Chapter 1. So there I was...
...Holding a quickdraw in my hand, right in front of my face. It was as if time had stopped and everything around me was still. The ocean, it's small white-capped waves, frozen in perfect little pyramids in my peripheral vision. No wind to be felt, flora and fauna were without any perception of movement. Even the sticky humidity seemed to be suspended from existing in real time. In fact, the only thing that seemed to move was my head as I stared unbelievably at this quickdraw I was holding in my hand.
Do you remember that scene in the Roadrunner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote comes to a screeching halt in mid air just as he overshoots his trajectory past the edge of a cliff? Remember how he sort of looks down, then looks up at the camera as if to say, "really guys, really?" Yeah, that's pretty much this moment in real life. As I looked at the quickdraw, I had a very lazily moving thought cross my mind. Like an airplane dragging a banner across a bright blue sky. That banner, in bright red letters, read three words. I messed up.
Let's back up to gain some perspective on this curious scenario. Time-stop, quickdraw, cartoons, what does it all mean? I shall, (dramatic pause....) explain.
I was in Thailand, down south in the popular climbing area known as Tonsai. I was a little over a week into my 2 week trip that turned into a 3 week trip because I missed my original flight from PDX. But I digress. The important thing here, is that I made it. I was in the company of a friend who didn't actually enjoy roped climbing all that much as it turns out. He was happy to sleep in until whenever and then maybe join in for a route or two and pretty much just take amazing photographs the rest of the time. I was OK with that. It just meant I had to make new friends to climb with and because I didn't want to climb in weather that felt like being stuck in a world championship Finnish sauna, I had to get up at first light to try and get a few burns in during the very short window of tolerable weather.
So at what was probably around 6am in Thailand, I would peel myself up and off my bed like a fruit roll-up, walk out of my bungalow which was tucked back in the beginnings of the jungle, avoid a giant Komodo dragon-like lizard, brush away Halloween-thick cobwebs with colorful spiders the size of my palm, greet folks in Thai that were attending to all the bungalows, and marched my way down to the beach like a lone wolf stoically waiting to give any solo climber The Eye, which is the universal signal for "wanna rope up?".
On this particular morning a super tall, bald, long-beard-in-a-skinny-braid viking shows up to the beach. Gear in hand, we exchange the universal signal and introduce ourselves. I can't remember his name or where he was from. He was European and his English was heavily accented. He wanted to explore routes on a section of the beach I hadn't yet been to but there was one problem. In a Thor-like voice he proclaimed that we wanted to climb 7a. I quickly did the conversion from the French grading system into the Yosemite decimal system and came up with a pouty frown. 5.11d. At the time of the trip I was climbing 11a's at best. Dang! I really wanted to get my send on, so I told him I was up for a project anyway and I assured him I had the skills to at least hangdog the thing and so off we went side by side looking like the climbing version of Schwarzenneger and DeVito only he was bald and I wasn't overweight or balding.
We followed the coast line on white sand, round a bend, and ducked behind a wall of greenery. Before us stood a massive limestone head-wall that exited the mouth of a small cave maybe 12ft in height. The mouth of the cave had a few lines of newborn stalactites only a few feet long. When he spied the line he was after, he politely asked if I wanted to go for the onsight. Pshhh, duh! Step aside tall, bald, muscular son of Oden! I got this.
I studied the start, which involved getting onto the closest stalactite by means of a campus move into a scissor lock and then surfing out onto the head-wall via mushroom-knobs of tufa, some crimps, blah blah blah, long runout, some pockets, GULP! Rewind. Long runout?! Dang. I reversed my mid air pantomime and made sure I was reading the line correctly. Yup, moves for days, then blank wall for who knows how many feet above the last clip, then, pockets again near the next bolt.
I looked up at climber Thor and he looked back at me as if to say "puny mortal, for why are you came if you are not sending?" I grabbed the rope, tied in, and went for the lead. 10 seconds later... shut down. I couldn't reach the start holds. I was too short. I looked up at climber Thor. Same look. I almost asked for a boost but out of sheer embarrassment I think I go-go gadget-ed an extra inch and managed to latch onto the nipple of the bottom of the stalactite and clawed my way up into the scissor lock like a mouse straddling a tree trunk. Take!
5 minutes later, I was on my way out onto the head-wall, grinning away as I calmly showed the god of thunder and sport climbing how we do it in the PDX, what, what! So, there I was, I clipped the last bolt before the runout and then as I clipped and passed the last bolt I had one of those Alex-Honnold-on-the-ledge moments of unadulterated panic. Oh HELLLLL NO! Retreat, down climb, bail, I'm out! Back then, my mental game was basically non existent so as to cause moments of panic under stress so intense you'd think I'd turned into Ruby Rhod in The Fifth Element!
No way I was taking that fall! One of the side effects, when I have a panic attack on routes, is magnification of the potential hazard. In this case, what would probably have been a normal, clean fall on overhung terrain looked to me to be certain death as I would surely plummet hundreds of feet below until I made direct contact with the beach below and I wound up in the shape of a bloody, human Oreo. So, I began to down-climb. The fact that I remember reaching the lower bolt in less than 4 moves suggests I was just being a big pansy but that's not the point! I was scared. My tunnel vision would not let me see anything beyond the perimeter of that shiny, life-saving quickdraw. It's nylon dog bone calling out, "grab me, I'll save you!" And grab it I did.
And that, brings us to the the beginning of the story. That Wile E. Coyote moment I was describing earlier? In the midst of my stupid, overreacting, blind-driven fear, I reached down to grab the quickdraw by the dog bone and mistakenly grabbed it by the carabiner that was clipped to the bolt. As a result, the quickdraw became unclipped and I was now frozen in a single second of time looking at the draw in my hand and wondering why it wasn't on the wall.
That second came to an end. And when it did, I really did take the whipper I was so desperately trying to avoid. To make matters worse, the well meaning heir to the throne of Asgard realized I was down-climbing and began to take in all the slack which resulted in an all but static catch that projected me towards the head-wall upon reaching the end of the fall. My left foot struck that stupid midget stalactite on the start of the route and slammed my foot back as if I was to touch my shin with the tops of my toes. I stuck my hands out to protect my face and bruised the hell out of the heels of my palms. Instantly my ankle swelled to the size of tennis balls on each side. It felt as if I was going to split the leather in the climbing shoe from the swelling.
After 3 days of limping around the beach on crutches I decided to enjoy the rest of my time in Thailand drowning my sorrows in copious amounts of ice-filled glasses of Thai liquor on Kao Sahn Road, a famous backpacker road in Bangkok. My climbing partner left for home shortly after the accident and I was stuck there because my dates changed after I missed my original flight. I had lots of time to contemplate what had happened. I feel as though I learned some valuable lessons. 1) A good head game in climbing can keep you calm and safe in desperate situations. Make plans to work on it as often as you work on your physical capabilities. 2) The way that Wile E. Coyote quickly recovers from those falls is complete horse poop! 3) Be realistic about your abilities. It's good to push yourself but you want to do it in a way that's safe and not embarrassing or hazardous. Especially when you're a mere mortal in the presence of Nordic Gods.. or whatever.