Karst Mountains and Green Climbers
Lucy was belaying me and she couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging. I was lead climbing my first 6a, a route called Carneval in a crag called Swiss Oldies and I had no idea if I could do it. The route started in a small cave and involved twisting myself around and between big touffas and up over a ledge. It was hard. I fell off the wall more than once. But I did it. It was the hardest climb I’ve ever lead and it was in the beautiful karst mountains of central Laos.
I first rock climbed at Camp Y Noah when I was 10 years old. I was compared to a monkey with no fear as I scrambled up the 20-foot wooden wall laden with colorful holds and zip lined down. In high school I joined the Cleveland Rock gym, climbed in college, dabbled at my gym my first year in Chicago. And then… nothing. I went a sold 7 years not climbing. Not for any particular reason. I love rock climbing. I’m good at it. It’s a fairly safe adventure sport and there were plenty of gyms in Chicago. I could have vacationed in any of dozens of places that featured rock climbing. I just didn’t. Like so many of my passions, rock climbing fell by the wayside as I became “busy” with work, brunches, and more popular team sports like football and volleyball.
As part of my transition into my 30s and focus on doing exactly what I love while reaching my goals, I decided to get back into rock climbing. I had never lead climbed before even though there were lead climbing nights at the Ping Center at Ohio University. Unlike top rope climbing where if you fall, the rope above you will catch you right away, when lead climbing the fall can be a bit farther because half the time the anchor you’re attached to is below you. The belayer stands on the ground to keep the climber safe and the climber pulls the rope up as he climbs clipping it into anchors on the rock ever few meters. I tried this way of climbing for the first time this October with Adam’s Climbing School in Vang Vieng, Laos. It was terrifying and exhilarating and I’m not going back.
I went to Green Climbers a few months ago with my roommate Colleen who is a practiced boulderer but didn’t have experience climbing with ropes. We chose the easiest routes, the ones I knew I could climb no problem and I taught her to belay me on lead while I was on the wall. She was terrified she was going to drop me. She, as so many new lead belayers do, was hesitant to give out too much rope. But she did great! A few tips on the ground from a couple climbing near us and excellent communication between us meant I survived and she got to top rope the routes I set.
Green Climbers Home is about 10 km outside of the Mekong river town of Thakhek in Khammouane Province. German climbers Fia and Flo run camp two from October to May. Tanja and Uli run camp one. There are over 300 routes set in a bowl of rock formations including a sick roof feature with more new routes being added every year. Camp two is closer to the road, and the camp I’ve stayed at over night on multiple occasions. I’ve stayed in their deluxe tents twice, which has a platform bed and high ceilings and a regular tent once when I went alone on my cycling trip from Savannakhet to Vientiane. A dozen or so bungalows circle the lodge each with a hammock underneath, a front porch and double bed with a mosquito net. The bathrooms are stocked with soap and toilet paper and cheeky signs asking visitors to use bum gun and minimize paper in the bowl.
One of the things I look forward to the most at Green Climbers is the food. While Lao food is a culinary rollercoaster consisting of a lot of fermented, spicy and sour flavors, the western food options in central Laos leave a lot to be desired. Green Climbers has the best of both. Homemade yogurt and shakes and smoothies out the wazoo: chocolate cookie, lemon mint and coconut come to mind as favorites. The pad Thai is excellent, as is the schnitzel and mashed potatoes (German run remember?) the garlic-yist garlic bread on homemade baguettes and specials every night that all can be made to order vegetarian. I’m in heaven.
The bookkeeping is largely on your honor for things like water refills, instant coffee, beer and cookies from the fridge. Other things like gear rental and food orders are written down in pink and green books and paid for upon checkout. It’s nice to not have to carry around cash and easy for the Lao staff to write down the order for tent 7. No one has to make change and no one has to worry about dishonesty at the register.
When I arrived at Green Climbers in January after over a month away, I was so excited to see yoga offered in addition to activities like pétanque, speed Minton and slack lining. I’ve taught three sunset yin classes in their blue-roofed yoga hut, perfect for relaxing sore muscles after a day of climbing. I’ve even considered coming back next season to climb, volunteer and teach yoga.
I didn’t understand the full scope of the incredible community at Green Climbers the first few times I went as a day climber. When I stayed overnight I started connecting to the laid back vibes of people staying a few weeks or even a few months to climb and hang out. Many were going from Tonsai on Krabi in Thailand to Green Climbers in Thakhek to Chiang Mai, Thailand to climb through southeast Asia. Fellow climbers offer beta, swap stories about routes, injuries and interactions with locals on their travels. They are mostly barefoot. Many men go shirtless and the “dirty hippie” look of dreadlocks and elephant pants are a common sight. There’s a sign above the bar that says, “drugs are bad, cheap and illegal in Laos. Don’t do them every day.” An eclectic mix of music ranging from 70s rock to dance music to indie pop blares from the speakers all day. The army of local staff and western volunteers mix in with the guests to create a low-key family feel.
During the wet season June to October much of the camp is flooded and Green Climbers shuts down completely. I hope to make at least one more trip up to Thakhek before the end of the season. It's a 2-3 hour van ride then a 15 minute tuk-tuk ride out to Green Climbers. People also come on motorbikes, touring bicycles and through hitch hiking, which I've done once from Green Climbers back into town. But that's a story for another day.