2016 Sam Lightner, Jr. 

I have been asked to comment further on a few of the photos that were posted on this site.  As time passes, the photos become more historical and thus, maybe, a bit more special.

                                                                                                                                  Sam

This is the late Todd Skinner and I on a small boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam. Less than a mile from where the photo was taken (Jacob Valdez) Everett Alvarez crashed in 1965. He was the first American pilot to go down in the war. The boat captains wife was a child then and went out with her father in his boat to pick Alvarez out of the water. She told us she thought he was very wealthy because there was so much gold on his uniform.  

Todd, Jacob and I had an amazing trip. We were there despite being told we could not go by the U.S.Treasury Department. The Vietnamese were certain we were CIA spies as no one goes mountain climbing in Vietnam. After a while things warmed up.

There was a lot of deep thinking done on this trip by all of us. About an hour after this photo was taken, Todd told me he was sure he would die in a developing country in some odd way. That turned out not to be so. He was killed in a climbing accident in Yosemite in 2007. His loss rocked all of us in the climbing world. It's hard to deal with the death of a friend who is bigger than life. 

This is a shot of me in the wreckage of one of 16 B-52's shot down during Operation Linebacker in 1972.  We were not told the fate of the crew, though at best they ended up in the Hanoi Hilton for a few years.

The  Vietnamese referred to this as the "Dien Bien Phu in the Sky," a name we rolled into a rock climbing name.  Despite that bravado, Operation Linebacker did bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table, but that didn't change history. The North Vietnamese believed in much of Lao Tzu's teachings, including it would seem, this: "Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished." They knew if they could just hold out long enough, we would go home and the South Vietnamese would fall. The United States won virtually every battle, but lost that war.

We saw lots of plane wreckage on this trip in 1990. In Ninh Binh Province we found parts of an F-4 Phantom used as a bridge in a rice paddy. The paddies tended to be square, then every once in a while you would see one that was perfectly round in the mosaic of squares. That one was a bomb crater. 

This photo was taken by my buddy Dr. Volker Schoeffl. It is from southern Laos and along what used to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A lot of bombs were dropped in this vicinity, and some estimates are that up to 20% of them didn't detonate on impact. 

The mountains, made of limestone in a formation known as karst, are very similar to Phou Pha Thi, the mountain featured in Heavy Green. During the war, the U.S. used these high points to bring supplies to the Hmong, and the North Vietnamese used the caves in the lower reaches of the mountains as bases. One of the largest cave bases, near Vieng Xai, is featured in Heavy Green.

As per the elephant, well, they are amzing animals. They are very smart and they enjoy working. An elephant without a job is a bit like an Australian Shepard without a job... it tends to get into trouble. When a 6,000 pound animal gets bored, you have a problem.  As they eat up to 150 pounds of food a day, keeping them going is not cheap. They are happier with the job, and so are we. Elephant abuse can be a problem too, and in my opinion the abusers should be dealt with harshly. There is no need in this world for bullies.

This is the Plain des Jars (PDJ) in 2002. It is still not clear why these jars were made, though the best guess is giant funeral urns. None of the current cultures in southeast Asia have link to these jars.

 

Though I did not cover it in detail in Heavy Green, the PDJ was the site of the heaviest fighting between the Hmong and NVA. Vang Paos troops could hold it in the rainy season, and the North Vietnamese could take it back in the dry season. This went on for years until Vang Pao began to run out of troops and America began pulling back from the war in southeast Asia. 

The Li River and limestone towers  in southern China. This rock formation, known as Kanchanaburi Limestone,  was the worlds largest-ever barrier reef 330 million years ago. The formations stretches from Borneo to southern China. You find towers just like these in Laos, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia. 

This is a typical road scene on the main highway in northern Vietnam, just south of Hanoi. Typical in 1990. Now the same road is 4 lanes that are crowded with Toyotas and Kia's. Times change. 

This is a photo of me climbing and Todd Skinner belaying in Halong Bay, 1990.  As far as we know, this was the first rock climb ever established in Vietnam. We named the route "Charlie Don't Climb" after the line by Kilgor in Apocalypse Now "Charlie Don't Surf." The grade is 5.12a on the Yosemite Decimal System, or 7a+ in French.

This area of the bay is pretty famous. There were scenes shot right under this wall for the French film Indochine. In 1965 American pilot Everett Alvarez was shot down overhead and captured by the North Vietnamese about half a mile from here. 

The Mekong River in southern Laos. This amazing river  has been the lifeblood of much of southeast Asia for thousands of years. As I pointed out in Heavy Green, it was referred to as as the  Bamboo Curtain during the Vietnam War.

Sunset at Angkor Wat in January, 1992. Angkor was on the front lines of a civil war between a coalition of forces and the Khmer Rouge then. Two people were executed by the Khmer Rouge in the local market (in Siem Reap town) the day before we arrived. U.N. soldiers in bright, sky blue helmets, were a common sight in town, but they had to hide whenever shooting broke out between the two sides in the war. They had been issued guns, but no ammunition. An M-16 makes a lousy hammer. 

Angkor was a dangerous place then. It is now, thankfully, a very safe place to travel and with five star hotels around one of the greatest archeological sites in the world.  

This was a crazy day in 1992. I woke very early and drove my mo-ped in the dark to Angkor to get sunrise pictures. I was told not to leave Siem Reap in the dark, but sacrifices have to be made to get the shot. Anyway, about an hour after sunrise I'm at this temple.... I think it was Bayon. I'm looking down the road, having just parked the moped, and I see seven men in old uniforms step out of the forest simultaneously. I did not turn my back. They came up to me and I worried for the worst, then they asked to see my stuff via the international hand language (politely tugging at it). They went through everything, smiling, and then offered to take my picture. I used that same internationa language to garner a 1962 made Ak 47 from the Captain. He shrugged and took the camera from one of the other soldiers. I posed. Obviously I should have showed them how to use the autofocus. About ten minutes after this photo, we heard and felt artillery rounds landing nearby. We could hear it, but couldn't see it. Through lots of gesticulating, these guys told me it was hitting across a lake we were on the edge of. The Khmer Rouge was firing where they thought these guys were, if I got it right. I decided then it was time to head back to the guest house.