Donna on “Invisible Slayer of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred” (gotta love that route name!!!) (6c or 5.11a) Monster Rock, Austin, Texas. Photographer: John Hogge.
Business professional by day and superwoman..well… ALL the time, here is a prime example of East meeting West. Looking beyond that cultural description, Donna Kwok, carries both Yin’s strength and Yang’s beautiful grace rolled up in one.
My initial chance meeting with her was while exploring and learning about the climbing in Hong Kong, where she is currently living. A group of international folks headed out to an island south of the country called Tung Lung Chau (yeah, sounds funny in English if you’re not used to Chinese; “Tongue Lung Chow”. The actual interpretation is “East Dragon Island” in the Cantonese Dialect). Tung Lung attracts tourists and locals alike who are drawn to the camping and who have interest in seeing the ruins of a 300 year-old fort and prehistoric stone carvings. This beautiful island that can be reached by a cheap kai-to (small, motorized ferry) ride is also one of Hong Kong’s most well-known areas to climb and play on seaside crags. Fun stuff. Well.. until a huge wave hits you by surprise as you belay, then proceeds to consume whatever gear and half-eaten sandwich (or steamed dumplings) you had at your feet into the belly of the South China Sea.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself because before all that happened, I met Donna. She was one the most distinct people at the crag, not only because of her killer-sweet personality and not only because it was inspiring to watch her tackle problems that a lot of guys are afraid to… but also because the intensity of her focus and love for climbing was evident from her performance to the point that it affected the people that surrounded her. We all kind of “ooooed and ahhhhed” at her power and drive, if not loudly, then definitely silently to be more polite and not distract her from her concentration.
Although busy traveling the world and living life to the complete fullest, we were fortunate to learn not only about her but some of the amazing things that are out there that we ALL have the potential to be seeing and doing.
Chilling on a beach in Moalboal, Cebu, the Phillippines. Photographer: Bon Man
RRRG: Hi Donna, tell us where you are originally from?
DK: Born in HK (Hong Kong), bred in London. I moved to the UK when I was 8, went to university and worked for a few years before eventually leaving in 2004. After that, I spent time in Sydney, Nanjing (China), Washington DC and Austin (Texas) before moving out here to HK 2 years ago.
RRRG: How long ago did you start climbing?
DK: 7 years.
RRRG: What are you doing in Hong Kong when you’re not climbing? Work-wise?
DK: Work-wise, I do economic research in an Aussie bank.
Non work-wise, I swim, run (when I’m not injured, which I am currently!) and read.
“Dimple Face” (7b+ or 5.12b+) at Technical Wall; Tung Lung Island, Hong Kong. Photographer: Marc Linard
RRRG: So a little nosey facebook birdie told me you just got back from Krabi – one of the premier spots to climb along the seaside in Thailand? How was it?
DK: Fantastic! I jumped on quite a few new routes, opened a few new projects, ticked a few, checked out a few more “newly developing” destinations (we checked out Koh Lao Liang besides the regular destinations of Tonsai and Railay), took a few hairy falls, and had an exciting controversial “possibly an onsight, possibly not” :)
I’ve been there a total of 6 or 7 times now.. the last time I went (for a long weekend by myself 5 months ago) I swore I wouldn’t go back for at least another few years as the place, admittedly, is getting too crowded nowadays plus I enjoy the tingle of discovering other new locations and cultures a lot. Still, because it’s so close to HK (3-4 hours of travelling) and thus so convenient, and not forgetting my addiction to Thai chilli chicken & basil, I keep wandering back! This trip was particularly fun as we had the “rise and shine” momentum to check out a ton of new crags I hadn’t visited before.
RRRG: What’s the climbing like? The rock? In what way is it different than climbing in Hong Kong where both have a humid, warm tropical environment?
DK: The differences between HK and Krabi are countless, but the key ones for me are:
– Krabi is a holiday destination for me, where I only need to sleep, climb, eat, swim and have fun. :)
– In Krabi the crags are formed from limestone, in HK you get a mix of volcanic tuft and other funky volcanic variations.
– Routes in Krabi tend to be longer and varied than HK. They’re also concentrated in denser clusters that are all accessible by either foot or boat. In HK, the crags are spread out all over the island.
RRRG: How was the weather there? Ideal for climbing?
Donna on “Cafe Andama” (7b or 5.12b) at Tonsai Roof – Krabi, Thailand. Photographer: Colin Spark
DK: The weather was perfect. We caught the end of the monsoon season, and despite one or two gloomy rain days, it never got so bad that we were rained off any crags. We had a week of blazing sunshiney days, with a few days of rainy/overcast but cooler days. I’ve been to Krabi both during the “dry” season when it’ as hot and sticky as maple syrup, and the “wet” season when it’s cooler but “runnier” (i.e. some of the scrambles up to the climbing areas can get very muddy and slippery with the rain). Both have their pros and cons, it’s what you make of it that decides if you have a good time or not. And if you’re climbing on holiday, there is but one option ;)
What made the trip especially enjoyable this time was that rather than going by myself and meeting a ton of new friends/belay bunnies there, I went with a few close climbing buddies – who know the quirks of my personality and climbing style/habits and so tend to push me to climb harder (than I would do so if just by myself). Don’t get me wrong, meeting new people and (often lifetime) friends during climbing trips has been one of the biggest blessings I’ve received in life – and is one reason why I’ll continue to go to new destinations by myself every so often. But it’s also a hit and miss sometimes, because if you don’t find a few people who’re as keen as you or climb similar styles/grades, then I end up kicking back a bit more doing less climbing and more chilling, which is perhaps also good sometimes.
RRRG: What are the people like there? Who can we expect to meet if we were to go there?
DK: Tonsai is a really laid back, easy going place.. as are the people – be they locals or visitors. They come from all over the globe – from Sweden to South Africa to Australia to Canada to the UK/US to Singapore/HK and have no qualms over striking up conversations with strangers. It’s a melting pot of cultures, personalities and levels of climbing obssesive-ness. Some of the friends I’ve made there I’m still in regular touch with, and meet up with them every so often in different climbing locations around the world. A lot of people come for a few weeks, some a few months, some even a few years..
You get people who get up at the crack of dawn so they can avoid the late morning early afternoon heat and those who party till the early dawn before slowly rising after lunch to climb in the afternoon (with the morning birds who’re doing their second session of the day) before more partying later in the evening. There are those (like me) who keep coming back time and time again to bump into the same people occasionally, those who work at home overseas for about half a year to spend their savings climbing in Krabi for the other half, and those who happen to be travelling around the world for a few months/years and have decided to hang out there for a little before moving on.
Donna on “Cafe Andama” (7b or 5.12b) at Tonsai Roof – Krabi, Thailand. Photographer: Colin Spark
You get a mix of both climbers and non-climbers in Krabi, but increasingly more of the latter nowadays. When I went for the first time five years ago, it was the other way round… Tonsai and Railay were a lot less developed, less polluted and less crowded than it is today. I have some friends who went for the 1st time more than 10-15 years ago, and they also say the same thing.. except in their case, the contrast is a lot starker.
That’s the shame always about climbing “gems” when someone first discovers them. It’s great to be able to share an amazing climbing destination with likeminded people and watch a place slowly take shape as more and more personalities leave their mark (e.g. by creating new climbs with their own particular style, or discovering stellar rocks previously hiddened by vegetation for years), but there are also other opportunity costs (e.g. when carelessness and complacency by some leads to unnecessary pollution, or when a place gets so crowded that you spend more time waiting to jump on a climb than savouring it, or when the local culture increasingly assimilates itself to accomodate visitors in order to expand the tourism business). There is no right or wrong in this equation, it’s just a part of life – increasing tourist traffic means empowers the local population to make a better living, send their kids to better schools, etc.. but at the same time, sadly, without the right safeguards, it pollutes the local environment and dissipates the original landmark culture. The latter has started happening.. but given the stage of development that Tonsai/Ralaiy is at now, the best way would be for the local government or some body of authority to step in and force local tourist establishments to start sticking to better environmental standards, even if it means charging visitors more as a result. Otherwise, the beauty of the place will just fade away at an increasingly fast pace.
RRRG: Who are people that have influenced you and inspired you?
DK: Heck of a lot! From reading, from face to face meetings, you (!), the list is endless, both climbing and otherwise. I tend to absorb elements from people whenever I come across something that impresses me or makes me smile and think, yeah that’d good. It could be someone I just chanced across whilst on the road, friends and family around me, people I read about, people I see on TV, people I hear about, it could be anyone anywhere so long as they captured my attention.
Lyn Hill is in one of your interviews, she’s one – a lot of power and determination wrapped up in one small package – she’s one of the people I think of when I feel like I’m feeling vertically challenged ! That plus the fact that when she sets her mind to a task, she does it. No self-questioning. I like that.
Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist, is another. His fiction novels give me an immediate therapeutic escape from everyday life whenever I’m in need of some loosening up. More recently, I picked up a small autobiography that he penned called “What I talk about when I talk about running”. I can’t rave about it enough. There’s no plot as such, he simply explains why and how running permeates through every pore of his living. I’m not built or as fit to run to the lengths that he does, but his ethos and love for the sport I can definitely relate to. Having said which, if it was me in his shoes, it would have been “What I talk about when I talk about climbing” for sure. His attitude to life is spot on, live and let live. He’s very grounded in reality, infused with inner peace plus a quiet force of determination.
Madeline Albright the former secretary of state is another – for the fact that she had three kids, raised them as she simultaneously went back to school to learn Russian and pick up a PhD, before eventually becoming the US secretary of state. That is enough “real life and flesh” evidence to prove to you that it’s never too late to do or try anything, however far away is seems to be from where you stand today.
Last but not least, my family – inclusive of parents, sister and grandparents. They lead very different lives from me, so trying to understand their point of view usually opens my eyes to a completely different dimension of seeing things, which helps to put my own life into perspective too. They know me inside out and in, most likely because I have so many bits in me that reflects parts of them.
I have also absorbed, and continue to absorb, a lot from all of my friends that I spend time with. For lack of space, I can only say thanks to them as a group – for being able to put up with my “kwokkie quirks” so that I can continue enjoying their company and bettering myself via their best qualities.
RRRG: You are too sweet. ha! I’ll have to print that credit there. :) What type of climbing do you favor most? Sport? Trad? Bouldering? All?
DK: My favourite is sport leading. I boulder sometimes for the company (some friends love it), sometimes during the week in an indoor bouldering gym, but my ultimate favourite has to be super long single pitch sports routes. I’ve tried trad many times before and gotten quite a few high buzzes from it, but I prefer sports mostly because of the fact that I don’t have to carry as much gear with me.
I enjoy climbing with as little weight as possible, preferably in the sizzling hot rather than the freezing cold! Some people prefer the cold as it gives them much better “friction” (i.e. your fingers can stick to the rock more easily) – but for me, there’s no point in having friction if I can’t pull my body out of hibernation! My body’s built for hot climates, even if it means high humidity. My optimal temp for climbing is around 25 degrees C but I can climb quite comfortably up to 30
RRRG: What is your hardest lead to date?
DK: 7b+ (5.12b)
Donna bouldering on “The Classic” at the Main Wall in Shek O, Hong Kong
Photographer: José Cabrita
RRRG: …awesome girl. Are you working on any current projects?
DK: Mmmm.. in HK I’m actually looking for a new project to open up right now. The last big one I completed was over six months ago so it’s high time I pushed myself hard on something new at home. I’m planning to scope out some routes at Lion Rock either this weekend or next, so will let you know when I find one! I think it’s important to have an open project on your home turf – to keep yourself motivated to climb hard – so you can do yourself justice on the next climbing trip!!
RRRG: What goes on in your mind if you are having a particularly low-gravity day or not accomplishing a send as smoothly as you’d like? How do you find it in yourself to keep trying? What is your motivation?
DK: To me, the fact that others have done it means that it is a physical possibility. If others have done it, then why can’t i? I do allow myself the “vertically challenged” excuse every now and then, but if someone of a similar physique/experience (I’m 5”2) has done it, then really I have no excuse. It just means I have to train harder.
Once I realize I’m having a low gravity day, I usually push myself onto another one or two climbs first. If those go well, I usually get enough of a buzz to shake it off. If it doesn’t, then I take it easy for the rest of the day. After all, I’m not superwoman, so am fully entitled to have both “on” and “off “mood days! Ultimately, climbing is half mind, half body. If you think you can do it, then even if your body isn’t 100% up to it, you’ll make it. But if you’re fit as a fiddle but your mind’s simply not with it, it’ll unlikely happen.
The buzz I get when I complete a route after having spent days/weeks/months making incremental improvements on it is like a hot glow that spreads out from my core to every part of mind and body when it happens. Love it – it’s one of the key things that keeps me addicted to this sport. Once you’re on a route, it’s just you and the rock in front of you. Nothing else and no one else… everything else in your daily life fades into the background. Swimming gives me a similar buzz, but I’ve never come across any other more therapeutic than climbing. I inevitably walk away refreshed and cleansed of my daily troubles… even if I didn’t send anything after a full day out.
The friends I’ve made in every city I’ve lived in since I started climbing keep me motivated and at peace. Their “glass is half full” optimism and ability to laugh at any and everything in life (including me) keep my feet planted firmly on the ground, however stressed work or other things in life can get.
RRRG: I heard about your recent, intense hike. Can you please describe what that was like? Also, what is was all about?
DK: The Maclehose Trail runs from one end of Hong Kong to the other, over 100km in total – with some of the most breathtaking scenes in Asia. It’s an annual fundraising race organized by Hong Kong Oxfam’s, to support their work here in HK and in China.
The Maclehose Trail; gnarly….!
Every participant starts the race as a 4-man team, and the aim is for the full team to battle through the odds to cross the finish line together. Some people complete the hike with an overnight stop/sleep, while others do it in one go. We did the latter. Some teams run a big portion of it with the aim of completing the race under 20 or so hours, while others walk the bulk of it at a fast pace with minimal stops – we did the latter.
We trained hard as a team for the 3 months leading up to the event, hiking for 13-20 hours every weekend if not more, plus a 3 hour evening training session during the week. The most painful bit about it for me had to be the overnight hikes, where we’d hike for 10 plus hours non-stop straight through to dawn. Pain (from strained muscles etc) I can put up with, you can just switch off and detach yourself from aches/pains after a while, and go off into a zone. But not being able to sleep at 3am in the morning, and having to trek continuously in the dark with just a spot of light from your head-torch in front of you – that I found the hardest to cope with. I couldn’t just “turn off” the feeling of wanting to sleep! My eyelids would start drooping… I’d start thinking “surely I’d be able to walk in a straight line with eyes closed for just 3 seconds..” and the next thing you know, I’d be walking right off the trail – like a swaying drunk!
On the day of the event, there was an exceptional freak drop in temperatures, it fell by about 10-15 degrees C below anything we had ever trained in. During training, we’d always worn T-shirts and shorts. On the actual day, I had on 3 thermals, 2 fleeces, a jacket, woolly hat.. you name it, I wore it. The colder temperatures was good for teams that ran the whole 102km to finish within 15 hours. But for teams like ours who planned to walk non-stop at a super rapid pace – the deep freeze was a massive energy drain. Winds picked up to almost gale force at the summit of a few hills – it was so strong I had to crouch on all fours to make sure I didn’t get blown off! This happened to a full-grown man in front of me atop a particularly exposed ridge.. thankfully someone grabbed him by the leg in the nick of time.
Clouds break as Ingrid and Sheinal ascend the first peak of Stage 3 in HK’s Maclehose Trail. Photo courtesy of Donna Kwok
One of our team members had to pull out after competing over 55km due to serious muscle cramps – something that was quite an emotional hit when it happened, as we’d always trained as a 4 and to lose one was like losing a spiritual arm or leg.
As it was, 3 of us completed the race in 25.5 hours, slightly longer than our target of 24hours, but given the conditions I’m happy with it. The race was as mental as it was physical, and having the teammates I had made it an experience that will linger with me always.
RRRG: What areas have you climbed in?
DK: Spain: El Chorro, Italy: Lake Arco, Dolomites, Sardinia, France: Fontainebleau, Philippines: Cebu, Vietnam: Catba Island, US: New River Gorge, Red River Gorge, Yosemite, Enchanted Rocks, Reimers Ranch (Austin), Heuco Tanks, Mexico: El Potrero Chico, Thailand: Krabi, China: Yangshuo, QingYuan, outskirts of Beijing, Australia: Blue Mountains, Nowra, Point Perpendicular, Arapiles, UK: Swanage, Portland, Sheffield, Cheddar
RRRG: That’s amaaaaazing…you’ve been almost everywhere! What was your favorite place to climb?
DK: Places I’d definitely go back to include the Red River Gorge, the Blue Mountains, Thailand, Catba Island, and Yangshuo. It’s hard to pin down just one as they’re all so different. Places high on my new crags hit list are: Ceuse, Gorge du Tarn, Rodellar, Kalymnos, Red Rocks, Grampians.
RRRG: Do you have any future rock trips planned?? Or is it too soon to be asking right after Krabi? :)
DK: YES!!!! I have a close friend getting married in London in Aug, so am hoping to link that up with a climbing trip somewhere in Europe, probably France at the moment. Before then, I’ll probably take a long weekend trip somewhere close to home.. most likely Yangshuo once it warms up a bit after March or….. Catba Island or Krabi again if it’s a short trip :) or maybe even Changmai provided it’s not too cold !
RRRG: Fantastic Donna…looking forward to hearing more of your adventures and watching you progress! Have fun and thanks for sharing!
For more info on climbing in HK, check this site out: http://www.hongkongclimbing.com
Donna in her present home, Hong Kong! Photo by Simon Carter