Rock Bottom

18 Nov 2006

Hat Rai Lei East, Thailand

Fifteen metres up, I undo the knot that attaches the climbing rope to my harness.

The view across the bay would be amazing if I was looking at it. We're climbing right on the beach, and I can see longtail boats[1] moving rapidly across the water.

But I've got bigger problems. I'm no longer attached to the muscly Thai who's been belaying me. I've had twenty minutes of instruction in lead climbing, and it's all up to me now. He couldn't lower me down even if he wanted to[2].

It all started when I asked him if he could teach me to lead climb[3] in one day instead of the usual three. He said "sure, why not?", and after watching my first climb on top-rope, took me aside. I must have passed, but what he doesn't know is that, to do it, I burned everything I had. Exhausted, it took me six attempts to clip the top bolt, all the while desperately clinging on to avoid a five metre fall[4].

Everyone else has already left for lunch. I'm running on empty, but I've been doing that for an hour now, and one more lunge won't make any difference. Dangling by my safety sling, I stand up on a tiny ledge, pull the rope clear of the belay loop, rethread it through the top ring, and re-tie the knot. Then I unclip the sling. The rope holds, and I slump back into the harness as Jond belays me down.

I'm covered in sweat, I can barely close my hands, and I'm absolutely buzzed. I started this climb exhausted, convinced I'd hit bottom, and I've done "one more desperate lunge" more times than I can remember. Suddenly, I don't know where the bottom is any more.

But now I'm a lead climber. I'm sure I'll find out.

fn1. Sort of like a speedboat built by a man with fifty dollars, two hours, and a spare motorcycle engine.

fn2. He doesn't want to. Earlier that morning, pumped out and slick with sweat, I managed a dramatic leap because I had no choice. Five previous attempts had failed, but he still wouldn't let me down. Thai climbers know no fear. Thai belayers tolerate no weakness.

fn3. In "top-rope" climbing, the rope runs from the belayer, to the top, to you. It's always taut and you never fall more than about a metre, but it takes a long time to set up.

In "sport lead" climbing, the rope runs from the belayer to you. You clip it through bolts embedded in the rock as you climb. You'll fall to the bolt, and then the same distance again as you take up the slack in the rope, or "twice the distance to your last bolt".

In "trad lead" climbing there are no bolts, and you wedge bits of metal ("protection") into cracks in the rock as you go. You'll fall twice the distance to the first piece of protection that doesn't pull out.

In “free solo" climbing you'll fall the same distance you climbed.

fn4. It doesn't sound like much, until you think of it as falling out of a third-story window. On to rock.