The mountain loomed in Sam Lightner Jr.’s mind. Thirty years ago, the now Lander resident was searching for karst mountains like those he’d discovered in Thailand, constructed of soluble rock that afforded incredibly steep climbs, with knobs and pockets for holds.
Phou Pha Thi in Laos, he heard, was the biggest such mountain in Southeast Asia. Rumor had it the mountain was the size of Yosemite’s El Capitan, but made of limestone instead of granite.
“If I could find an El Capitan that climbs like Thailand — I knew I’d find the greatest climbing destination in the world,” Lightner said.
He didn’t. Obsessive research suggested that the face likely wasn’t actually that conducive to climbing. The remoteness of the mountain and the political climate of 1990’s made an attempt of Phou Pha Thi even less inviting.
But a seed had been planted. Three decades later it would grow into an unlikely book. Lightner published “Heavy Green: The Collision of Two Unlikely Missions in America’s Secret War,” in August. The book is a historical novel set during the Vietnam War.
Cloud cover consistently challenged United States efforts to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail and stop the flow of enemy men and material into the south. So the U.S. set up a radar station in Laos on Phou Pha Thi with the help of Thai Special Forces and Laotian hill tribes. Lightner learned of the story during his climbing research.
“Climbing gave me the inroads to find out about this battle,” he said.
Lightner first visited Thailand in 1990 with Mark Newcomb of Jackson. The two had seen pictures of karst spires rising from the ocean in a National Geographic magazine. At the time, few people had ventured there for climbing. The two prepared for an epic adventure, picturing arduous travel to reach objectives, swarms of mosquitos and sleepless nights. They arrived to a pristine beach with beautiful people offering fresh cut pineapple and rock walls seemingly designed for climbing.
“We wound up in paradise,” Lightner said.
The rock faces were incredibly steep with overhangs in caves. Vertical faces are often too smooth for free ascent, but the rock in Thailand absorbs water, leaving holes, knobs and pockets for climbers to find purchase.
“It becomes an incredibly physical thing—like climbing on a jungle gym,” Lightner said.
Lightner spent the plane ride home handwriting what would become his first article for Rock and Ice magazine on climbing in the country. He’d go on to write one of the first guidebooks to Thailand’s popular climbing destinations, and several other books.
Lightner’s interest in the Vietnam War started when he was a child. The war dominated the news and some of his earliest memories. When he began his quest for Thailand-like climbing in other areas of Southeast Asia, he turned to military reports, news clips and documentaries from the Vietnam War for clues.
He’d watch a clip and freeze it to study the limestone cliffs as a plane flew by. He’d read accounts about hospitals set up in giant caves and think about the climbing possibilities.
The next year he flew to Vietnam with Lander climber Todd Skinner. Uniformed military men surrounded them as they climbed karst towers, certain they were American spies. When they saw the duo were actually there just to climb, they became friendly and provided information on the area and other mountains if they could. Lightner and Skinner put up new routes in Vietnam, Thailand and China on the trip.
Lightner doesn’t know exactly when he learned about Phou Pha Thi, only that he never forgot it.
He’d planned to tell his personal story of climbing the mountain, as well as documenting the history, but since he never reached the mountain, it didn’t happen. Then, this year Lightner found himself between writing projects. He started writing the story with fictitious characters, while keeping everything about the time period and war historically accurate. The story poured out of him.
“Heavy Green” culminates in a battle, but Lightner didn’t forget what inspired him to first write the story. His main character is a climber and there is a “climbing twist” in the story, he said.
Since Lightner first visited Thailand and Vietnam, Southeast Asia has become a well-known climbing destination. He’s climbed throughout the area, putting up new routes and writing about it.
He still hasn’t been to Phou Pha Thi, but he hopes to try again this fall.