I was supposed to be here for a week.
It was around 6:15am when we summited a 5 pitch 5.10c/6b sport route at the Green Climbers Home near Thahkek, Laos. Arriving just as the sun peered over the horizon, we soaked in the cool morning breeze and stellar views. It couldn’t have been more beautiful. Camera in hand, I was shooting and reflecting on the wonders of travel and climbing when my recently-met partner, sitting on the edge of the cliff, yelled:
I AM THE BATMAN!!!
Such was the mixture of this place: beauty, climbing, and laughter. With newfound humor, we began the rappel for the 5-minute walk back to camp, nestled in a little valley surrounded by steep, tufa-laden limestone.
You see, I was supposed to be here for 7 days, and that was over three weeks ago. Somehow I’m still here, a relatively new climbers’ camp made by 2 German climbers and home to what is now 272 routes of tufas, crimps, jugs, and a mega-roof in the middle of the jungle. With no wifi to be found, it has been my perfect little escape from months of work and travel.
Each day here is, in my opinion, a perfect climber’s getaway. I wake up in a hammock around 7 or 8am—and being surrounded by international climbers of all backgrounds—I spend each day climbing with new friends, projecting everything from 30-foot tufa roofs to techy and frustrating slabs. I’m often climbing with the staff and even the owners, Tanja and Uli Wiedner, when they casually crush the 7b routes next to me.
I can’t say enough about the climbing here. There is a myriad of routes from 4 to 8a+ (The French grading system) and it is more than enough to occupy a dirtbag (me) for as long as I am here, and as I’ve been here for a month, I can easily say I won’t climb it all. The tufa systems are endless bouts of pumpy, awkward fun, punctuated by sporadic knee bars, stems, and the occasional bat hang.
If that is too much, I’m free to throw myself at crimp-tastic 7b’s and if I’m lucky, rejoice loudly and verbally in a rare hand jam somewhere, much to the entertainment of my sport climbing partners. As a guy who enjoys roof projects, the selection here is astounding. Dozens and dozens of hard, juggy routes ranging from 7a to 8a await with hung draws, luring me in for afternoon sessions full of sweat, pump, determination, and screams of frustration and excitement.
My current project is the classic line Jungle King, 7b, a second pitch extension of a 6b. I describe it as an overhung jug haul into the sky, and I absolutely need to send it before my Australian partner does—lest I give him bragging rights. Furthermore, I’ve vowed not to leave before I’ve sent the damn thing.
After a day of just climbing and laughing, I usually end it by stuffing pad thai into my face from the kitchens as Uli or one of the staff tells me about my project’s crux in perfect detail. The tables are full of climbers from around the world, and I have had a beautiful time soaking up the accents and cultures of French, British, German, and Australian climbers amongst others. Of course, if I so desire there is always cold BeerLao here, which comically tastes different from batch to batch.
Even on rest days I have found plenty to do. Whether it’s going for a trail run, swimming in a local river, or exploring one of the many caves, I have found the beauty of this place to be unrelenting and absolutely joyous. It’s so easy to wrestle up a group of people willing to go explore and have a laugh. I highly recommend dunking yourself in the cave across the road and wrangling up a posse for some cliff jumping, in what can only be described as a subterranean paradise.
Of course, if I get bored of nature, I can simply hitchhike into town for supplies and an epic cheap meal by the Mekong River as the sun fades away once more in the horizon. I personally recommend the papaya salad, a Laos specialty.
Heading back into the camp, nights are spent over dinner specials, cards, BeerLao, and climbers pantomiming climbing moves. The Lao serving staff, while speaking limited English, is an absolute pleasure to interact with. They are by far the most genuine, silly, and happy people I have ever met—and if you’re like me—expect high 5’s and intermittent Laos-English lessons as you order your food. As for sleeping, even though I have chosen to sleep in a hammock to save money, I can upgrade to a tent, dorm, or bungalow if I so choose.
My time here cannot be told without mentioning a fire that occurred in the main camp. About a week ago we all celebrated the opening of their second camp, complete with bungalows and a full service restaurant. There were speeches, shots, singing, Tenacious D, and floor-bouncing dancing.
Tragically, and almost poetically, the main restaurant and residence of the owners burned to the ground at the end of the night while we were down the road wrapping up the party. It was up in flames before we got there, and there was nothing anyone could do to save it. Almost all of the owner’s possessions, gear, and money burned up in flames, and it proved to be an unfortunate exercise in documentary photography on my part.
Owing to the giving nature of climbers, both staff and guests labored through the withering sun during the coming days to clean away the ashes and burnt out plates, utensils, and climbing gear. Amongst the ashes, guide books, bolts and burnt out husks of GriGris were found. Comically, and in a show of moving on with life, one GriGri has found new life as a bottle opener in the new restaurant. It works decently enough.
Of course, life goes on, and with the constant flow of new visitors, there will likely be another restaurant up and working next season. Aside from tradegy, this place still has so much fun to offer and I sure as hell intend to be around for that.
Plus, there are still routes to send, and like I said, I’m supposed to leave when I send Jungle King, that mega overhung roof climb that kicks my ass every time I hop on it. I keep projecting, and I keep failing. Somehow I’m cool with that.
Want to see more of Matthew’s work and adventures? Explore his photo story, Escalando Fronteras: Empowering Disadvantaged Youth in Mexico Through Rock Climbing
To learn more about the Green Climbers Home, visit their website.