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Zoe goes places: Thakhek, Laos

Sport climbing in Laos, Zoe Allin

PAD THAI AND CLIMBING HIGH: A boulderer goes sport climbing.

In an unexpected turn of events, I find myself in Southeast Asia climbing 30m pitches on some seriously 3D limestone. We’re ‘living at the crag’ at Green Climbers Home in Thakhek, Laos, and I am VERY confused. Where are the crash pads? Why is the chalk bag secured to my waist, like ALL the time, and why is it so small? What is this rope attached to me? And, dammit, there are way more than 5 moves on that problem, sorry, route. 


Prior to Laos, I had only limited sport climbing experience indoors, never mind real rock, but I got the gist. Keep going up and keep clipping in. That stood to be fundamentally true and I enjoyed three weeks of climbing high and chilling out/eating my weight in noodles at the ‘Kneebar’ restaurant. 

zoe goes places chalk bag

For someone not afraid of heights, I was surprisingly wobbly on my first climb. Even on the tufa-ladder that was a 5b and with one hand in a jug the size of Jupiter, suddenly I felt quite unstable pulling up the rope to clip in. Nevertheless, I finished my time in Thakhek with my first 7a lead tucked neatly under my harness. 


As well as learning the basics like cleaning the route (I had never even considered that I needed to get the draws *down* – such is gym climbing life), I can also say I picked up some less conventional lessons/insights along the way. 

  1. Jumping to slopers and trusting a couple fingers on credit-card crimps are fun and games when two meters off the floor and protected by 3 pads and 2 spotters. Not that I had many as-extreme moves on my climbs in Laos, but holds I would consider bomber on a boulder definitely felt less-than-satisfactory on a route, even at the first bolt. 
  1. Following on from above, point 2 is a note to future self. It’s all in your head, throw yourself at it. Notwithstanding, the fear exists. I’m no mathematician but I think the formula would look something like this:

with Fi representing Fear Index. 

  1. Belay glasses: a gift from above (aka German inventor, Albi Scheider in 2007). Simple yet splendid. Prismatic perfection. Just yes.
  1. Now aware of ‘flashing’ vs ‘onsighting’, I propose a new category to delineate whether a route has been succeeded, notably if it is flashed or onsighted, when putting the draws up as well. That additional effort should be RECOGNISED.
  1. Sent multiple climbs in one day? Congratulate yourself with a Beer Lao. Not redpointed a single route? Have a Beer Lao and try again tomorrow. Rest day? Beer Lao by the cave. Sent your project? TWO Beer Laos. (In this respect, I find bouldering and sport climbing to be much alike but note that beer options may vary by country).

In conclusion, I would say that this trip went off without a hitch.

When I left for India, not in a mallion years did I think I would find myself in Laos. 

But now, I can’t think of anywhere that would have ‘biner more apt, or indeed, a beta place to commence my sport climbing adventures…

Hopefully, someone out there might relate to a thing or two I’ve mentioned above. Maybe you went the other way and started with sport before tackling a boulder. Let me know your experiences!

Thanks to a bunch of awesome humans including, but not limited to:

Mattias Sarvik for putting Laos on the map for me;

Yonatan Koren for the psyche and support on Schwitzerland (7a);

Jörn Störtebekker and Jules Guérin for the amazing photos;

Tom, Fai and all the wonderful people at Green Climbers Home.

Zoe Allin

Insta @zoallin


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Frame bag review: The Great Australian Triathlon

Australian triathlon bike packing bags custom order

An expedition

Filmmaker Jonathan Doyle, with Ben Cianchi, expedition leader, began a journey in December 2019, of the world’s first human powered vertical crossing of Australia. We followed them via social media updates the whole time (find them here) until it was sadly cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They are all safely at home now, reflecting, recovering and gathering together what looks like is going to be an amazing film.

We were stoked to be asked to help out. And we’re stoked for the final product.

Jonathan has kindly put together some words about how we contributed to this effort…please read below.


Kit review

Dirtbags are an incredible independent company based in the Lake District, UK, who specialise in recycling old outdoor and climbing gear to create beautiful bags and accessories. Dirtbags were kind enough to support our world first expedition, The Great Australian Triathlon (thegreataustraliantriathlon), providing us with pannier bags for myself, an expedition-ready powerbank and solar charging system, and most importantly, a set of custom-made frame bags both for myself (the cameraman) and the athletes (Ben Cianchi and Daniel Lamb). 

We spent a number of evening working closely with Dirtbags founders, Jen and James to ensure we able to create the best possible bags which satisfied exactly what we needed, and from the get go, I was so happy to be working with them. They were warm and welcoming and super-stoked to get involved with the project. Their enthusiasm was electric and ideas were flowing faster than the teapot! 

Ben Cianchi - The great Australian triathlon

Having used the frame bags intensely during the filming of the expedition’s first leg; Ben, Emma and Claire Cianchi covering 640km from the most southern point of Tasmania to the most north-eastern point by foot, I can safely say that the bags are the absolute dogs-whatsits. 


I tended to use the frame bag to carry two litres of water, lunch for the day and additional camera accessories such as audio recording equipment that I needed quick access to. The top-tube bag was used to carry a small-powerpack for my phone, snacks and bike repair accessories. The material itself easily held up to the abuse I subjected it too, whether that was a little overstuffing, heavy-handedness with the zips, or when the bike inevitably hit the ground during tricky sections of trail. 

Jonathan Doyle - the great Australian Triathlon

The most difficult task for Dirtbags was making sure the bags could handle whatever environment decided to throw at them. There hadn’t been much rain in Tasmania proceeding the expedition, so we had to deal with copious amounts of dust as we crossed the state. Obviously, we needed to keep that away from any electronic equipment being carried, but more importantly we needed to keep it away from the sandwiches. We were subject to one massive rainstorm up on the highland plateau and I did fear the worst for my lunch, however Jen and James absolutely nailed it. Upon opening the bags, everything was dry, the waterproof zips and the additional waterproofing of the bag material worked a treat. I was genuinely impressed. 

Finally, the bags are incredibly eye-catching, every bike-packer we met during the crossing stopped me and commented how much they loved the look of them, saying how cool they were and how they wish they had a more interesting setup. 

Overall I have been bowled over by the Dirtbags team in going above and beyond what was promised and provided such exquisite bike-packing bags. I will absolutely be using these bags for a long time into the future!

Jonathan Doyle

insta @jonathandoylemedia

All media credit: Jonathan Doyle

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Make a wooden climbing hold: expert level

Salvaged wood pocket hold, handmade for home climbing walls

Handmade pockets using salvaged log wood. A step by step guide.

So, the last hold was too easy, huh? James upped his game and chipped away to make a two finger pocket wooden hold.


1. Get wood, drill hole.

Salvaged wood climbing holds

It all started with a perilous journey to find the perfect tree, chop, and leave for a year to dry and season.

In our case, we saved our shed from destruction by a scary, heavy looking branch, and kept it as it ‘might come in handy’. It wasn’t seasoned, either.

Prepare your ‘might come in handy’ bits of wood, obviously it needs to be big enough to have a hole big enough for your pocket. This was about 4″. Saw off the end so you’ve got a nice flat end to work from.

I used a 3/4″ spade hole cutter bit; a Forstner bit would’ve been better- but I don’t have one. Alternatively, drill lots of small holes with a regular drill bit, the bigger the better. Make sure you do this carefully with the log in a stable position, ideally clamped in place.



2. Chisel.

Using a chisel and a heavy object, dig out the hole to make it larger. Enough to accommodate as many fingers as you want. Please be careful doing this, chisels are sharp. Unless it’s ours, which is not.


3. Countersink.

Countersink to a depth of 5mm at the positions of the mounting screws (we used three screws, one at the top and two at the bottom). The depth of the countersink is to accommodate the screw head but is not absolutely crucial if you don’t have a countersink bit.

Drilling out a pocket hold

4. Shape and saw.

Using a rasp, bevel all the square edges and give the face of the hold some shape. Measure where you want the base of the hold to be, and saw it off. Keep it nice and straight, as this will be the back screwed against the wall. Obviously, when you cut the hold off the log, consider how deep you want your pocket to be. The length you cut off will determine the pocket depth.

Rough shape of climbing hold

5. Drill mounting holes, sand.

Drill holes for mounting. In order to shape and finish the hold, mount it to something solid (waste bit of wood, for instance) so you can go at it with sandpaper (250/400 grit), without having to hold it in your hand, until it’s nice and smooth.

Home climbing training, wooden pocket hold

6. Screw to board.

Make sure you screw this to something relatively solid. We don’t want you to pull your shed down. Climb.

Salvaged wood pocket hold, handmade for home climbing walls

Expert level, completed.

James.

Disclaimer: we take no responsibility in loss of limbs, grazed skin, or bruised egos whilst you make your own holds. Use your common sense.


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Zoe goes…nowhere

Home training, in isolation in Thailand

She’s stuck in Thailand.

Amidst the current crisis, of which we are all VERY aware, travellers across the globe are rushing home to loved ones as the pandemic continues to cause disruptions locally and worldwide. My rock climbing and planned motorbike adventures for Laos-Vietnam (upcoming blogs) were cut short, as serious decisions had to be made quickly to escape to Thailand before borders were fully locked down. Being stuck in Laos was not an option, with their limited emergency care and lack of an international airport. Turns out the day after I crossed, my border closed. 


Finally accepting defeat and turning my gaze towards the red bricks and rolling hills of sunny England, I now find myself in a rather sticky-rice situation.

I’m waiting on refunds from three different airlines and coming to terms with the horribly inflated price of my winged journey home now scheduled for Sunday. If this plane doesn’t leave the country, that’s it. Trapped in Thailand.


Interestingly, the choice as to coming home or staying put is not so simple and many fellow travellers are similarly questioning their next move. I don’t have a job to get back to or rent to pay, the crags and climbing gyms are closed anyway, and my family are probably safer without me potentially carrying the virus back to them. Thailand is warm, cheap, and my accommodation situation actually allows me private outdoor space (a pool, no less). 


So why am I so desperate to leave to confinement in England? 

I would be lying if I hadn’t considered waiting it out here. But Bangkok will shortly be on lockdown too and who knows how long the travel restrictions will last. If I commit to staying, I have to COMMIT to staying. For months, even.

Not so bad though? I have a guitar, chrysanthemum tea, air conditioning, a yoga mat, jungle-esque scenery (despite being in the middle of the city), and all for a fiver a night. Plus, when this blows over, I can start moving again. 

Yoga in Thailand, self isolation with Zoe Allin

Add on travel insurance (mine expired, whoops). But then minus the extortionate flight ticket home. Add on the same confinements as at-home UK citizens (there’ll be no island-hopping; in doing so, backpackers only threaten to transmit the virus to smaller isolated communities). Add on the incessant uncertainty of changes to the country, NAY, THE WORLD. But minus the support network. Add on the psychological claustrophobia as all the other travellers also manage their own brain-turmoil regarding their own personal situation. 

Add on that I have to drink my tea out of a bowl. 


Finally, add on the prospect of my family being affected and me being helplessly 6000 miles away. 

Personally, it becomes matter of physical comfort versus pragmatism and mental stability. Ultimately and to the relief of my parents, I have decided to pursue the latter. Though really, I’m still not entirely sure I’ve chosen right.

In this blog, I endeavoured firstly to summarise briefly my travel situation, and why Zoe may not be going to too many places in the immediate future (surprise, it’s Covid-19). Secondly, I wanted to address those who are lusting after confinement abroad into the mindset of someone actually locked in another country. Grass is always greener, ey

I admit to being surprised at my yearning for England.

Nevertheless, IF I get home, I’m sure I will welcome maybe 2 days of relief followed by weeks of the same isolation mania as everyone else. I’ll make sure to re-read this entry when that happens. 

INFO: If you are abroad and want to return home (gov.uk)


At least I now have time to devote to more FUN and LIGHTHEARTED Dirtbag blog entries. Coming up… Ropes, falls, and funky limestone tufas: a boulderer goes rock climbing in Thakhek, Laos.

Zoe Allin: insta @zoallin


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How to make your own climbing holds

Step by step guide to creating your own wooden, plastic free climbing holds for a home training board.


Home climbing walls are becoming a pretty big deal, what with ‘ahem’ not being able to roam free at the moment. Home training is a cost effective way to stay strong, and to maximise training time; being able to do it in bursts in between dinner, putting kids to bed, washing pots blah blah blah.

As per usual, we gathered together random bits of wood to make our holds out of. We already had everything in the house so didn’t need to buy in anything. Woohoo – free holds!


1. Get wood.

This is a branch kept from a condemned Hawthorn tree. It is a nice dense hardwood, good to work with. Nice and chunky. You can use any old branch/wood scrap provided it is dead and dry with some weight. Using a rasp, I shaved off the bark into a rough shape and size on one edge.

2. Saw bits off.

Carefully saw off end at desired length. Be careful to get a square cut as this side of the hold will be against the wall.

3. Drill and countersink.

Drill two holes 4/5mm approximately two inches apart (distance will depend on the size of wood you are using). Then counter sink both holes to accommodate the screw head. Counter sinking creates a tapered hole about 5mm in depth. This can be done either using a tapered counter sinking bit or with a 10mm drill bit, drilling 5mm into each hole.

4. Flip and mount.

Now, flip the hold over – flat side up. I temporarily screwed it to something solid (wood cutting horse, for example) to keep it secure for the next step.

5. Shave more.

I then shaved the opposite edge on the opposite side to create a tapered hold. We are going for a small jug, here. But you can do anything you want, be creative.

6. Rough sand and shape.

I have a fancy machine but this can be done with a coarse sand paper block and some elbow grease or an electric hand sander. The aim is to smooth out the surfaces from the coarse rasp shaping, and to fine tune the shaping. No nasty splinters.

7. Fine sand.

250 or 400 grit paper works well. Sand away until nice and smooth.

8. Screw to board.

Voila. Get training. You can get creative and make lots of different shapes and sizes. Be sure to send us pictures of your finished pieces – we want to show them off too!