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Friday, April 19, 2013

A Slice of Paradise in Lao

 The trip is coming along swimmingly. Rock climbing offers unexpected rewards, such as visiting beautiful locales in the off-season. Cool, dry weather makes for prime climbing conditions and spring and fall seasons are usually preferred that luckily also avoid the summer holiday rush from mainstream tourists. Winter can be a good time to visit too, esp to major climbing destinations in Asia. I'm currently in Cat Ba - a beautiful island in Ha Long Bay off the coast of Vietnam. We have a large, comfortable sea-facing hotel room right in the middle of market, at the bargain basement rate of USD 10 per night. And I only pay half since I share the room with my Ole, my climbing partner. I arrived in Cat Ba about a week ago after about 6 weeks in Thailand (with a week's break in Burma), and another 3 weeks in Lao. The climbing in Cat Ba - or Butterfly Valley to be specific - is incredible - sculpted geometry on a gently overhanging wall, offering varied movements and a couple of dozen pitches in the 5.12 to 5.13 range, plenty of action for me!

Thailand was fantastic - 2 weeks of climbing and fitness training, tasty curries, delicious shakes and of course swimming and beautiful sunsets at the island of Tonsai. Next I headed back to Bangkok and proceeded to Burma for a quick week long jaunt with my photographer friend Emily Returning to Thailand I proceeded to Chiang Mai for what was going to be a short stop but ended up spending 3 weeks, throwing myself into a mix of activities and spending time with good friends around. Highlights in Chiang Mai were a massage course (Thai massage anyone?), some lovely day trips to Lampang, Chiang Dao, and of course the wonderfully creative, fresh and aromatic cuisine that the North of Thailand is rightly famous for. If Thailand is the kitchen of the world, then Chiang Mai is certainly the kitchen table! I even did a cooking course, spending a day at an organic farm outside the city and cooking up some favorites (including mango sticky rice, an all time favorite). 

The beautiful landscape towards Thakhek- limestone and endless climbing potnetial
Because of bureaucratic snafus with my Thai visa my Tonsai visit was going to be cut short to only about two weeks and hence I had some time to kill before I moved on north to Vietnam and China. While on the island I heard rumors of this magical climbing destination in Laos that had been developed recently over the last couple of years. Laos was an easy detour in my itinerary up north and research revealed that the climbing Thakhek was indeed quite promising. I immediately started planning and bought air tickets to arrive at The Green Climbers Home the first week of January. The climbing is away from the city in the middle of literally nowhere. The Green Climbers Home however is situated within walking distance of all the developed climbing, seemed a very convenient place to eat, sleep and meet other climbers. HOWEVER in a tragic turn of events a rogue firework over New Year's Eve ravaged the Climbers Home, destroying accommodations and possessions inside - fortunately nobody was hurt. My plans were thrown in a tailspin though that lead to a quick toss of my plane ticket but spontaneous action that took me to Burma first and then Chiang Mai after. I was quite entranced however with descriptions and pictures of Thakhek that I figured I'd try to go anyway, albeit a bit later when the camp had had a chance to recover from the tragedy.
The beautiful  campsite at Green Climber's Home
I arrived in Thakhek pretty easily with a couple of buses, an easy border crossing and then finally a tuk tuk into the Climber's Camp. I"ve become good at chilling on buses - in fact I almost look forward to them if it's comfortable ride (good seats, smooth roads) and i enjoy the downtime and often can make fast progress on whatever I'm reading on my beloved Kindle.
The steeps!
The Climber's Camp has a story book setting. - nestled by towering cliffs, lush forests and a serene river that emerges from a cave system from the other side of the mountain. The  devastation to the camp by the fire was immeidately apparent with the charred foundations of the burnt huts and other debris that was still being cleaned. That was soon forgotten though with Tanja's (camp owner) welcoming words and hugs from my friends Sandra and Michel who had arrived the night before. A tent had been reserved for me and I soon threw my bags in and joined my friends for a tour of the area, a cool Beeralao in hand! It was ridiculous how close the climbing was to camp. All the crags are about 5-15 minutes of easy walking. There is endless limestone around and so far only the most accessible cliffs have been bolted. Of course the potential for more is staggering. The jewel of the area is a massive roof about 20 meters above the ground that juts out about the same distance horizontally. followed by a massive headwall about 40 meters high in itself. The roof sector runs about maybe 100 yards and contains a large number of high quality of routes.
Chill time by the river
Dinner, ciggies, and Beerlao (still impressed by how much Euros smoke - and they all climb well!)!
After a month of negligible climbing I felt rather weak at the onset but regained my fitness in a few days and by the 2nd week found a couple of really fun and long climbs to project. I was doing climbs up to 12B easily (onsight, flash or quick red point) and was looking for something a bit harder. Found two really cool lines to work on. Small World and Vice-Asshole for President (shitty name, great climb) both long and steep 12Ds that felt really hard at the beginning but fell to red point in about 4-5 attempts each. The last time I climbed at this level was about 5 years ago when I was climbing heaps having redpointed a few 5.12Ds at JailHouse in California. Since then my outdoor climbing had been sporadic and I hadn't found the level of psyche or fitness until now. It felt good to be climbing at the same level again! Can't wait for new levels.

My favorite climb of the trip though was a 12C called Melon Monk in the Cave area  - a beautiful line that consists of upside down scoops and water-sculpted holds in the most aesthetic setting imaginable - right at the entrance of the river that emerges from the limestone caves.
Melon Monk 5.12C
While not working on projects in the Roof, we were enjoying climbing in some of the other interesting sectors around - The World Trip sector (with tall vertical lines with crimps, pinches, and long delicious tuffs, as we'll as the White Wall - really long 30-40 meter climbs on slightly overhung to slabby terrain, but of course on really good rock. I had a nice group of friends to climb with - and then towards the end of the trip fell into a great routine of starting really early in the morning pre-breakfast at around 6:30 to 7 am. This meant that we had plenty of time to rest between multiple attempts on our projects. High-volume days are fun, but projecting hard routes (and occasionally) sending them is quite rewarding as well.
There are beautiful technical faces too. 
We found a really nice lifestyle. Climbing 2 days on, 1 day off. After climbing we'd go for a quick run to a beautiful swimming hole and dip in, then run back fully refreshed. Evenings were long and languid - chit-chating with other climbers, discussing the day's exploits and making plans for the next day, over beer and Lao-German-Thai food, expertly prepared by the friendly staff.
Ueli running a lap on Big Smile 5.13C
I really enjoyed the warm, old-world hospitality at Green Climber's Home. Ueli and Tanja run a wonderful camp. They are a German couple who discovered climbing in Lao on a climbing trip through Asia, and on a lark, decided to open this climber's camp and set roots in this beautiful place. They opened in early 2011 and within a year suffered the horrific fire that razed their camp to the ground. After losing all their possessions they didn't mourn for long but set to rebuild right away. When I arrived they had the kitchen fully operational, and the camp at capacity at about 20 climbers. Reconstruction for new facilities had begun already - the update is that it has since finished and they have a spanking new restaurant and dorm accommodations back in play! 
One of the many cave and river systems
They really do treat guests like family. Food and drinks are dispensed on a honor system - you keep an account of what you consume and then settle at the end of your stay. Fairly extraordinary in this time and day! Busy as they are running the place, they were always available to help with all kinds of questions about the place, advice us on selecting climbs and help figure out logistics about travel etc. It is obvious that this is a camp not run by professional hoteliers but by passionate climbers who are so very eager to share this wonderful bit of paradise they've found in Lao.
Eric impressively flashing Melon Monk
If you are passing by Asia and are jonesing for steep, quality, limestone climbing in a serene setting I whole-heartedly recommend The Green Climber's Home. If you decide to go, make sure to contact them before-hand as they have limited capacity and do fill up in high-season. 

There are new sectors being developed and climbs being added with each season. I can't wait to visit again and get some yummy schnitzel in the most unlikely of kitchens!


  1. Hi, Kush; you took a while to write your first post on your Asia climbing circuit. I am certainly not a climber, but will like to visit all the places you have described. Enjoy your time.

  2. I enjoyed reading your climbing stories in Asia! Looks like a great adventure.

  3. I enjoyed reading your climbing stories in Asia! Looks like a great adventure.