World Climbing - Rock Odyssey, by Simon Carter

2009 was our first foray to the unknown delights of Vietnam and its limestone towers in Ha Long Bay. (You can find our 2009 trip reports and video here). We had a stack of fun and I was particularly impressed by one limestone tower which had just two routes (The Face 7b+ and License to Climb 7b). It was the most impressive and striking tower I'd seen in a bay which has over 2,000 limestone towers. After we left, I kept in the back of my mind the dream of establishing an extension to License to Climb which went all the way to the top of the diamond shaped face.

In November 2010 we took the opportunity to head back to Vietnam to climb, DWS, bolt new routes, and shoot photos with our friends Simon Carter and Monique Forestier (and a host of others). Simon was interested in profiling the climbing in Vietnam in his upcoming book and 2012 calendar, and we were happy to help out and share what we'd discovered about the climbing there.

As soon as I'd told Simon about my plans for an extension on License To Climb, he was psyched. It didn't take long before we were out there, climbing scary sharp trad to get to the top of the formation and suss out my dream line. As I gingerly rapped over the razor sharp limestone edge, I had high hopes. Within roughly 60 seconds, I was bummed out. The rock up high was crap. Flaky, friable crap. Everything that looked like a hold I managed to rip off in my hand. I was never going to get the 50m pitch I was hoping for. As I descended though, metre by metre, the rock quality improved. Suddenly my spirits lifted as I began piecing together a possible series of moves upwards from the existing chains. Upwards... but how far, and to where?

Me, approaching the anchors of the original route. My extension steps right and goes up another 10m or so to finish at a large hole/undercling at the top of the black streak right of me. Above there, the rock really craps out - unfortunately!
© Samantha Cujes 2010
The original 7b finishes at a set of double pockets the size of footballs in the middle of the face. It's an obvious place to stop. My extension however would climb rightwards for two metres, and then immediately begin more difficult climbing upwards on vertical to slightly overhung orange rock which resembles melted candle wax. The climbing itself is at times delicate, relying on very precise footwork, and at other times powerful, with some very wide pinches across tiny, finger-width tufa flows. The route builds to a stunning climax where you must make a traverse rightwards on small holds to snag a monster hole as an undercling, from which you can clip the lower-off. This comes after 32 metres of climbing.

On the day we went back to attempt the first ascent, I was apprehensive, but excited to simply get on and see how my new creation climbed. Speak to most new route developers and you'll see common threads in their motivation. It is a creative pursuit, like art. You are envisaging possibilities, imagining a reality, but the true reality only comes when you climb the route. Sometimes it goes wholly as you expect and other times it could not be more different. But that creative process, from the vision through to execution is what keeps us coming back for more.

On my first try, I linked through the 7b and into the extension. As I made my way higher I was surprised, and thought I might do the route first go. Then I got brutally pumped on the wide pinches, falling three moves shy of the anchor. Noooo! My second attempt felt better and I moved confidently through the extension to once again pump and fall, this time two moves from the anchor. I was now tired. Sun was beating on the tower. Good for Simon, who was shooting photos, not so good for me. Third try and I rested for a long time in the football pockets at the top of the 7b. I knew my best bet to avoid pumping off in the same spot was to climb with a slightly quicker cadence. So I sped up, careful to not introduce any mistakes with the small, sloping footholds. As I began the right traverse to the anchor, I stabbed my right toe on a hold and began to apply force on it only to have it crumble and fall away. I whimpered a curse, and I recall Monique shouting encouragement from below. I twisted my toe on what remained of the smear and felt the rubber bite, rocked my weight across and stabbed a hand into the finishing undercling as my body barndoored rightwards like a gate opening. Thankfully I reeled it back, pulled rope and gratefully clipped the anchors. I'd got my 'License to Climb Harder'. I think it adds a couple of grades to the original, let's say 7c/27.

Climbing on this unique, aesthetic piece of rock is something I'll remember for a long time. And in the event I do forget, someone will be able to show me the cover of Simon Carter's "World Climbing - Rock Odyssey coffee table book. The COVER! Holy crap! How cool is that?!

Cover shot!
Check out Simon's amazing new book (which also contains all the best shots from our 2010 Vietnam foray including some featuring Mrs Upskill) here as well as his World Climbing 2012 Calendar (see here).

Thanks again to SloPony for the logistical support, the bolts, the drill and the love.