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.
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.
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.
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.
Belay glasses: a gift from above (aka German inventor, Albi Scheider in 2007). Simple yet splendid. Prismatic perfection. Just yes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Five things you need to know before a winter bouldering trip to Albarracín
Let’s be clear. Bouldering is free. It’s more of a guide for getting to/from/general survival.
The plan was Font in early November, book at the last minute after seeing what the weather was doing. It was a good plan as it turned out the weather looked horrendous, cold and rain. So a plan B was needed, long story short we headed to Albarracín (with a reputation of being one of Europe’s best bouldering venues with “bomb proof” weather) We had a great time, so much so that we went again in early January, right in the middle of storm…with knee deep snow. So here we’ve put a crib sheet about getting the most out of winter bouldering in Spain.
1 Getting there. Flights and car hire
From the UK you can fly reasonably cheaply if you shop around to Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante and Madrid. The nearest airports are Valencia and Madrid. We used Barcelona and Alicante because the flights were cheaper and earlier in the morning so we could there, if we got a wriggle on with enough time to boulder for a few hours on the first day. This is a good thing to do if you are short on days and don’t mind being knackered.
You can choose to offset your carbon footprint created by flying by giving something back. To find out how much impact your flight has, ClimateCare have a carbon calculator.
Hiring a car is really the only viable option, made cheaper if you have a car full of people of course. Using public transport is difficult, as would getting to the crag when you are there. Be really careful checking the condition of your car when you pick it up, and don’t take it back very dirty inside (easy to do on a climbing trip) or you may end up with a nasty bill. Be sure to understand what you are insured for. If you take your own mats you need to hire a car big enough. First trip we hired a VW Caddy, we didn’t take our own mats but hired 3 mats from the climbing shop in Albarracin. We comfortably got three of us and the mats in the car. Second trip we hired a bigger car a Vauxhall Zafira, with five of us and four mats. A tight squeeze.
It was like tetras trying to fit everything in.
2 What to take. Mats and stuff
To keep costs down for the first trip we took a sack each which fitted the size requirements for cab luggage (56x45x25cms) a decent size, this way we avoided the high costs of hold luggage, and skipped through the airport not having to collect baggage. Packing was quite tight.
All you need:
A good pair of approach shoes/boots which we travelled in
2 pairs of climbing shoes,
Warm crag layers, hat gloves etc
Flask, tea is important.
Change of clothes and toiletries etc. don’t forget you haven’t got any hold luggage so you are restricted on what liquids you can take, e.g liquid chalk or sharps (scissors)
With Easy Jet the hold luggage is measured by adding up the height, length and width of your bag, maximum total is 275cm, this is plenty big enough for most large mats. This meant we could put two mats together and count them as one. Jen constructed some large covers out of tent materials to hold them, and straps, together. This meant we could stuff boots and chalk etc inside the mat. We had no issues getting the mats through check in, as they are relatively light.
I think its slightly more expensive to take your own mats than to hire (hiring in November was 7 euros per day, but you had to pre book and collect when the shop is open. Taking your own is a bit of hassle but is probably worth it as you remove the risk of not getting hire mats.
3 Accommodation and provisions
There are less choices for accommodation in the winter, camping is less practical because it is very cold on a night, there is a carpark for campervans. Albaraccin is around 1300m high. There are plenty of Airbnbs hotels, a couple of climbing hostels, we paid about 20 euros per person per night for a really good airbnb.
There are two supermarkets very near each other in the town, we had no trouble getting what we wanted to feed ourselves, we didn’t go to the next big town Terual as it was 40 mins away, and there was no need. We cooked in for 50% of the time and also ate in the local restaurants/ bars. The food was good and alright value, the best we found was Bar la Despensa, a cosy tapas bar, with very friendly staff and good prices. The restaurants don’t open until 8pm which doesn’t suit everybody, but if you are climbing all day it suits us.
4. The Crags
The boulder areas are a 10 minute drive up the hill from the town, we took flasks of hot drinks, sandwiches, fruit and boiled eggs up to the crag. We generally got to the crag between 09.00 and 10.00 which seemed early enough especially if it was cold. You can easily spend all day at the crag with no need to drop back down to town for lunch. There are 3 main car parks, the first being on a bend, the second has some small out building in it and third has parking on both sides of the road. The third is the best places to start at, you can see boulders from the road and Sector Parking is right in front of the parking. This sector is great for warming up at it has some easier problems on fantastic looking walls.
We used a 2019 guidebook which we bought through Needle sports in Keswick. Its in English and is very good. Ticks with intials helped us keep track of everyone’s progress. We also used the 27crags app, which proved very useful later on. Go for the problems with stars or half stars, they are all excellent. We tended to climb in 1 area in the morning and another in the afternoon. You soon get a feel for the aspect of the crags, we were able to find crags in the shelter from the wind and ones in the sun.
On both trips it was very cold (between 0 and 10 degrees) but we were able to keep warm and dodge the wind.
The climbing is really good, a mix of edges, pockets and slopers.
There are hundreds of Youtube vidoes which give you a much better idea than I can. You can also walk up the canyon by parking near the sports centre (in the end we wound up using this trail to lug the mats to go climbing). This is a good thing to do perhaps on a rest day.
5 Plan B and C
On our second trip we had about 30 cms of snow on our third day. The whole area was very beautiful, but the conditions made salvaging any climbing virtually impossible as it snowed throughout the day and the snow was very wet snow. There are lots of overhangs (Techos area especially) where it may be possible to climb in rain or light snow. For us the snow was blowing in under the overhangs and the ground and our kit was sodden. But dammit, we tried.
So decisions had to be made.
There is plenty of walking or running in the surrounding area, but you are in Spain and its just that you are high up in the mountains in poor weather. We bailed and dropped down towards the sea to find better weather. This is where your choice of airport comes in. We were Alicante so we did the 4 hour drive first thing in the morning, we went straight to a bouldering area we had checked out the night before called Crevillante near Elche, had an afternoon and following days bouldering and stopped in a cheap air bnb.
If you fly from Barcelona or Valencia there is a boulder areas called Alcaniz which is gaining a good reputation. There is also an area near Madrid. The point is you have choices if Albarracin is rainy or snowing. Just call it early and bail. We used Instagram to find very recent photos of folk bouldering on the crags we were heading for, this was excellent for sussing what condition the crags were in.
Albaraccin is a great place to visit, I haven’t even talked about how magical the town itself is or much about the bouldering really. If you are organised, a trip in winter is really worth doing, we were a bit unlucky in our January trip as it was right in the middle of the big storms. But we had a fantastic time and the snow just added to the adventure.
Zoe Allin gets to grips with sharp Hampi granite, bouldering in the Indian sun and life as a travelling climber.
Arrival at Hampi
If you have even heard of Hampi, I imagine it will be for its historical, archaeological and religious significance. But leave the temples behind for now and cross the river to Hampi Island, where you will be immediately welcomed to Main Street – a single line of cafés/guesthouses adorned with advertisements for yoga classes and sound healing sessions, colourful stalls of happy pants and two German bakeries.
Oh, and also one of the biggest boulder fields in the world. No surprise then, that Hampi is described as a ‘Mecca’ for the travelling climber.
Complete with hammocks, slackline, monkey bars and a campus board, The Goan Corner is the climber’s hub of Hampi Island where Dirtbaggers can pay 200 Indian Rupees (about £2) a night for a mattress and mosquito net on the roof.
I was lucky in that my bed does not catch much sun. I was *unlucky* in that the monkeys that use the roof as a playground stole my banana from my bag and left dirty fingerprints in my peanut butter.
Golden Boulders Festival
Within an hour of arriving, I was invited to join a crew for the next morning. Climbers meet around 6.15am for breakfast and a 7am ETD, marching out in various directions with our rented pads (120rupees/day from the Goan Corner) and then climbing until the problems fall foul to the Indian sun, usually around midday.
The afternoon session begins around half 4 and continues into the night, providing the crew has enough headtorches or a mini floodlight. Power screams, ‘Allez!’, ‘¡Venga!’, and ‘STRONG, TRUST THE FOOT’, followed by howls of success regularly echo across the Plateau.
Two main points should be emphasised.
1) Hampi granite is damn sharp. I caught a crimp slightly off target and sliced my finger open on a protruding crystal… on multiple occasions. We all grimace in solitude on hearing the cheese-grating noise of skin against rock as the grip gives or a hold is missed and fingerprints are erased in one fine swoop.
2) Hampi grading is… unreliable. On the most part, the climbs are harder than they are graded; the most recent topo has downgraded a lot of the problems. Nevertheless, there is something for everyone and, whether I’m climbing hard or not, I revel in the energy created at the crag.
The Golden Boulders Climbing Festival and Competition was in full swing over my first week. Although I prefer to climb non-competitively, the vibes surrounding the competition were only those of good spirit and encouragement; I wear the blue vest with pride! More importantly, I am incredibly grateful to now consider the people I met through the festival as good friends.
Time to reflect
Because of the aforementioned skin-loss and injuries resulting from overactivity, rest days are crucial. I practise doing nothing at the oasis by Space Baba Café, have sat (not stood) on a slackline spanning the river and appreciated the intrinsic beauty of the Island from the back of a Royal Enfield. Trust me, you won’t get bored.
The main bouldering season is limited to mainly Dec/Jan/Feb due to the heat but I am assured the psyche continues as night sessions into March.
Remember when I was going to spend just 2 weeks here? Me neither… I’ve also made the somewhat rash decision to move out of my flat (many thanks to my boys for moving my stuff – love you both) and to stay out here seeking out more of the climbing spots around South/Southeast Asia in Dirtbag fashion.
Seriously, hit me up with recommendations. Where next!?
Useful information: The Goan Corner (Guesthouse): Meet your new crew, eat well, rent your pad, don’t get in trouble with Sharmilla (the owner). Golden Boulders Climbing Shop: Take private lessons, rent shoes and buy chalk, be charmed by the ever-smiling Jerry who also organised the Golden Boulders Festival (big thanks, my friend). Nature Yoga: run by my talented companion, Jessie. Join for Hatha Yoga sessions away from the guesthouses – donation based.
Yak soap and icy socks, spending Christmas dirtbag style.
I took the opportunity to travel to a country where 90% of the people are Hindus, where Christmas is not celebrated en masse, as a way to escape the western frivolities that I find somewhat claustrophobic. I saw myself high up in the snowy Himalayas on the Annapurna Circuit of Nepal, a 160-230km trek to altitudes of >5000m and with picturesque views of the Annapurna Sanctuary. I would find solace in the serenity of the mountains, perhaps with a fire and a good book.
I avoided the throngs of people doing last minute shopping, instead
trekking for up to 8 hours/day through jungle then alpine landscapes towards
the Thorong La pass (see what I did there? ‘THRONGS’ of people… ‘THORONG
I joined forces with two other ‘strays’, flew down a slope on a make-shift sled with a local family, played ghost football on the most picturesquely located football pitch and had a Happy Meal at Yak-Donalds.
I could be walking in a t-shirt under the sun, but the temperature plummeted in shade or after sunset. Teahouse rooms are mostly bare stone with the bathroom often having no glass in the window gap… and I had a 3-season sleeping bag with a minimum temperature of 0 degrees…
While folk at home would be receiving new socks, I was washing my 3-day-old pair in icy water and yak soap (that I also used for my hair), hoping they would not freeze overnight like the taps would. We filled our filter bottles from waterfalls along the trail, once they thawed of course, in true trekking style.
So much snow had fallen in the blizzards that we passed multiple trekkers forced to turn back. We stubbornly pushed on, and the trail rewarded us with a white winter wonderland that was basically our own.
On days with clouds, the mountains were draped with a grey pashmina and trees appeared silhouetted as if calligraphied with jet black ink.
When the clouds cleared, blue skies emphasised sharp ridge-lines of the Annapurna range that rose in stark contrast to fluffy blankets of snow. Not an elf in sight.
Nine days in, after sleeping in all my layers and (very fake) down jacket at 4900m, we started the final push for Thorong La as a fine team of seven. It was 5am, a clear sky and a -25 degree chill.
The ascent was TOUGH, man. It took all my strength to keep going. ‘I’m never doing this again’. Then, as the prayer flags welcomed our arrival to 5416m and we stood amidst mountains, a tear was shed. ‘Thank god that’s over’. We celebrated, I took note of my slightly frostbitten purple nose, and ate the best Kit Kat Chunky of my life. ‘I can’t wait for the next time’. Unfortunately, the next time might have to wait.
The immense descend that followed rendered me to walking with the aid of two poles as crutches. On the 23rd, after trekking a painful further 25km, despite hiking the full 180km, I had accepted defeat on the planned additional 100km and was on a twelve hour bus ride back to Pokhara.
The bus was forced to a halt by no less than four landslides, and I don’t know how the Nepalis can sit on their seats so calmly because I don’t think I made contact with mine for more than ten seconds at a time, my head smashing against the ceiling and windows on multiple occasions.
My saving grace was that the hostel had put together a potluck style
dinner for the 24th (big up to Kiwi Backpackers). There was no gift exchange
and complete strangers became close friends within hours. On Christmas Day, I
mostly read on the rooftop with a spectacular view of the sacred Machhapuchhare
(Fishtail) Mountain and revelled in the simple tranquility. The only reminder
of the ‘special date’ came from the messages I exchanged with loved ones old
and new around the world. I don’t think I’ve heard Bublé once this year.
Also, my Indian visa just got granted so that’s kind of cool.