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Extreme Climbing Laos

Off the Beaten Path – Rock Climbing in Laos

It is February 2002 and I have come to Laos as a member of a German-American expedition to put up new rock-climbing routes. We are doing this mainly to encourage rock-climbers to come to the country, so that they will have a fabulous time whilst spending the cash that this lovely country so desperately needs.

I am apprehensive about being back in ‘Lane Xang’, the ‘kingdom of a million elephants and a white parasol’. My first trip here in 1996, reconnoitering Lao mountains for rock climbing potential, was somewhat less than a huge success. At that time the country was not yet fully open for tourism and was still in the process of shrugging off its fearful past. In Vang Vieng, where I am now, we saw more AK-47s than umbrellas. Armed men put paid, at gun-point, to one of our climbing trips. Whether they were terrorists or freedom fighters depends, of course, on your politics.

I made one or two tentative attempts to try to find out who they were and what the grenade launchers were in aid of, but to no avail. During another trip we found a human skeleton, right where we intended to start climbing. We debated what we should do. Finally we tried to ignore the skeleton and climb, but it didn’t feel at all right: we accepted defeat and returned to Germany. On the plane home the far-below clouds became a mirror for my feelings: I couldn’t resign myself to never again experiencing the beauty and tranquillity of Laos and the kindness of her people – I vowed to return.

Hopefully we’ll have better luck in putting up new climbing routes this time. The job consists of attaching a series of bolts to the rock-face, one every two or three metres. Alert and properly-equipped climbers who attach their ropes to these bolts can ascend in perfect safety as, when they fall off, their descent will be arrested by the attachment of their rope to the bolts.

When we climb a route for the first time there are no bolts to secure the rope to, so we must attach the rope instead to small metal nuts which we wedge into cracks and to loops of rope which we sling around rock spikes. It is a scary business, as the nuts and rope-slings can and sometimes do rip loose when a climber falls from too great a height.

We spent the last few days thrashing through the jungles around the little town of Vang Vieng, looking for steep, clean rock-faces. Eventually we found a huge cave called Tham Nam Them, whose stunning 50 metre-high walls are perfect for hard routes. Just getting to the rock-face was an adventure. After a 20 minute off-road ride in a truck we waded through a big river to reach a jungle trail, which led to the entrance of the cave. The climb was on the other side of the 300 metre-long cave, in which there is a chest-deep river. We carried everything above our heads, while watching out for snakes; we saw lots of them, including some 15-foot-long king cobras.

My surgeon’s salary back in Germany enables me to live life in the fast lane, climbing, skiing and partying as much as I want. Until a few years ago this was enough for me, but more recently the pleasures of self-gratification have paled and, to find meaning in my life, I now like to take five months a year off to serve as a volunteer at a hospital near Vang Vieng. During the week I work hard at the hospital, and on the weekends I work even harder to get the Vang Vieng climbing scene started.

Right now, halfway up a new route, this work seems to be too much for me. My muscles scream in protest. I scream in protest, at what I can tell is about to happen. I have been hanging on by two fingertips to a tiny ledge for too long, trying to throw a sling around a rock spike. Lactic acid overcomes my muscles, my fingers uncurl and gravity takes control. Falling off rockfaces is something I’m used to and which I’m usually unconcerned about. But today is different, as I am setting a new route. I have not managed to attach the rope to a bolt as there are none in place yet. Instead I have secured myself by wedging an 8-millimetre chunk of iron into a small downwards-tapering crack. I have already fallen off at this spot three times and on all occassions the small metal wedge has held my fall, but it is a scary experience to fall off onto such flimsy safety equipment, as I know that if the metal wedge is ripped from the rockface by the force of my fall, then I will hit the ground – at speed. A strangled whimper comes from my mouth. Two seconds later I am dangling at the end of the rope, with nothing wounded but my ego.

I am desperate to give up, but can’t. I know it’s only my pride, but my wife Isa is with me and last night I bet her a month’s washing-up duty that I could do it. She starts to sound panicked. She tells me to forget my silly one-sided bet, that when we get back to Germany she will be on permanent washing-up duty, if I will only agree to come down.

Eventually I do what she says: what we are doing is quite dangerous enough without making it more so by succumbing to silly testosterone displays. Today has scared me witless, bashing my slightly-superannuated bones against the spikey, almost untouched and so loose limestone, whole chunks of which often come off in my hand, sending me on not-so-leisurely and unplanned trips southwards.

I have got as used to falling off when a handhold gives way as it is possible. What I will never get used to is a huge big lump of limestone falling off from under my feet. It‘s a uniquely scary feeling to be following a bike-sized boulder down a rock-face. It feels as though both you and the boulder are destined to continue the plunge to its conclusion and it is the hugest of reliefs when you feel the rope tighten around your waste and arrest your descent. It’s even more of a relief to then look down and see that your wife has not been squashed flat.

Many people have asked me why I do something so dangerous. Other than the opportunity to get into the outdoors with a good group of friends and undertake a physically and mentally challenging sport, I have a theory. I know that, while climbing, I totally forget about everything except the problem at hand. This is a common thread in adventure sports: by intense concentration and involvement in the present moment you achieve a release from everyday problems and worries. I personally prefer the longer release afforded by climbing to the much briefer moment which for example sky-divers gain. I regularly spend hours in this state of self-forgetfulness through intense concentration. Maybe the sky-divers’ and base-jumpers’ brains are wired differently from mine. Perhaps their brains need adrenaline in an intense, short burst, while I prefer my terror to be a lengthy and drawn-out experience. The way I see it, why should I be content with only being scared witless for a few moments when I can choose to be petrified for most of the day? I suppose I ought to point out to those of you who were, until you started reading this article, considering climbing in Laos and are now thinking that you’d rather climb into Parkhurst jail or maybe don a straight-jacket and then free-climb London’s Post Office tower blindfolded, that the rock-faces there are now as safe as anywhere, thanks to the assortment of intellectually-challenged adrenaline-junkies who have done the scary stuff for you already.

You can now climb in Laos without wading chest-deep across snake-infested rivers, and you won’t get hurt unless you behave foolishly. There are about 100 bolted routes of all grades, including some spectacular multi-pitch routes. I hope you will come and enjoy the climbing, not just so that the Laos economy can benefit from your spending power, but because both novice and experienced climbers will love the climbing here, in SE Asia’s most unspoiled country, peopled by the friendliest people it’s ever been my privilege to get to know.

If visiting Thailand, why not visit one of the country’s currently best three beach destinations:

Koh Lao Liang:

Ao Nang:



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