Rock climbing up limestone cliffs

Rock climbing up limestone cliffs

In popular film lore, Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible II demonstrates how to be irresponsible while doing a free solo climb, while a not-so-svelte James T Kirk, in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, attempts to do the same on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite.

Sylvester Stallone made a whole movie about rock-climbing in Cliffhanger, playing the role of the aggrieved loner. What is it about rock-climbing and the image of the alpha male, the renegade, the loner, the romantic?

And what is it that impels people to climb up vertical surfaces, especially when, after expending all that energy (not to mention exposing oneself to danger), they have to come down again?

It would appear to be a macho thing. A testosterone-fuelled loner takes to a rock face to work things out, but that's not really true, because lots of women are very good rock-climbers.

In fact many have a better power to weight ratio than men, who tend to be beefier, plus many men have additional weight in a beer gut to haul around.

Maybe it's something more primal, like climbing to safety - something in our primitive makeup that goes back to when human ancestors had to climb as a matter of survival or get eaten by saber-tooth tigers or whatever lurked around that was stronger or faster than humans.

I've had my share of fascination with rock-climbing. In actual fact, it's a good deal harder than it appears. Novice rock climbers tend to use plenty of upper body strength and become fatigued easily, while experienced rock climbers that you see virtually executing ballet on rock walls use a lot of leg power.

Legs are lots stronger than arms, and women have nicer legs than men - ergo, women are better at rock climbing. I'm sure there's flawed logic somewhere there.

South Thailand's Railay peninsula near Krabi seems designed as a rock-climbing haven. Tall limestone cliffs dripping with vegetation, tropical beaches and azure seas - and the hotel just minutes away from rock climbing walls.

Even if you have no intention of climbing, it's an incredibly seductive set up.

There are about a dozen rock climbing schools on Railay, staffed by lithe, local Thais. Even though many of them have adopted the attitude - sunglasses, tattoos, dreadlocks - beneath all that they're still very Thai, meaning they're polite, hospitable and warm people who pay lots of attention to food and speak in singsong tones.

The schools are all small, home-grown affairs, and provide everything from climbing shoes, harness, chalk bag, ropes and the services of an instructor, for a very reasonable fee.

The schools accommodate everyone from rank beginner to experienced climbers, and almost any age, from single-digit tots to white-haired and surprisingly agile climbers who more than make up what they lack in sheer strength with experience and grace.

There are dozens of mapped, bolted routes on the limestone cliffs of Railay. Because of the proximity to the sea, the high humidity and the chemistry of the rocks themselves, steel bolts corrode at an alarming rate, leading to a collaborative effort to replace steel bolts with much hardier, but expensive, titanium bolts.

The project, called Thaitanium, is funded from public donations as well as contributions from the rock climbing schools and this website (http://thaitaniumproject.com/) provides some insight into rock climbing in Railay.

Climbing in a natural environment is very different from climbing in a rock-climbing gym. The gym offers enormous flexibility and a safe environment, but a natural wall has an unyielding allure, the feel of cool rock to your cheek, and when you couple that with the stupendous scenery of Railay, it's almost irresistible.

Instructors set up the ropes for every climb, act as belayers and cheerleaders for the reluctant and the not-so-confident. They observe every newcomer and adjust the next climb according to the person's capability and enthusiasm.

"Do it for your country", Ip urged, as I was about to start my climb. Ip was a soft-spoken fellow with a thick head of hair and a wiry frame which belied the easy grace with which he climbed, as in an intimate dance with the rock.

Beginners like me, on the other hand, depended on sheer grunt-power, consequently becoming exhausted easily.

It goes without saying that a fear of heights is an absolute no-no. Many novices are wary about jamming a hand into a crevice or crack, since snakes, scorpions and other creepy-crawlies like dark cool nooks.

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