I gingerly peer around the sheer rock wall, desperately searching for the foothold I know is there, but can’t see. My fingers are sore, palms sweaty. I need more chalk. “I can’t do this,” I want to shout but I remain silent, glued to the rock like a mosquito swatted on a wall. Sweat runs from my forehead down my left cheek. My wet singlet hugs the creases of my stomach. Focus.
It’s a far cry from the lights and noise of Bangkok, yet the suffocating heat remains. The little sea breeze there is dissipates rapidly in the humidity and fails to climb the towering rock rising from Railay’s dirty sand. I look down at the bay that hugs one side of this Rastafarian-style enclave in Thailand’s South. It’s still, devoid of the longtail boats that ply the waters every morning and afternoon. With the tide out, the mudflats and mangroves are exposed.
Slowly, I lift one leg, scraping it and tearing skin. I search frantically for a crack to jam my fingers into, to get a grip. If anyone else were up here with me they’d see the panic on my face. But there isn’t. I’m alone, 60ft above the ground.
I search for my next move and find a tiny hole just big enough for my toes to squeeze into. My breath quickens. My heart thumps. My Real Rock Railay instructor, Tik, yells something from the sand but I try to block out all sound.
My chalky fingers search the limestone until I feel a slight crack high above. I stretch as far as I can. As the tips of my fingers press into the fissure, applause erupts. Knowing it’s not just my instructor who’s watching me makes me more nervous. My heart continues to pound. Sweat continues to drip. Finally, I tackle the boulder, to face an almost featureless slope. With each step my left thigh trembles as muscles spasm.
I’ve been rock climbing before but only indoors — this is scary stuff. I can understand how people become addicted; it’s a sport that tests minds, fears and muscles.
On a small ledge, I sit and catch my breath. As I consider my next move, Tik’s words play in my mind: “You don’t go to top, you don’t come down.”
Only 10ft shy of the summit of the 100ft cliff face, I ready myself for a step or two higher when raindrops begin to fall. The sky has turned gun-metal grey. A thunderstorm is brewing and I have no protection.
“I’m saved,” my mind screams, yet the impending torrent of rain poses another potential obstacle. I have three options: sit the storm out and get thoroughly soaked on the tiny ledge; climb what will become a dangerously slippery slope; or quickly descend to safety and a beer back in town before it worsens.
I peer down at Tik, who’s getting wet as he anchors my rope. He gives me a thumbs-down. With one simple gesture he’s saved me from the rain and the climb. The relief is immense, but the challenge isn’t over. I now have to abseil down 90ft of rock.