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Ropeless on Ha Long Bay

By Chris Lindner ■

Photos by Brian Solano

Vietnam is different. Different from America, different from Europe, and unique even within Southeast Asia. Isolated under the communist rule that took hold in 1975 after the end of the "American War," Vietnam didn't reopen its doors until the early 1990s. Since then, tourism and trade are up, ^ but today's visitors will still find a mostly non-globalized culture, amusingly peppered with 1990s artifacts like New Kids on the Block posters, white jeans, denim vests, and mullets.

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Nothing's going on except what you see here: hard moves above a blue-green sea. The peace of mind you feel in this mysterious waterworld surpasses any I've felt.

wraps around the eastern side of the Indochina Peninsula, opposite Thailand, with the South China Sea to its east. Although on an economic upswing, Vietnam is still a single-party communist state and has a human-rights record that remains "poor," according to the U.S. Department of State. Restrictions on speech, the press, assembly, and freedom of association still muzzle dissent. About 85 percent of the population practices Buddhism, though this manifests more subtly, in world views of peace and acceptance, rather than in the overt displays found in other Asian countries. During our visit, we didn't see a single person meditating in lotus position or even any prominent temples.

Nowhere is Vietnam more peaceful than in Ha Long Bay, the country's climbing destination. Encompassing roughly 2,000 monolithic limestone islets along the edge of the South China Sea, Ha Long was designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1994 and has been nominated as one of the world's seven Natural Wonders. It is home to approximately 1,600 floating residents who cluster in protected sub-bays. From Hanoi, a cheap five-hour public-transit ride takes you east to Cat Ba, where boats reach the bay via its southern entrance.

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JELLYFISH ARE AT THEIR WORST during the tidal transitions. No matter how often you check, by the time you fall, a new raft of tentacles has likely flowed beneath you. Here, Joe leaps clear of the sting zone.

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Long legend recounts that when the locals were fighting Chinese invaders hundreds of years ago, the gods sent a family of dragons to defend the early founders of Vietnam. During the battle the dragons spat jewels and jade into the ocean, and the remnant projectiles are now the islets of Ha Long — literally, "Descending Dragon" — Bay.

More than 20 years after U.S. forces pulled out, the first North American climbers showed up in Vietnam. Realizing Ha Long's staggering potential during a non-climbing visit, the late, great Todd Skinner led the charge. A master organizer, Skinner put together a return trip with a talented and high-profile team, including Lynn Hill, Paul Piana, and Scott Milton, who established 22 routes (up to 5.13+) in less than two weeks. To maximize efficiency, each climber rope-soloed out of his/her boat, bolting ground-up. Later, Ha Long Bay saw visits from deep water soloing (DWS) pioneers such as Klem Loskot, Tim Emmett, and others.

Our trip came about when my girlfriend, Jodi, decided to assist a Vietnamese friend on a trip to do dental work at Hanoi's orphanages. When Jodi mentioned going to Vietnam, the first thing that popped into my mind was deep water soloing in Ha Long Bay. A pair of climbers I knew, who call themselves "Slo Pony," had started a guiding business there. I enlisted my old friend Joe Brooks, a former pro climber turned real estate agent who'd taken a hiatus from the sport, and a couple days later, phoned the filmmaker/photographer Brian Solano. All came together, and we planned a three-week visit for October.

About five years ago, the Slo Pony guys — Onslo Carrington (Slo), originally from the West Indies, and Erik Ferjentsik (Pony), from the East Coast — showed up in Vietnam with the intention of starting a guiding outfit on Cat Ba, the bay's largest island. "We wanted to develop a destination in a safe, sustainable manner," says Ferjentsik, "and preserve the area for climbers and budget travelers." The pair envisioned an Eden of beaches that hadn't become resort-ridden like some of the Thailand climbing areas. First, though, they had to obtain permission from authorities to A) be the first foreigners to live on Cat Ba, B) start a business, and C) legitimately bolt, climb, and guide throughout the bay. It took

Eldrid Belay Instructions

I'd HEARD CLIMBERS LAMENT Ha Long's lack of "topouts" or logical finishing points. It is true the walls don't round out at a user-friendly 50 feet, like in Mallorca—they instead rise about 75 to 150 feet, with the upper sections thick with vegetation. Still, I knew exactly when I was done, usually at any ledge or jug close to the 50-foot mark.

Success on the ultimate "glove climb" of the trip—a long, wildly steep cave of stalactites covered with seeping slime from a recent typhoon.

Success on the ultimate "glove climb" of the trip—a long, wildly steep cave of stalactites covered with seeping slime from a recent typhoon.

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a /ourney, through Vietnamese paperwork, as well as perilous interviews with various authorities.

For the most part, the "interviews" involved handing out bribes, drinking excessively with the locals, and consuming "exotic" cuisine such as curdled goat's blood with peanuts, chicken fetus, chicken feet, and once, says Ferjentsik, "some rice wine with a bird in it — like the whole bird, feathers and all." Refusing the fare might have killed the deal, so Pony suffered through the drinking while Slo took on the eating. Their motivation to learn Vietnamese improved their chances with the authorities and also helped them gain respect among the locals, something still plainly evident if you walk with either of them through the markets. Soon, Slo Pony gained traction and the new-routing began. The team established several beautiful new sectors, so Ha Long Bay now has everything from land-locked climbs on Cat Ba Island, to cliffs rising from private beaches, to belay-from-your-boat cliffs. Slo Pony also re-bolted many of the corroded classics from the 1996 Skinner trip. In their 2009 guidebook, they document around 200 sport climbs, plus many DWS areas.

DWS hunting is time-consuming, since the bay is huge and both the junk boats and the short-distance dinghies top out around seven miles per hour. We often lived on a boat for several days at a time, sleeping throughout the bay's "safe zones" — sub-bays sparsely populated with floating residents—thus reducing the chance of pirates boarding our ship at night.

Ha Long Bay's waters have dismal visibility — no more than 10 feet—so we sounded the depths by dragging a weighted cordelette along the sea floor. Ten feet of water was doable for climbs up to 30 feet, but anything taller needed at least 15 feet of water. (continued on p.79)

Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly,

- Robert F. Kennedy

Baffin Bay Sea FloorBaffin Island Residents
A Baffin Island Odyssey

By Stefan Glowacz (with Tom Dauer) Photos by Klaus Fengler

Neil Hopkins
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Quernbiter

We should hAve been content, hAppy even. For days we had been climbing on this wall. For days our world had been tilted vertical. For days we had labored, suffered, feared, and hoped. Now we had reached the highest point of the "Bastions," a granite tower on the east coast of Baffin Island that rose 700 meters from the ice.

The wind had lulled as we sat in the sun on the summit plateau. No human had been here before us and looked out from here over the Buchan Gulf, over the Cambridge and Quernbiter fjords, and the Icy Arm. In the east, the flow edge marked the boundary between the ice pack and open sea. And further out, beyond Baffin Bay, lay Greenland. For more than an hour we enjoyed the view, the peace. Then we started to rappel. A load should have fallen from our shoulders now.

But Klaus Fengler, Holger Heuber, Mariusz Hoffmann, Robert Jasper, and I knew very well that our lives depended on an unreliable fundament. We had no more than 20 days to reach Clyde River, 350 kilometers away, each of us lugging a 75-kilogram pulka over melting ice.

Looking out the window of the small Twin Otter, I felt like I was staring into a giant freezer. I realized that you can't only feel the cold, but you can also see it. For hours we had been flying over a shimmering surface of snow and jumbled fjords. We were on the way to the high north of Baffin Island, beyond the polar circle, to the end of the world and an environment not made for humans.

Our thermometer showed minus-29 degrees Celsius when the expedition team climbed out of the turboprop machine at Pond Inlet. After a few breaths, the dry, cold air started to burn in our lungs. On the way down to the settlement, it was so cold our noses began to bleed. All the same, children were playing in the ice-covered streets, the fur collars of their jackets wide open. Nobody was wearing a hat. This was, said the Inuit, the first warm day after a long, hard winter, the beginning of spring.

About 1,500 people live at Pond Inlet, one of the northernmost settlements in Canada. The Tununermiut who live here call the Pond Inlet "Mittimatalik." Their houses stand in rows like grey, green, and yellow matchboxes. Beyond the bay, the glaciers and snow-capped mountains of Bylot Island seem to be standing on the ice pack.

Vikings Landing Greenland

Even before the Viking Leif Eriksson sailed from Greenland to the coast of Baffin Island in the summer of 1001, the local Inuit had brought their kayaks to water at what was now the "landing place" of Pond Inlet. They hunted for seals and whales. They chopped holes in the ice to fish in winter. They followed the herds of the caribou through the arctic tundra. They lived in igloos and sealskin tents. Their nomadic life was tough, but they managed to survive. The island, fifth largest in the world, was later named after the British explorer William Baffin, who had sailed along the south coast of the island in 1615. He was followed by the brave captains Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, John Ross, William Edward Parry, John Franklin, Robert McClure, and Roald Amundsen, who on their quest for the Northwest Passage also explored the coastal shape of Baffin Island.

It took until the nineteenth century, however, for Pond Inlet to become a signifi cant port, when an increasing number of whalers became active in Baffin Bay. A lively trade developed between the sailors and the Inuit, and the white wooden cross with the figure of Christ on the hill high above the village gives proof that it did not take long for the first missionaries to arrive in the high North.

After seafarers, traders, and clergymen, it is now climbers who make Baffin Island their goal. The simple reason: the vast potential of unclimbed rock walls. Only 15 years back, photographer Eugene Fisher made this fact known to the small world of expedition climbers. After surveying Baffin Island by plane and bringing back a thorough photographic documentation, Fisher wrote: "Under the polar sun lies an island, forgotten by time and untouched by men. Double the size of Great Britain, this giant of the north guards a wonderful secret. 560 kilometers to the north of the polar circle, the coast of Baffin Island is formed by wild fjords and glaciated valleys, hiding some of the highest and steepest rock walls of the world... It is almost unbelievable that in a time without boundaries such a vast, unexplored arena is waiting for the coming generation of climbers."

Pond Iniet

We liNGEREd in PoNd Iniet for fivE dAys to get used to the cold that crept into our bones. We had 750 kilograms of material to sort into 35 packsacks—freeze-dried food, shoes, climbing gear, tents, sleeping bags, skis, and kites—and we had information to gather: on the best route south over the ice, following the coast to the rock walls in the Buchan Gulf and further down to Clyde River. Not even the oldest Inuit had ever strayed so far from their settlement. But they could help all the same. Bending deeply over our map, they instructed us about the ice of winter, its thickness, its expanse. The Inuit language, Inuktitut, has a word for this knowledge: qaujimajatuqangit. It stands for experience that has been passed on from generation to generation, imperative for their survival in the ice.

We wanted to advance by dog sleds to the fjords fraying the east coast of Baffin Island—a romantic concept that has nothing to do with the real life of the Inuit. They moved over the ice on motor sleds, or "skidoos." Only the luggage is transported on old sledges, or qamutiiks, whose long wooden skis are loosely tied to the horizontal stays so the sleighs can torque without breaking.

Packed into down jackets, hands protected by thick gloves and caps pulled down deeply over our foreheads, we squatted on the qamutiiks. Our journey took five days. Five days of freezing. And being jarred continuously on the uneven surface of the ice. Tossed up by maritime currents and winds, the sea formed meter-high barriers of ice floes, freshly fallen snow, and crevasses: rough ice, on which the qamutiiks regularly tipped over, having to be righted and newly packed.

Quernbiter

It almost felt like deliverance when we finally started to get close to our goal, the Buchan Gulf. There, up to thousand-meter-high rock walls were said to grow out of the water. In 1937, a British expedition assigned by the Royal Geographical Society to explore and survey the Canadian Arctic sailed into this bay. One of the fjords was christened "Quernbiter" by the scientists. This was the name of the legendary sword given to King Haakon of Norway (920-961), a sword with a handle of pure gold and so sharp that its owner cold split a millstone. And there could not have been a more suitable name for the Quernbiter Fjord, whose smooth walls seem to have been cut by the sharp blade of a mythical sword. No doubt that in this magic place, a worthy goal was waiting for us. At the beginning of our adventure. we had no way of knowing if we would find a rock face that suited our expectations. We wanted a wall as high as possible, as steep as possible, and as featureless as possible. We were not certain at all that such a wall existed. But we were prepared to set out, to expose ourselves to the cold, the ice, and the sea because of our enthusiasm for these undiscovered regions, hoping to add a small but interesting chapter to the history of discoveries.

We were not disappointed. Entering Buchan Gulf, we immediately saw the Bastions, whose south face looked as if it had been smoothed with sand paper. Like a shark's fin, it jutted out of the ice, vertical from the first meter.

There are almost 30 climbing routes in the 26 fjords of Baffin Island's east coast. In the summer of 2008, however, we were the only team visiting the northern fjords of Baffin Island. In comparison to the vast camps of Himalayan expeditions, our three tents on the meager ice crust were a sorry sight. Wasting little time, we established one pitch after the other, gaining between 50 and 150 meters a day. We climbed up shaky flakes and crept over smooth slabs, wedging our fingers, hands, shoulders and entire bodies into cracks—after extricating the ice. In the evenings, we fixed the ropes at the highest point, and rapped to the frozen sea. There we could more or less recuperate and wait out the storms that raged over Baffin Bay, gathering speed unhindered on their way over the ice until they slammed against the wall of the Bastions. On such a day, any thought of climbing was preposterous. Even on fine days it remained cold, but luckily, on the wall itself, the rock heated up to create a favorable microclimate of about zero degrees Celsius.

About two-thirds up the wall, a girdle of iron crystals wrapped the Bastions like a rusty belt. It was about half a meter wide, enough to stand on but too narrow for sleeping. We set up our portaledges to spend the following three nights here. When one of us turned over, another thought he would fall out of the ledge. Everything somehow had to be tied to the rock, including the stove on which we arduously melted snow, hauled up from the icy surface in countless packsacks.

(continued on pg. 76)

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Exum Mountain Guitfes: Molly Loofflis and Andy Tyson Location: Cmar, Arabian Peninsula Photographer: Gabe Ftogel

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Exum Mountain Guitfes: Molly Loofflis and Andy Tyson Location: Cmar, Arabian Peninsula Photographer: Gabe Ftogel

Andy Tyson Big Scary Eagle

TALES FROM COLORADO'S UNIQUELY SCARY BIG WALLS

he goal was to arrive at the rim in time to peer over the edge by daylight. We missed it by hours, but jumped out of the car in the middle of the night and rushed to glimpse the depths. At the North Chasm View Overlook that first time, in the dark, 18 years ago, my cocky enthusiasm turned rapidly to trepidation.

We planned to climb the Cruise, a 15-pitch 5.10 classic entailing offwidths, thin cracks, and route-finding cruxes. As I looked over the rail at the starlit ribbon of whitewater buried within the velvety blackness, 5.10 suddenly meant more than just gymnastic difficulty. It would be the only way to get out of that hole.

The next morning, after a half-hour of thrashing down the Cruise Gully, I promised myself the Cruise would be my first and last climb in the Black. We missed the first pitch and hiked almost to the river before discovering our mistake.

Once we were on the rock, however, the place cast its spell. The experience was vaguely alpine, with the sense of unknown adventure and intimidation, but heat was more of an issue than cold. We wore T-shirts and rock shoes, slamming in fingerlocks and crimping ebony edges. The wall was big. Black Canyon climbers call this rockaneering, and I quickly understood why.

I did return, and at belays, as I climbed the classics, I always found myself staring at the nearby walls, at dead-end cracks on blank faces, wondering if anyone had been there. The Black reeked of mystery. It rarely appeared in the climbing media, then or now. With no climb harder than 5.12 until recently, there was little to interest famous sponsored climbers, yet the Black was mostly way too gnarly for casual trad climbers. So both elite and recreational climbers stay away.

First-ascent climbing in the Black is unique. The stone changes many times along most routes, and the bottom of the canyon contains some of the oldest exposed rock on Earth. Nature's routesetters have been at it a while. Random cracks, just long enough to hold a jam and a bomber nut or cam, materialize out of the shadows, then disappear. Lines can be splintered like a broken windshield, leaving a hundred ways to stray.

In the mid-1990s, Scott Lazar, Kent Wheeler, Seth Shaw, and Tim Wagner climbed a couple of the blankest faces, and in the late 1990s, a baker's dozen of Colorado's and Utah's finest adventure climbers took the baton. Folks like Jeff Achey, Jonny Copp, Leonard Coyne, Andy Donson, Jeff Hollenbaugh, Steve Levin, Jason Nelson, Jared Ogden, Mike Pennings, Vera Schulte-Pelkum, Zach Smith, Robert Warren, Josh Wharton, and Heidi Wirtz quietly helped themselves to huge, unclimbed lines. I wager that, over the past decade, more new routes of 1,000 feet or longer have been done in the Black than at any other area in the country.

While helping myself to the virgin rock, I took a lot of bad photos, most with a point-and-shoot clipped to my harness and a few with a big camera while rapping over the rim. These are the best of the rude collection, which involved a dozen first ascents, thousands of miles of driving, poison ivy in the underwear, and a tequila bottle stashed near the river to ease the pain of repeated failures. Consider them the "Black Canyon outtakes" — snapped while doing what it takes, in the Black, to get out.

CANYON

OUTTAKES

Story and Photos by Topher Donahue

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