I have never been what I’d call a daredevil. I’m totally fine with the near inevitability that I’ll never go skydiving (editor’s note: oops, scratch that.); I tend to stick to the speed limit without even thinking about it; I’m convinced I’d break both my legs if I ever tried skiing (wow — scratch that, too!). I’m 29 years old and my breathing still freezes up right before the drop on Splash Mountain. I may have made some pretty daring decisions lately when it comes to life choices, but any time my personal safety is even remotely in question, I’ve always been pretty happy to sit on the sidelines. So how did I end up dangling from the side of a skyscraper-sized rockface in southern Thailand?
I’m not sure there’s a better way to answer that question than by showing you what it looks like around Krabi.
My initial plan had been to spend a few days in Krabi relaxing on the beach, mentally preparing myself for the end of my Southeast Asia adventure. But here’s what I realized as soon as I got down there and caught a long-tail boat from Ao Nang over to Railay Beach: this wasn’t the kind of place you really went to just relax by the water. You can if you want to, sure, but it’s hard to zone out when you can’t stop thinking about those rocks.
There are dark, cold, monolithic faces rising up out of the water. There are orange cliffs with stalactites dripping off the sides like candle wax on a chianti bottle. There are caves 30 meters up and trees rooted onto jagged edges in ways I’m sure must defy the laws of physics (or biology, or something). Trying to focus on my Kindle or doze off, I kept getting distracted, wondering what the rocks looked like up-close — not viewed from the beach, but millimeters from my nose. I wanted to see if the rock changed color or texture or shape up at the top and out of sight; I wanted to know what it felt like to tower over the beach the way those rocks did every day.
So I decided to sign up for a full-day rock-climbing course. Not a half-day, you understand, but a full-day. I made a special trip to the ATM to make sure I had enough money to cover the extended time. I read brochures with words I didn’t understand, like “abseiling,” and told myself I desperately needed to find out what they were all about. Let me emphasize that I have no idea why I thought this would be up my alley — perhaps I was just caught up in the spirit of trying new things. But the morning of my climb, I was inexplicably excited, incomprehensibly calm. I was optimistic. I was sure I’d do great.
It quickly became evident, however, that rock climbing was not some long-dormant talent of mine. I could haul myself up the practice rocks with a sort of grunting gracelessness, huffing out a mix of obscenities and pep-talk as I went, inadvisably using my knees as the instructor chided me from below. But I can’t say I had speed, cunning, or dexterity on my side.
The instructor holding me 30 feet aloft with a rope would yell up to me, “Right foot more right! Left foot where your knee is! Right hand left!” as if we were playing some life-or-death, vertical game of Twister. He’d assure me there was a foot-hold or a crevice for my hand a meter away, and try to convince me to release one of my limbs from its secure position on the side of this rock to reach out for the unknown. I’d take a minute, remind myself I was being suspended safely in the air no matter what, and fling my hand or leg out blindly. I’d feel around until I got to what felt like a dent, a glorified scratch in the limestone. “Yes!” the instructor would call up. “Right hand there!”
“Are you kidding me?” I’d holler back over my shoulder without looking down. “You’re mistaken. There’s nothing here to grab on to! Where’s the real hand-hold?”
“Yes, Jessica!” he’d call back. “Trust! Now, left foot where your left hand is!” We’d repeat this dialogue as I’d maneuver my leg up to the approximate height of my shoulder, then fling it towards a foot-hold half the size of my big toe. Then I’d shakily push myself up to standing using only that leg as leverage. “Remember: your legs are stronger than your arms! But your heart is stronger than your legs!” the instructor would call out cheerfully.
Well, it would have to be at this point, I’d mutter under my breath. I’d look over to either side of me and note that my classmates, scrambling deftly up the same rock, must have been injected with monkey DNA as small children.
Still, I was sort of enjoying myself. Hugging the side of the rocks, I could swivel my head around and see half of Railay spread out 20 meters below me. I could admire the intricacies of the limestone and marvel at how sturdy the delicate little natural keyholes in the rock were, hooking my fingers through them (to the chagrin of my instructor) and tugging my entire body weight up several feet. I felt surprisingly good about my efforts, even if I was clearly at the bottom of my class.
Once the morning lesson ended, my instructors all looked uncomfortably surprised that I’d be staying for the afternoon session. The other people showing up for the later course were the types who brought their own climbing shoes and taped their knuckles; I still wasn’t even 100% sure what “abseiling” meant. But I tried the first climb and made it to the top. I tried the second and got close enough that my instructor’s facial expression didn’t look disappointed — at least not from 30 meters up.
But by the time the instructor (named, funnily enough, “Chicken”) called me up for my third climb, things were not looking good. There was already an Israeli girl from another group begging to be let down from the halfway point of where I was headed. There were purple and red and blue ropes from other climbers dangling all over off the side of the rock. There was a guy who’d been sent up on my exact path just seconds before. But Chicken was sure now was the time to go.
So I grabbed the rock and pulled myself up. I worked my way, without major incident, to the halfway mark, where the Israeli girl was still stranded. And then I froze.
“Go around!” Chicken yelled. Again, Chicken: surely you jest. I mumbled something unprintable and started an awkward search under, over, and around this poor girl for hand-holds. Finally, crawling just under her feet, clawing my way up around her right side, I passed her. But not without accidentally wrapping my rope around hers. We disentangled ourselves, I looked up for my next move, and saw a huge coil of purple rope speeding down towards my face. Followed by the 200-pound guy attached to it.
“I’m ready to come down now,” I finally yelled down to Chicken. My path had been blocked; I’d been hit in the face with a rope and nearly landed on by some very nice math teacher from San Francisco. I’d had enough.
“No! One more step. One more!” Chicken insisted, “You can do it!”
“No, seriously. I’d really like to come down now.”
He finally relented, adjusting the rope and letting me descend.
For my final climb, though, he wasn’t quite so understanding. He’d set a special climb up for me — clearly an easier alternative to the path my classmates were taking up and around stalactites twice their size and into caves I could barely make out from ground-level. So I wrestled my way up, once again, to the halfway mark. I looked out at the ocean right below me. It was lovely. I was content.
I didn’t want to go any further. I had no desire to keep pulling and pushing and hoping my legs didn’t admit exhausted defeat. I felt as if I was holding on by my fingertips and toe tips and was about to lose it, like a Spiderman impostor without super powers; like Wile E. Coyote before he looks down and realizes there’s nothing under his feet but a vast canyon. I was ready to come down.
Chicken gave me his usual response: “No, not yet. Keep going.” He yanked the rope a little and I rose, involuntarily, about a foot upwards.
“Yes, now,” I insisted, fumbling for a new grip on the rock. “Please. I’m ready to come down.”
“No,” Chicken called out again.
For the record, telling people clinging tenuously to the side of a huge rock that they can’t come down is a great way to make them panic. Which is exactly what I started to do. I began pleading with Chicken, 20 meters below me, to let me come down. I could have just started my descent anyway, I suppose. But when you’re bouncing off the side of a big rock, you want the guy holding the rope that’s keeping you from becoming an unsightly splatter to be ready for you. Still, the more I begged, the firmer his “No” came back.
And then it hit me: He probably saw cases like this every day. It was his job to be a motivator, a coach, the guy who makes sure you walk away confident and satisfied instead of disappointed and regretful. I just needed to make him realize I already was confident and satisfied, even from my modest viewpoint.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I finally yelled down. “You think I’m going to be disappointed. You think I’m going to come down and wish I’d tried harder to finish the rest of the climb.”
“But I promise you, I won’t. I’m not going to regret it. I’m not going to be disappointed. I’m happy with this. I’m very happy with this.”
And you know what? I still was when Chicken gave up and let me down. I still am now, a week later. It doesn’t matter if I conquered any rocks, if I proved my endurance or skills. What I did do was discover a hidden reserve of bravery in myself. I tried something new, enjoyed it, and saw some breathtaking views along the way. And I did it on my terms. When you can say that, it’s OK to come down.
In unrelated news, I want to take a minute to thank everyone who stopped by, followed this blog, and left such kind words after seeing it on Freshly Pressed the other day. I’m currently working on an isolated farm in New Zealand, and can’t adequately express how cool it is waking up one morning in the middle of nowhere to a deluge of new emails, comments, and followers. I’ve truly been overwhelmed by the positive feedback, and hope you’ll all stick around as I catch up on un-posted stories from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and New Zealand. (And who knows where else?)