Retie the Knot
We were having lunch at Chicken Mamma when we saw the signs for some Valentine’s Day shenanigans. The signs said “Retie the Knot on Valentine’s Day.” Hilarious themed parties and bar nights are a dime a dozen on Ton Sai so we didn’t think anything of it at first. But when we actually read the sign we realized it was calling for volunteers to retie anchors and slings on some routes. Since we will be here for 6 weeks or so consuming what Ton Sai climbing has to offer we were eager to do our part to give back.
The volunteer day was organized by Wee’s Basecamp. Wee and Elke Schmitz, a German woman, are the authors of the leading climbing guide to Krabi. There are around a dozen climbing shops offering climbing rentals and courses and one other competing guidebook but it has been our impression that Wee’s is the original and the most active with safety upkeep. Many of the others seem along for the ride and the tourist dollars. If you come to Ton Sai please buy their guidebook and patronize them over the others. The book is great and has the best organization of any guide I have used to date.
We went to Wee’s Basecamp Ton Sai to sign up and told them we would love do a few routes and signed up for the three 6a’s on Cobra Wall. Given the general cooperative nature of the climbing community I expected everyone to pitch in and help out. When we arrived in the morning there were about half a dozen people there to help. I kind of figured that all the climbers would be ready to spend a day to make routes safer for themselves and everyone else. But it seems most climbers either didn’t get the memo or couldn’t interrupt their climbing to help out. Either way we were there to contribute what we could to make things safer.
Given the fact that we were only doing three easy climbs we figured it would only take us a couple of hours and we didn’t need to rush over there to be the first ones at the crag. We needed to wait for the shade to hit the rock (around noon) and the tide to go out anyway. We got there at 2pm and it was packed with people. We still managed to get on the first route right away but we had to wait to get on the other two.
It’s quite an interesting sensation hanging from the bolts at the top of a route getting ready to cut the protection that you rely on to get down. Safety in Ton Sai is slightly different than what we are accustomed to in the States. We have come to trust expansion bolts as being bomb proof and the most reliable type of fixed protection we can have. It’s not uncommon to see chains and “D” rings for anchors at the top of the routes and trust them as sound. In Ton Sai the elements are so severe that steel expansion bolts rust from the inside out and fail regularly. The scariest part is that the bolt can look brand new from the outside while the corrosive limestone has completly rusted out any structural integrity. As a result they have started using titanium glue in bolts and old climbing rope for protection. We met a climber last time we were in Tahoe who had a bolt blow out of the rock right past his head on Ton Sai Roof. He took a nasty fall dislocated his hip, broke a few bones, and was knocked unconscious. Safety is a real issue with climbing and we trust our lives to the protection many climbers like ourselves have placed at some point in the past. It’s because of this that I was surprised to see so few people were willing to help make things safer by retying a few anchors and slings.
When we went into Wee’s to get our gear for the day we met Elke and she gave us a few tips and sent us on our way. There was no checking to make sure you know how to tie the appropriate knot or how to equalize an anchor. As a climber you assume that everyone knows the basic knots and safety techniques simply because it is an inherently dangerous sport and safety is something every climber takes seriously.
As another safety reminder, I was on the first route when a climber on the route next to me screams “rock!” Briana is belaying and watches a softball sized piece of rock comes whizzing by her head. Needless to say we have been wearing our helmets, style be damned! Most of the rock seems to be really sound but every now and then holds fail and rocks fall. It’s those unexpected occasions that can result in injury.
At the top of the first route I clipped a biner to my belay loop and the anchor ring then made my plan. I was really slow and careful to double check my locking carabiners and webbing to make sure there was no single point of failure and there was no chance of me falling. As an added measure Briana stayed on belay the whole time. In the event that I was really unlucky and the bolts failed while I was up there I would be caught by the last sling I clipped into taking a nasty lead fall but remaining safe.
I decided to retie one sling at a time before I cut it so I would always have at least one additional sling connected. This contributed to the reason it took me so long to finish three routes. We figured we would be done in a couple of hours. Between my obsessive compulsive safety and having to wait for other climbers to finish it took us more than 5 hours to retie three routes. We had selected relatively easy routes since we wanted to make sure we could actually get up the climbs and do what we set out to do. Since they were easy climbs we had climbers around us that were generally new, in big groups and slower than we anticipated. Given the popularity of the climbs it was also a good thing that we replaced the anchors. Months of constant toproping can result in heavy wear.
I was still working on the last route when the sun set. I was working as fast as I could without cutting any corners on safety. We got everything done and I felt really good about how it turned out. I definitely have a different eye for inspecting gear after this experience and I will check every route’s protection with a scrupulous eye from now on.
On a related note I feel compelled to write about how expensive it is to keep climbers safe at Ton Sai. One titanium bolt with red glue runs about 20 USD. That means that rebolting a single route is easily $200. Compared to the local economy that is astronomical. With hundreds of routes in the area the resources simply don’t exist to keep everything shiny and new. If and when you come to Ton Sai please research what is needed and pack some titanium bolts with your gear. If every climber brought just one bolt we would all be a lot safer. Money donations can be mismanaged. Donations of the right gear are the most effective. Wee’s is also a great place to retire an old rope. A rope that is no longer suitable for climbing can be cut into slings. We will definitely be donating what we can in terms of gear and labor before we leave.