Cranking It Up!

rock climber ascending the cliffs on Rai Leh Beach in Krabi Thai
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Whether a newbie or a pro, you can always find a new route to crank — a climber’s slang term that refers to the act of climbing or climbing something hard – in Thailandใ

By Percy Roxas

Rock climbing is definitely one of the most spectacular activities you can do in Thailand, especially in the south – where you can climb on limestone surfaces, which are only accessible by sea or located right smack on the beach. There are any good rock climbing locations in Thailand — such as those near the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary in Uthai Thani, or the limestone mountains that run through Kanchanaburi, Phetchaburi, and Prachuap Khiri Kan – but most rock climbers prefer to crank the likes of the monumental coastal cliffs of Krabi, including the most famous Railay Beach and Ton Sai in Phra Nang Bay, climbing sites.

These two are the most developed and extensive climbing area in Thailand, with more than 500 bolted routes in walking distance in Railay alone. Railay is arguably one of the world’s top climbing destinations with more than 650 routes developed since the late 80s. In these routes, you can follow limestone crags, steep, pocketed walls, overhangs, and hanging stalactites. You can access some routes by boat and others via a jungle walk or by abseiling above the sea.

Koh Phi Phi is another popular rock climbing destination, and especially Phi Phi Don, one of the two islands that make up the postcard pretty archipelago.

rock climber in action on Tonsai Beach in Krabi ThailandWhy go rock climbing? “These are many great reasons why people go rock climbing (in any form),” explains expert Chris Johnson, who has a blog on the sport (http://extremerockclimbing.blogspot.com). “There are so many amazing health benefits, as well as mental benefits. If you like adventure, you should really give climbing a try.”

First, Chris explains, rock climbing is never boring. “There are tons of routes to climb, and if you get tired of the crags in your country, there are many more walls and crags in every other country on the planet. There’s always something to climb.” Second, he adds, rock climbing offers the ultimate physical challenge.

“Each day you climb is an opportunity to challenge yourself and go beyond what you could previously do,” says Chris. “You should push yourself each and every day you climb. Explore new and more difficult routes that teach you new climbing techniques. Depending on your own physical ability and level of risk acceptance, you will see that no wall is too hard to climb.”

Third, as most of us probably know, rock climbing gives a different sense of adventure and freedom. Most climbers get going because of the great feeling they get scaling the rocks. Also, in this sport, you are able to go wherever you want, whenever you want.

Fourth, you will have a breathtaking view of the beautiful nature and scenery – and one just have to try climbing the Andaman rocks to prove this. “When looking for new routes, the climber will come across unexpected and beautiful scenery. Also, keep in mind that once you’ve reached the top, you have a stunning view of the surroundings that few people have seen before,” says Chris.

Surprisingly, experts say rock climbing is not necessarily as arduous as many of us think. Of course, being physically fit is a general must. Your upper body must be strong because you will need to lift your entire body weight with both arms and sometimes with just your fingertips. It can also be dangerous. So if you are a beginner, sign up for trips with service providers that can provide trained staff to accompany you on climbs.

Consulting a local expert is important. Even season climbers consult a local to make sure they have accurate information on the various sites and the level of difficulty for specific climbs. According to experts, Chris included, most accidents in this sport happen not because of the equipment but because of the climber. This is why consulting with trained professionals is very, very important.

rock climber making an impossible move on an overhang on TonsaiTo start off on a rock climbing experience, one does not need to scale mountainous heights right away. One can practice in a gym that offers climbing walls to give him or her a general idea on the sport. There are a number of these facilities in Thailand, so visit them and see if its something you’d like to pursue further. My own initiation is at a humble hill in Sakhon Nakhon, although it’s a pity I wasn’t able to progress to abseiling in a nearby waterfall.

The great thing in Thailand is that in most places, you can book up with or, at least, be referred to, reliable rock climbing schools and service operators. Safety is paramount and most of the schools and service operators are quite adamant in this.

In Krabi, reasonably safe sport climbing is usually practiced. Sport climbing is a form of roped climbing where metal bolts, placed close together permanently in the rock, are used for protection. If you slip, your harness and rope will arrest the fall after maximum 50cm, leaving you to concentrate on improving your technique.

Experts we have spoken with say it doesn’t take a long time to become a competent climber. A three-day course will give most people the confidence to lead a beginners’ route, says one. And no special skills are required — except the will to climb — so it’s an activity suitable for all ages, although I am not sure many parents will permit their small children to do this, yet.

There are at least 10 rock-climbing schools in Railay and Ton Sai alone, which offer similar programs (half-day taster, and one-day and three-day courses), inclusive of instructors, insurance, equipment, and even refreshments. Prices vary, but usually run between Bt800 and Bt5000, the last time we check (They may have changed so double check). Bookings are easy and can be made directly at rock climbing schools or through an agent.

Once comfortable with the basics, you can sign up for outdoor climbing with the service operators. Most basic courses last up to three days with the service operator usually giving instruction for climbs appropriate to your skill. There are standardized grading for the level of skill required for each climbing site. Thailand uses the French grades because the French put up the first routes in the country. According to this system, “4” is considered easy, and “8” is very difficult.

Seasoned climbers need not worry about beginners hogging the rocks. With more than 600 bolted routes graded from F4 (easy) to F8c (pros), there is plenty of space for everyone. If you come alone, the climbing schools can put you in touch with a partner.

The variations of different rock climbing to try are many: traditional climbing, bouldering, solo climbing, deep-water soloing, scrambling, etc. So head on down to the local climbing gym and start making some new friends. Learn more about the sport and get professional lessons if you like. Soon, you’ll be climbing up those rock faces in no time.

The best time to climb? If Krabi is any indication, it’s from November to mid-February, but August is generally the best in terms of crowds although there is the possibility of rains.

And the rewards? Perhaps the overwhelming sense of achievement when you reach the top of your route, as well as enjoying a fantastic view, is foremost. As Chris says in his blog, “There’s no feeling like it in the world when you’re on the top of a mountain or a cliff looking at that breathtaking view. I can’t explain that feeling. You have to feel it yourself!” — (from various sources)

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