Thursday, February 20, 2014

Deep-water Solo + Sailing in Krabi

Award-winning travel writer Louise Southerden makes a splash while rock climbing in Krabi, southern Thailand.

“This is not cliff-jumping. We know the difference. We are climbers.” So says a sign outside a climbing school advertising “deep-water solo” trips in Tonsai, one of two beaches on Krabi’s Railay peninsula, the one where serious climbers hang out. I’m staying at the other, more touristy beach, Railay, where the distinction between cliff-jumping and deep-water soloing leaps right over my head – and inspires me to a deep-water soloing day trip myself.

Karst cliffs and longtail boats at Tonsai Beach

What is deep-water soloing?

In a nutshell: the lovechild of bouldering (climbing low to the ground with a crash-pad on the ground in case of a fall) and free soloing (the art of climbing without ropes). In other words: a way to enjoy the freedom of climbing without ropes and not die if you fall – because you climb over deep water. So the sea (or river or lake) is your crash-pad.

DWS, as it’s also called, has been growing in popularity all over the world since the mid-1990s, so it was only a matter of time before Krabi started doing deep-water solo day trips for visiting climbers – and, increasingly, anyone. That’s one of the beauties of it: no climbing experience is necessary.

I’d just finished a 3-day climbing course in Railay and had a few extra days up my sleeve, so the chance to combine my new love of climbing and my first love, being in the sea, was too good to pass up, particularly when I found out you could do it from a sailing boat instead of a noisy longtail. Trips leave Railay beach around high tide, to maximise water depth; it’s 10am when eight of us, all deep-water solo virgins, meet on Railay West beach and climb into a longtail for the short trip to the 36-foot yacht, lying at anchor just offshore.

Before we know it, our skipper, Pet, has given the order to his two crew to hoist the sails and we’re gliding across a glittering sea between Krabi’s karst islands towards our destination, Koh Poda. This is worth the trip cost alone, and everyone is in high spirits, lounging on the deck under the tropical sun.

Sailing to Koh Poda

An hour later, we’re there: anchoring beside a high limestone wall that rises straight up out of the sea. “Ready to climb?” Pet says. “Yeah!” we say, though there are ripples of nervous anticipation as we prepare to do what none of us has done before.

It feels strange stripping down to a bikini (boardshorts for the boys), slipping on a pair of climbing shoes (which are provided) and stepping into an inflatable zodiac, which takes us over to the nearest wall, where we climb up a 2-metre rope ladder that spans the undercut gap between rock and sea (this is the most strenuous part of DWS, hauling yourself up bamboo rungs as the ladder writhes in the waves made by passing longtails).

Climbing without a harness or rope really is liberating. There’s no chalk either (it would turn into a claggy paste on immersion in water), but hanging on to the rock with wet hands isn’t hard, mainly because these are easy climbs, with big holds and ledges to stand on, and the rock is sharp.

Side by side, we explore the wall, staying low or climbing as high as we dare, shouting when we’re about to jump/fall, to make sure there’s no one in the water below. The higher you go, of course, the harder the water gets. Up to 10 metres is considered fairly safe; any higher and the sea can feel like concrete. The secret to avoiding injury, Pet had told us, is to keep your arms by your sides and your feet together when you hit the water. Good to know…

How low can you stay?

The climbing is fun, until I rediscover my aversion to – and fear of – jumping from high places. So after my last jump/fall, from a personal-best height of five metres, I retire to the bench – the deck of the yacht. It turns out that DWS is the best kind of spectator sport. The participants are in plain sight, like butterflies pinned to a corkboard. You’re close to the action (so close you can sometimes get splashed when climbers fall into the water). And because you’ve tried it yourself, you know how brave they are for climbing higher than you dare.

When a couple of longtails full of backpackers arrive, the wall becomes colourfully crowded. There are girls in teeny bikinis, handsome Latin boys standing on rock ledges like Greek gods, guys with tattoos and topknots, even a woman in a fluoro lifejacket.

Count the climbers!

Most impressive are two Thai climbing guides, barefoot and dressed in long-sleeved shirts and track pants, who step out of a sit-on-top kayak at the base of the wall and climb, Spiderman-like, up and up, even swinging from one arm 10 metres above the Andaman Sea. When one jumps, he’s so high it takes him four seconds to hit the water. The other carefully down-climbs all the way back to his waiting sea kayak. That’s deep-water soloing with style: when you don’t even get wet.

After a quick lunch back on the boat – fried rice and cold beers – there’s time to go snorkeling and to sea kayak to a nearby beach, before we have to head back to Railay. I think I understand the Tonsai attitude to DWS better now. Climbing is one thing. Cliff-jumping really is another. And deep-water soloing is something else.

The Hot Rock inflatable at Koh Poda

How to do it: Krabi is a one-hour flight south-west of Bangkok, see Bangkok Airways. Hot Rock climbing school in Railay offers deep-water solo trips aboard a 36-foot yacht, for 1000 baht – so you get to do some sailing, kayaking (to a nearby beach) and snorkeling in addition to deep-water soloing.

Check out Louise’s new multi-touch ebook, Adventures on Earth, now available on iTunes.

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