All photos in this post are courtesy of Anton Ponomarenko. Thanks, Anton
Climbed in the afternoon on New Year’s Eve, more or less resigned (comfortable even) that I wasn’t going to maintain my string of climbing 5.11 or equivalent every year since 1975. Too bad, but it had to end some time and the year has certainly had its highlights in other areas.
Maybe this relaxed approach paid dividends because, pressure off, I felt more relaxed on the rock than I had and, before I knew it, I was past the crux. The finish felt strenuous and I was hesitant, not wanting to blow it at this stage, but I reached the top clean. So, I’m good for another year now! Uli put on a buffet supper for the year’s end. Nick and Derek went off to do a multi-pitch climb in the dark to celebrate and a group of us went out to check on their progress at around 9:30 pm: they were two pitches up with one to go (the fourth pitch is easy but run out and hard to route find in the dark). There was a bit of a party in the Kneebar, even some ‘bench bouldering.’ (The idea is to go round a bench, top to bottom and up again, without upsetting the bench; it requires flexibility, strength and a certain tolerance for pain.) Meanwhile, the Lao girls who make up much of the staff were dancing (sober but not dancing soberly, with much enjoyment) on the bar itself. A few minutes after midnight, Tanja and Uli (the owners) and Dan let off a firework each – handheld since they were supposed to be ‘indoor’ fireworks that just issued confetti – outside the lodge.
But they weren’t indoor fireworks. Within thirty minutes the Green Climbers Home was burned to the ground.
A spark landed on the grass roof of the Kneebar, it caught fire and began to spread. Fire extinguishers couldn’t reach the flames. I ran to the dorm, initially to get a camera, but quickly realised that the situation was quite serious and started packing my, and Nicolas’, stuff. When I dragged some of it outside, almost all the Kneebar was bright orange roaring flame and sparks were rising into the sky. It looked like something from Apocalypse Now. There were panicked instructions being shouted, and generally ignored, as people did whatever they thought was best. There was a lot of screaming, mainly from the Lao girls who work(ed) at Green Climbers Home, I think.
I carried what I could of our belongings to the short grass where the volleyball net was and looked back at the dorm. Its roof was now ablaze but not yet above my bed so I went back, probably foolishly, to get the last couple of bags. I’m not really sure what I’d packed in the rush but, looking up at the flames above the adjacent bed, I figured it was time to leave, with just enough time to pick up someone’s camera from a chair outside the dorm door.
It would have still been possible, I think, to get between the burning buildings to the other side of the fire but I didn’t know whether the flames would spread in that direction – it looked like the whole valley was going to burn – and it was a fair distance to road. People said the flames were climbing the cliffs. Where was Nick?
Everyone seemed to moving in the direction of the cave at the head of the valley, where it should be possible to get through to the road. Someone helped me with my gear; it wasn’t possible for me to carry it all – two persons’ gear and a third pack containing climbing gear left with us for the night by a couple of Nick’s friends who hadn’t reserved place at the camp and were staying in Thakhek. We all went through the cave, a long expedition involving wading the small river and climbing over and around boulders lit by the few of us carrying headlamp. Some gear was left for later recovery; when we came out on the other side of the cave, I had just one pack (mine!). Ten more minutes river-hopping and a trail brought us to the road. It was around 2:00 pm. People told me that Nicolas was OK and then there he was, in front of me. Thank goodness. A heartfelt hug. He’d got down from the route as the fire was starting, had approached the camp but the fire was pretty well-established by then and he’d headed for the road.
It was closer to 4:00 am when we got into Thakhek and found room at the Travel Lodge. We had my main pack, both of Nick’s packs and Skyler’s climbing gear. My day pack was missing, with my cameras and some climbing gear. Our rope, which Nick had taken on the route, was missing, too. And Nick’s passport, credit cards and cash were missing from the top of his pack; the pack top container was unzipped so his valuables may have fallen out but we don’t understand why the top was undone. And I can’t remember the state of the pack when I retrieved it.
More on this post to follow but bed is calling