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Open Water Treading in Paradise

27-Feb-2012
By

Way out in the hot deep waters of southern Asia, citadels of limestone, sheer and arrant, cantilever upward from a dank grotto of stalactites and tufas. Craig Berman swung free and loose through this wet and dizzying scaffolding, his hands slimy, his head bald as a barnacle and teeming with salt. At the point of near terminal pump he emerged from the citadel’s sopping gut and desperately tried to rest on an enormous tufa that looked like a misshapen elephant trunk, 30 feet above the hard water. He shook and breathed and looked up. The next 90 feet of stone reared like an immense sail distended by the trade wind off the broiling Indian coast. Intermittent tufas and pockets hinted at an upward path.

A battle waged inside Craig. His instincts urged him up, while a keen sense of self-preservation reminded him that the higher he climbed, the harder he’d fall.

Of course Craig chose up and methodically scaled the wild facet. He climbed until the thought of going any higher was too terrible and the vertigo swirled within like a typhoon. He dropped through the air like a lightning bolt and this veteran of the Cirque du Soleil exploded nimbly into the brine.

His head emerged like a bob and he sucked and spit at the air and water. The salt burned his eyes as he stared toward the thin and open horizon. The thrill of deep-water soloing radiated through his body like electricity, and he looked around for the Thai longtail fishing boat that had sailed him from terra firma over 10 miles away. The desolate waves stirred and made clopping noises, and Craig felt a moment of panic as he realized the boat was gone. Treading smartly in the gentle swell of the Andaman Sea, he was alone.

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Despite being over 8,000 miles from most parts of the United States, Thailand has become a popular destination for American climbers, lured by tropical waters, white sands, piquant food, cheap accommodations, daily massages, Singhas, bikinis and pa tongs (sarongs). The beaches of Tonsai and Railay offer a wealth of seaside limestone cliffs with rare and enticing three-dimensional tufa climbing, and over 600 sport routes. But recent years and changing trends have taken climbers to the open sea in search of good karst above deep water.

In 2004, Thailand saw its first deep-water solo when a balls-to-the-wall crew of Brits that included Tim Emmett, Mike Weeks and Rock and Ice columnist Neil Gresham (Ask The Coach, page 70) arrived at Railay and hired a fishing boat to take them out toward the whimsical towers piercing the horizon. The Brits brought along the Canadian strongman Matt Maddaloni and introduced him as well to deep-water soloing. Since then, Maddaloni has, over the course of five major trips, single-handedly developed about half of the now 100 deep-water solos that exist on 40 different island formations. He is also the author of the new guidebook, Thailand Deep Water Soloing, 2nd ed., available at www.mattmaddaloni.com.

Thailand has embraced climbing tourism like a winning lottery ticket, and has made every effort to tout itself as the major destination that it is. In April, the second annual Krabi Rock and Fire International Contest included a “Lead Climbing Marathon,” a speed-climbing comp, a fire-juggling contest, and a deep-water soloing competition, where 32 competitors were timed to see who could reach a banner 60 feet up the Ao Nang Tower the fastest.

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And like a winning ticket, the growing tourism is both a blessing and curse to the Thai, infusing the poor local economy with money but also causing negative impacts on the environment and culture as it becomes more Westernized and industrialized.

According to Ben Rueck, of Grand Junction, Colorado, who traveled here in December with Jessa Younker and Rock and Ice photo editor emeritus David Clifford, in peak season, you’ll see as many as 100 people sport climbing on the beaches. The crags are busy, reports Rueck, and climbers sometimes have to wait for routes.

Rueck found the logistics of being on a large boat with other people, at times, trying. There are two ways to go deep-water soloing, and the group method is the first, cheapest and most common. For roughly $30 a climbing company such as Basecamp or Andaman Adventures takes 20 or so climbers out to the maritime cliffs, about an hour from shore. The boat navigates gently to some drop-off point beneath a deep-water solo, and one climber at a time grabs onto the starting holds; the boat backs away through the swell. Climbs could take up to 20 minutes, with the person either pumping out and falling, or reaching a highpoint and dramatically plunging into the drink.

“Time on the wall was limited, crowded and somewhat frustrating,” says Rueck of the group deep-water solo experience. Still, since he had never been deep-water soloing before this trip, Rueck says the orientation was worthwhile.

After that, he and Jessa scoured Tonsai beach for a private longtail fishing boat, which was twice as expensive at $60, but, according to Rueck, “allowed us to accomplish a lot more exploration of the surrounding rocks, gave us more autonomy over where the boat went and stayed, and provided a better climbing experience overall.”

Climbers have long cultivated an intimate, if fraught, relationship with mountains, but deep-water soloing has opened up an avenue for them to gain a deeper understanding of the sea. Perhaps no one has a more profound relationship with the Andaman than the Moken, an indigenous tribe of nomads that have lived for hundreds of years on the coast of Thailand and Burma. The “Sea Gypsies,” as they’re called, live off the fruits of the ocean, diving for shellfish, sea cucumbers and eels, and catching fish with their bare hands. Reputedly they can see underwater twice as far as the rest of us, and by lowering their heart rates, are able to stay under for twice as long.

The Moken came into the international spotlight after the December 26, 2004 tsunami killed over 175,000 people in southeast Asia. Amazingly, the Moken village on the coast of Thailand suffered no casualties due to the fact that the tribal elders noticed strange and worrisome patterns in the ocean a few days prior, and advised everyone to head for higher hills.

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Now, almost six years later, Thailand’s climbing areas have resurfaced from the destruction and according to Rueck it was hard to believe that a tsunami ever ripped through Tonsai in the first place.

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Berman spun through the tide, looking to see if he had somehow missed the boat (where could it have gone?) and then searching for an alcove to get out of the water.

Suddenly, from behind the stone citadel emerged a group boat, stuffed to the gills with 20-plus climbers, including Berman’s partners Ben and Jessa, who looked as if they were in a state of dismay. The owners of the private longtail they’d hired had apparently decided they needed to leave to go make dinner, and had pawned off their patrons with one of the group tours. Berman hoisted himself up the painted wooden hull and slapped upon the deck like a beat mackerel, but soon his relief turned to something else as he waited in the hot reeking boat for another shot at his slice of paradise.

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