Outdoor Education

Part 3: Butterfly Valley

By Wilderness Adventures May 5, 2023
Man rock climbing in a cave smiling at the camera.

Part 3 of the 2022 Ultimate Staff Contest Blog Series

Waking up in Cat Ba it was hard to believe that I was really living out my dream. Before we started our first day of climbing, we stopped by the local guide office, Cat Ba Climbing, to ask for any updated info on climbing areas. We were greeted at the front desk by Julie (who later would come to my rescue…). She gave us the rundown of the local spots, suggested we check out Butterfly Valley, and let us rent a climbing helmet for free (because I forgot mine back in Vermont). While at first Chris gave me a hard time about forgetting my helmet, it became integral to our trip, as it gave us an excuse to stop by the office every morning and afternoon and get to know the guides and other climbers. 

The journey to Butterfly Valley was as much an adventure as the climbing. Being a little more than 6 miles outside of town, we decided to find more efficient transit than the heel-toe express. Two mopeds later (for only $15!), we were on our way to the most jaw-dropping cliffs I’ve ever seen. 

The drive to Butterfly Valley was as much an adventure as the climbing. We motored along a narrow dirt road which wound through mountains lush with dense trees and overhanging vines, through small villages edged by swaths of green. The road ended at the edge of a grazing pasture. On the other side loomed the towering cliff faces of Butterfly Valley: Dragon Cave, Upper Mantle,  Center of the Universe, and most intimidating of all, Cool Banana. We drove our mopeds across the field, past grazing bulls, directly to the opening of Dragon Cave. 

Trail leading to Dragon Cave rock climbing area in Vietnam

Butterfly Valley is the largest and most popular crag on the island, so we were surprised to have the place entirely to ourselves that day. As I approached the cliffs I was speechless. The limestone was heavily featured with large cracks, massive pockets, and tufas, which are massive mineral deposits formed from dissolved limestone. They take the form of stalactites clinging to overhangs and dimpled ribs studding vertical faces. They resemble the texture of sand drip castles.

After doing a few warmup climbs, I decided to challenge myself on a climb called Where the Wild Things Aren’t. The starting hold was the most beautiful rock feature I’ve held. It was a tufa the shape of a bottom lip, about two feet by two feet. Flake, jug, sloper, undercling, pinch – there was no wrong way to hold it. 

Close up of hand hold on a limestone rock climbing wall.

An easy start, but from there things got hairy. It was a long route, nearly 100 feet, and after struggling immensely to get about three quarters of the way to the top I reached the crux. I fell half a dozen times, taking the same whipper over and over. I was ready to give up and told Chris he would have to finish the route and get our gear down. There was no way I could make it to the anchor. But he refused to lower me. He told me to take a few breaths and give it one more attempt. I could barely flex my fingers, but I got back on the wall for one final push. I was completely pumped and couldn’t grip the rock any longer, so I resorted to awkwardly jamming anything I could into cracks and pockets – a fist here, a knee there, even my entire arm into one crack. I prayed that I wouldn’t find any snakes or spiders lurking in the pockets. Eventually I made the final moves and clipped the anchor. Victory! As I hung from the anchor, fingers numb and bleeding, I remembered the first climbing trip I ever went on, and the experience that made me fall in love with climbing: I was climbing above my grade, and before I even put my harness on I had convinced myself that getting to the top was impossible. Just like today, I made it partway and was ready to give up and come down. My belayer, one of the guides for the trip, told me she wouldn’t let me down just yet. To give it one more try. One more try. One move at a time, I inched toward the top. The feeling of triumph after conquering a seemingly impossible challenge is what drives me to climb. It reminds me never to give up, that I am stronger and more capable than I think, and that to grow you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

After a long morning of climbing, we were famished. We made our way to the Hive, a little oasis a few minutes from the crag with a garden, hammocks, and a small eating area. We were lucky to find Nga there that day (one of the farmers who lives in the Valley). She didn’t speak a word of English, and we not a word of Vietnamese, but we managed to ask her for enough food for the two of us at her earliest convenience. She pointed to the clock, signaling for us to come back in half an hour. We laid in the hammocks outside and returned at the appointed time to the most delicious meal we’d eaten so far – spring rolls, beef & onions, stir fried vegetables, and a scallion omelet. Reading about Butterfly Valley rock climbing in a hammock

By Brandon Gamble, WA Trip Leader