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!