Everywhere you look here in Tonsai there are the shirtless, smooth-skinned, compact bodies of climbers, the men short with overdeveloped lats, or lanky and stringy, the women with well-muscled shoulders. Some have aged like leather, pliable, rugged, striated, brown.
I gather my climbing gear together and I set out to see if I can meet anyone to climb with. I walk around for ten minutes with no luck, and decide I’m hungry anyway. I’m walking to get food when three Thai instructors from the Base Camp climbing shop pass by. One of them nods to the climbing shoes hanging from my bag. “We’re going bouldering,” he says “you want to come?”
“Sure,” I say. Eating can wait.
The instructors are so good that they gather an audience, as it often happens here. I hear two people speaking French, so I start a conversation with them, then jump in the ocean with them. They point out the multi-pitch they did the day before yesterday and offer to let me climb with them when I say that I have my own shoes and harness but I’m traveling solo.
However, I don’t see them around again, so the next evening after a rainy day I drink some tonic water at the outdoor bar by the rocks and start talking to a passel of Scottish girls drinking red wine and Dutch boys drinking Thai beer. The Scottish girls are not climbers, but one of the Dutch boys is injured, which means they may be climbing somewhere around my level. We make a plan to meet up at ten the next day at the same spot, and then climb for six hours with a break in the middle for lunch. We don’t even stop when it rains, just switching location to an overhung area that stays dry in the downpour. I am quite gratified because they are appear to be constructed entirely out of abdominal and back muscles, and I can still climb everything they’re climbing. But they’re from the Netherlands, which means that although they’ve climbed a lot, it’s nearly all been indoors, so they’re still getting their heads around this outdoor thing. They are undoubtedly better than I am, it’s just a matter of them figuring that out.
It’s always slightly awkward being the third wheel in a party that otherwise speaks a language you can’t. But I do my best. I learn the word for take in Dutch, as in “take the rope in because I’m about to fall and only have time to say one syllable.” This comes in handy because they tend to shout instinctively in such moments instead of remembering the English word I taught them.
At one point one of them says something to the other in Dutch, and I ask: “Oh, there’s a hot girl in a bikini and sunglasses on the beach?” They are surprised, but it was really just an educated guess based on the word bikini and the word zonnebril, which sounds like the German word for sunglasses, and the fact that what else would they be talking about? Nonetheless, I let them be impressed with my stealth knowledge of Dutch, and whip out the occasional Dutch phrase just to keep them on their toes.
We’re unsuccessfully attempting a 6c (5.11a; I had to look it up) when we meet up with an older fellow and his girlfriend from Utah. The older fellow says he’ll give the lead a shot, and he cranks it out. This is how it is done, grasshopper. His girlfriend anoints the mosquito bites on my back, which I have been unable to reach.