Fried Chicken on Chicken Island
Sketchy, stoned boatmen that don’t appear on time, no water, bolt glue that doesn’t work, diving to retrieve lost bolts… A lot of work went into setting up the first sport climb on this Krabi, Thailand landmark.
After several years of fading climbing passion, I was reignited when I encountered this limestone tower raising out of the water near Krabi, Thailand. Railay beach had become my family’s yearly x-mas vacation spot; a far cry from the Swedish cold and dark midwinter. It was not hard to lure climbing friends with families to join us. In December 2004 on the 26th I was joined on a boat trip to Pi-Pi island by my friend Henrik and his family.
Leaving Railay’s cliffs behind we passed the famous landmark “Chicken Island”. In one corner of this rocky island an almost 100 meter high limestone tower stretches up crowned by a huge lump of limestone that resembles the head of a chicken Being a climber, I couldn’t resist tempting Henrik with the thought of a route stretching all the way from the water line, over the chest, up the neck and out under the chin of the ”chicken”. He ignited on all cylinders and plans were started on how to accomplish this feat.
Our plans were brutally interrupted by the tsunami. You could say that our climbing passion saved our lives because we were on a small beach under a steep climbing wall when the tsunami hit. Thus, we were not washed away or tumbled around, but rather went riding a vertical lift 8 meters up. Safely back in Sweden with the events of the tsunami tucked away we started thinking about the awesome “chicken island” formation and it’s climbing possibilities again.
A first recon
Two years later we were ready for a first try. My longtime climbing partner Robert, joined Henrik and I. (Robert spends close to 5 months of the year in Thailand!) Together we rented a boat and took it out to the island. On arrival to the island the Thai boatman thought the swell was to large for a safe landing so we had to swim in to the base of the tower. The first 7-8 vertical meters up the base was a scramble on loose rock and sand.
We cleared the choss and made a path up to a small cave with a firmer base. We could see that a line stretched up and to the right. The climbing on the lip of the cave looked to be possible. It seemed to be easier ground thereafter and the ”neck” of the chicken looked quite possible to climb. The roof however looked very intimidating, and whether it was possible to climb was impossible to judge from our position. After about an hour of recon we returned to the base of the cliff. Our boatman was nowhere to be seen. By swimming halfway around the island I managed to find him and wake him up from his beauty nap.
40 meters of 6b+ for starters
Back in Aonang we planned and packed for a first route setting attempt. Our climbing ladies kindly, but firmly, declined any participation in this event, so they were abandoned with the children on the long and beautiful beach of Chicken Island (the opposite side from us). Henrik climbed the first vertical and exposed pitch placing some very suspect cams and the occasional sling. He cranked out about 40 meters of rope to a decent belay position on a shelf where he made first belay anchors placing slings. The second pitch was considerably easier, a badly protected scramble over less than vertical terrain which ended up on a second, big, shelf under the ”neck” of the chicken. A secure belay station was easily arranged and we could turn our attention to the ”neck”. It turned out to be very nice, big holds and a good crack kept the climbing moderate, (grade 6a+) on vertical terrain with many good opportunities for sling placements.
We were now finally just under the imposing roof. At almost 15 meters and strewn with stalactites it looked impressive and maybe possible. However, the better part of the day was already behind us so we lowered off and started to clean and drill boltholes on the first pitches. The first three pitches were equipped with a number of slings and fifteen glue in bolts. We had strayed to ”the dark side” using a two component Essve glue recommended to us by a hard ware supplier in Sweden thus not using the highly recommended Hilti 500 glue. Quite exhausted we now returned to our, by this time, irritated families on the beach.
A few days later Robert and Henrik returned to bolt the roof. Robert started up the first pitch and was terrified when he started pulling out the bolts when he was climbing the crux of the first pitch. It turned out the glue had failed to mix properly before hardening due to the high temperatures. Robert managed to keep it together and climbed without falling all the way up to the first belay station. Henrik took turns and climbed the second and third pitch plucking out the bolts as he passed them.
Finally it was time to give the 15-meter wide roof a try. By strenuously placing expansion bolts and slings Henrik climbed the roof and could drill five extra holes for gluin bolts on the way back in. Carrying only the failing Essve glue, they could not fix the bolts. A high-grade corrosion resistant expansion bolt will last a maximum of 5 years in the extreme Thai environment. A high-grade corrosion resistant bolt fixed with insulating epoxy glue will last up to 15 years. As expected the boat failed to appear on time and the duo had to wait two hours before the boat turned up bringing a magnificent rainstorm with it.
Time was running out and it was time to return to Sweden. We had to take a bite of the sour grapes and realize that if we wanted to complete the route we had to try to find time and money for a return journey.
Plans are nothing, planning is everything – D.D. Eisenhower
Returning to Aonang, I found Robert waiting and knew that Henrik could not spare more than four days. For him it would be a quick in and out, so we would have to make the preparations. Robert and I planned for a first trip out to rebolt the pitches. We decided to start really early to be able to avoid the scorching effect of the sun.
At six-o-clock in the morning we found ourselves utterly alone on the beach. The boat man who had sworn to be on time turned up at eight with the excuse that his boat was still beached due to low tide. Thus we finally started climbing at about ten in the morning with the sun blazing on our backs. I was close to a heat stroke when I finally reached the second belay station. I started to haul the bag with water and food, which naturally got caught up in the overhang. Exhausted and feeling fried on the big chicken, I had to lower off and climb the overhang once again, now with the heavy pack on my back.
Irritation turned to desperation when we realized that we had hauled the wrong bag. We were now stranded without water or food to nurture us on our full day endeavor. The heat was unbearable but we didn’t want to quit so we lowered off to some bushes protruding from the wall and hung there for almost an hour to try to cool of. We then returned to the belay station and commenced to clean and bolt our way down the route. Robert lowered off first to drill and I followed placing the bolts. I heard the drill working regularly while I lowered off and glued the bolts with reliable Hilti glue.
When I returned to the ground I found a sulking Robert, who not only had dropped the bag with our bolts in to the sea, but also had managed drill through his pants into his leg. After bandaging Robert and diving to retrieve the missing bolts we managed to finish the bolting and return to Aonang.
Finally — red point time
When Henrik arrived: jet lagged sleep depredated and with only four days to spare it was time for the final push. We agreed that everyone should have a go at the roof and we also planned for me to film Henrik climbing the roof while I was hanging from the top anchor. Everything organized; we planned for a really early start the following morning. The boatman was ordered not to be one minute late. We were on site by eight and the gods favored us because we had a partially cloudy sky. Henrik speedily climbed all the way to the second belay station. I followed, then simul-belayed Henrik as he climbed the third pitch while Robert climbed the first and second. For almost four hours we took turns belaying Henrik as he cleaned and glued the missing bolts in the roof. It’s so steep!
The first red point attempt by Henrik was very nearly a success but he took a wrong turn and fell off just after the crux. We were now all hanging under the roof to the amusement of the tourists traveling out to this “chicken island” spectacle. Henrik was trying to compose himself for a second go. Considering the situation, I didn’t give him good odds, but he managed to compose himself, and fluidly forced the crux. After he rested for a few minutes at a good shake-out on a bollard resembling a stalactite, he then went on and sent the route — a success! The moves and position on this roof climb are spectacular and truly world class in my opinion. Exposed on this huge roof, among the crème colored tufas, with the emerald green Andaman Sea below you, and the Pi Pi islands in the background — it is a fantastic setting. After the successful red point we could summarize that the available time was well spent and it was time to go home.
The boatman, already sky high on ”Thai stick” did not turn up. We couldn’t raise him on his mobile phone but managed to get a friendly Thai neighbor of mine to find him and send him on his way out to get us. As he arrived, the gates of heaven opened up and a true tropical rain pored down. Thankfully we climbed into the boat and under the small canvas roof. Happiness didn’t last long. The rain brought thunder, lightning and high winds. We found our little boat tipping sideways in the towering waves with lightning striking closer and closer to the boat by the minute. Water was rising fast in to the boat.
The other guys new we were in deep shit when they saw me, who was brought up on the rough Swedish west coast, putting a life jacket on with my equipment. The stoned out boatman didn’t seem to appreciate our predicament but we managed to get him to maneuver the boat to a position under the magnificent overhang of the Poda Island. Safe from waves and lightning we started to feel secure even through the darkness was upon us. That is till the boatman, with an ignited Thai stick, hanging from his mouth started to hose fuel from a reserve gas can to the main. We must have had protection by the angels because we actually made it home in one piece.
Was it worth the trouble?
Of course! A first ascent is a one of a kind experience. It is a fantastic route in a fantastic setting. I recommend you try it out after first spending the morning on the nice beach. Start climbing around two PM. You will easily climb the first three pitches in one hour and then you will have a minimum of 2 hours to climb the roof. We think the grading is around 7c (5.12d) for the crux roof pitch.
Try it — you will like it!
— Björn Alber, Robert Baier, Henrik Bolander, and Frank Shröter