"You fall from 50 feet, it's like hitting concrete. You fall from 80 to
100 feet, you're dead"- Kevin Costner, "The Guardian"
By Michael J. Ybarra
Hat Tonsai, Thailand
About 45 feet above the Andaman Sea, I'm standing on a rail of rock not
quite wide enough for all of my toes, admiring the view. My hands hold
another rail of limestone protruding from the overhanging wall, forcing
my body to lean slightly backward as I crane my neck sideways to take in
the panorama behind me. It's a somewhat awkward position, but one that
seems preferable to the alternative of letting go and hitting the water.
The horizon is dotted with limestone karsts like the one I'm clinging
to: weirdly tilted rock wedges, weathered and eroded into fantastic Yves
Tanguy shapes, rising at improbable angles from the sapphire sea as far
as the eye can see.
I'd come to this stunning southern corner of Thailand to try Deep Water
Soloing (DWS), which is rock climbing without ropes or any protective
equipment over bodies of water deep enough to safely blunt the force of
a fall. All you need is a swimsuit and rock shoes. Or that's the theory.
Of course, if you become too tired to climb and fall off, you might also
be too tired to swim. In Mallorca, the sport's birthplace, at least one
climber has drowned. Add sharks, waves and jagged rocks and the fun
potential seems to diminish somewhat.
"It's the purest form of climbing," says my enthusiastic friend Dave.
It may also be the scariest. Not so much the climbing, which was
challenging enough to be absorbing without becoming terrifying or too
hard. Getting down was another matter. Normally, when you reach the top
of a climb there's a trail to descend or you simply rappel the route
with your rope. With DWS there's one way down: jumping.
This proved harder than I had imagined. A boatload of climbers were
watching me, urging me to leap. My procrastination seemed to be cutting
into happy hour back on Tonsai Beach, where we were staying.
I dusted some pebbles off the ledge with one foot and counted the long
seconds they took to disappear into the water below. One, two, three . .
I decided to admire the view some more.
Twenty years ago Tonsai was an obscure corner of the Phang Nga
Peninsula, a series of deserted beaches walled off from the rest of the
province by rugged limestone cliffs. Today Tonsai is the rock climbing
capital of Southeast Asia, still secluded and reachable only by boat,
but popular enough during the winter dry season to resemble a
bathing-suit-clad version of the United Nations, with a babble of
languages being shouted by men and women scaling the surrounding rock
walls. About 80% of the visitors to Tonsai are climbers. Ropes and
climbing gear are as common there as tanning oil and trashy novels are
at most other sand and surf resorts. It's not uncommon to be on the
beach at Tonsai and see someone swan dive off a cliff 300 feet up, only
to parachute to safety in a heartbeat.
But even climbing 50 feet above the ground with a rope to stop your fall
in case you slip can grow mundane day after day. Why not get rid of the
For years some elite climbers have been doing just that, scaling
ultra-hard routes without any safety lines. "Free soloing," they call
it. In free soloing, falling equals death. Perhaps this is the reason
that the sport has never become terribly popular. Deep Water Soloing,
however, lets ordinary climbers experience something of the same thrills
at a fraction of the risk.
In Tonsai, Wee Changrua-who runs a local climbing school-organizes DWS
boat trips to some of the islets sprinkled around the bay. One January
morning I jumped into a longtail boat with a dozen other climbers.
We dropped anchor in front of what looked like a blank wall of rock. But
from the side, you could scamper up about 20 feet and then traverse onto
the face, gaining another 20 feet of elevation if you were brave enough.
The first climber stopped at the corner before the traverse and simply
jumped off, waving his arms wildly as he plunged into the sea. That
reminded our boat driver to point out the importance of keeping your
arms at your side and your legs straight when hitting the water.
Next a woman skillfully scaled the wall-and kept going higher and
higher. The boat driver urged her to jump. She kept moving up.
"I'm scared," she yelled. "Can I climb down someplace else?"
Eventually she had to jump. So did I. I tried to keep my hands by my
side, but forgot about my legs. I slammed into the sea with my butt. It
felt like being spanked by God.
After lunch on a small beach we took the boat to a fantastically
featured wall inclined like an inverted pyramid with huge stalactites
dripping down toward the water. Swimming up to the rock, I waited until
the tidal swell lifted me high enough to grab big holds directly above
my head, swing my feet up, hooking the heels of my shoes into pockets,
and then flip my body over the lip and onto a wide ledge. From there I
climbed stalactites up to a blank corner. Reaching around the corner I
couldn't find any holds and jumped off.
Bobbing in the surf I looked up and watched another climber pull past
the corner and ascend a series of horizontal rails until he jumped onto
a giant stalactite hanging dramatically over the water like an
exclamation point. With one hand he hung from the bottom of the tufa,
dangling about 50 feet above the sea. Then he effortlessly switched
hands. Finally, he let go. It was one of the coolest things I've ever
I climbed back to my previous high point and managed to surmount the
corner. Climbing the rails was easy enough-but then what? Half of me
wanted to keep going up to the stalactite. The other half wanted my
mommy. I stopped climbing. I looked down. I told myself I'd leap at the
count of three. One, two, three.
On the horizon I noticed another interesting looking island.
I jumped. The fall was disconcertingly long-a fact I had time to reflect
on as I plummeted toward the sea. I plunged underwater for what felt
like an almost equal distance and waited for my momentum to stop and my
buoyancy to return me to the surface.
Since I started climbing I've bashed my knuckles to pulp swinging ice
tools into a glacier, grated my arms and legs like cheese in sandstone
cracks and busted an ankle sliding off a frozen waterfall upside down.
None of that hurt as much as falling into water.
Back in Tonsai, I couldn't turn my head to the left. My right elbow felt
like it had been hit with a sledgehammer. When I went to take a shower I
looked in the mirror and noticed that there was a rainbow of black and
blue bruises spanning my backside from buttock to buttock. It looked
like I'd spent a weekend at an S&M convention.
The next day I went back to the rope.
At home a few weeks later I read an interview in a magazine with hotshot
climber Sonnie Trotter who said that he wants to do 200-foot-high deep
water solos with a parachute.