“I think you should wear the smaller shoes.”
“I think you’re wrong.”
He didn’t yell, but the edge to his voice was clear demand to shut up about it. I immediately regretted opening my mouth. Like he was ever going to listen to me anyway. I turned away and kept quiet while the other climbers chatted each other up in the early morning shade. It was too early to deal with Rob’s snapping.
His shoes were too big. He was walking in them. All the other climbers were carrying their shoes and walking in flip flops and slip ons. Climbing shoes should fit like a corset. You don’t walk around in them.
There were two other climbers sharing the long tail boat with us on our last day in Tonsai. I was trying to be friendly and ignore my annoyance with Rob.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
Rob said something that I didn’t catch and the three of them laughed.
“What was that?”
“I said there’s no kangaroos in Austria.”
“I know that.”
He looked at me like I was an idiot. “That’s why I said it to her and not to you.”
There’s only one picture of me from that day, on the boat in the morning just after this exchange. I wasn’t smiling.
I’d been in Thailand for five months now, and every day since arriving I had dreamed about going deep water solo climbing. But at that moment all I could think about was how Rob was ruining it, and how nervous I was that I would be so afraid of falling that Rob would end up mocking me .
Out long tail boat pointed its bow towards a cluster of islands sitting on the other side of a haze and set off. The loud sputtering of motor kept us quiet as tore through unbelievably sapphire water.
Far out on the other side of that haze we came to a cliff that made a cave out over the water. When the tide was high, the cave shrunk. When it was low, there was a chunk of stalactite looking rock that hung down over the far side of the roof of the cave with a ladder going up to the bottom tip of it. There was no way in hell I was going to climb that. The top of the ladder was as up as I cared to fall, and the climb only went up and up and up from there. But that was to be our second stop.
The first stop was at two perpendicular cliff walls. The left wall was a straight up and down, with a traverse that’s more like a shimmy across a very small ledge and a bit of a sideways stair clamber up to a ledge that you could jump off of. All of this was very simple stuff. But it was the space between your feet and the water that terrified me.
There we three other boats besides ours and the kayaks had to line up to take people to the ladder. I waved off the kayak and jumped out of the boat and into the water with my shoes on. Getting up the rope and bamboo ladder hanging from the rock to the water is the hardest part. The ladder swings your legs out in front of you as you pull yourself up. I hadn’t even gotten to the top of the ladder yet and my heart was already pumping adrenaline and my whole body was shaking. I couldn’t have been more than for rungs up, but you see everything from the distance of your head, not your feet.
First I had to get over my fear of the jump. My whole body was coursing with it. I had bouldered up much higher without a rope before, but never with the intention of jumping. I had learned to manage my fear of heights by focusing on down climbing as much as I did climbing up. That what climbing does—teaches you how to handle fear.
Focus on your body. Where are your hands? Where are your feet? My hands are here, dug into these two good chalky pockets. My feet are resting on a narrow slippery ledge, and the soft part of my shoes are oozing water with each squishy step.
Now where is your right hand going next? Where is your right foot going? Right and here, left foot here, and — move.
Climbing is a series of movements. Its moments lie in every time you shift the weight of your body from one point of rest to another–every time you trust in a hand or a foot and the muscles attached to them. It’s like your ego’s doing trust falls into your body every time you make a move, trusting your muscles and fingers and toes to keep you from dying.
I went right a few feet and then jumped into the water. When I went up a second time I could breathe easier. I went three moves to the right again.
Too much fear can be dangerous for climbing. Fear seizes up your muscles and tares through your strength. The moment that it freezes you, takes over and overpowers your will to move neither up or down—that’s the most dangerous moment on the rock, when your ego stops trusting your body to keep you safe. I’ve had those moments before. So my strategy for managing my fear was to do a little bit at a time, jump, then do a little bit more until my brain became familiar with the sensation of falling.
On the right wall around the corner there were some more interesting problems, and less damn people. Up to the left of that ladder you could go up and around the corner on parallel ridges of stalactite. To the right of the ladder there was a traverse with two levels, a lower first level and an upper second level, then it was straight overhang climbing from there.
I went up to the right of the ladder until the traverse got tricky—you had to swing your body down and out at the same time and the rocks were so wet that no matter how much chalk you put on it washed off by your second hand hold.
I traversed across back to the left of the ladder, rested on a ledge for a bit, and tried to approach the problem again from lower down on the rock. A Brooklyn boy whose boat had come from Ko Pi Pi showed me where to put my hands once the rock to my right jutted forward.
“Just use your left to grip that bit right there. Then swing out and get your right foot over to that hold over there.”
I gripped the wet stone, took a breath, and flew.