Abbey Smith - Andaman Sea Climbing

Monday, April 7, 2014

Somewhere in the Andaman Sea...

 

Words by Abbey Smith

photos by Michael Ramsey

 
Those who know me best would probably say that my worst trait is planning everything extremely last minute. Although my approach can be somewhat disorderly, one advantage is that I constantly make exciting discoveries in unexpected places. Such as, riding on the back of a motorbike through Bali’s terraced rice fields. Exploring sequences on a new thrilling highball on the top of East Mountain in Hueco Tanks on Christmas Eve. Wandering The Louvre during a rainy day in Paris, followed by an afternoon of slapping sticky sandstone slopers, alone in la foret de Fontainebleau. Watching snow fall on the majestic Mont Blanc Massif. Touring a medieval castle on the shore of Lake Geneva at the base of the Swiss Alps. That was just the last six months...

...and now I’m circumnavigating a remote sea stack in the Andaman Sea by kayak searching for stunning lines to climb. No guide, no grades – just spectacular limestone walls begging to be climbed. It’s up to me to judge whether the rock is solid, the landing is safe, the crux too high, and my ability satisfactory. To me, finding rocks that haven’t been climbed before is the ultimate adventure.

I’m here with my partner, Michael Ramsey – a director, filmmaker, photographer, dance fighter and dive master. To get here, we knew of two options: hire a guide and a long-tail boat, or rent a kayak for a day or overnight trip. Since Michael used to paddle five miles everyday in Roatan, Honduras to film sharks and dolphins, guide divers, and run a bar at night, we chose to load a sea kayak and camp on an island where locals say there’s deep water soloing. Sure enough, we found a jackpot of wild 3D volumes, steep caves oozing with ribbed tufas, and sheer orange, white and blue walls dressed with delicate pockets.

The last time I deep water soloed, in 2007 on Laoliang, we hired a Thai boatman to take us to the cliffs. I didn’t realize how much energy that saved until I’m floating beneath dreamy walls, unable to climb because my upper body is thoroughly exhausted from paddling overs six miles. So we decide to set up camp on a golden sand beach in a tranquil lagoon guarded by rock towers. A kaleidoscope of butterflies and a pair of Great Hornbills greet us as we plop down in the shade of a palm tree. The circular cove is encrusted with an overhanging band of highly featured limestone, perfect for short boulder problems and long traverses above warm, shallow water.

Just as we think we have this sublime sanctuary to ourselves, two kayakers arrive to swim and sunbathe. Thirty minutes later, a longtail boat with a dozen European vacationers drop their anchor 10 feet away. This cycle continues until dusk, when the tide draws back, which is a perfect time to go bouldering. Down low, the honeycomb pockets have razor sharp edges that thrash our baby soft skin. Higher up, the rock rounds out forming rails that rise into the tropical canopy. We climb until dark and then fall asleep to the sound of the whispering waves, rambunctious monkeys, and low hum of the squid boats that illuminate the spires with their alluring green light. 

The next day, we start at 10 am when the tide begins to rise. Since the water is too cloudy to snorkel, Captain Ramsey makes the brilliant suggestion to measure the depth with a massive bamboo pole. There are endless opportunities to climb. I go to my comfort zone – overhanging walls with a clean fall. At first I’m timid, making small conservative movements to feel the flow of the rock and embrace the exposure. Then I attempt a steep corner dripping with stalactites that look like witch’s fingers reaching down to pluck us out of the water.

 As I grab onto the black prickly pockets and step off the boat, my heart pounds loudly in my ears and my pruney, sweaty hands make a sticky paste in my chalk bag. I slowly ascend a dihedral of rounded columns, constantly evaluating the fall and brushing off the fine layer of dirt on each grip before moving. From a bomber handle bar, I make a committing stem above the bottomless blue to a bulging stalactite. I’m fully exposed now. My fear of being swallowed by the sea makes my knuckles white. I don’t look down – just keep climbing.

My hands are melting fast from overgripping wide tufas and my toes are trembling on tiny fragile knobs. The route is irreversible at this point, and if I reach for the smooth sphere above and can’t mantle to the top of the stalactite, then I could fall wildly into the sea. I’m genuinely scared. The water seems very far away. I scan for jagged rocks and scary sea creatures, take a deep breath and leap away from the wall. SPLASH! When I float to the surface, and slide into the kayak, I realize I narrowly missed a basketball-size jellyfish in the landing zone.

 

 

 
It’s mid-afternoon, my hands are raw, forearms pumped, shoulders depleted, shoes and chalk bags drenched, so we decide to end our adventure on the northern tip of a neighboring island at a 5-star luxury boutique resort we paddled passed on the way out. That evening, while sipping pina coladas, still buzzing from taking the plunge, we notice they have kayaks available to guests and that there over 100 sport routes within a casual ten minute stroll from my lounge chair. We laugh about how we took the hardest possible route and how every muscle is sore, but it was also the most fun. The best part is we took a chance, ventured into the unknown, discovered world class climbing on our own, and left only a faint trail of chalk, which will wash off with the next big wave. It doesn’t get any better than this.
 

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