Climbing and I have a special relationship.  I am writing these words as I am sitting in Tonsai, the Thai sport climbing paradise, with sore fingers after a day of moderate toproping. I’ve been playing toprope hero for a few days and have yet to work up the courage to take the sharp end.  If you’ve climbed with me before this may not come as much of a surprise, but if you know me from outside the climbing universe you are probably scratching your head.  Me, the girl who quit her job to climb and run full-time, who’s been spending the better part of this past spring on big walls in Zion and Yosemite and in the Bugaboos - yes, that same girl can be a real candy ass on rock. 

Jugging one of the many steep pitches on Tangerine Trip, El Cap.  Photo: Paul Gagner. 

Climbing humbles me. It takes me apart and builds me back up; all too often it does more of the former than the latter.  I haven’t yet invested enough time and training to become a strong leader; with haphazard dedication I find my progress to be excruciatingly slow.  I am often scared of falling; even though I know how to fall safely and have taken my fair share of falls, the thought of it can paralyze me or send me into a panic.  

Then I don’t climb for a while and selective amnesia sets in: I forget about all those moderates that I’ve bailed from because I was afraid. Instead I remember the 5.10s that I have sent, and the Indian Creek warmups that I’ve been working on lead. I remember free soloing easy routes in the Flatirons and crazy exposed 4th class ridges in the Bugaboos.  I think about the strong, courageous girl I want to be and rope up at a new sport crag eying the easiest warmup.  Surely I can walk up a 5.8 with my eyes closed, right?  Hey, I’ve rope-soloed Space Shot and done all sorts of other badass stuff.  A little sport climb won’t faze me, will it? 

High up in a sea of sandstone on Space Shot, my first bigwall rope solo; completing the route took me two attempts á three days, and included a massive fall on the crux pitch.  Photo: Travis Spaulding

Enter the meltdown. Hanging at the second or third clip, my mind is spinning with scenarios of unsafe falls and reasons for why I might not stick the next few moves and excuses for why I shouldn’t go for it.  More often than not the gap between who - or how strong and brave - I want to be and who I actually am is too large for me to reconcile; rather than focusing on the climbing in front of me, I allow self doubt to lead me down a rabbit hole and bail. More often than not, once I’m back on the ground the rabbit hole expands into a black hole. Why am I doing this? I am such a coward; I shouldn’t have bailed. I’m not sure I even enjoy climbing. Maybe I should sell my climbing shoes. More often than not, what was supposed to be a fun session at the crag turns into me being immensely frustrated and not in the mood to climb anything at all. 

But I haven’t sold my climbing shoes; in fact I own five pairs. And I’m in Tonsai now — for at least a month if not longer.  Not climbing is not an option for me. 

Tonsai beach: sport climbing paradise. 

I climb because I love the joy of moving over rock. I love the movement, I love the exposure, and in a twisted way I absolutely love that the rock forces me to be brutally honest with myself.  Because climbing holds a mirror up to me and stubbornly refuses to let me get away with posturing; the rock doesn't care how well I think I *should* be able to climb, it simply shows me how well I really am climbing on any given day. 

Simple movement over rock...  the ultimate joy of climbing. Shoes or no shoes, clothes or bathing suit.

There's a simple beauty to becoming a better climber.  I believe that at its essence there are only two questions that matter, and I'm not talking about finger strength and technique or about better footwork and more mileage... unless you're an elite climber who is approaching the limits of human physiology in the 5.14+ range, I think what matters is something much more personal:

  1. Am I willing and able to embrace falling?  Do I have the guts, the grit to push all the way to failure, and is it safe for me to fall.
  2. Will I get back up for another go after I have fallen? Am I willing and motivated to push towards that point of failure again and again and again until I've given my body and mind the chance to learn enough so that I can gradually turn failure into success. 

Growth: to be okay with falling, and keep getting back up.  Climbing or slacklining or life - if we play it safe and stay away from the margins of our ability, we're not truly learning. Or are we?

I firmly believe that if both of these questions are a "hell yes", then improving your technique and strength and endurance is mainly a matter of how much time you can spend climbing. Remember the meltdowns I was describing earlier? The situations where I have been the most frustrated with myself were always the ones when I would answer "no" to either one of the two questions above.  I have never yet walked away from a hard climbing session where I got after it and took multiple falls thinking "wow that was a terrible day." I only get sucked into the black hole of frustration when I approach a climb with an expectation of what I *should* be able to do, don't deliver on the expectation and end up losing my joy and motivation to keep trying.  

As the saying goes: happiness equals reality minus expectations. Replace expectations with humility and openness towards learning, and all a sudden frustration about not achieving a particular outcome gives way to excitement about the journey. 

In the end it's not about sending this or that route, or any route. I know that there is no absolute level at which I will be content with my climbing. If I'm sending 5.10s today, redpointing a 5.11 tomorrow won't make me happy; if I'm starting to work on 5.12s (ha! hopefully in the not too distant future), sending my project won't be the journey's finish line. What brings me joy and makes me happy is not a tangible outcome, but the attitude that allows me to work towards getting stronger: it's having the confidence in myself to try something that I'm not sure I'll be able to pull off, and to be okay with the possibility of falling. 

Week two in Tonsai, working a 5.10b - my boyfriend somehow managed to take butt shots AND catch my falls, of which there were a few :) #climbsafe
Clothes: adidas OutdoorPhoto: Paul Gagner.

I want to be that strong, courageous woman who moves confidently on rock and uses sound judgment to push her own limits, a woman who continues to learn and grow every day.  To become her, there’s only one thing to do: get back on the wall and climb.  So that’s what I’ll do.  Take the sharp end, fall, get up again, and keep climbing. 

Let's go climbing! 
Waterproof pack: Hyperlite Mountain Gear.  Clothes: adidas Outdoor.  Photo: Paul Gagner.

Thinking about your own sport climbing trip to Thailand?

November through January is the best season meaning dry and reasonably "mild" temperatures, but it's also high season.
Expect crowded crags, beaches, and bungalows; on the bright side, you won't have any trouble finding climbing partners if you're traveling solo, and fun nightlife is guaranteed.  If you're not into crowds and would like to save money, consider traveling in the off-season where you can rent basic private bungalows for 200-400 baht (~$6 to $12) a night. Despite plenty of rain, many crags are steep enough to remain climbable during monsoon season. 

The crags of Tonsai, Railay and Phranang beach are all within walking distance from one another.  Tonsai has the highest concentration of climbers and cheap accommodation; Railay is closer to Phranang (best beach and a couple good crags), has more variety of restaurants, resorts, and comes with a nice beach as well as ATMs.  Regardless of where you decide to stay, fly into Krabi or Phuket before taking a longtail boat or ferry to Tonsai / Railay.