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"We can ask ourselves whether we failed or succeeded, [...]whether we’re tough climbers or weak girls…but at the end of the day, it felt hard as nails and yet we gave it everything we could and well, I think that’s enough." - Hazel Findlay, badass
"This is hard and scary." - me
Give it everything I can? Right, then. My chance to give it everything I could came on one of my last days in SE Asia, after months of climbing and experiencing the highs of (finaalllly) pushing grades and the lows of injuries. My friends and I piled into a boat and headed two hours east toward The Face, a crag that had been built up in my head for months, specifically because of how interesting the rock was and the huge falls people have taken on it. My friends Benny and Ross, two other Asia Outdoors staff, and I were wrapping up our time in Vietnam, so we were psyched to end our time by spending a day on this beautiful crag.
Beautiful indeed. When our boat rounded the corner, our lack of sleep and choppy boat ride (our Vietnamese boat driver, Chu Bien, made us wear lifejackets, which never happens) were quickly forgotten, because suddenly there it was. This stunning, sheer crag rising 45 meters out of the waters of Ha Long Bay was The Face. We get to climb this thing?! Uhhh, OKAY!! We started getting psyched, chatting, and taking photos.
And then, the closer we drew, the quieter we became, taking in the sheer size of such an inspiring and beautiful rock.
There are only two bolted climbs on The Face. On the left is License to Climb, an inspiring and sustained 7b (5.12b) with a difficult and chossy 7c (5.12d) extension. Yeahhh, one of those sound way more fun than the other.
And then on the right is THE FACE, the crag's namesake, a 7b+ (5.12c) that starts cruiser and keeps getting steeper and more technical the further you go up. It's about 30 meters tall and the last 5-8 are the most run out and (surprise!) the most difficult. Most of the talk I'd heard about The Face was centered around the top of this climb, that if you don't make it to the anchor you will take a BIG fall.
Chu Bien pulled the boat up onto a slabby rock and we all hopped off, scrambling up to the base of our warm up, License to Climb. What sort of fantasy world are we in that a 7b is our warm up? Nonetheless, bags were tossed on the deck, ropes were flaked, harnesses were put on and okay Liz you wanna go up first? Oh hell yes.
My nerves gave way to sheer happiness as License to Climb was as beautiful as I imagined, 20ish meters of small two-finger pockets, side pulls and laybacks, underclings and high, high feet. I began to lose myself in the climb, engaging fully in it to the point that everything around me faded away; afterward I wouldn't remember anything about it. My body took over, the moves linking together naturally until I arrived at the first anchor with only one fall. I lowered off happy, psyched at how fluid it all felt.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, giving way to higher temps, each person hopped on the route, leaving ample time for our favorite things: mainly eating, lazing in the shade, and watching each other climb. Thom (another Asia Outdoors staff member) and Ross had been here before and had already worked both climbs. But for the rest of us in the group, Benny, myself, and Alaskan couple Shasta (as in the freaking mountain!) and Kelsey, the rock was totally foreign, unlike anything we had ever done before. My friend Gavi described it perfectly - melted crayon, a solid wall full of small pinches and pockets.
The sun was high in the sky by the time we all finished License to Climb and it was getting hot, hot, hot. The day had been awesome but Benny and I were still antsy to try The Face. It was an intimidating lead, but we had to try it before leaving Vietnam. Benny went up first, hanging draws with the hot afternoon sun beating down on him. He looked strong, but since he had already gotten on License to Climb twice, he whipped off about halfway up, exhausted from a long day in the sun.
...uhh, crap. my turn.
I started up The Face slowly, trying not to think about how much I had imagined this climb. I paced my breathing and took my time to explore holds, lying back to see where the line was going. Every hold looked good but it was easy to get lured off route and all the holds would disappear, leaving me to traverse or even less fun, down climb to get back onto the line. I kept moving up, up, up, the line growing more steep and the holds getting smaller and further apart. Keep breathing, relax, you can do this.
One of the million reasons I love climbing is exactly this – there isn't anything else in my life that demands every part of me. There is no room for any thought or worry, stress or distraction. There just can't be. Breathe in, grab that side pull, breathe out, high foot. Breathe in, lay back, breathe out, pull up.
And then suddenly I was at the crux, clipping the last bolt and looking up at the anchor, still about 5-8 meters above me. I glanced down to see the rope swaying between my feet and about 100 feet below my feet were my friends, watching and yelling up encouragement.
Okay you have this, be brave.
I took a deep breath and got my feet up high, using my height to my advantage as I levered my body up. And I landed in a blank spot, with technical and sustained hand holds and very thin foot holds. What the junk, where are the feet? I hesitated, adjusted, hesitated, adjusted. Try it. Just go for it. Come on.
I pulled down with my right hand, got my feet up high, reached up with my left hand and...slipped.
I fell about 10 meters, the biggest fall I have taken in years. Most falls are a blink and it's done, but this time I was able to process what was happening and the position my body was in. Apparently I let a few choice words fly, but I just remember hearing my breath go in and out on the way down. It was such a rush of adrenaline, scary and fun and incredible!
I lowered down to a psyched group, who didn’t even care that I didn’t clip the anchor; they were just happy I tried hard. It's days like this that I feel so grateful for this playful and supportive community of climbers I get to hang out with. Everyone wants each other to succeed, to push ourselves. It's not a competition, we’re friends that love the outdoors and being involved in something so pure and spiritual.
In the end, no one in our group sent The Face that day, but it didn't matter. Because climbing is just a medium to let me be outside, to push myself alongside badass people on inspiring rock in a beautiful bay. Climbing gives me a chance to try things that are hard and scary; to give it everything I can. And climbing lets me drink beers, and that, that is worth being grateful for.
Most (okay, ALL) of the photos on this post were taken by Kelsey Gray, a talented Alaskan professional photographer who just got himself, and his sweet girlfriend Shasta, a bunch of house guests for being so cool (see you two soon)! Check out more of this talented mofo here.
After a few weeks in Tonsai we started hearing about this beautiful island nearby with unpolished, steep limestone to climb and bungalows and food for even cheaper than Tonsai. The best part? We’d get to rent motorbikes to take us to the crag. We’d all been spoiled by the 45-second approaches of Tonsai and were psyched to have adventures on the way to the crag. Rolf, David, and I convinced our new friend Josh to come too and we all said goodbye to our wonderful Rasta friends (photo below) and headed west to Koh Yao Noi.
Once we arrived, we quickly realized most of the rumors were true. Koh Yao Noi was remote and quiet, a beautiful Thai island untouched by tourism. When we discovered accommodation wasn’t quite as cheap as the rumors, we reminded ourselves its still crazy cheap by western standards and booked a few nights in THE NICEST BUNGALOW OF ALL TIME. Instead of facing west, we faced east and started to lose it over all the beautiful sunrises. The Thai’s here were warm and welcoming, going out of their way to introduce themselves and make sure we were comfortable. The owner of the bungalows, Mr. Leen, even stopped by to say goodnight. The land of smiles, indeed.
Between the motorbiking and climbing, the next few days were an absolute blast. We brapped our way to the crag by squeezing driver-bag-passenger-bag on our manual trans motorbikes. David and I rode together and he was very kind, pretending not to notice every time I jerked us into the wrong gear. At least half of the approach (let me call it that, its more fun) was on holy-shit-we’re-going-to-die loose gravel, potholes, and steep hills. All made more fun by driving on the left side of the road. Everything went really well until the one night our jankfest of a headlight went out on a blind corner and we went slow-motion into the ditch.
The climbs were cool too. Instead of the dramatic, red, drippy-looking rock of Tonsai, this limestone was white and more of the wall climbing we were used to. Once we parked our bikes, we hiked the last 15-20 hot minutes to the crag, making us (okay, just me) reconsider all the banana Nutella pancakes and cookies, but it was still so beautiful. Our last day of climbing we ended our side-by-side multipitches on the same pitch and got to see more sea, something I don’t know if I’ll ever tire of.
David also does a great job of explaining our experience on Koh Yao Noi, check out his blog to read more.
A day after touching down in Tonsai and David's on the sharp end.
on one of my favorite multipitches in Tonsai, a route called Musang, 5 pitches of fun going at 6a, 7a, 6b, 7a, 6b.
l love this photo, I can tell that I'm smiling and so psyched about this climb.
we rapped off in time to catch our first sunset with no clouds, a perfect way to end the day.
After failing to get on 'The Best Route in Minnesota' (because of the understandably long line), we headed to the other side of Phra Nang Beach, finding this secluded place to climb and watch the sun light up the rock behind us.
this is a happy Rolf
David's first time deep water soloing was pretty badass. Moving from the wall to the stalactite, he scrambled over some pretty sketchy, chossy rock before jumping in.
this is another happy Rolf
I can’t lie, being in Tonsai Bay is amazing. Our bungalow is small but cozy, and we wake up to a breeze coming in the window, birds chirping, and monkeys skiddaddling around the jungle. We’ve found the best place to eat our meals, Mama’s Chicken, and eat heaping plates full of the most delicious food for around $2-3 per meal. Most days start with swimming, yoga, or reading, and then climbing after lunch. It takes us oh you know, about 4-5 minutes to get from our door to some of the best and most three-dimensional climbing I’ve ever done. The long lines of limestone are full of stalactites, stalagmites, tufa’s, huecos, roofs, tubes and caves. The other day we lost our friends on a multipitch climb because after the first pitch we took the different passageway through a cave. We finish climbing around sundown, eat more delicious food (hopefully smothered in nutella), play cards and go to bed. Every day is warm, sunny, dry and perfect for climbing.
So yeah, its pretty good here in Tonsai Bay. But every paradise has its drawbacks. After a week of being here I got Tonsai Tummy, a cute sounding virus that knocked me on my back with a fever, diarrhea, and a whole lot of throwing up. Since then, Rolf and I oscillate back and forth between diarrhea and constipation every 2-3 days. I woke up covered in little red bumps the other day because some spastic bug decided to go ape shit on my feet and legs, and our cuts and scrapes are constantly infected from the ocean or shower. Beyond our health, we have seen Tonsai scramble to keep up with the boom in climbing tourism in the last decade, creating a faux rasta hippie culture, instead of a true Thai culture. And then you peek behind the reggae bars and you’ll see huge smoking generators; the quick fix to give us access to electricity and wifi. The limestone cliffs form a horseshoe around the bay, so everything is brought in by boat, from the bottled water we drink to the building supplies for the huge (Sheraton?) resort they’re building across the road. This place will be so different in just a few years and we're grateful to be here when we are.
But despite how fast this place is changing, life still moves at Tonsai time: unapologetically slow and relaxed. Before leaving I was dealing with some frustrating tendonosis in my shoulder and getting anxious about being injured before going on a year and a half long climbing trip. But being here has chilled me out a lot and instead of worrying about the grade I'm climbing, I'm enjoying the lines I have been getting on. I'm so damn grateful to be here and I know exactly how lucky I am to get to do a trip like this. Reminding myself of that has given me patience with my body to rebuild the muscles around my shoulder so that I can climb for the next 18 months. And its paying off, my shoulder is getting stronger and I'm excited for my body to follow suit. Besides, the $7 coconut oil massages have done more to help me than the $800 I dumped physical therapy before I left.
I know this was a long post, so thanks for making it this far. There is still a lot to learn about (the real) Thailand and myself, but so far these are my thoughts on our beautiful, slow-moving life.
What do you do when you get a traffic jam on a multipitch route?
A) help the other climbers get their rope unstuck
B) dread each others hair
C) invite them deep water soloing the next day
D) all of the above
We met a rag tag group of climbers on a multipitch climb the other day, who not only got our rope thrice unstuck, they dreaded each others hair while waiting, grabbed a beer with us after and took us DWS the next day. They are from France, Austria, Australia and the US, absolutely hilarious, wear badass tights while climbing and remind us of our friends back home.
somewhere between a bolt and a sketchy nut placement are these ropes. falls rated for, ehh, just don't fall.