Climbing in its most natural way everybody can do. You do it barefoot without any help of shoes neater of chalk. You don’t even have to use a rope, a harness or a belay bunny. You’re free to move wherever you want; up, down, left, right. One thing you have to keep in mind is where you will climb. Not everybody is willing to climb free and solo at a height of 10 up to 500 meters like some of the climbers out there. The safest way to climb so naturally is above the water. The amazing sport of Deep Water Soloing gives us the possibility to climb whatever you want wherever you want to climb, as long as it is above deep enough water.
In 2008 I made a trip towards Mallorca where I climbed the first time above the water, I was excided but since then I never made a Deep Water Solo trip anymore up to last month of August. Together with a team existing out of 4 British climbers I went towards Vietnams Ha Long Bay and Lan Ha Bay. One of them was George Ullrich, the crazy Brit that joint the Venezuela expedition in 2012. When he asked me in February to join the Vietnam DWS trip I didn’t hesitate much to make a decision. Our team existing out of Jake Rogers, Matthew Burdekin , Liam Lonsdale, George Ullrich and myself had a specific goal. We knew the area existed out of a million small islands with a lot of limestone rock faces, sometimes above the water and sometimes not. Our goal was to search and find new yet unclimbed rock faces that we could climb up to a proper height above the water. We did research about the already developed crags or all the places climbers had been. Next thing we selected some areas, which we had no information of and assumed no climber had been there yet, to explore on our fourteen-day journey on a boat.
Epic journey …
We rented a boat in Cat Bá Island relying on the outdoor company Asian Outdoors. The boat itself was from a small company of Vietnamese in Cat Bá. First, George and I had some epic time getting on Cat Bá Island while the rest of the team was already there. After George missed his connection flight in Helsinki he arrived 12 hours later in Hanoi, Vietnam. But still we couldn’t make our way to Cat Bá Island because Finnair lost my bag in Helsinki. We both had to spent one day extra in the big chaotic city of Hanoi waiting for my bag, which finally arrived about one day and a half after I arrived in Hanoi. After all it wasn’t that bad. Getting from Hanoi to Cat Bá Island we had to take some busses and a boat. Normally not a big deal but this day a storm was hitting the island and the main land with the result a lot of the transitions were cancelled. We ended up being hassled in Hai Phong, where we would take the boat to Cat Bá Island, by the Vietnamese boat business guys who each told us their boat would go but finally didn’t. The Vietnamese are friendly people but when they see western travellers they try to take advantage of them. It’s hard to ask for help because they just want to survive and make money so every question you ask them that hasn’t anything to do with their business they wont always answer. It is frustrating as a traveller but you cannot blame them for trying to survive. So at least we could leave Hai Phong the same day we arrived there but we ended up paying a lot more then we should have. Those are the mistakes you sometimes make travelling through a foreign country with another culture.
Discovering our environment
Once we were on Cat Bá Island we didn’t have to wait much longer anymore. The next day early in the morning we left the main land and loaded our bags on the Lan Ha Cruiser, the boat that would be our house for the following 14 days. The five land rats where impressed about the size of the boat. When you enter the boat from the front and go inside you first pass the dining table and captains wheel. Further on we had two rooms with in every room two beds and a bathroom. Yes you read it well; we had a shower on the boat, luxury. The boat had water reservoirs to provide the team of running water. During the trip we run out quite a bit of water what made us go back to the main bay, Bai Traï Dau, close to Cat Bá Island to get water from a big water tank boat. In the back of the boat was the kitchen, the place where the magic happened. With a 40 litre jar of the main ingredient for all dishes, oil, greasy! The place where we’ve spent a lot of time was the deck. The deck of the boat was big and perfect for sleeping, chilling, playing chess, searching for crags and crazy lightning parties in the rain.
First thing we got to meet the boat crew existing out of a local guide, a cook, a captain and the captain of the little boat, basket boat. Our local guide is an amazing kid named Than, he’s 20 years old and only climbs since one and a half year. The special thing about this funny guide is that he’s a motivated bastard that climbs always barefoot. Than has a pair of shoes that are 4 sizes to big. If he uses them he likes them a lot, it’s like barefoot climbing but with rubber protection… crazy little Vietnamese he is.
Than knows the area around Lan Ha bay quite well. The first days he showed us around the best crags. We climbed some of the established DWS lines and sport routes. In the start of the trip we did some sport climbing because the tides of the water were to low for DWS. It’s important to always check the tides and the depth of the water. The sport climbing around the islands is pretty good, a lot of different styles and limestone rock types. The only thing is that there is never one area with more than a handful of routes. They also are not always easy to access. But we didn’t came al the way to Vietnam for sport climbing, so soon we moved on when the tides were better towards the DWS cliffs and took our time to get used to the climbing and the height above the water.
DWS climbing is a different thing. I remember the first day quite well; ‘Shit, I’m not going to be able to commit for hard moves high above the water.’ But after only one day the DWS headspace came back. You’re a free climber, you can climb where you want and as high as you want. It’s an amazing feeling once you’re comfortable with the height and falling into the water. You can follow the obvious lines in the wall, whether they traverse 10 meters to the left or right, if it’s a clear line you can follow it and you’re not limited by the bolts. In the start we had to learn how to fall down into the water without getting hurt. The perfect splashdown is to fall with a relaxed body using your arms to stay in balance and then finally hit the water feet first and with your arms against the body. It’s an amazing feeling when you can climb 15 to 20 meters as a free man to the most obvious top out.
In the mean time I got to know my crew a little bit better. From the start the British humour filled up the air with a good atmosphere. Slowly I adjusted my American English accent to the British North Wales accent and was able to understand my British friends a little better. With Liam as a stand-up comedian full of shit, Matt the big guy who never turns his back to the funniest idea’s, Jake the tactful joker, George the team leader and Than our impressive barefoot climber and social guide we climbed almost every single day of our trip and had a good time on the boat. Mornings filled our stomach with western food like white bread and condensed milk with sometimes some rice bread what we called ‘rice pillows’. This breakfast wasn’t very popular with the team but still it did its job and filled us up every morning. Lunch and dinner existed out of typical Vietnamese food with rice and lots of fried veggies, meat and fish. In the beginning very popular within the team but after several days the oily food started to work bad on our stomachs. We asked for less fried food what we got, but still I think our Vietnamese cook wasn’t used to cook things without frying them. After all we couldn’t complain that much when you’re served two weeks long on a boat.
Our first exploring trips
After some days of climbing established routes we grabbed a map of the islands of Lan Ha and Ha Long bay and pointed some spots out to our captain of which we wanted to search for potential DWS cliffs. With our ‘slow’ boat we moved along the cliffs. The first few days of exploring we stayed close to developed areas. Close to the famous Ba Trai Dào we found what we called ‘Cashew Cove’
, an area with three main walls that we climbed all new routes on. On the ‘Corner wall’ George and I had been trying an amazing athletic line with several big moves up to the crux at a height of 8 to 10 meters. We both fell every time in the same move, which we tried several times in different ways. This is the difficult thing in DWS climbing, it’s like the old school Yoyo-climbing style where you when you fall have to climb al the way to your previous high point again to try the crux. It’s not possible to work the moves for a next attempt. You’re basically always on sighting as soon as you pass your high point, definitely when nobody has ever climbed there. George and I tried this project over and over again but without any success. We ended up doing really long moves to crazy slopers that we couldn’t hold. At the end I went up the cliff on the left side and found a traverse above our high point of the project, now I could see the holds and I concluded this would be a very hard line to climb as a DWS line. Up to the crux the project is definitely an amazing 7c+ worth to try.
We found more amazing climbing in the area of ‘The Face’, an amazing flowstone face with two nice 7b/+ sport climbs. One of the walls we found we called ‘Razorblade wall’. On this one we climbed a fun dyno low above the water which leads towards a series of long dynamic moves on a steep wall. On the right of this classic we found another project. Every time each of us climbed a little higher on the project up to the point where I grabbed a crucial hold that broke and spit me off. This is how the climbing was like during this DWS exploring trip. Every route you climb is new and the rock has never been touched before. Often you’re climbing slow and steady searching for the right hold to get your way up. Sometimes the holds didn’t feel solid but you still have to trust them and go for it. This project we left behind because of the super sharp rock and because we had to move on.
First ascent and on sight climbing
Climbing on rock that has never been climbed on is always exciting. But when you climb on virgin rock above the water and you never now when the rock will break it’s even more of a head game! This trip taught me a lot about first ascent climbing and searching for new holds and lines. I started to develop my eye for finding the best and most logical lines and when you find and climb them it’s such a good and satisfying feeling. At the start of the trip I climbed still insecure and hesitated a lot about what was coming but also because of the free air underneath me. Instead of hesitating you need to climb quick and try not to waist too much time searching for holds. I noticed that when I wasn’t scared to fall anymore I felt stronger and could climb better. I started to commit for hard moves without thinking about falling deep into the water, that’s when I knew I started liking DWS climbing even more. You get into a flow and the only way is up!
Search and Find
During this trip we’ve spend a lot of time on the boat driving through al kind of bays searching for the perfect crag. We found a lot of small crags with also nice lines but we wanted to find a big area with good rock and a lot of potential lines and projects. Exploring can be tiring and despaired. We had days we searched whole island groups but couldn’t find a single good wall that could get us excited. After some days of searching it’s important to keep the head up and not lose the hope to find a wall.
The time had come… One morning we woke up another day at 5 am, woke our captain and put him behind the wheel for a new exploring trip. That day we were going up North-east of Cat Bá Island in Ha Long Bay. This is when we found an amazing wall that at first didn’t look like it had many lines on it but finally we managed to climb about 10 lines with 3 more projects and much more potential. This wall we called ‘Hueco Wall’ due to the many big basin-like forms in the wall. Even before 7 am we climbed the first 15-meter line on the wall and were psyched to climb them all. We ended up climbing about three days on this wall discovering lines every minute. The climbing style is funky with a lot of knee bars and compression moves on pinches and slopy holds. The lines we opened we graded between 6c and 7c/+ with potential for some more and maybe harder. Hueco Wall is definitely a wall that will become popular in the future of Ha Long Bay DWS.
The sea and its creatures!
On the first day at Hueco Wall I climbed a line called ‘Zues’s sea snake’. The climb got its name thanks to the situation after I climbed it. As soon as I dropped into the water from the top of the climb my team members on the boat started yelling at me to swim quickly to the boat. I followed their advice until they started yelling even more and told me to swim back to the rock and climb on again. I followed their advice again without really knowing what I was doing. A little worried but still thinking they were pulling my leg I swam to the rock and climbed back on a ledge. When I stood on the ledge and turned around I saw a sea snake swimming really fast with his head sticking out towards the rock about ten meters away from me were it slid up into a hole 30 cm above the water surface. A scary moment I’ll never forget. Afterwards the basket boat driver told us a bite of this kind of snakes is deadly and you will not have much time to survive. I realise I was pretty lucky. The team was a little shut down after this incident but still we managed to climb on. Since then, every time someone fell into the water the jokes stopped and we looked out for more of those deadly sea animals.
The sea snake we saw only once, but what we did see many times were jellyfish. Most of the times we could see the jellyfish and were able to avoid them when we were in the water. We always relied on each other to swim back to the boat waiting for our team members to give you an update of where the jellyfish are. In the start you’re scared of them but after a while you start to get used they are there. At places with lots of jellyfish it was important always to look down at the water before you jump of to make sure they were not floating around underneath you.
Arm wrestling as recuperation activity
Going back to the mainland we discovered some of the Vietnamese culture. Walking along the street we passed many karaoke bars with dozens of hyperactive Vietnamese singing and screaming. Matt took their attention with his tall stature and they dragged us in. What should have happened then, didn’t happen. Instead of singing gay music we ended up in a game of arm wrestling. First Matt started off with two Vietnamese guys. Then I was next, I had never done any arm wrestling before but I was going wild against those strong little bastards. I ended up beating 6 Vietnamese guys, where after my arms fell off. After me it was Liam’s turn, he stole the show taking off his t-shirt and making the hyperactive Vietnamese even wilder. We were like some foreign heroes for them that evening and ended up on pictures on all their smart phones.
The DWS exploring trip in Vietnam was a great experience. We searched and searched a long time and I’m happy to say we found some great walls and amazing climbs with good rock. Although the contrast with my month of alpine climbing in Chamonix was pretty big I could get used to the climbing and the lifestyle on the boat. I have to say I still prefer the mountains with its traditional climbing. But still, this was an amazing trip. As long as there is a head game going on in climbing I’m satisfied, and so it was with Deep Water Soloing.
I still want to thank Jake, Liam, George, Matt and Than for their amazing company and the good time we had! It was a bunch of crazy wanckers on a boat, climbing every single day above the water in an amazing environment with an amazing atmosphere. We searched and found new crags and climbs. Every new route and crag we developed has been written down and turned into a guidebook with pictures, the drawings of the climbs with an explanation and all the information necessary to go out there and repeat our routes! I will soon post the guide on my blog. I highly recommend a trip like this if you like sea, sun, a foreign culture and some high climbing above the water.