After a few uneventful days in Vientiane, the tiny capitol of Laos, we caught the decrepit locals’ bus, along with five bags of pig feed, several stacks of carved railing, and 2 chickens, bus to Vang Vieng. On the bus a youngish looking man handed Jascha his HIV test results, which were written in English, and looked at him quizzically. Jascha tried to tell him the results were good, which he didn’t understand. I grabbed my Lao phrasebook and told him several times in my feeble Lao sans intonation, “Jow bor mee HIV (You no have HIV).” Although he nodded, I’m not sure if he understood, and I lacked the vocabulary to state the correct interpretation, namely: “The results indicate that you do not have detectable antibodies to HIV. This could either mean you do not have HIV or that your exposure was recent enough for you not to have sufficient antibodies to HIV at the moment. If you think you have been potentially exposed to HIV (e.g. through unprotected sex or needle sharing) then you should get tested again at three months from the date of exposure to confirm your status. For the future results to be accurate, in the interim you will need to eliminate any potential exposures (e.g. through the use of condoms or using clean needles).” Oh well.
Vang Vieng is touted as the “adventure destination” in Laos. If by adventure you mean rope swings and tubing down the river from bar to bar then this is your place. The streets are choked with load, drunken Euros, Aussies, and Americans and the bars in town televisions blare episode after episode of obnoxious sit-coms, like Friends. We came here to check out the climbing areas. The local shop informed us that the area we had chosen from our guidebook, Tham Nam Them, was supposedly closed due to corroded bolts, and advised us to go to the popular Sleeping Wall instead. We rented gear from them for $35 (shoes, harnesses, belay device, chalk bag, rope, climbing pack, and rope bag). Amazingly they had size 15 shoes for Jascha.
The following day we headed over to the climbing area unsure of what we would find. We shared a tuk-tuk with a bunch of women who were taking the climbing class. It took a while to get everyone rounded up and into the vehicle, then at our stop we had to wait to get a boat to shuttle us a across the river. The main climbing area sits behind one of the many riverside bars set up for the tubing crowd and it didn’t take long for some frat boy types to arrive.
Once across the river we decided to hit the moderate Secret Canyon, as we hadn’t climbed in over 2 months and we weren’t certain of how the ratings would compare. We headed off down one of the narrow trails into the jungle and before long came to the area. The 5.10s felt easy with the exception of a long route with the overhang just before the anchor where I felt my lack of climbing endurance kick in. The ratings turned out to be as soft as the routes were dirty. Silt covered the less used routes and at times we had to push vines out of our face. The anchors were bolts looped with a ratty piece of climbing rope and a beefy rap ring. At least they were all equalized. I later asked the guy at the climbing shop why they didn’t use chain anchors and he said the rope was better (likely meaning cheaper and easier to replace).
Around 1p we headed over to the main area. One of the guides was leading a route in his flip flops, simultaneously trying to explain to his inexperienced belayer how to use an ATC. We chatted with some Germans who had purchased an entire climbing rack in Krabi. They told us they heard the rock was better in Chiang Mai (where we would be headed in less than a week). As we had read, they confirmed the Krabi pro was suspect with the UV and salt water damage, but they said they enjoyed being able to lie around on the beach between climbing. I smiled politely; I hate the beach.
I decided to push my luck and try an 11a, which was a somewhat contrived route linking up some slung handlebar holds and an easier route with a bolted slightly overhung traverse. I should have known better. The holds on the traverse were sharp and not positive. I tried it twice and Jascha tried it once with no luck. In Dave Hansen style I ended up removing my gear except for the first traverse bolt (which freaked out the Germans), traversed below the bolt line and up the easier route to the anchors, clipping only the anchors. It was a bit of a chore, but with Jascha pulling on one of the ropes I was able to swing over on rap to grab the remaining draw. We did a few more routes in Secret Canyon and headed back to the climbing shop with the group. So it wasn’t spectacular climbing on pristine rock, but it was entertaining nevertheless.