Ask any of today’s great adventure writers - Tim
Cahill, Paul Theroux, or Robert Young Pelton - and they all agree on one
point: “It’s been done before.”
Basically everything on this planet which can be done,
has been. And even more extreme is that with package tour operators making
the most remote corners of the globe accessible to everyday people, this
includes even formidable activities like climbing. Scaling the Himalayas is
an option for the average tourist (more accurately, the average tourist with
$60,000, the price of a guided ascent up Everest).
this type of climbing, you use carabineers tied to your rappelling harness,
to clip into the loops, working your way down the rope, and back up.
You can’t be first to row across the Pacific. A
teenager has reached the South Pole. Wilfred Thesiger already crossed the
Open Quarter of the Sahara, more than once. And my neighbor, Mimo
Palmentera, who makes pizza back in Brooklyn, has summated Mount
So when that once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something
new came my way, I jumped at it.
On one of those sleepy, dull Chiang Mai mornings, when
you drink a three-in-one coffee and feel you couldn’t possibly even look
at another elephant ride or bungee jump, I opened my e-mail and found a
message from my good friend (and in this case, savior) Kevin Shane Barry,
owner of Track of the Tiger Tours.
He asked whether I would like to go, as part of a two-man
team, to be the first people ever to trace the river at Doi Saket.
rope is there for safety, not to help you climb.
I jumped at the chance. Not only would the project renew
my interest in life - I had been considering hanging myself just as a change
of pace - but it would team me up with Shane’s right-hand man, Reinier,
who had been my adventure partner in an infamous canoe trip on the Maekok
River, and who will be accompanying me on an even more infamous trip down
the entire Mekong, as soon as we can find someone foolish enough to pay our
to the slippery rocks, making your precarious way up a vertical slope, with
countless gallons of water rushing by you, threatening to tear you off, is
one of the most exciting activities you could ever engage in.
Although river tracing is a fairly new sport in Thailand,
it has been known for years in Europe and the USA. Most people confuse river
tracing with white-water rafting, or they at least assume that there is some
sort of a boat involved. But they couldn’t be further from the truth.
of speed is attributed to the constant force of water impeding your forward
To understand the phenomenon of river tracing is to
understand the mechanics of insanity. Everyone has heard the stories about
that maniac Captain Webb who rode over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Outwardly,
we say he is crazy. But down deep, doesn’t plunging down all that white
water sound like a good time?
But have you ever considered going up a waterfall?
River tracing, as I say, is a new sport where not only do
you climb up the waterfalls, but you climb up and over every rock and
obstacle in the river, tracing it to its source.
Once you have donned your equipment, consisting of a
swimsuit, life jacket, helmet, kneepads, rubber boots and a rappelling
harness, it’s time to get wet. The best way to get into a cold river is to
simply jump off a bridge. You’re going to get soaked head to toe, anyway,
so you might as well just go for it. Taking that first step is a bit
counter-intuitive, but like any other controlled fright, it is a rush, and
once you hit that ice-cold water, you’ll feel energized.
Reinier and I entered the river during the dry season, so
we weren’t exactly inundated with water. There was no swimming involved,
but the low river presented other problems, as we had to scale, rather than
swim over even the smallest stones. Spending long periods of time in the
jungle can be a bit depressing as you can see neither the sun nor the sky,
because of the canopy of dense foliage overhead.
Tracing wide rivers has the benefit of being able to see
the sky. Tracing a narrow river, like the one at Doi Saket, and running
through a typically overgrown Thai jungle, you quickly realize that the
river is the only way to go. Attempts to walk beside, or even to get out of,
the river will be thwarted by a thick tangle of jungle vines.
have you ever considered going up a waterfall?
In addition to our normal river tracing gear, we also
needed to carry machetes. We felt like real Tarzans as we hacked our way up
the river. Every river has its own personality, and progress was very slow.
In most rivers the lack of speed is attributed to the
constant force of water impeding your forward movement. But at Doi Saket,
the problem was the vegetation, which hung down from above. We were
constantly getting tangled in thorns, vines and spider webs. And, of course,
in Thailand, before grabbing or cutting a vine you want to make sure that it
isn’t a man-eating snake.
The vines themselves can be fairly formidable, as almost
every living thing in Thailand is covered with thorns. Gloves would probably
have been a good addition to our gear.
The best part of river tracing is climbing up the
waterfalls. Clinging to the slippery rocks, making your precarious way up a
vertical slope with countless gallons of water rushing by you, threatening
to tear you off, is one of the most exciting activities you could ever
getting tangled in thorns, vines, and spider webs. And, of course, you want
to make sure that it isn’t a man-eating snake.
At Doi Saket, however, we came to a huge waterfall,
probably over a 100 feet high. Since we had no back-up team, we decided to
play it safe, and hike up the back side of the fall, then climb down, and
back up with direct assist (climbing the rope, instead of the rock).
In normal rock climbing, you are only supposed to put
your weight on the rock face. The rope is there for safety, not to help you
climb. But in river tracing, it is perfectly legal to use the rope to pull
yourself up. Reinier and I used a basic climbing technique, called stirrups,
where we first anchored one end of the rope to a tree. Next, we tied loops
in the rope, at eight foot intervals, until we ran out of rope. When we
finished, we threw the rope over the side.
“I’ll go first.” I volunteered, as we peered down
the cliff. There was a bit of an outcrop which prevented us from seeing the
“What if the rope didn’t reach the bottom?” asked
Reinier. “We could slip right off the end.”
“Good point.” I agreed. “You’d better go
“You’re not scared, are you?” asked Reinier.
“At my age, I could dislocate a hip,” I answered.
In this type of climbing, you use carabineers tied to
your rappelling harness, to clip into the loops, working your way down the
rope, and back up. Once I saw that Reinier made it back to the top safely, I
felt it would be repetitive for me to complete the climb. So, I went down
far enough to make the photos look exciting.
By the time we finished with the waterfall, shadows began
to grow long. Although we hadn’t reached the source of the river, we
decided that it might be prudent to turn back. Both being experienced
woodsmen, we hadn’t bothered to take a compass or a map. Of course, this
meant that we walked in circles for several hours. But this was okay with me
because I really need to lose weight, and I hate the stair-master at the
gym. It’s too repetitive.
“Well, we did it!” I said, triumphantly, when we
finally reached the car, seconds before the last light would have left the
evening sky, sentencing us to spend a very uncomfortable night in the
jungle, with no equipment.
“Did what?” Asked Reinier.
“We were the first people to have the opportunity to
trace the river at Doi Saket to its source.”
“But we didn’t find the source.” said Reinier,
“Yes, but we were the first people to HAVE THE
When it comes to adventure, I’ll take any first I can
If you want to go river tracing, it is best to go with an organized tour
group, because they will have proper equipment, and knowledge, and they
won’t get lost. Reinier and Shane promised that they’d take good care of
you. If you would like to read about Reinier and me kayaking the entire
Mekong River, please send us a check. Contact the author at:
[email protected] or Shane and Reinier at: