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Free to fall: No extra safety precautions for rock climbers despite American tourist’s death

PHUKET: Officials at the Hat Noppharat Thara - Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park, the Krabi Tourist Police and even the Ao Nang Tambon Administration Organisation (OrBorTor) all will do nothing to help prevent another rock climbing accident at Railay Beach, famed for its sheer rock faces that visiting tourists scale while on holiday in the area.

By Tavee Adam

Saturday 27 October 2018, 09:00AM

A rock climber hangs from one of the sheer rock faces at Ao Nang. Photo: Chen Hu

A rock climber hangs from one of the sheer rock faces at Ao Nang. Photo: Chen Hu

The confirmation that no extra precautionary measures will be taken for rock climbers follows the death of American tourist Priell Schmalbach, who fell while climbing at Railay Beach last Tuesday (Oct 16).

He was recovered from the scene unconscious, never to wake again. His family asked for Mr Schmalbach to be taken off life support last Wednesday night (Oct 17). (See stories here and here.)

The Phuket News was informed by a family friend that Mr Schmalbach was on his honeymoon after being married on Oct 6.

Lt Col Attapong Sanjaiwut of the Krabi Tourist Police confirmed to The Phuket News last Thursday (Oct 18) that an investigation into Mr Schmalbach’s death had been conducted by the Krabi Tourist Police and the Ao Nang Police.

“We have inspected the scene and questioned his (Mr Schmalbach’s) wife,” Col Attapong said.

“The investigation concluded that Mr Schmalbach fell by accident,” he added.

However, Col Attapong later confirmed to The Phuket News, “Rock climbing at Railay is an issue under the responsibility of the national park. The Tourist Police have already (told) rock climbing clubs to do their best to look after tourists, and the climbing operators have many activities for preparing tourists before they climb… and they know how to make it safe for their customers.”

The warnings and request for local rock climbing operators to “do their best” to look after tourists came after a slew of incidents last year that saw three tourists suffer broken arms and legs in falls while rock climbing at Railay, and another tourist recovered comatose never reported as regaining consciousness.

Every single incident was regarded as the result of “carelessness” by the tourists themselves.

Regardless, signs were installed to warn tourists of the dangers and local rock climbers were asked to provide the necessary assistance – paid or otherwise – in helping to make the sport safer, Col Attapong said.

Col Attapong on Monday told The Phuket News, “With the cases (of tourists being injured or dying) that have happened since last year until last week, the people who fell prepared their own equipment and chose the location to climb themselves.

“So it is hard for us to control… even hotels have difficulty helping with this as the tourists bring their own climbing gear packed away until they bring it to a place to climb and then finally have an accident and fall," he said.

"If the Tourist Police meet or learn of any persons looking to go rock climbing, we will advise them to first speak with an operator, because they (operators) know which places are dangerous point and which places are safer for them to climb,” he added.


Worapoj Lomlim, Chief of Hat Noppharat Thara - Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park, said he was aware of tourists independently entering the park to climb the edifices at Railay, but also incredibly said that he was unaware that rock-climbing operators were conducting – and charging tourists for – rock-climbing ‘adventures’ at Railay.


“I have ordered park officers to check on these rock climbing operators – who they are and where they come from. This is because I actually have never allowed this activity in our area,” Chief Worapoj said.

“Many of the climbers came by themselves without any operators and our officers have no knowledge about them, so in this case we have told our ‘network’ (sic) to take care for my officers, because the number of my officers is less than the number of tourists,” was all he would say to The Phuket News in a call earlier this week.

Chief Worapoj’s claim that he has no knowledge of any operators conducting rock-climbing tours at Railay, or elsewhere within the park boundaries (see map here) defies belief, with a simple search online bringing up within seconds a slew of operators to choose from.

One operator openly charges B1,000 for a half-day tour and B1,800 for a full-day tour, another offers free hotel and airport transfers – and yet another even has a TripAdvisor ‘Certificate of Excellence’ for providing years of ‘outstanding service’ to its customers.

Of note, Sarayuth Tansathien, who Mr Worapoj replaced as Chief of the Nopparat Thara – Phi Phi Islands National Park, in January 2016 told the Bangkok Post that rock climbing was offered legally at Railay Beach.

That nugget was revealed as Mr Sarayuth threatened legal action against nine tour operators for providing rock-climbing tours without trained supervisors on Phi Phi Don Island. (See story here.)

Mr Sarayuth was called in to become the park chief after his predecessor, Chaithach Boonphupantanti, was transferred pending an investigation into alleged misappropriation of an estimated B30 million a month in park fees. (See story here.)


Last year the sheer volume of tourists coming to Railay to climb the rock faces was openly recognised by the Ao Nang OrBorTor, the local government administration responsible for the area.

Pankum Kittithornkul, the Chief Administration Officer (Palad) at the Ao Nang OrBorTor at the time, explained to The Phuket News, “Climbing at Ao Nang is very popular. More than 5,000 people go there each year to climb.”

Mr Pankum also admitted “that many such incidents happened within Hat Noppharat Thara - Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park each year.”

This week, Issara Ngampradit, Deputy Palad at the Ao Nang OrBorTor, told The Phuket News, “The Ao Nang OrBorTor has coordinated with an Ao Railay tourism operators club – which includes rock climbing operators – to make rock climbing at Railay as safe as possible.

“Rock climbing is a special skill, but we always emphasise for them (the operators) to try their best to make it as safe as possible,” he said.

“We are currently working on having a professional rescue team to help people for next time,” he added.



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MartinK | 27 October 2018 - 23:32:59

Regardless of what he knew or didn't know the fact is that a lot of climbers go here alone. I often did. That said, many I have seen don't take basic safety precautions, don't clip in, don't set a line, etc. Where does the state step in to stop risk? In this one case I tend to agree with the park officials. The tour groups are shady but people who climb should know. Mistakes happen...

Kurt | 27 October 2018 - 10:25:48

Park Chief  will pity himself now that he didn't know what was going on in his Park, paid tour conducted rock climbing. ( everybody else knew). Pity himself for missing all that 'commission' he missed from tour operators. Or ?

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