise of unique routes in a pristine setting is ultimately what drew us to the country's Andaman Coast.

The Phra Nang Peninsula, also referred to by the names of its popular beaches, Railay and Tonsai, stretches into the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Though technically attached to the mainland, the very cliffs you'll climb keep this prize spot unreachable by road. You'll have to hail a long-tail boat from Ao Nang and, depending on the tide, may end up wading or rock-hopping to the shore.
Long-tail boats at Ao Nang.
The Climbing
If you're a climber, you're probably headed to the Phra Nang Peninsula because it's a mecca. So we'll start with the routes. Because the cragging in Railay/Tonsai simply doesn't disappoint. The cliffs literally butt up against the beach and the shore. And thanks to the wild interaction of the limestone with jungle plants, complex soils and high humidity through the rocks, you'll get to pull on pockets, handles and tufas galore!

It was like climbing the inside of a cave, but outside!
Some routes can only be approached at low tide while other approaches range from leisurely beach strolls to nerve-wracking scrambles. Many more climbs rocket directly from the ocean, offering the chance to try deep water soloing (DWS) . . . with about 20+ other people.
Stacey on Groove Tube (officially graded 5.10a,
but Mountain Project consensus puts it at 5.9-)

We really enjoyed some of the area's classic moderates, especially Groove Tube (the first pitch) and all the routes on Cobra Wall.

But in reality, if you're not a confident 5.10 leader, you won't have a ton of options in Railay/Tonsai. This place is world-class, and we had a great trip, but it's probably more fun if you're into super steep, powerful climbing and comfortable dealing with and assessing unfamiliar protection.

In short, safety is a real concern as the conditions significantly degrade the traditional steel bolts. Re-bolting efforts that use more appropriate materials are well underway, but they're not yet complete. So, if you're even considering climbing on the Phra Nang Peninsula, definitely follow The Thaitanium Project and get updates at Basecamp Tonsai or another reputable shop when you arrive. Basecamp has a great wall displaying safe and unsafe bolts to give you an idea of what to look for. And just know that some of the routes (for example, Groove Tube), have foregone bolts altogether in favor of pieces of webbing or climbing rope strung through the huecos. This type of protection can be quite safe, but always always check its condition just as you would a bolt you're about to clip. If you're not comfortable identifying safety issues, get some more experience climbing outside with a mentor in a better regulated spot first.

But even if you're not the most experienced or confident outdoor climber, don't write Railay/Tonsai off your list. Even if you've never climbed outside before, don't write Railay/Tonsai off your list. The sublime setting stands alone. Some reputable guides can get you up the routes safely (we recommend Basecamp Tonsai because we had a good experience with them, but ask around on the peninsula for others locals speak highly of). And if you're willing to try the sport without ropes, you can give deep water soloing (DWS) a go.

Deep water soloing (DWS) off the Phra Nang Peninsula
From asking around and reading our admittedly outdated guide book, we quickly discerned that the best DWS option was to organize a tour through a local climbing guide. Though just hiring a long-tail boat for the afternoon is possible, folks have reported that these independent contractors are more likely to go out in dangerous conditions and just don't know the climbing options as well. We went through Basecamp Tonsai.

Deep water soloing (DWS) off the Phra Nang Peninsula
Our DWS guides took us to two separate locations. The first (pictured above) featured a range of short climbs from 5.8 to 5.10+. Most were traverses but folks wanting a bit more height could branch upwards. Keep in mind that climbing with wet hands and shoes may change your comfort level at a given grade, but most of these stayed pretty low over the water, making them a great intro. The second area offered a mix of pretty easy but relatively tall routes (one guy in our group got at least 60ft above the water) and more advanced cave climbs skirting the sea's surface.

The first spot teemed with other climbing groups, so didn't provide much in the sense of atmosphere but it was still beautiful. And the climbs there felt more like actual routes. While the second karst offered more seclusion, Mike described it more as cliff jumping than actual DWS. The excursion included shoes (so we didn't need to ruin our own), boat transport, a route map and lunch in a beautiful (but crowded) lagoon.

The Rest
Accommodation options abound on the peninsula, from resorts to backpacker holes-in-the-wall. And while the ease of getting around depends on the tides as well as your hiking, wading and rock-hopping comfort, nothing's far. In general, the Tonsai area holds the true dirtbag spots -- some have places for tents, many provide bare bones rooms -- and some nice midrange cabins. The Railay beach areas cater to the sun-and-sand set, so host the higher end hotels. We stayed in one of Tonsai Bay Resort's super clean villas tucked into the jungle just a few minutes walk from the beach. Our little room provided enough quiet for a good night's sleep and a porch from which to listen to the reclusive gibbon monkeys' whale-like songs. If you're going during high season, you'll probably want to book ahead, at least for a few nights, but the cheapest options usually operate on a first come first serve basis.

The short hike rewarded with a beautiful view of the peninsula.
We were only in the area for 5 days, so we climbed most of them. On our one rest-day, we hiked a popular trail to an overlook, swam at the Railay beaches and visited a local cave. However, plenty of opportunities exist for activities further afield, including snorkeling, diving and island visits.

The food on the peninsula is decent, though compared to the north we found it relatively dull and too tourist-oriented. And while we didn't get sick, we were warned to be extra cautious about meat-related stomach bugs since many restaurants lose power during the day.

Culturally, this part of the country didn't really feel like Thailand. Whereas Crazy Horse Buttress has become a local crag with a deliberate ethos of being part of a community, Tonsai has created its own world. The only Thais we encountered worked in the tourism industry so much of the character we'd loved on the first ten days of our trip suddenly disappeared. No markets, no Thai locals eating in restaurants. And a fair amount of partying. But the international climbing scene is redemptive on its own merits. We enjoyed hearing so many languages at the crags and being part of a shared passion.

The area's bolt problems represent the biggest danger for climbers but by exercising common sense and asking the right questions, the risks are manageable. Make sure you only climb on titanium bolts with the proper glue!!! As I mention above, check with Basecamp or other reputable climbing shops on the peninsula for the latest information on route safety.

Wild critters present other potential reasons for concern. We weren't personally bothered by any animals, but others have reported problems, from aggressive monkeys to king cobras sleeping on routes. Most of the snake reports I've come across have been older, and it seems likely that, with more traffic, these will become fewer. However, since monkeys tend to become more of a threat as tourism increases, I doubt this problem will just go away. Avoid eye contact and don't carry or offer them food. The monkey troupes we encountered on the Phra Nang Peninsula just wanted to be left to go about their own business. Let's keep it that way!

A yawning macaque highlights why it's worth staying on their good side.
This guy got a bit too close for my comfort. Look at those canines!
Finally, climbing always presents a risk, so have fun but be safe. Make sure you know how to lead and manage ropes, check gear thoroughly if you are renting instead of bringing your own, check into the reputation of any company you sign on with and splurge on travel insurance. World Nomads offers a plan that covers climbing.

Thailand 2014 Part 1: Savoring the Local and Climbing Responsibly at Crazy Horse Buttress

At some point during 2013, I got it in my head that we had to take a trip to Southeast Asia, and soon. I need wintertime escapes from Colorado's chill and my itchy feet demand annual ventures beyond US borders. Mike tends to be quicker to join in these plans when rocks are involved, so I started poking around for epic climbing in the region. As it happens, Thailand's limestone crags boast bucket-list-status and the world-famous Railay/Tonsai area sat right at the top of Mike's dream adventures.

So we booked the trip and got to planning. It would be our first ever international climbing trip, so there was some trial and error for sure. (I'll talk about what we learned -- from packing to planning -- in another post.) But we mostly reveled in the thrills and exploration, so I'll start by sharing the climbing itself.

During our two weeks in Thailand, we probably spent six days scaling rocks. We did most of our cragging around Railay/Tonsai in the south but also snuck in a day up north at Crazy Horse Buttress. As I note above, Railay/Tonsai earns high marks for drawing devotees from across the globe, so that stop was a no-brainer. But we would have missed what ultimately became my favorite spot had I not reached out in Mountain Project's International Forum.

I've got an article about Crazy Horse slated to come out later this year with Silkwinds, the magazine for Singapore Air's regional carrier, SilkAir. So you'll have to wait until then for more detailed content, but for now, some photos!
Crazy Horse Buttress, Mae On, Thailand

Mike working his way up the tufa on Kee Dak.
He'll climb through the opening to gain the face.

Stacey after pulling the roof on Kee Dak.

A typically ornate doorway to one of Chiang Mai's many wats.
Mike enjoying the grounds of a Chiang Mai temple.

Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures

Stacey leading the first climb at Crazy Horse!

The fabulous belay ledges at Crazy Horse prevent erosion.

A lovingly and sustainably built trail.

Overall, though we built our first climbing trip abroad around Thailand's southern seaside cliffs, Crazy Horse and the north of the country stole our hearts. We'll be back here repeatedly!