Ever since the Dutch East India company was established in 1602 to profit from the Malukan spice trade and generally plunder the resources of Asia, people have longed to be lost amongst its jungles and alleys. Hell, Maureen and Tony Wheeler amassed a small fortune off the back of writing a guide to where a weary traveller to the region might buy the best hash. Think Graeme Greene novels, the smells of food stalls in Saigon back alleys and vistas of tiered rice paddy fields cascading down lush mountain slopes. So exotic!
Bollocks. Being lost in Asia sucks balls. And here’s why.
I’ve got a rubbish sense of direction, a condition not aided by having the memory of a goldfish. I get lost in Melbourne, I get lost the Grampians, I couldn’t point north if my entire body were magnetised, every tree looks the same to me. I am potentially Australia’s worst bushman. And on a recent trip to Thailand I was greeted with the disturbing knowledge that my spatial awareness is as finely honed as my sense of direction. Surely there must be a connection between the two.
People talk of 3D climbing as if ‘normal’ climbing is an act done by cardboard cutouts. Honestly, is there a more stupid term in our lexicon, with the possible exception of roped soloing? That said, however stupid the distinction between 2D and 3D may be, it is an instructive one, at least if my experience is anything to go by, because I was utterly lost in Thailand and it was not romantic.
As soon as there is something behind me or in my peripheral (non) vision I am lost. Whereas stalactites should be predictable markers that anchor you to the physical world, to me they are befuddling and disorientating.
One picturesque afternoon on the lazy island of Lao Liang I tied in and started up Lip Service (7a+/24). I hadn’t been on it before, it’s a great line following a prominent arch that demands a few powerful moves at its steepest before you swing dramatically onto a thick stalactite, which should be restful, right? Nope. As I gained the stalactite and with vertigo rushing in, I gulped air and furiously shouted to my belayer for help, “Where the fuck am I?” ran into “Hannah where the fuck do I go?”. If I could have thought straight I would have used the spit-in-an-avalanche technique – the spit goes down, idiot – to get some gauge but I was too flustered. I was adrift on a directionless sea.
This condition invariably leads to the odd situation where the harder stuff is easier than the easier stuff. I think that sentence makes sense. The simple equation says big stalactites are on the easier terrain, but for me they are as perplexing as Chinese finger traps. That would be fine except the harder stuff is actually hard, which leads to problems ticking the harder stuff and the easier stuff.
As a condition this is not wholly insurmountable. Many climbers overcome seemingly-crippling conditions such as being short, being stupid, being a ‘fraidy cat, having no technique and having children, and still manage to climb very well.
I can’t blame having my brain baked in the oppressive Thai heat and humidity either. This is a defect. The doctrine of determinism so en vogue with the medical fraternity nowadays means that everything comes back to brain chemistry. Still this fatalistic approach doesn’t offer any hope as though the Docs can give you something to make your wang point true north for hours on end I haven’t read of anyone coming up with a magic little blue pill that will orient you in space.
I guess I’ll just have to accept that I am a cardboard cut-out blighted by tunnel vision and stick to face-climbing on sandstone.