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.