Tonsai, the calm before the storm
It is mid April 2020 and COVID-19 has not yet passed. This will become one of the most significant extraordinary events of my lifetime. To date, almost 2 million people globally have been infected, with over 115,000 deaths (Click here to see how did it end up?). Our climbing crew were lucky to have snuck in this Tonsai climbing trip before shit really started hitting the fan.
This international climbing adventure was over a year in the making, spawned amongst friends over a bottle of whisky in Nowra - New South Wales' sport climbing mecca. The infamous cliffs of Kalymnos were pondered, however, the prospect of chilling out on the beaches under the magnificent limestone cliffs of Thailand was uncontested.
To be honest, like most ideas involving distilled potions, I am embarrassed to admit that I had doubts this trip would emerge, and if it did, just a fraction of those involved on that Nowra night would be present. All credit goes to Sandra for coordinating and finally putting her foot down, setting both dates and accommodation. Months later, as the last long tail glided into shore on a still and mild evening in February, 8 climbers started an adventure that would have them battling infected mushrooms, rising tides, and Tonsai Tummy.
I had been itching for this trip for quite some time, especially after my relocation to Darwin where my regular climbing excursions had dwindled to simple admiration of how my hang-board looked mounted on my 5th floor balcony. From the moment I departed Darwin International Airport, I so urgently wanted to find the highest cliff, get to the top, and sit there sharing Oreos with my mates whilst feeling that, forever chasing, sense of accomplishment. It didn't take me long to find that cliff, 'Big Wave', a 4 pitch 111m climb that towered over Tonsai Bay. It took me longer, however, to figure things out.
First, orientation. We all booked ourselves into Tonsai Bay Resort, one of the better serviced accommodation options on Tonsai Bay - the main primary climbing area, as opposed to Railay Beach - primarily consisting of 'fly and flop' holiday makers and fancy resorts. Choosing the accommodation was one of the decisions that was holding us up during the commitment stage of our planning process. It turned out we chose well. The resort, located on the far right side of the beach and under the famous climb 'Humanality', housed the only restaurant/bar on the beach and was a perfect place to chill out, eat & drink, or wait for our fellow climbers. It also offered Thai massages and had a climbing shop where several copies of the local climbing guide book were purchased.
Second, remembering how to climb. It took a couple of days to get familiar with limestone (so different from the Blue Mountains' sandstone I've been so accustomed to), remembering how to move on the wall after half of year of very little climbing, and getting my head game back. But we had fun in the process. We focused on the walls around Tonsai and familiarised ourselves with the crags we wanted to conquer. We also learned that we were never going to figure out the local tide schedule and were going to lose friends if we continued to try. The grading system was also alien, but with the help of the charts in the guidebook, I figured I was looking to crush 6a+ to 6c graded climbs.
After about the third day, I was feeling pumped and ready to scale up anything in front of me. But first, I needed to do my 'mate duty' and be wingman for Handsome James. Off to Chill Out Bar we went.
After a few beers, I thought 'task accomplished' and was preparing to head back to my bungalow. MJ had another opinion as he waved a fist full of Baht and proceeded to order vodka sodas and what we thought was Tequila...
The hangover the next morning was not one of those experiences I wanted on this trip. When the evening came and my condition continued to deteriorate, I knew something was wrong. As I laid in my bed, clutching my gut, all that ran through my mind was my girlfriend's only advice to me, 'don't drink from the dirty bar glasses'. Tonsai Tummy, it got me. It got me real good.
We were there to climb and although each of us got picked off by Tonsai Tummy in some shape or form, we didn't let that stop us from exploring some of the best of what Thailand climbing had to offer. MJ and I had two attempts at Big Wave, defeated by the rising sun and the fear of hanging 100m up on a wall without a toilet. We found 'Infected Mushroom' to be a fun 6a+ at Gibbons Roof, had a family fun day in Railay, and at the Nest & Wild Kingdom we witnessed some impressive sends worthy of ice cream. Strapping on the helmet and slipping into the harness proved to be therapeutic as the different climbing style needed for limestone and the breathtaking views often overpowered the rumbling sensation in the mid-section.
In just a week I had ticked off a long list of climbs and scribbled an even longer list for my return. But ticking off a list wasn't what made this trip amazing.
There's not much I love more than seeing people come together. Sandra and I have been friends for just under a decade after she was my first Couchsurfing guest in Cairns. I had met Handsome James and Steph during the reunion between Sandra and myself a couple years back in Sydney, at a crag of course. Dashing James and I met at the climbing gym in Newcastle and we both met Ben on my first canyoning trip in the Blue Mountains. I met MJ for the first time, sharing a room in Singapore on our way to Thailand. Most of us met Matt on Tonsai.
There are experiences that bring people closer together. Yes, climbing hard climbs, catching each other's falls, and yelling words of encouragement from the belay station (or bar) all go towards thickening up the bond of friendship. But let's be open and honest here, what really cements this bond is by playing Russian Roulette in search of the island's best Pad Thai and sharing graphic details on the consistency of our stool really solidifies things.
To be honest, I have little recollection of those climbs I ticked off, nor the beta needed to send them. I will never forget, however, how Dashing James' beard made him look so bad-ass, the way Ben shrieked when the tiny snake slithered over his foot, the banter thrown around at the dinner table, or the sincereness embodied in the parting words which was echoed to me during my final minutes on Tonsai.
'I'll miss you'
And in the words of Christopher J McCandless,
'Happiness is only real when it's shared'