Climbing in Laos

Karis, Dave and I plan to meet in Bangkok.  My flight arrives slightly before his and Karis and I catch up while I sit on my bags outside the gate and we wait for him to arrive. Compared to Seattle, it is warm and muggy, and I’m jet lagged to the point of no longer being tired.  Karis has been in Thailand for two weeks and has a better understanding of the place—she’s found us a hotel in Chinatown for the night and we’ll spend the next day wandering markets before leaving for Laos the following morning.  The Chinese New Year is approaching and every market stall seems crammed with red lanterns and dresses.

It’s hard to explain Bangkok in any other way besides a sensory assault. It is loud and bright and smells like ten thousand things at once. It seems to be buildings forever, edged in black that is either mold or soot but either way adds to the density and the darkness.  Morning is a slow fog and then the sun is up and the heat sets in. The markets are overwhelming and I’m glad we’re headed to a quieter place for the next few days.

On Monday morning we catch a cab from the hotel to the airport and head to Vientiane, Laos.  From there we’ll take a bus down to Thakhek and a tuk tuk to the climbing camp.  As the plane approaches the earth I can already tell we are far from a bustling city. Laos beneath us is a tangled jungle of green and bright red soil. We touch down in Vientiane and are ushered in to a cab and as he drives us to the airport everything seems slightly slower, slightly quieter. The architecture is different—and it feels European in a way that Bangkok didn’t. Everything is bright sunlight and dusty red and colorful paint.

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Bus station in Vientiane

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Party bus!

At the bus station we pay $10 USD a piece for our tickets and climb in to the brightly colored double decker. Our luggage is below and the seats fill up but it isn’t overly crowded. The ceiling is a multitude of colors, with panels that have lights imbedded like a party bus. We take off on the highway and careen towards Thakhek. Laos is a country full of houses and rubble—construction both in process and abandoned; it’s hard to tell what’s still in progress and what’s been left to the elements.  As we pass by the huge houses there are people clustered around low tables and they barely look up at the bus on its shaky wheels. Occasionally there’s a person on the side of the road with a suitcase and we pull over for them to climb in. The highway is two lanes that is technically both directions but it’s hard to tell—the bus beeps frequently and veers around tuk tuks, scooters, anything moving slowly. Cows slowly cross at one point and the driver beeps frantically before swerving to avoid the barely reacting bovines.

By the time we make it to camp we’ve been on the road for around 7 hours, not including the flight and the tuk tuk we snagged from the bus stop in Thakhek.  The driver blatantly over charges us and pulls in to a gas station with a grin to tell his friend before he steers back to the road and drives in to the darkness.  Just as we’re starting to get nervous he might be taking us to a different place entirely he turns down a dirt road with a sign for Green Climbers Home.  The driver stops at a cluster of buildings and points towards them and then holds out his hand. We pay and step over electrified wires.  We walk toward the light of cabins looking for #62 but we can’t find numbers on anything. Karis turns and asks a woman leaving the main cabin/bar and she scoffs at us with a French accent “Camp #62? There’s no camp #62…” “Cabin 62?” “That’s the second camp. Down that road” and she points in to the darkness.  We step back over the electric wire and follow a road in to the dark. I’m travel weary and moving through a country where I don’t speak the language is starting to limit my patience and grace—I’m angry that the woman wasn’t more helpful and that the email with direction to our cabin is hopelessly vague despite feeling so certain when we left Bangkok this morning. My headlamp is still in my bag and I follow the circles of Dave and Karis and try not to stumble.

Finally we come to second gate and a second set of cabins with another bar.  The laughter here sounds softer, friendlier somehow. We find our cabin easily and ditch or bags before heading in to the main building.  Inside we walk to the counter and are met with smiles but blank stares until Thomas, one of the camp employees, walks up to welcome us. He walks us through check in, gives us our key, explains the no-cash system of writing down what we take and order in our well-worn notebook. We order food and as we’re waiting, Tanja, one of the owners, walks over.

Tanja is smiling and friendly. Her warmth and welcome erases any of the frustrations of travel and by the time we tumble in to bed, new guidebook in hand, mosquito nettings unfurled, it feels like a little like home.

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In the morning we walk over to the bar for breakfast and I am undone by the landscape rising around us. It is a tangle of jungle with black limestone jutting out of the ground. There are peaks around us that look entirely untouched and rotten and cliffs soaring that look like something melted but standing, like the inside of a cave without the dampness. We eat, fill up our water bottles, and walk towards our first climb.

Here are a few things you should know about Green Climbers Home. Any time you see Tanja, she will be smiling.  The food is absolutely amazing and the people who work in the café are kind and patient.  Everything is labeled. Every. Single. Climb. Maybe this is because it’s a relatively young area—established around 5 years ago. Maybe it’s because it’s closer to a European style crag than anything I’ve seen in the states. I don’t know, but each climb has the name written directly below the first bolt. All the climbs we try are  very well bolted or slung and the guidebook is accurate with any corrections listed in the cafe. The slings are ropes through holes in the tufas and they seem in decent shape, though it is still a little unnerving to hear rock ping hollowly and to feel the vibration of a stalactite. The anchor system… is a work in progress. The initial anchors are two bolts with a loop of rope between and a belay ring on the lower bolt. The rope is the backup – but if the first bolt were to blow, the whole system would shock load.  Some of the newer anchors had a third bolt that seemed to help… but it still felt a little sketchy. Finally – the rock is SHARP. More about this below.

We climb mostly single pitch with the exception of Chinese New Year, a 4 pitch climb that I would never repeat. The third pitch is the crux and is super fun climbing, but the final pitch feels like climbing to Mordor on jet black knife edges. The rock is sharp and jutting—while the climbing is relatively easy, it is a complete no-fall-zone.  We summit at sunset and rappel down in the dark, crossing our fingers each time we pull from a rap and cheering when the rope comes back down to us. We snag a few times but manage to finesse the rope loose—any sharp tug feels like we’ll snap right through the sheath and core. My Achilles are both aching incredibly and I know I’m pretty much toast for the rest of the trip.

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Sunset summit of Chinese New Year.

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Dave crushing it

Thursday morning we check out and leave our bags in the gear storage. It’s sunny and beautiful and instead of climbing I’m moving in ways to be in less pain. My finger pads are shredded and my Achilles is screaming. I switch to photographer and David and Karis climb rock that looks like a playground and feels, to me, like broken glass.  They finish the day on a new route that is labelled but not in the guidebook, complete with a ladder start. Then its lunch and a cab ride back in to Thakhek.  We find a hotel along the water and watch the sun set over the Mekong.  The next morning we head back in to Bangkok with so much left unclimbed and so many things unexplored. I want to go back, and I want to do it differently, but that’s the way I feel about almost every place I’ve been, and I think that’s a good thing. So—who wants to go to Laos with me in 2018?

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At the edge of the Mekong River

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Watching the sunset over Thailand from the Laos side of the Mekong

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