Fire and Limestone

Published in Vertical Life Issue 5, 2013

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DEREK CHENG VISITS THAKHEK IN SOUTHERN LAOS TO CLIMB AT A NEW LIMESTONE SPORT CLIMBING AREA WHEN THINGS GO PEAR SHAPED.

First, we saw the hills turn from dark-green in the soft moonlight to glowing red. Then we heard the screams.

When we rounded the corner, the campsite of Green Climbers’ Home came into view. Wild flames held the roof of the main building in a violent stranglehold. In the middle of the campsite, pandemonium. People yelling, others pointing at the red flames licking at the rooftop of a thatch bungalow. Someone running with a fire extinguisher as the night sky pulsed in different shades of orange, smudged by rising smoke.

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I had arrived on a clear starlit night just before Christmas. Eighteen months earlier, in a spontaneous but considered decision, German couple Uli and Tanja Weidner had cut short their world trip to throw in their lot for this small slice of Laotion paradise, 12km from Thakhek, at the mouth of the Xiengliab Cave.

After an agreement with ecotourism operator Green Discovery, they left their comfortable lives in Cologne behind to move to this country of tranquil beauty, lush green hills and limestone walls. About 50 climbs were already established by Volker and Isabelle Schoeffl, who gave their blessing for Uli and Tanja to build a climbing haven. They bolted new routes, had sponsorship for climbing gear and slack lines, and by October 2012, the area boasted over 110 routes. They were soon overwhelmed by visitors.

“I’m sorry, but we cannot accommodate you because we are full,” Uli told me when I walked in wearily, having travelled from China on an overnight train and two overnight buses. He kindly allowed me to stay because I had my own tent.

I quickly adopted the standard routine; rise around 8amish, have a slow breakfast and then walk lazily the few minutes to the tufablessed walls. But it’s not really the tufas or stalactites that make the climbing unique. It is the giant roof. On its right side the roof is horizontal for a few metres before reclining into a steep overhang. It’s 30m of strenuous climbing, and the left side is far less lenient. It includes, at its most glorious, a 15m horizontal roof. That’s six quickdraws to clip before you even reach the lip. It looks, and is, wild.

The most stunning line through the roof is Jungle King (7b/25), which starts on jugs before a sit-down rest on a protruding tufa at the midway point. Then it blasts straight up, through large huecos, threads and pockets, to a final slab. All but one of the holds are positive, but even with a few knee-bars along the way, it’s a pumpfest of the highest quality.

The easiest line through the left side is Pi Mai (7a/23). The overhanging first half provokes that common characteristic of 3D limestone climbing: self-doubt. Such disoriented moments invariably lead to climbers hugging, humping and molesting the rock, avoiding peeling off by becoming part of it.

Halfway up Pi Mai is a massive ledge where you can sit and meditate for as long as you like before busting through the five clips that lead through the roof. It’s intimidating. Standing there, I almost wished I was on the neighbouring climb, a 7b+ (26) called Schweineruessel (pig’s snout) that has a rest halfway through the roof where you can sit on what is known as the snout, but looks more like an elephant’s foot.

When I finally committed to leaving the comfort of Pi Mai’s ledge, I found huge jugs, threads and holes large enough to thrust half my arm through. But towards the lip, I was pumping out and wishing I could see what was inside the scoop towards to lip. I blindly threw left and found – waiting for me as if to reward my faith – a huge hold.

My strength was fading, but there was a bulbous part of rock behind me that I could touch with the back of my head, so I planted my most precious brain cells on it and inched my head higher, before turning it sideways and into a slot in the roof. I could picture my foot slipping and the inside of the slot ripping all the flesh from my face. So I replaced my head with an arm-bar, and then wriggled onto the bulb until I was in a comfortable chimney. Success. With face still attached.

And the roof is only a fraction of the climbing. There are giant stalactites that flow and branch for 40m, the kind of exposed climbing that makes you feel like you’re on a different planet. There are thin, steep faces, steeper overhangs and an entire section with dozens of easier climbs on varying terrain.

Uli and Tanja said there was probably more than 50 new routes to be discovered in the valley, all within a stone’s throw from the kitchen, so refueling on sticky rice and Laos coffee at any time is easy. And the surrounding valleys have huge potential.

The only problem was that Green Climbers’ Home was already too popular. Uli and Tanja were turning people away. They wanted to keep it a small community, small enough so they could know everyone’s face and engender an atmosphere like a family gathering. At New Year’s Eve they were at full capacity of about 60 people, including families with children. Life was good.

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‘I’m still really keen,’ said Nick, a lanky 18-year-old. It was New Year’s Eve and we had wanted to climb Chinese New Year, a four-pitch 6b (20), under the near-full moon. But the wind had picked up and others had pulled out.

Still, Nick’s enthusiasm was contagious, and at 10pm we found ourselves at the base of the climb. I started up the first pitch, headtorch on minimal glow, feeling like a spy scaling a wall at night to avoid detection. But once I clambered over a ledge and above the treeline, the moonlight bathed the wall in light.

I arrived at the first anchors quickly and decided to press on, skipping a couple of bolts along the way, pushing through a juggy overhang to the second belay. As Nick started up, his father Dave and some others gathered on the track below to shout encouragement and offers of beer and dancing girls. We responded with monkey noises and wolf howls. We were having a blast.

Nick started up the third pitch – the crux of steep climbing on sharp flakes – as our cheerleaders walked back to camp.. He cruised it, and after I pulled up to the belay, we sat for a moment, taking in the silent serenity. The last pitch didn’t look like much, so we rappelled off. We had just packed up the rope and started the short walk back when we heard the fireworks. ‘Happy New Year!’ we said to each other, high-fiving, keen to rejoin the festivities.

The road was quiet with nothing but the sound of our shoes brushing the dirt. Then, suddenly, the mountain to the east turned orange. Neither Nick nor I said anything, but we both picked up the pace.

We rounded the corner to see the main building in the grip of a giant, fiery demon. On the road in front of us, three Laos girls were on their knees in a collective embrace, wailing hysterically as if begging for their lives. Around them, people were running, backpacks on backs and children in arms. An explosion from the main bungalow sent a cloud of flame into the air. On the ground-floor, some more fireworks erupted, wrapping the building in colourful sparks. My pack, rope and rope bag had been sitting under the main bungalow. Making a dash to grab them was unthinkable. I stood and stared and hoped.

The gravity of what was unfolding only hit me when I heard the shouts for everyone downwind of the fire to head for the cave behind the staff quarters. Then the demon lashed his fiery whip and the roof of another bungalow caught alight. By the time I looked back at the main building, the demon had grown to over 30m high, and when I looked back at the line of bungalows, three roofs were aflame.

I dropped the rope, unhooked my harness and let it fall to the ground, and ran. Towards the fire. I covered my mouth with my bandana and sprinted under the line of bungalows, as close as I could to the treeline while avoiding dense shrubbery. The heat from the main building lunged out towards me. It was ferocious and menacing. I didn’t dare look up in case I saw flames flailing from the bungalows above me.

Within seconds I reached my tent on the other side of the site, shrouded in suffocating smoke. I could still hear crying, screams, and a Japanese woman asking if anyone had seen her husband. I moved everything to the stream at the mouth of the cave. If the fire started raging through the forest, we had time to run into the cave and, if necessary, the stream. From there, it was a few hundreds metres walk through the cave to the other side.

Slowly, we started to trudge through the cave, some without headtorches or shoes but with heavy backpacks. The smoke was thick in the cave, and it attacked the eyes and throat. The sharp rock underfoot tore flesh from heels. It wasn’t far but it seemed we walked for an age.

Once through the heart of the cave, a track emerged on open ground, and we marched on, free of the smoke’s grip. We arrived by the road where the others had gathered. The Japanese couple found each other. Nick was waiting for Dave. ‘Dad,’ he said gingerly, and they hugged.

‘Just 10 minutes and my life is gone,’ said Uli.

‘I just hope nobody died,’ said Dan, one of the guides, wrapped up in his blanket. ‘I was the last to leave the site for the cave, and I could hear this screaming. This horrible screaming.’

Thankfully, everyone had made it out unharmed, except for a sprained ankle. Talk inevitably turned to the fireworks. A fire had started, firstly in the grass, and people had rushed to stamp it out when someone noticed the roof had caught fire. Flo, another guide, had heroically climbed up, trying to use first a fire extinguisher, and then a garden hose. But he didn’t stand a chance. There’s not much that would be more of a fire hazard than thatch huts in a valley channeling the wind.

We piled into trucks that took us to Thakhek. It was 3.45am when I finally made it to bed.

The following day revealed the three upwind bungalows completely untouched. Everything else was a brick and concrete skeleton. Naked stilts and bent brick bathrooms. A heavy, smokey scent had replaced the clean air. I walked to where my tent had been, on the edge of the forest, and found a pair of my climbing shoes.

Why had the forest not caught alight? It was so lucky. If the trees had burned like the thatch huts the concentration of smoke in the cave would have been lethal.

People had lost stuff. But it was nothing more than a minor inconvenience compared with Uli and Tanja, who already were thinking about insurance claims and meetings with business partners.

‘Will you rebuild?’ I asked Tanja as the sun descended, leaving a much friendlier orange glimmering on the surface of the Mekong River.

‘With what? We have no money.’ she replied.

I reframed the question. ‘Would you like to?’

She considered this for a moment, then smiled at the recollection of something beautiful.

‘Yes. I would like to.’

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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