A Day of Rocks and Sea: Kayaking and Climbing in Taiwan
by Antonio Graceffo
September 9, 2006
About twenty years ago, before trying my hand at adventure writing, I had a brief flirtation with a career as a semi-professional athlete that nearly steered me away from any journalistic aspirations. Then, in the early 1980s, when you told people at a cocktail party that you were a professional tri-athlete, they usually asked, "What is that?"
If you were lucky, they might have had some notion of what it was you were talking about. They might have looked upon you with a degree of quiet awe as this exotic event, which combined swimming, running, and cycling, was at the time gaining notoriety as the pinnacle of athletic achievement. The sport was so highly regarded by people "in the know" that, without ever having won or even placed in a major competition, one could draw a salary and attract sponsorship just for finishing a race.
Today, if you were to tell someone at that same cocktail party that you were a professional tri-athlete, even if you were the world champion, they would look at you in contempt and ask, "What, just three events? That's it?"
Granted, completing any multi-sport event is difficult, but the general consensus is anyone can swim, bike and run. Some just do it faster than others. The new breed of multi-sport competitions is so difficult it makes the old triathlon or even the decathlon look like an outing with granny. Today, the skills necessary to compete range from the traditional three--swimming, running, and cycling--to ocean kayaking and even extreme skill sports, such as orienteering, free-diving, abseiling, rock climbing and base jumping.
Extreme, multi-sport events are becoming very popular in Asia with Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong leading the region. Once again, Taiwan is preparing to play host the Action Asia Extreme Sport competition. Two combined Taiwanese and foreign teams recently contacted Jean-Marc, owner Fresh Treks outdoor adventure company, to teach them rock climbing, abseiling, and kayaking. We convened one clear fall Sunday near the town of Lungdong just south of Keelung, a picturesque stretch of rocky coast popular with weekend outdoor enthusiasts.
As for my own presence this day, I am planning my certain-to-be-fatal sea kayaking expedition around the island of Taiwan. Jean-Marc invited me to come along to hone my paddling skills. I agreed that one afternoon of preparation might be useful before tackling the 1,500 km of the Taiwanese coastline.
"Some of us are preparing for Action Asia Taiwan," explained the team leader. "But the rest of us are preparing for Malaysia."
He went on to explain that the Malaysia challenge is considered to be one of the tougher events in the world, taking more than four days to complete.
"In the Taiwan event, we have to run, swim, bike, kayak, and abseil."
Is that all? I wanted to ask. But as often happens when I get around younger athletes, I found that I no longer possessed the lingo. "What's abseiling?" I asked.
"It's the German word for rappelling," he explained.
"Of course! Why didn't I think of that?"
Jean-Marc brought a group of Taiwanese and French outdoor enthusiasts along who had never done rock climbing or rappelling before. In true Jean-Marc form, within minutes of arriving at the cliffs, he organized the whole twenty-person gathering in the safest and most instructional way possible. He had everyone do a small, five meter climb and rappel. He then separated the extreme athletes from the novices and set up climbing routes appropriate for each group.
The cliffs were amazing. They were the cleanest, most beautiful stone faces I had ever seen in Asia, looking as though they would have been more at home in Colorado. The smaller faces rose about thirty meters from the sandy beach. The taller ones rose fifty meters into the sky. We caught some rain in the morning, but it quickly blew over, leaving us with blue skies decorated with white clouds. The tide came up to within a hundred meters of the rock. The smell and sounds of the surf were with us all day.
Even if we weren't climbing this would have been a beautiful place to photograph. At the base of the cliffs there was a network of large stones that went on for about a kilometer where you could do bouldering, practicing your technical rock climbing skills, or where you could just take a nice hike hopping from stone to stone.
The climbs themselves ranged from 5.5 to 5.8 meters, whereby even the most difficult moves were made easier by the pitting on the rocks. The constant wind combined with the salt air had left the stone faces rough, making friction climbing very easy. They were also pockmarked with small holes where you could get a grip with anywhere from one to three fingers.
Even the smallest and easiest climb offered options for the advanced climber as there was a twenty-meter crack just begging to be climbed by that masochistic breed of climbers, called crack climbers, who enjoy putting on shoes which are eight sizes too small and forcing their fingers and toes into tiny crevices, working their way up a face very slowly. In crack climbing, the ascent often comes in small, incremental movements of only inches.
Beside the smallest face there as an excellent chimney, once again, for that nearly as self-punishing group of people who enjoy pushing with their feet against one wall and their back against another, inching up a space between two boulders like Spiderman. Parts of the chimney were quite easy, as you could balance using back and legs. But where the distance between the rocks increased, so did the difficulty, as you had to balance, using hands and feet. Eventually, if you weren't tall enough, you would be forced into a position where you would be suspended twenty meters off the ground with your belly parallel to the earth.
The tallest, and also most difficult rock face had a very prominent feature, a large overhang, about fifteen meters off the ground. Overhangs, or laybacks as climbers call them, are the hardest obstacles to overcome.
In normal rock climbing, the goal, as Jean-Marc explained to the neophytes, is to push with your legs, and only use your arms for balance. You never want to pull with your arms, as this will make you too tired and you will not be able to complete the climb.
A layback, on the other hand, forces you to pull with your arms. A layback can protrude so far from the main rock face, that your legs will be dangling uselessly in the air, while your arms support all of your body weight. The tricky thing about the layback is that not only do you need the upper-body strength to hold yourself up and climb hand over hand, but you also need the flexibility and balance to clear the edge of the overhang.
Being a cantankerous New Yorker, flexibility has never been my strong point. So, although I had the strength to hang in mid-air, I was unable to get my legs up over the layback, and so it was to become my Waterloo. Sandran, Jean-Marc's wife, on the other hand, conquered it as easily as making quiche. Being a modern man, secure in my masculinity, I was not put-off by the fact that I had been beaten by a woman. I just won't climb with her anymore.
After my failed attempt to clear the layback, we broke for lunch. As usual, Jean-Marc provided us with excellent fair, pate, quiche, jambon, fromage, wine, melon, and Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies.
Jean-Marc loaded the extreme athletes and me in the van, and we headed to the kayak-training marina. This was an interesting affair. The marina was built on a concrete harbor where you could safely practice kayaking skills and not have to worry about the ocean currents dragging you to Japan. This is particularly important if you are allergic to wasabi.
As usual, there was a lot of pressure on me, as everyone knew that I was planning to paddle all the way around Taiwan (I had been bragging). After two minutes of paddling I was panting like a dog. The pressure was off, as everyone assumed that I must have been kidding about going all the way around the island. Ocean kayaking is definitely an endurance sport, and one that requires tremendous upper-body strength, as well as a modicum of skill.
Anyone can get in a kayak and have a pleasant afternoon. And I highly recommend kayaking as a leisure activity. But to be good, you would need more than one afternoon of training. Steering, stopping, turning and flipping are all techniques which must be practiced. I got a lot practice in flipping and by the end of several dunks in the frigid water, I almost had people convinced that I was doing it on purpose. An ancillary benefit to kayak training is that it really helped my swimming, as I fell out so often.
Once you fall out, you have to tread water, roll the kayak towards you so that it is face up. Then you have to do the kayaker's hop, whereby you spring out of the water and twist around to land in a seated position, all in one smooth motion. If you linger too long in your hop or don't spin around fast enough, you will just go for another swim and have to start all over again. The other trick to flipping is, that if you do manage to land butt-down, you also have to be able to get your paddle out of the water. This is often not possible, because paddles are willful instruments of the devil, which seek to evade your best efforts to locate them. If the paddle swims away, you have to dive overboard and swim after it. Then the whole process begins again.
The day was great! I learned a lot. Seeing the faces of the novices as they completed their first ever climb or rappel made me jealous. They had such a look of accomplishment. For most people, taking the first step backwards off a cliff is the hardest thing they will ever do. But once they have done it, they have a feeling that they can achieve anything. Next, putting them at the base of a rock face and talking them through as they complete their first climb, you see them change. They reach the top, look out over the crashing surf and think, "I have done it!"
There were three factions present on that Sunday and we were all looking for something different. And, thanks to the help of Jean-Marc and Fresh Treks, we all found it. The extreme athletes were young men and women in incredible physical condition who needed technical training in rappelling and kayaking. The novices were people who needed a break from their office jobs and just wanted to utilize their Sunday to have a new experience and create a new memory. Finally, there was me, an adventure writer who in a moment of drunken bravado told his publisher that he would row all the way around Taiwan so he could get a bigger advance on his next book. I was hoping to get acquainted with ocean kayaks, but more, I was hopping to draw inspiration from seeing other people brave enough to turn their dreams into reality. And seeing those novices summit what only a day earlier would have been an insurmountable obstacle, gave me the encouragement I needed to follow my dreams.
And it all happened on a random Sunday in Taiwan.
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