It was almost 10 p.m. when Volker Schöffl heard the phone ringing in his hotel room in Thakhek, Laos. The 51-year-old German doctor had just returned from a night working under a headlamp, bolting a new rock climbing route in the jungle eight miles outside the dusty border town where he was staying. He was dirty, tired, and hungry, but the call was coming from the head of surgery at nearby Khammouane Provincial Hospital. A patient was suffering from an intracerebral hemorrhage and Volker was needed in the operating room right away.
“Coming back from climbing and getting called into the hospital happens. It’s part of our lives,” Volker says. As an orthopedic surgeon specializing in trauma and sports medicine, he and his wife Isabelle, a pediatrician, are veteran climbers who have often experienced this dichotomy. “It’s difficult because part of the day you spend playing around and climbing, and then you’re struck by the hard reality of somebody possibly dying in your hands,” he explains.
The pair live in Frankenjura, the climbing capital of Germany, and serve as team physicians to the nation’s climbing team. They are also both expert climbers, completing routes graded up to 5.13d on the Yosemite Decimal System.
A legacy of war
Volker began volunteering at hospitals in Laos for months at a time in 2002. In those days, an armed-guard escort was required as he searched for places to climb and ventured into remote areas that were still experiencing combat decades after the Laotian Civil War had officially ended.
“I literally had a day climbing at the cliff and two kilometers away there was an ambush where 13 people were killed on the road,” he recalls. “It was basically a war zone, and there were very few tourists there.” Working at a hospital north of the capital city of Vientiane, gunshot wounds were a daily occurrence and victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO) were all too common.
Though it’s excluded from many history textbooks, UXOs in Laos are the result of the United States’ military campaign there during the 1960s and 70s. More than two million tons of bombs were dropped throughout the country by the U.S., targeting a communist faction, the Pathet Lao, as well as North Vietnamese forces on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a strategic supply route that crossed the border between the two countries. According to Legacies of War, a U.S.-based organization that raises awareness about UXOs in Laos, up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode on impact and remain a danger to civilians.
Climbing arrives in Thakhek
A few years after Volker started volunteering, Isabelle, who was still completing her pediatrician training, made her first trip to Laos. She immediately fell in love with the country, but after several trips, the notorious, backpacker-driven party scene in Vang Vieng, which served as their base, became increasingly bothersome. When their good friend Inthy Deuansavanh, the owner of eco-tourism company Green Discovery Laos, proposed a trip to the south, they jumped at the opportunity. In Thakhek, the couple found a quiet, charming former colonial town—and, on the outskirts, endless limestone karst formations. Strewn with towering rock faces and stalactite-covered walls, the landscape was a rock climbers’ dream.
In 2010, the pair returned with a group of friends and, with Deuansavanh’s help securing government permission, scoured the area for rocks to climb. Eventually, they found a valley with walls that could be enjoyed by the entire group, which ranged from beginners to late climbing legend Kurt Albert.
“Everybody had their own section of rock where they would bolt, and then we’d get together and try each other’s routes,” recalls Isabelle. “We had our routine going out there and buying watermelons on the way. At night, we’d all go out and drink and have a laugh.” After bolting 50 routes in two weeks, their trip was featured in the German climbing magazine Klettern and word soon spread that the sport had arrived in Thakhek.
Another kind of medicine
At the same time, the couple began volunteering at Khammouane Provincial Hospital, where they found well-trained doctors who lacked adequate equipment. Khamtay Phommachanh, head of surgery, had studied in France for three years and recalls when the Schöffls first arrived. “We could only treat some types of fractures. We didn’t have enough medical equipment to provide good care for patients,” says Phommachanh. The first year, he gave Volker a three-page list of what was needed, including femur plates, bone screws, external fixators, and a surgical drill. Within a year, every item was at the hospital.
“I was lucky because, at that time in Germany, we changed our implants from steel to titanium,” says Volker. “A lot of the hospitals had a sh**load of steel plates and screws leftover, and nobody wanted them. I could ship those over, but the drill was always the problem because they are really expensive.”
His solution was to purchase a Bosch drill from the hardware store, but the rubber would melt when put into the autoclave for sterilization. Forced to be resourceful, Volker learned a different technique to sterilize the drill. He used formaldehyde vapor, copying a practice used by nurses in East Germany in the 1950s. “Of course, [using this method] doesn’t really make you happy as a surgeon trained in Europe, but on the other hand, the infection rates we’re having there are not so much higher than here [in Germany],” he says.
For Isabelle, the work has largely been a matter of introducing pediatrics, which was virtually nonexistent upon their arrival. “I’ve managed to bring over a respirator to help infants who are not breathing on their own, but this is still too advanced I think,” she shares. “I’m really looking to get them more informed about what sicknesses there are, what they should be looking out for, and what the parents can do. It’s about education.”
In a country where the infant mortality rate remains at a grim 49 deaths per 1,000 births, according to The World Bank, it’s a difficult undertaking, though she’s able to see the rewarding side. “It’s another type of medicine, another view in life,” says Isabelle. “If I don’t work here [in Germany] someone else can do my job just as well. But there, the parents are thankful and bring you fish or invite you to dinner. It’s a totally different appreciation that you get.”
Over the years, Phommachanh estimates that the couple has provided the hospital with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies through their foundation, Medizinhilfe Laos, including an operating table, a C-arm X-ray machine, and a proper surgical drill. Their 2017 trip to Thakhek was captured in the award-winning documentary Of Rocks and Needles.
More cliffs to climb
Meanwhile, the valley they discovered nearly a decade ago has emerged as one of Southeast Asia’s top climbing destinations. After reading of their expedition in Klettern, another German couple contacted the Schöffls and worked with Deuansavanh to further develop the climbing area. Today, there’s a low-key homestay located in the valley, Green Climbers Home, that draws over 2,000 climbers a year, provides access to 400 bolted routes, and employs 30 local staff. The town, too, has seen its own transformation in recent years, with new hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants that cater to Western travelers.
While their trips to Laos are focused more on the hospital and less on climbing these days, Volker sees immense potential for further development of the sport as the country looks to reshape its identity into an adventure tourism destination. “There are so many more cliffs that could be bolted,” he says. “But I don’t know how many people are out there who are so adventurous to look for new areas and do it.”