Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More than the daily dose of adventure

The jungle always adds to an adventure. It's something about heat and humidity mixed with thick vegetation and unknown sub-tropical creatures - a combination that turns a simple day of hiking and climbing into a noteworthy mission. Yesterday the goal was a newly developed crag at Pha Tang mountain 25 km north of
Vang Vieng, the the central region of Laos PDR. Myriad factors led to this day of motorbiking and climbing being quite different from a day at the local rock gym.

First, and possibly least, is the gact that this region of Laos is ethnically Hmong. Hmong fighters, hold-outs from the Vietnam War, former American allies, and still clinging to the possibilty of autonomy, have been clashing with Laos military police as recently 2005. In 2003 a tourist bus and some German bicyclists were caught in the crossfire. My fears were mediated after careful research (finding no recent reports of incidents) and seeing no signs of armament while travelling this Highway 13 last week from Luang Prubang. None-the-less motorscootering on rough roads through the poorest of villages in a former war-zone breeds apprehension. So after a hour of riding through this picturesque karst countryside I was mometarily relieved when we arrived at a simple quarry that would safely park our bikes (story has it that our gas would be siphoned if left in teh woods).

From along the newly oiled highway we could see the white limestone towers rising from the jungle, but the approach would not be without its own set of stories. We left the road on a bearing towards the towers and immediately entered a lime orchards with an unknown flowering shrub in the understory. There were many branching trails assumingly from the local fruit pickers. We were following directions clearly written by a non-native English speaker and consequently they were immediately useless. The orchard ened at a small streat that we decided to work along following a newly cut trail through tall ferns. Just 100 meters into the jungle, Josie, leading, was blind sided by a spider web complete with a white and black long legged friend. She maintained resaonable composure considering a large and creepy jungle spider dangled inches from her eyes and its web netted her hair. By the time I reached her she was rid of it and we took the accompanying picture of the peculiar aracnid.

The spider trail ended at a fence and we retraced our steps to the stream and crossed it. We then gained a wide shallow river which we waded easily without our shoes. I did not know it at the time but I think this is where I got the leech bite on my foot that later in the day would not stop bleeding. We easily crossed a patchwork of rice paddies and came to the side of a small hut which I think is used in the rainy season for the farmers. Now just a few
hundred meters seperated us from the limestone though an unkept orchard retaken by jungle stood in our way - there were faint trails but nothing seemed continuous. I was cautious to leave well-trodden ground as in my research I also learned of the hundreds of thousands of land mines placed unmapped by the Viet Cong. My nervousness was surely over-zealous and unfounded due to my poor understanding of Laos geography and post-war reparations. I was lacking an objective way to understand these risks (as I would, say, of the possibility of an avalanche) and though it was extremely unlikely we were to come across a unexploded ordinance I was mentally tired apon reaching th base of the enormous limestone massif.

The wall stood tall, dusty, and covered with cobwebs. Bamboo leaned into it and created a quintissential jungle atmosphere. Josie, always strong, made short work of one named climb and then quickly located two others that we had no information of. They seemed very new and we cleaned bugs and dirt and loose rock as we climbed. The 5.11 climbing itself was technical and steep and followed an impressive brown dike through the harder gray limetsone. We climbed 30 meter picthes at eth ground - there was clearly another 300 meter of stone above us. I am now reminded that apon reaching this second set of climbs we encountered a very bizzarre bat trap that was essentialy just a fishing net hung up perpendicular to the cliff between two bamboo poles. We had to get very close to the net before understanding what it was, but as we near the three near-death bats wringled in their unfortunate situation and stared at us in something I can only describe as fear. the whole scene was quite unnerving and added to the mental game that we were already playing with the dirty rock before us.

After our fill of jungle rock we worked back through the jungle and across the river. We were very hungry from the day because we got what we thought was sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves - turns out we unwrapped pandora's banana leaves to find what was I think about a tablespoon of uncooked pork. To shorten the already lengthy story: we reached the bikes just as it began to drizzle, we were starving , and the mixed clay and concrete road was quickly becoming trenchorous as it wetted. We had no choice to stop for chicken part and rice noodle soup in the first small village and sit with nice Laos people, only pointing and smiling, as the rain past. We returned to Vang Vieng just as the sun was setting into the bright orange of late evening. I had had my daily dose of adventure - and I think maybe a little extra for good measure.

Photos: 1) The sun sets. The view from my bungalow. 2)Crossing the leech stream and heading towards the tower. 3)Bat in net. Quite possibliy the freakiest thing I have ever seen - sorry but just had to give you nightmares too 3)If the bat wasn't enough this is the spider that almost punctured Josie's eyeball.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Dispatch - Christmas -
Vang Vieng, Laos PDR

Last night, after a day of rock climbing and rope swinging, we were invited to a grand Christmas party by a Spanish girl and her friends. It was a white elephant dinner party. We sat at a long table in the garden, I between the tall Spanish girl and the owner of the only Laos-owned climbing guide company here. We talked about how tourism is changing his formerly-small hometown into a mecca for western travellers - he listed the pros and cons and had a very relaxed opinion of the whole thing. Tourism IS the Loas economy yet I have not seen the kind-hearted Laos people turned bitter or jaded my the Western dollar. Adam has made a good business of guiding climbing for foriegn visitors. We toasted to his success and his birthday.

The common language was English, but many side conversations rattled around the table in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and all collections of English accents. The Laos people and children that joined us wore Santa hats and talked in their gentle language. Each person was served a whole fish on a large plate, fried rice and sticky rice, garlic bread, and Beer Lao accompanied the main course. I met many new friends; as nearly all the European countries were represented around the table. A large British man played Santa Claus and carried a large rice bag to collect our presents for exchange. We rolled dice to see who who pick and exchange first - I got a small handmade doll that is a keychain. We ate and dined like kings - for 18 people our bill was 1 million Lao kip (maybe 120USD). No doubt it was a Chistmas party I will not soon forget.
Happy Holidays to all.

Photo: River side bar and swimming hole, Vang Vieng, Laos.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dispatch - December 21
Vang Vieng, Laos PDR

The 24 hour sleeper bus ride and the 6 hour minibus ride are behind me now. I will leave that story for another time. Today I found some climbing in a jungle acrost a river. There was a massive rope swing into the river and there was a bar at the shore played Bob Dylan all day. We rode is a tuk-tuk with a drunken driver - but he was kind enough to share his Beer Lao with us after returning us to town. There is an island here that is reached by a rickety bamboo bridge, on the island are many bars and campfires surrounded by routy European tourists. We you get hot you can swim in the river right from your bamboo perched, as long as you don't upset your beer as you jump off. There are endless hourds of western tourists here sitting in resturants watching Friends and snacking on fruit shakes. I happy to have a climbing mission because tubing the river all day and drinking and watching TV all night would truly get old fast. Laos people are very kind and friendly and they don't honk nearly half as much as Chinese drivers. This will be a very nice place to spend New Years and Christmas as every day is a party and you can easily drink and eat too much - which is what I'd do for the holidays back in the states anyways.
Photo: Boatman on the Mekong River, Luang Prubang, Loas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dispatch: Kunming, China 12/17/2008

We left friendly and beautiful YangShuo on a local bus to Guilin yesterday afternoon and without much trouble have found our way to Kunming. Kunming is in Yunnan province and lays some 1200km west of Guilin. We slept well on the confortable sleeper car and prior we were able to watch the scenery and villages go by until the sun set. The other train riders were interested in us and watch on as we played cards and reviewed our photos. I tried my few Chinese phases and we shard some laughs with our bunkmates. We met a guy who smokes regular cigarettes out of a big bamboo bong between cars and I was kind and unable to turn the rough Chinese tobacco down. Josie beat me at cribbage after that.

At the Kunming train station we easier than expected found a fancy new sleeper bus that was bound for Luang Prubang, Loas. We got our tickets and will depart this evening expecting a slightly arduous 24 hour ride through jungle and canyon. Let the adventure continue....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rock Climbing in YangShuo, China
Beta for Multi-pitch Routes

When I first arrived in Yangshuo I was prepared for a month of limestone sport climbing. I readied myself for pocket pulling and tufa pinching up steep white and orange walls. Once I began to roam the towers and delve into Yangshuo Rock Climbs I reliezed there may be a slightly more elusive Yangshuo climbing scene. I made a point to climb as many multi-pitch routes up these impressive limtesone towers as I could fit into my trip. What I found was a collection of jungle adventures into beautifully unexecpted places with endless panoramic views of a magical land. There was also no shortness of crumbling rock, unequipped anchors, vine pulling, razor blades, hailing buses in the dark, rockfall, rusty mallions, and an ocassional snake. In otherwords: sweet!
Climbers Beta
(note: vocabulary may be a bit tedious for the non-climber friends and family)

There are a lot of fresh bolts in Yangshuo and thus the climbing is fairly safe (some older routes do have some rusty bolts). Many rappell anchors need to be backed-up or rebuilt. Bring lots of webbing and rap rings. Next time I will bring many rapid-links and chains as most rap anchors could use some permanent equipment (this is also true even for some of the single pitch sport climbs). The rock here is both sharp and loose. Climbing here without a helmet would be foolish. Almost every route can be decended via the ascent line with one 60 meter rope. I found the topos in Paul Collis' book to be well-drawn and consistent. Lastly, it should be noted that the amount of rock here makes the possibility of putting up more routes comparable to these completely unlimited. Hundreds, if not thousands of unnamed, unclimbed, unexplored towers rise from the rice fields and river flats in all directions. Climbers seeking limestone walls of adventure need to look no further.

The Routes
  • Thumb Peak - Happy New Year (5.10b,5 pitches)
    This is the first and definently the cleanest multi-pitch line I did here. Climbing in great, bolts are frequent, the top anchor was looking pretty hangered 'til we beefed it up. Bring lots of draws to link the 3rd and 4th pitch.

  • The Screaming Mountain Turtle (5.9, 5 pitches)
    There is a new first pitch to this climb that is maybe 10a that goes to right of the original line with bleached out threads. The rest of the pitches are sharp. I almost broke Szu-ting's wrist with rockfall on the first pitch. We used a #2,#1, .5 Camalot to supplement some sections, otherwise there are lots of bolts. There is a hidden bolt on the traverse pitch. The top pitch requires loose climbing above dubious cams. The final rappell (off route) is a sketchy thread at a chalky stance.

  • Low Mountain - L Echo des Montagnes (5.8, 5 pitches)
    An alpine style route with little hard climbing. Lots of rope drag if you're not careful. The 50 meter free-rappell is the best part of this climb, second is the very cool river of the river. In the shade for first half of the day and bolts everywhere.

  • Low Mountain - Monkey King (5.10c, 5 pitches)
    First pitch is fanastic and clean, link it to the 2nd. The 3rd pitch is soft rock but cool climbing and the 4th is the only bolt protected off-width to squeeze cimney in Yangshuo. Must use every rappell station to get down. Despite being dirty this is a fun route!

  • Twin Gate Western Tower - Penthouse Platforms (5.10a, 3 pitches)
    The hardest climbing is right of the ground. Like it says, big belay ledges, and the cool top-out and views make this an enjoyable route.

  • Brave New World, East Face - The Witch Woman of the Rock (5.10c, 5 picthes, bolted anchors)
    This is the only true trad climb we did and subsequently the most intense. There are indeed cracks from top to bottom but the rock quality is variable. This was Szu-tings favorite route and for good reason: serious climbing, we got use the gear she brought all the way from the states, amazing exposure, even better views, and the only true hand jams in Yangshuo. This route is recommended for experienced trad climbers as we used cams to #3 and a small set of nuts and many long runners. The anchors are in good shape as they are good bolts equipped with rope loops and rap rings.

  • The Egg - The Deviant Direct (5.9, 3 pitches)
    Szu-ting forgot we did this route so it must have not been very good. The 30 meter rappel directly from the top anchor is not eqipped and thus I had to jug back up to the anchor on-route.

Photos: 1)Endless unnamed, unexplored towers along the Li River; between Yangdi and Xing Ping 2)The team at the Egg; Josie, Masa, myself, and Szu-ting

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Climbing everyday

Climbing everyday in China is tiring and rewarding. Most days we gather lunch and breakfast supplies as we walk to the bus station. We gather warm soy milk in a bowl, steamed buns with sweet peanut filling, blueberry bread, sticky rice in bamboo leaves, cookies, candy, mandarian oranges and crisp apples. We then head to the crowded local mini-bus station and cram ourselves and our gear into a breadbox mini-bus half the size of an American minivan. We ride with the locals down wide roads honking and passing tractors and bikers and getting passed by large tour buses and taxis; did I mention the honking. After much honking and much shuffling of people in and out of the mini-bus we arrive at a dusty side street and pay our fare - 2.50 yuan or 35cents USD per person. The bus sputters off and we start the short or long walk through villages to a beckoning limestone tower.

The villagers are busy with their daily chores of picking fruit, washing, sweeping, collecting wood, or working on a new part of their cement homes. One time an old lady got off at the same dusty road as us and walk alongside chatting with Szu-ting as we haeded for the crag. She told her she can always pick out the climbers because they carry backpacks and most of them are westerners. She seemed happy that we passed through her village - unaffected by our presence but entertained by our parade. Sometimes when we are slightly lost and tramping around through someone's orange or rice field a farmer will apear out of nowhere - he has a basket of small tart citrusy friut to share and helps us with finding the right trail - usually guiding us all they way 'til we have located the proper path. I can not tell wheather he just wanted us to stop tromping around in his field or if he actually wants to help us find our way. Either way we are rarely lost for long (speaking Chinese helps very much with this).

Once we reach the cliffside we open the newly republished English guidebook (Climbing in YangShuo; Collis Oct. 2008) and begin to pick out routes that we can do. They always look steep and intimidating and if I'm feeling fresh I head out on lead up the rugged, often sharp, holds. If I'm feeling sleepy or slow I talk Szu-ting into starting up; she happily grabs the gear and begins to work through the technical movements that characterize this limestone climbing. The rock is made up of pockets and side-pulls and overhanging holds facing all directions and therefore, regardless of grade, always keep you on your toes (pun, what pun?). The climbing is protected well by numberous and fresh looking bolts and is consequently quite safe - that doesn't mean it doesn't feel intense or scary for the consistent steepness and adventuresome manner of the stone lends itself to some intimating climbing. Every route is fun and every crag we visit is a new adventure.

Rock climbing development in YangShuo continues at a very rapid pace with one team we talked to reporting as many as 30 new climbs bolted since the publication of the October guidebook. This speed supercedes any American climbing area I have known. Route development and climbing exploration in many other parts of China is just beginning and the possibility to establish new routes seems at this moment endless. Yet, for now, we continue to explore routes clearly established by the adventurers that have come before us. Regardless, many routes we have climbed appear to have had only a handful of previous ascents and as we learn through the grapevine of more recent develpoment many routes we approach may have had even fewer previous parties. I envision a time when I will put my name on a newly created route somewhere deep in rural China. Until then I will continue to enjoy the quality offerings, of both culture and stone, at the cliffs of YangShuo.

Photos: 1) Corey decending via a free-hanging 50M abseil from Low Mountain's SW Arete 2) Approaching Low Mountain through groves of citrus and cotton 3) Szu-ting leading yet another steep 10b at Space Butress