Friday, December 15, 2006

Thank God for Thailand

Climbing with and guiding the most famous blind climber in the world has its challenges sometimes. Now, you’re probably thinking of how tough it was to keep tabs on him up sheer faces like El Cap and Half Dome…maybe even how hard it must have been guiding him through the jumbled up mess of the Khumbu icefall on Mt Everest…or perhaps how tough it must have been ensuring his safety up and over the Hillary Step at 29,000 ft. Well, in some regards, that was the easy part.

Other than Stevie Wonder, Johnny Winter, and the late Ray Charles, Erik Weihenmayer is perhaps the most recognizable blind guy in the country (as well as some other unlikely international locations). Especially after the feel-good billboard campaign that is as ubiquitous as a local 7-11 throughout this great land of ours. A mega billboard shot of Erik on Denali, 11 years ago, striking his best Jesus pose with the quote “Climbed Everest. Blind.” Yeah, that must have been tough. Well let me tell you about tough.

Erik and I are both fortunate enough these days to make our livings giving keynote addresses based on our adventures to companies around the world (He’s in the upper stratosphere of speakers…I’m simply happy to make a living out of it to support my climbing habits and family). Occasionally the event will require the speaker to travel great distances to participate and give a heart rendering and inspiring account of suffering together as a team, overcoming adversities, and making the commitment to reach to top. Erik often gets offers to speak in far away, cool places like Dubai, Cortina, Auckland, Seoul, and Santiago. I get excited when I get the call that I’m headed to exotic places like Sacramento, Pensacola, and Pittsburgh. But I don’t complain, because my blind colleague has done a wonderful job of accepting engagements in cool locations, (read, awesome climbing sites) and dragging along his longtime buddies for some good fun on the rocks and mountains after the talk is a thing of history.

On this most recent occasion, Erik accepted an engagement speaking to a group of 10,000 insurance salespeople in Bangkok, Thailand. Now, Erik in his great insight and wisdom saw the opportunity at hand. A mere 2 hr flight south of Bangkok are islands just teeming with sick, steep limestone walls, delicious Thai food and bikini clad Euro gals all crankin on overhanging cliffs with their 1% body fat. It’s what we like to call, Paradise.

As strong and competent as our man Erik is, he usually needs someone to do most of the leading(editors note…Erik has lead many pitches in his climbing career, most notably 4 on El Cap). So, for this trip to the land of Thais, Erik brought along myself and another notable, successful climbing bum, Charley Mace (of K2 fame and one of our Everest teammates).

Once the business of the speaking engagement was behind us, it became all about getting south, and firing onto the forearm cranking cliffs. As a climber, the first time you round the corner into the Au Nang bay and catch a glimpse of Ton Sai and Rai Lei beaches, you nearly fall out of your long tail boat with the sheer magnitude and square footage of the limestone surrounding you. Huge towering cliffs sprayed with orange, black, green and gray, all begging to be scampered on.
Many an account has been logged on the detail and beauty of climbing in southern Thailand, so I won’t bore you with the details other than a typical day over our two week ‘expedition’…wake up, gather gear, drink iced Thai coffee and banana lassie, head for pre-arranged cliff site and climb till sunset (Erik was usually game to keep firing after the sun went down…a customary problem with him). Then, head to bar for beers, converse with Euro climbing dawgs (with the one, incessant house-rave song plodding on in the background) and deliberate on routes we would tackle tomorrow. Go to sleep. Repeat. A true sufferfest. Its’ OK, we’ve had lots of experience suffering on expeditions. We’re good at it.

As tough as all of that sounds, we have yet to experience the crux of the trip, the challenging part of climbing with a famous blind climber…After 38 hours of traveling from southern Thailand and landing back in Denver, we were done with the poorly reclining seats in 1st Class, moments away from reuniting with our families, an hour from climbing into our own beds… …and then, the inevitable happens. “Are you Erik Weihenmayer, the famous climber?” a lovely admirer asks as we step into Denver International Airport. Several minutes of curious inquiry and questioning then takes place, all the while pulling Erik along towards the train, groggy from the jetlag.

Then again, after disembarking the shuttle train, “Wow, you’re the guy that climbed Everest, right?” Another 3 minutes of Q&A. A similar scenario plays out twice more as we draw closer to the doors leading us into the Colorado breeze. Charley and I begin to fade. The hours of travel, the proximity to our final destination and perhaps that Ambien I took 7 hours ago, all start to conspire against me. Erik, the consummate gentleman, stops again to politely converse. I start to get tunnel vision; I know my wife and 6 month old son are only a few hundred feet away. My hands start to get a little shaky. I start to sweat and I have to dig down deep not to grab Erik and sprint to baggage claim. Finally, it comes to an end and we are reunited with our families and out into the night, feeling that sweet Rocky Mountain dry air. And the sufferfest has come to an end, the crux completed. In marginal style, but nonetheless, completed.

Go climb rocks in Thailand. If you can suffer hard enough, its paradise.

Thank God for Thailand. More pics here.