Learning the Ropes in Laos

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I was halfway through my first coffee of the morning when a bleary-eyed volunteer lurched through the door, cracked up a Marlboro and went to the fridge for a big bottle of Beerlao. I hoped to goodness that he was not my instructor.

The Lao staff and falang volunteers split the people who had climbed before from the beginners; and I was relieved to see that the guy with the searing hangover and beer for breakfast was going with the experienced climbers.

It had poured down all night and the rain had turned the dirt tracks to mud, but the tuk-tuk driver saw no reason to go any slower than normal, and we slithered and skittered towards the mountains, over a ramshackle bamboo bridge, and parked up and tramped across fields, through trees and over fences, and a guy said something about leeches which I wished he had kept to himself.

We reached the mountains and scrabbled up from boulder to boulder, over rivulets, grabbing hold of trees here and there for support, and went up and up until we got to a narrow ledge two thirds of the way up a karst several hundred feet tall. The instructor climbed another fifty feet or so up a near vertical face to secure the top rope, and I thought to myself no way…. No. Fucking. Way.

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But it was too late to wimp out, so I shrugged on the harness and threaded the rope through the loop and tied it into a figure of eight in the way that we had been shown and got the instructor to check it. I still imagined that the knot would unravel, or the rope would break, or the harness would fail, and in my head I was always free-climbing.

Just relax,” said the instructor, “take it slowly; get a good foothold then look around for the next handhold”. The trick, I realised, was to disengage the cowardly part of the brain which tries to stop you taking risks, and to focus on each separate move: take a step up, spot a crevice you can hook your fingers inside, think about where your foot will go next, haul yourself up and then plan where to go from there. Often I doubted myself, felt sure I would miss the hold or lose my grip and fall, but never did.

With each step up, the instructor tugged on the rope to keep it taut, so there was no changing my mind and stepping back down: once I lunged for a hold I was committed. I fought the instinct to look up to the top or down at the ledge, or – worse – at the ground, because whenever I did it brought an avalanche of nerves upon me. But I fought against the nerves as well, and carried on climbing, and then I was touching the rock at the top and feeling euphoric, and the instructor was talking me into letting everything go and leaning back, so he could let the rope out and I could abseil down.

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The second route looked a whole lot harder, with a section which went beyond the vertical and through a chimney in the rock, round a corner and over a lip. But again I coped better than I imagined I would and, with each move, I gained a bit more confidence and I was willing, in time, to spring up and grab for a handhold I could not quite reach at a stretch, and to lean back against an overhang for support and propel myself over a lip. I was a lot more relaxed that time, until right at the end when I had to lean out over the edge and dangle above the abyss as the instructor let me back down.

Then, as I waited my turn for the final route, I watched one of the experienced guys lead-climbing another rock face, and just as he got to within a few moves of the top, a rope loop snapped and he fell, and the next two or three loops broke, as well, with a succession of bangs and I stared in horror and thought that he was going to tumble to his death, but he was held fast by the bolts further down and dangled perhaps ten feet from the broken loop. He was a lot more relaxed about it than I was, though; and set off climbing again straight away.

I knew that I would go back to climbing after I got home, but could never envisage myself being as indifferent to falls as that. I am not yet.

© Richard Senior 2015

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