Waltz for a Lovely Wife

December 12, 2006

It is difficult to feel anything but serenity in a wat, but I'm a talented person and can pull off any number of tricks to astound myself and my friends. The smiling monks and the yapping dogs couldn't distract me from the fact that I was about to do something very unnatural and possibly quite lethal. The quite of the grounds and the numerous flowers did their best to soothe that part of me that was out of balance, but the feeling of trepidation remained. It wasn't like I was trying to do something especially hard or inherently dangerous. I wasn't going to swim with tiger sharks or try to feed lions by hand or jump off a bridge or take a walk in Baghdad. We finished signing in with the monks, left a donation, and headed for a staircase leading up through the woods to the base of the mountain

Mike and I had been civilized about the climb: There was no stupidly early start while it was still dark outside. Bangkok was still cool, a mere 80 degrees, as we sat in traffic at 7:30 am, battling our way toward the highway. Mostly we sat still, but occasionally we moved. When traffic did manage to move, it was like a pack of hungry dogs pouncing on a scrap of meat: Every driver battled, threatened, and forced there way into the open space. All done, of course, with that politeness that comes to the Thai so naturally and unpretentiously. Mike hung tough and we eventually made the on ramp to the highway, which was quite deserted as most people in Bangkok do not want to pay the 60 baht (about $1.75) to use it. Mike gunned the little Honda's microscopic engine and we were soon racing at 130 kilometers per hour, bobbing and weaving around slower moving vehicles, and getting passed by muscular BMWs from time to time.

We were heading two hours north to near the town of Lopburi, famous for its troops of monkeys, bound for a place called Khao Jiin Lae, or Chinese Mountain. There are many transliterations of the place, one popular one being Khao Cheen Lair. Regardless of how you spell it in English characters, the mountain, and its environs, are striking. Thailand, at least central Thailand, is flat like Nebraska is flat. As we drew near to Lopburi, veering off away from it, large limestone towers began to shoot up from the flat fields of rice or sunflowers, much in the same way that large "haystacks" jut up from the Pacific Coast of Washington and Oregon. Towering more than 200 meters above the fields below, Khao Jiin Lae is an ascethetic peak. Phallic to a rather shocking degree, it boasts steep faces on all sides, though Mike speculated that there was a walk up route somewhere that the monks from the wat used from time to time. I pondered what I had gotten myself into and why man seems unique among the animals of this planet for his ability to consistently do silly things

We were going to be climbing the mountain via a six pitch bolted sport route called Waltz for a Lovely Wife that was rated at 5+ in the French system. Mike and his wife, Wallapak, had climbed via the same route a month earlier, and had been, perhaps, the second or third party to make the ascent. On the descent, a rappel down a different, steeper route called Corcovado, with fading light, the double rope got stuck, forcing Mike into a rope solo of a 6a+ route to unstick it. Cramping massively from dehydration, the ascent was not "fun", in his words. We were carrying only a single this time, though the only route guide that we had said that it would not get us to the ground. Faith is required some times.

On the hike up through the bamboo forest to the base of the peak we were accompanied by one of the dogs of the wat that I had played with to dispel my trepidation. We geared up, I smiled as best I could, and Mike set out to lead the first pitch. I watched Mike make his way up the dihedral, clipping bolts along the way, and the out across a face and up and over an overhanging portion, past which he was out of sight. The two hardest pitches are here, he told me, right off the ground, and at the very top. I fed out rope as I felt him move, and was alone with my thoughts in the shade of the quiet forest. I heard Mike call out and broke down the anchor, preparing to climb.

The face traverse, after leaving the dihedral, was, indeed, the most difficult bit of climbing, requiring balance, footwork, and skill, all of which I lack. After a few shouts to Mike, I made it through, grasping the jugs on the overhang, and pulled myself up onto mere vertical terrain. Crux 1 done. My trepidation was gone, replaced by concentration. I didn't have enough mental capacity to both worry and climb, and it seemed like climbing was the more important activity. My previous multi pitch rock climbs consisted of easy alpine climbs such as The Tooth and South Early Winter Spire, done in moutaineering boots and never breaking the 5.4 level, and rarely vertical. I was going to be vertical or overhung the entire way up and pulling through the first crux helped my mood considerably. The rest of the first pitch was straightforward, the limestone presenting many features to use for foot or hand holds, and I reached Mike smiling. The second pitch proved easy, with a massive belay ledge for me to use as Mike led the third pitch.

"There is a great purple flower up here! Make sure you look at it."

I was actually relaxed enough to consider looking at a small purple flower growing up hard on a rock face. The third pitch traverse up and then out to the right and Mike was quickly out of my line of sight. A few minutes later, I heard a ruckus. Time slowed to a standstill. I didn't know what the ruckus was, but I knew enough to know that it couldn't be good. The ruckus increased to something like a roar as I crouched next to the rock face, locking Mike off on the rope. I heard Mike shouting something, barely audible over the roar, which was now like a jet engine. About 15 feet from me, I saw a huge boulder, bigger than a man, come screaming down the mountain. All of this took about 2.5 seconds, though it seemed like much longer. When the sound of the boulder had finally faded, I called up to Mike to let him know that it had missed me. We shouted back and forth for a while.

"It missed me. Are you ok?"

"Blood is soaking my pants."

"Do you want to come down?"

"No, I'll just trail blood up."

After a few minutes, I felt the tension released from the rope as Mike started climbing once again. I was nervous once again as I set out to follow him up. I traversed across and noted the purple flower, but it didn't seem quite as magical now as I thought it would just a few minutes before. I climbed as rapidly as I could to the spot where the boulder had cut loose. The route went up through some rather dirty climbing, past cacti and trees and I emerged onto the belay ledge covered in dirt.

I clipped into the anchor and had a seat in order to rest for a bit as Mike told his tale. He had reached the boulder, which appeared to be part of the mountain itself and began to climb up it, as he had a month before. He had both feet and hands on the boulder when it began to lever over on top of him. Yelling as he went, he jumped off to the side of it, crashing into the face of the mountain. One doesn't think of elegance and grace at such times. In the process, he had torn a deep patch of skin off of the middle finger of his right hand and had left pools of blood on the rest of the route.

His legs had numerous deep bruises from various impact points and several wolverine like scratches on his legs, deep and bloody, though not serious. He had hurt his groin muscles as well, which meant that after we taped his finger, it was off to the races immediately as he didn't want the groin to tighten up any more. I took numerous photos of Mike and his wounds, wishing that I had my Nikon with me to get better close ups of the gashes, scrapes, and cuts. I had to settle for a few further back and a shot of the flatness of Thailand.

The plan was to run the fourth and fifth pitches together, making a run of 55 meters to get to a solid belay ledge. Both Mike and Wallapak had missed the belay anchor between pitches 4 and 5, and neither had seen a reasonable place to belay from until the top of the fifth pitch. After several minutes of feeding rope, I heard Mike's yell, broke down the anchor, and headed up the longest single pitch that I'd ever climbed. The indoor rock climbing gym that I go to, Edgeworks maxes out around 13 meters. My longest climb at Vantage was perhaps 25 meters. I moved up slowly, trying to conserve as much strength as I could. Midway through the fourth pitch, we left the forest for open air. The steep rock walls of Khao Jiin Lae and the massive exposure finally truly hit me. The mountain was beautiful from afar, but nothing compared its beauty from up close and on high. I brought myself up through the fifth pitch, grunting and huffing from the exertion, arms pumped and fingers hurting. One final mildly overhanding arete and I was able to traverse laterally over to Mike and spot the top of the climb.

This last pitch was the most difficult on the route, and looked it. After a straightforward dihedral, I watched Mike traverse out across a blank looking face, then up to an off-width, overhanging crack. [Note: Mike says: "There is no overhanging, off width crack in sight, you moron."] Mike moved smoothly across the face and worked his way up the crack [Mike says: "There isn't a crack, you idiot, just a bunch of jugs."] to a better set of jugs and, a few seconds later, called out that he was on top. After receiving a few words of encouragement, I followed. Dihedral, no problem. Blank face, problem. I mixed up my feet, tried to switch, got my hands in the wrong place, tried to switch, let my body swing, and off I came, my first fall outside. Mike had me completely locked off, but the stretch of the rope brought me nearly 20 feet down, almost to the start of the climb. Stupid, I told myself. Just don't be stupid again.

I quickly got back on the rock and the tension in the rope gave me enough of a boost to fly up to the traverse. I moved slowly this time, being more careful with my feet and balance, and got across in good style. The overhang, however, was less stylish. I moved up, relying mostly upon arm strength, and failied to keep my feet high enough. I was, however, moving upward, despite the lack of huge jugs, when I felt a rather strong opposition to my elevation gain. Looking down, I saw a quickdraw still attached, locked solidly against my harness; I had forgotten to clean it. Arms failing, I tried to get it unclipped and managed, with my last bit of strength, to get it off the rope. And then I fell once again. Hanging on the rope, I shook out briefly, then re-climbed to the draw and cleaned it before starting the hard part of the overhang. Up I went another meter, arms bursting again. Running out of strength, I was also running out of patience and tried a standard gym move; Deadpoint up to something that looked good. So, deadpoint I did. And when that something turned out to be not so good, down I came. You're being stupid again, I told myself. I shook out, got back on, and concentrated on moving my feet better. I came grunting up over the overhang and onto a nice, low incline with plenty of big jugs. A few minutes later, I was anchored into the top, all smiles.

The exposure and the views during the climb had been magnificent, though my appreciation was fuller on top without the worry of climbing. Mike pointed to a large, prominent lake.

"It isn't a lake. It used to be a rice field."

There had been massive rains this fall in central Thailand and much of the country side had flooded. The farmers in this area had been wiped out. Even after a month of dry weather, the lake was still there, submerging the livelihood of the local farmers. We had a few cookies and then decided that it was best to start the rappel. Mike had epic-ed on this before and he cautioned me to be careful, lest it happen again. We scrambled up a few rocks and then over to Corcovado, our descent route.

The first rappel brought us through lots of bush to a steep drop off. So far, so good. A long rappel got us to a nice big ledge and anchors. Excellent. A third rappel got us to a hanging rappel, but with enough foot support that it wasn't uncomfortable. Fine. This was where Mike had to free climb to unstick the rope on his previous ascent. A fourth rappel got us to open air, the next ledge still 20 feet lower. When I got there, Mike seemed somewhat puzzled as this hadn't happened on the last descent. We were at a single chain and Mike had gone through a few hoops to get enough space so that I could anchor in. Some tense moments passed, but down we went, under control. Two more full rappels and we were back on the deck, safe and sound.

My hands were bloody in places. The sharp limestone had punctured the skin on the tips of my fingers. Its rough edges had scraped through places on my wrists and forearms. I was filthy, sweaty, and tired. But I was happy. We relaxed for a little while and then descended back down the trail to the staircase and eventually to the wat, where we found a senior monk. Mike spoke to him in Thai, animatedly at times. Monks tend not to show much emotion, but this one was clearly happy to see us alive. He had heard the roar of the boulder and Mike's shouting and figured that the worst had happened. He looked up Mike's emergency contact number and called Wallapak to tell her what had happened. Fortunately, he reached someone in Sukhothai, far from Bangkok. One of Mike's 4s had looked like a 7. Wallapak had been spared a traumatic shock thanks to Mike's poor hand writing.

We drove in to a setting tropical sun, huge and orange in the haze of Bangkok, racing to pick Wallapak up at her university so that we could eat some dinner. Neither of us had had too much to fuel us during the day and I now had a raging appetite. When she proposed that we dine at her cafeteria, I was flooded with my own traumatic memories of university dining. What I found, however, was essentially a large night market. Minced pork with chilis and basil, fried chicken, squid salad, pickled fish (surprisingly excellent), and other delicacies satisfied the hunger in me, allowing my body to concentrate on my various aches and pains. I made it through a bottle of Chang back at their apartment before sleep overcame me, glass in hand.