Li Ming – China’s Trad Climbing Paradise

Published in Gripped Magazine, April 2012

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“Best sandstone crack in the world,” proclaims the guidebook. And Flying Buttress certainly looks the part – an imposing crack on a face that, 40 metres up, splits and then converges again for the final, overhanging headwall. It lures you in with its beauty – it’s slim and so tall it seems to scratch the sky, and leans over you with equal doses of menace and charm.

The three-pitch line embodies everything that is magical about Li Ming, in southern China. The rock is a radiant red, and the line is as majestic as it is intimidating. It has the valley’s signature feature – a perfect crack with few, if any, other features. It also has an element of danger and adventure – the first pitch is pulling on vines up a near vertical line that makes you feel more like Tarzan, leading to a delicate section of honeycomb features that look fragile and breakable.

The climb easily drew the attention of Canadian crack-crusher James Cherry, who quickly gained the ledge – there was no Tarzan cry – and then pushed through the sequences that unlocked the second pitch: a thin hand jam in the crack, sharp finger-locks to overcome a small roof, then wide hand jams where the crack forked, leading to a Thank God ledge.

He freed the pitch, but the last anchors begged the question: why has the route stopped here? Dragging a drill up for a higher anchor, he continued to the top by first lodging himself in an off-width. When the crack narrowed and disappeared, another crack emerged on the right, eventually splintering into a dramatic Y-shaped scar.

Fittingly, the crux of the 90-metre climb wasn’t until the final metres, when the line carved a single, narrow, fingers-size canal up the ever-steepening face. It was if the Holy Watchdogs of Li Ming were launching the most lethal onslaught on the final stretch of the route to protect the area’s most sacred wall.

Before he even attempted it, Cherry knew that he probably didn’t have the finger strength to free the final pitch – but that didn’t matter to him. After a month in Li Ming doing several first free – the guidebook is littered with routes waiting to be freed – he added the final pitch to give something back, an enduring addition to the best crack in the valley (and the world?), awaiting other would-be conquerors to ascend it.

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China has hit the worldwide climbing circuit with well-traveled destinations such as Yangshuo and Getu, but Li Ming is now commanding attention as the country’s premier trad climbing area.

Li Ming is part of Loajunshan National Park, in the scenic area of Yunnan Province. The quiet village is located four hours from the nearest city Li Jiang, and has a handful of eateries, shops and guesthouses, all dwarfed by massive sandstone cliffs that hug the skyline. It’s tranquil, except on Thursdays – market day – when everyone descends from the rural slopes to fill the streets with caged chickens, booties and mittens, fruit, dried penises of all creatures great and small, and other necessities of life. At 2,100 m above sea level, Li Ming’s fresh mountain air is a refreshing change from the diesel fumes that permeate the car-clogged Chinese cities.

But the area didn’t look like much to American climber Mike Dobie when he was first invited by a friend to see if there was potential for climbing there. “I couldn’t see a whole lot of crack systems, and it was rainy season so it looked like a big jungle,” Dobie recalls.

Development started on the coattails of a failed guiding company. The company’s founder invited Dobie to help open up a crack that split the face of one cliff.

As Dobie tells it, his friend started up the line, but backed off when he came to some loose rock.

“He sent me up, and I aided past the loose rock and put the first anchor in.” The friendship eventually soured and the company failed, but Dobie’s interest had been tapped and he invited other developers – including Darryl Kralovic and Eben Farnworth – for a closer look.

That was November 2010. Now there are over 100 lines and nearly 200 pitches of trad-climbing, most of them cracks, off-widths or chimneys. Many of the climbing visitors whisper comparisons to other world-class destinations, such as Indian Creek.

Almost all the routes were established through ground up efforts which tend to translate as epic dramas on first ascents. On the mega-classic multi-pitch Back To The Primitive, Dobie found himself in the unenviable position of being 10 metres above a double-zero cam, slipping on lichen and hanging on by his fingertips.

“I was climbing into loose rock on a 5.11 and everything was falling off. It was absolutely terrifying.”

One of Dobie’s recruits, American climber Sarah Rasmussen, had a similar experience while putting up the access route to Pandora’s Ledge 5.11+.

Rasmussen has a reputation in China climbing circles as a badass, who once, according to legend, lost her nipples in an off-width that she had decided to climb topless; she was jealous of the topless boys and then jumped on a route that she didn’t know had an off-width section.

On pitch two of the access route, she found herself in a flaring, wide corner with only a tiny dirt-filled crack for protection. She was madly plugging in wires while trying to inch her way up by smearing on walls of filth.

“I placed another micro in that seam, and praying it would hold, I started working my way up this dirt-entrenched corner when I hear this ‘pop, pop, pop’ – the sound of my last three wires popping, ” she remembers.

She whipped into the dirty abyss below.

“I never freed that corner, but I’m okay with leaving the first free ascent open,” says Rasmussen.

The “dirty loose rock onsight” approach, as Dobie calls it, has now given way to less riskier methods of aiding to the top, and leaving the first free ascent for another day – making Li Ming a unique utopia of an area full of clean, established lines with bolted anchors, waiting for first free ascents.

Many lines fell this October around the time of the inaugural climbing festival. Among them were the second pitch of Flying Buttress 5.11+, The Last Ninja 5.12 and Japanese Cowboy 5.12.

But the festival was also a chance for newbies, including yours truly, to lose their splitter crack virginity. A concerned friend warned me beforehand. Off-width climbing, I was told, was recently declared the most painful and joyless activity of all-time, just ahead of crack climbing.

Rasmussen puts it more scientifically. Crack climbing, she says, will see you pass quickly through the various stages of grief:
Shock – “Holy shit! That crack just ripped my skin clean off! What the heck did I just get myself into?”
Denial – “Hell yeah! Skin or no skin, this crack is going down.”
Anger – “Screw this crack! Screw this gear! This jam will hold! Where is that fucking number three?”
Bargaining – “Please hold, please hold, please don’t spit me out. Let me stay. I love you. I want to be with you. You’re pretty. Just let me get one more piece of gear.”
Acceptance – “I am going to die. It is inevitable. Might as well go up.”

Our hands and feet are designed for gentler activities, not for inserting into sharp gaps in the rock and twisting violently until they gain traction – an activity that is usually accompanied by searing pain.

And a lot depends on the size of your hands. For me, number two cams size cracks are bomber and make me feel like the greatest climber in the world, where all forms of rock cower before me. Number one size cracks however, can only be tamed by maniacally karate-chopping my hands into the crack with such force that some form of friction takes hold, while screaming: “Come on! Give me something! Anything! Please!”

As for 0.75 cracks, nothing works. Too small for hands, too big for fingers or ring-locks. See desperate gastoning or laybacking.

Grades are either largely irrelevant, or specifically designed to humble any 5.12 climber into feeling thoroughly inadequate. I had my 0.75 lesson on the beginner climb Through the Looking Glass 5.8, where I lost all dignity and quickly declared it the hardest climb in the history of the universe.

And then there were the sub-5.10 off-widths. Firstly, never climb them in a short-sleeved t-shirt. Secondly, be prepared to exert yourself so much that you feel like you’ve been suffering since the dawn of time, only to have moved up a demoralizing three centimetres over several minutes – at which point you realize that you can no longer feel the half of your body that is plunged deep into the crack.

But despite all the whining and crying – and bleeding – there are rewards. The euphoria of stacking hand jams is hard to describe. You are holding on with your hands, but your hands aren’t holding on to anything but each other. The stability and confidence from a bomber hand-stack is the exact opposite to the imminent failure you feel from clinging to the edges of a flaring crack, five metres above your last piece, with no idea of how to go up.

A similar delight takes hold the first time you ring-lock. It’s not a finger lock, but a finger and thumb concoction, which, when well executed, feels more secure than the world’s biggest jug.

Soon, sizing up cracks was less intimidating. You want to see how you can manipulate your limbs and what pain you can endure to grovel your way to the top.

Newbies arrive in Li Ming like a wad of soft butter gift-wrapped in delicate pastry, and ultimately leave as hardened toffee that can make the most threatening teeth dissolve. Everything about the place makes you stronger. If you want a two minute stroll to the crag for pleasant jug-pulling, go sport-climbing. If you want adventure climbing some 3,000 m above sea level, with big hikes and routes that are as gorgeous as they are challenging, then Li Ming is ready and willing to host you.

And it’s only going to get better. Dobie has been exploring one valley for the past couple of years, barely scratching the surface of trad-climbing potential. There are at least three more valleys in the area.

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It’s early November, and American climbing guru Cedar Wright, one of the special guests of the Li Ming climbing festival, has only one more day to free the top pitch of Flying Buttress. He has extended his stay by a week, so taken was he by the line and the possibility of being the first to free it.

It’s cool and crisp in the mountain air as he trudges up the valley track that will take him to his destiny. The crack sits in the shade all day, and is in a corner that can see the breeze build up and channel directly into the line.

He has made first ascents in Yosemite, Indian Creek, and in places all over the world, but the Flying Buttress doesn’t care. It is intimidated by no one. It treats everyone the same.

Wright has been on it a dozen times, at least. The final headwall, unsurprisingly, is where he comes unstuck. It is thin, sharp, and as brutal as it is unforgiving. As Wright attacks it, the breeze swirling around him, the crack rejects his hands and fingers and spits him out mercilessly.

For Li Ming, a new crag that still has many routes awaiting a first free ascent, it seems apt that one of its greatest lines remains untamed. For now.

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Getting there:
Flying into Li Jiang , Yunnan province, is the easiest option. From there you can take a taxi or buses for about four hours to Li Ming (either direct, or through Zhong Xing, a small town about 25 km from  Li Ming). Trains and buses arrive in Li Jiang daily, but don’t expect to them to move very quickly (the train and bus from Yangshuo to Li Mingtakes at least two days). Not much English is spoken in these parts of China and it is handy to have the Chinese characters of the destinations written down.

Li Ming is a small town with a few eateries and hotels, ranging in levels of luxury. You’ll need at least a double rack – triples and even quadruples of sizes two, three and four.  Also bring fives and sixes if you’re into off-widths. To get a guidebook, contact Mike Dobie at mdobie012@gmail.com

Must do routes:
The Great Owl 5.9 – A splitter crack that starts as fingers, expands as wide as fists and finishes with tight hands.
Soul’s Awakening 5.10+ – A six-pitch route – and Li Ming’s first – that tops out and includes an immaculate corner crack and a diagonally-leaning off-width.
Back to the Primitive 5.11+ – An eight-pitch climb that was the first to top out the valley.
The Wind of the North 5.12? – A five-pitch route with a splitter crack that starts 300 metres above Li Ming for maximum exposure.
Flying Buttress 5.13? – The best sandstone crack in the valley.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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