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Day 18 – Deep Water Solo’s Golden Rule

March 21, 2010

Dateline: Cliff faces on Ko Poda, off the coast of Krabi, Thailand, Sunday, March 21, 2010

Don’t step on your rope. Don’t wash your harness. Don’t expose your quickdraws to weather. Don’t get your rope wet. The rules are meant to keep you safe. Here in Railay, the rules are often broken.

This feels like the Wild West of rock climbing. There is no law. What is prudent is judged by those who choose to challenge this frontier. For example. In rock climbing, bolts drilled deep (hopefully) into the rock mark where a climber with a rope can ascend. When a climber reaches a bolt, she uses a quickdraw to hook her rope into the wall. She then continues climbing till the next bolt, whereupon she hooks her rope in again. If she falls, the rope will protect her from hitting the ground. At the top, there is an anchor, usually consisting of three bolts. From each bolt hangs a metal chain. The three chains are linked to a single metal ring that hangs off the wall. When a climber hits the top of the route, she threads her rope through the metal ring. From there the person below can lower her down. The idea is that if a single bolt or chain breaks, she can still hang from the metal ring because the other two will protect.

Here in Railay, the anchors aren’t made of metal chains. They’re made of looped rope. Rope. Not metal. Rope. This violates the “never get your rope wet” rule because the rope stays up there when it rains. A rope that’s been wet is a weaker rope. Here in Railay, using rope for an anchor also violates an unspoken subrule “never get your rope wet, especially near the ocean because salt water is more corrosive than fresh.” The Wild West, indeed.

Whenever I’ve gone rock climbing, I’ve always been in awe at how much faith climbers put in the work of strangers. Climbers don’t know who bolted the route. What if those people were feeling lazy? What if they were incompetent? Or murderous? Who or what holds those bolters responsible? All it takes is someone drilling a bolt a little shallow or using a shoddy chain and a climber’s life is changed, significantly. To be a climber you have to have a lot of trust in the goodness of human nature. And you have to be a little crazy.

My awe is double in Railay because you can see, right off the bat, that rules are being broken. Ropes for an anchor? Really? I suppose it adds to the thrill. Just like riding amusement park rides in Asia, climbing in a place where people are loose with the rules puts you in touch with your mortality.

I don’t have to worry about climbing rules today, though. No one will be stepping on my rope or getting it wet. No one will have washed my harness. I won’t be tying in to rope anchors.

That’s because I won’t be using any safety equipment. I’m going deep water soloing. My only protection will be my hands, my feet, and the water. Water’s soft when you fall, right?

When Darrel and I hit the climbing shop at 10 a.m., my first job is to pick out shoes. I settle on a pair that are quite comfortable. Perhaps that’s because I can see my toes sticking out of the fronts. The rubbers been eaten away. Problem is, none of the other shoes that fit have toes either. Since I’m a little dim, this fact doesn’t stop me from joining eleven climbers on a longtail boat headed for the rock.

When we get there, the ocean is calm. Our Thai guide slides a kayak out from under the seats and begins to ferry us one by one to the wall. From the kayak, we’re to climb a rope ladder and just attack the wall. Whenever we’re done, we’re supposed to just jump into the water. Funny, if this were the U.S., I’m pretty sure someone would’ve asked if we all knew how to swim.

If we slip, the water is supposed to break our fall. Or break us. Or something. I’m not sure there’s much of a plan. I guess we’re just not supposed to fall.

The first guy, a German in white shorts, traverses along the wall and gets about 35 feet or so above the water. Suddenly, everyone’s clamoring to get on the kayak and to the wall. Me, I’m not in a rush.

When I finally climb onto the boat, I’m feeling wildly overconfident. Nearly everyone’s been on the wall. No one’s dead. No one’s fallen unintentionally. They’ve all hit the water and survived. Can’t be that bad, can it?

I climb up the rope ladder (harder than it looks) and find the crevice in which our guide has dumped a bunch of chalk. I rub that stuff into my hands like I’m trying to scrub ink stains off my palms. I don’t know if it helps to put chalk on the back of your hands, but I do it just to be safe.

Then I’m off and climbing. Climbing without a rope ramps up the intensity. You’re more focused on the integrity of your handholds. You plant tentatively and test your stability. You feel the smoothness of the ledges. You notice if you need more friction. You notice if your friggin’ climbing shoes have no toes.

I feel around slowly and methodically, groping like I’ve taken out my contact lenses and am searching for my misplaced glasses. Nothing exists but me and the six feet of rock that surrounds me. Touch, feel, grope, test, pull, hang, shift, repeat.

I find myself up where the first guy in white shorts was, about 50 feet to the right of where I started and about 35 feet up.

It’s been said before that you shouldn’t fear heights or falling, just the sudden stop at the end. Whoever said that was an idiot. I’m guessing it was 35 feet, but standing on that ledge it felt like 1000. The water was calm, but I could tell it wanted to kill me. If it couldn’t do that, it’d settle for a broken bone or a seawater enema. Surprisingly, the world didn’t swirl. I didn’t have vertigo. I did, however, wonder if this was a bad idea.

In my head, I decide to count to “three.” I ended up jumping on “two.” It was all silence and empty space. I was falling.

Thirty-five feet doesn’t seem like much. It probably isn’t. It is, however, high enough that I have a chance to contemplate two things : #1 – “Wow, shouldn’t I have hit the water by now?” and #2 “I would like to reconsider my decision to jump.”

I don’t even screa. . .I mean yell. I just choke on my own esophagus and hit the water. I kick to the surface and taste sweet air. I swim to the longtail and scramble aboard. Then, I go back on the kayak and do it all again.

Lunch Break for food and bouldering.

After a couple hours of this we took a break for lunch in the shelter of a cove just around the corner from our climbing site. That’s when our guide showed us how it’s really done. He bouldered his way through a challenging course that none of the climbers on our boat could do. He did it without shoes. It made me wonder if they’d cut the toes out of mine on purpose.

Turns out our boat driver is also a climber. Where our guide was all finesse and slick movement, our driver was all power moves with his arms. He did the same course very differently. Like his buddy, he also did not use shoes.

After the Thais put us to shame, we headed out for our afternoon session. This site was a bit further away. This time the sea was choppy. If that wasn’t bad enough, the entry to the rock was much more challenging. We had to ascend a stalactite that hung over the water. A few people decided not to climb at all. I waited till just about the very end.

By the time I’d fought my way up the ladder, I was exhausted. I almost jumped into the water from there, but pride drove me upwards. Every guy had made it to at least the top of the spire. One of the girls had too. I turned off my brain and just climbed. This was definitely worse, because when I looked down, I realized that there was rock under me. If I fell, I wasn’t going to go into the water clean.

I made it to the top and looked down into the waves below. The wind was whipping the water. I told myself that this meant that the water had less surface tension. I wondered if this was a lie.

The jump this time felt longer than before. I’m told that I’d jumped from a higher spot than last time. I swam through the waves back to the boat.

As we motored off back to Tonsai Beach, we reveled in our success. We’d kept the most important rule of rock climbing: Don’t die.


Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Before deep water soloing, it’s best to have the more useful parts of your brain removed.

Not So Stupid Tip: I highly recommend trying out deep water solo. It sounds scarier than it actually is. Hell, I did it, so that should tell you something.

There are at least a few companies that do deep water solo. We paid 700 baht per person for our trip. That included lunch, the boat, driver, and guide. It also includes “shoes.” Value for money, it might be the best $20 I’ve spent in a while (FYI, diving costs more than $20).

The trips don’t run every day and times depend on the tide, so you kind of have to plan ahead. If you do go, bring a towel. Not to dry off, but to hide under if the sun starts to get to you. It can be tough to find shade on the boat.

Random Note: One of the guys who went deep water solo called himself Will. He claimed he and his girlfriend had saved up enough money to take a dream vacation. He said they’d graduated from the University of Colorado in May and that he’d been working for a fish purchasing company in Seattle until he quit for this trip.

Lies! I swear to you he’s actually James Ransone, an actor from The Wire and Generation Kill. Will was wiry like the actor. Will had the same mannerisms and facial expressions as the characters the actor’s played.  Gotta say, much better looking in person. I know your secret Will. You’re traveling because you’re between gigs. You told me some BS story because you’re trying to keep a low profile. I got you though, dawg. Your secret is safe with me.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a decent pic of the guy, just a video that’s way too big to post. Six hours with him and I couldn’t sneak a decent photo; I’d make a terrible paparazzo. I also couldn’t bring myself to call him on it. What if I was wrong? I’d be stuck on a boat with the guy for the next few hours. I ended up just staring at him trying to decide if it’s just that all White people look alike. If I’d seen him at the bar later and we’d had a few, I definitely would have called him out. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Guess, I really am a celebrity stalker.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. mags permalink
    March 23, 2010 9:00 am

    i want to do this! dude, i need to quit my law job sooner than i anticipated to make it back to railay. my 2.5ish days there in november were clearly not enough!!

    • March 23, 2010 10:27 am

      2.5 days is not enough time in Railay if you’re a climber. Deep water solo is a lot of fun. Jumping in the water is the scariest part, in my opinion.

  2. Jenny permalink
    March 24, 2010 5:13 pm

    Next time this happens with someone you think is someone else, call him/her out on it — and please let us know what happened next.

    • March 30, 2010 10:30 am

      I will try. The more I think about it, the less I think it was him. Of course, because of my cowardice, we’ll never know. . .

  3. kimi =) permalink
    March 29, 2010 3:08 am

    oooh i deep water solo’d in the moutains on the way to big bear. of course, the water in the pools we jumped into weren’t as deep as the ocean you jumped into.

    my story ends with me limping out on my bloody foot, yelling the whole way through what was supposed to be a 15 minute hike back to the car, and going to the ER for a tetanus shot.

    but i suppose i kept the #1 rule of rock climbing =)

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