Dirtbag Dispatches – China Rocks

Published in Adventure Magazine NZ, Feb/March 2017

Photos and text by Derek Cheng

Ever wanted to climb unbelievably beautiful formations, weaving through giant stalactites or gliding up perfectly carved crack lines, in a country where the cost of a meal is roughly a dollar or two? In recent years, China has well and truly stamped its mark on the world rock climbing circuit, and now climbers flock there every spring and autumn for extended battles with the country’s infinite rock faces.

Adventure Magazine takes you on a tour of three of China’s famous climbing destinations: Getu Valley and its gargantuan arch, Yangshuo’s mystical karst towers, and the splitter cracks that carve lines up the blood-red sandstone cliffs above Li Ming.

Getu Valley

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A visceral cry of delight disturbed the peaceful valley. I clung to a hueco and stared up, awe-struck at the maze of tufas and stalactites leading to the next bolted station. Below me was 50m of air above a lush forest valley, split by a meandering river. To my left, Getu’s gaping, giant arch.

I pulled up. A massive bucket swallowed my hand, provoking another cry of elation. And with it came an immediate awareness of climbing awesomeness. Beautiful movement, great rock, stunning setting.

We had arrived in Getu after several days of music, beer and dumplings in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital of faceless millions. It was a stark contrast. Getu was empty. A ghost town of a few houses scattered about a valley of terraced rice fields of different shades of green, dwarfed by lazy limestone giants.

The place itself felt sacred. A mist enveloped the valley every morning, and often turned to soft rain that shrouded it in an ethereal hue.

Getu is famous for The Great Arch, the size of which is simply preposterous. Superlatives are never going to adequately describe it, but suffice to say that it’s big. Really, really big. (Rumour has it that a hotel and restaurant are going to be built inside it). And there are two smaller arches below it, as if to accentuate the humungousness of the biggest.

Much precipitation flows through the arch, making many of the climbs inside layered in soapiness. But some are clean, sublime, and involve sequences of different styles: slapping up on beautifully in-cut underclings, stemming and clinging to holds of nothingness, or cranking on steep overhangs.

The four-pitch bolted routes on the wall next to the arch were among the most memorable I’ve ever been on. The grand position. The gently overhanging tufa-blessed faces. And easy abseils back to terra firma,, as long as you know what your’e doing.

I didn’t, and clumsily uprooted a dead tree that I was using to pull myself in to the first belay station on Dos Foresteros en la Selva (four pitches, 5.11c/23). It fell awkwardly on my leg and, when I freed it, gravity gifted it to my other leg. Wrestling with a massive, heavy trunk while clinging to a rope for survival is no minor matter, but eventually I managed to push it away from me. It crash 35m to the ground, erupting in a cloud of dust.

The adventurous multi-pitches were becoming the source of the evening’s best stories, enjoyed with copious amounts of beer, super oily food, and the occasional game of mahjong. We were the only ones in the valley when we arrived, but by Golden Week (a week-long holiday for the rice harvest in October) the town had come to life with about 50 climbers and a sea of local tourists.

When we tackled a seven-pitch 5.12b/25 monster called Captain Hook on the massive CDMI wall, my climbing partner Ryan opened up as only two men can when alone, naked and vulnerable, on a crumbling big wall. On an impossibly thin 5.11d/23 pitch, I heard him mutter, “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.”

I couldn’t see him, so just braced myself for a catch, but the rope never came tight. I eventually seconded up, stacking my digits in tiny dimples in the vertical face. Towards the top, the rock deteriorated as the line traversed to the anchor.

Hours later, after we had topped out and abseiled safely back to the ground, Ryan explained his predicament: “I was traversing to the anchor, and felt like I was going to fall. I could see it all in my head very clearly. The bolt was going to rip out and take a chunk of shitty, sharp rock from the wall, which was going to slice through the rope and send me to the ground at great speed. I actually vomited in my mouth a little.”

Yangshuo

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If you plunge your hand deep into the hole behind the enormous sit-down tufa in the middle of Over the Moon (5.12c/26), you will find a small bottle of baijiu. It is unclear whether a swig of the Chinese rice wine is meant to inhibit or enhance your chances of success for the rest of the climb, which pierces the right side of Moonhill’s intimidating arch.

But someone has taken the trouble of placing the bottle there, so you may as well take a congratulatory sip for making it that far.

Moonhill is what first drew climbers to China in the early 1990s. It is but one of a number of superb crags in Yangshuo, which has long been the sport-climbing mecca of China – and there are new crags springing up all the time. The karst limestone structures soar up vertiginously from grassy, flat surroundings, clustered in such numbers that the landscape looks like something out of the Lost World. Roaming dinosaurs would not look out of place.

The climbing is varied and fantabulous, on mostly immaculate rock. The hanging stalactites at the Moonhill Arch create the impression of the top half of an open jaw with particularly menacing teeth. The long overhangs of crimps and huecos make Lei Pi Shan and White Mountain among the most popular crags.

The rock at the Egg is stellar, except for a hand-sized chunk of rock I managed to dislodge with my foot on a 5.11d/23 route called Let Me See Your War Face. The chunk lunged at my belayer, who took evasive action and launched himself off the ledge he was belaying on. I looked down to see a pair of dangling, inverted legs in a pit of shrubbery.

“You alright?” I yelled.

“Yeah, sorry I blew your climb,” his voice replied.

“You didn’t. I’m still on, and holding you. Get up!” He quickly gathered himself, and I continued to the top.

Surprises of a different kind awaited climber Rob Campbell, who confronted a rat as he tried to insert his hand into a crack at the top of The Traveling Alan (5.11a/21) at a crag called Swiss Cheese. He had no intention of pulling food chain rank, promptly launching himself from the cliff, into the ether and down, down, down until his rope slowly came taut.

Climbers stay in Yangshuo for weeks, months, years. The daily routine begins at the food stalls on Hospital St. Try the $1 rice noodles with roast pork and pickled greens, and pay a few pennies extra for a hot soy milk and a stick of fried dough. Next door, pick up a handful of fresh steam buns (five for a dollar) filled sweet (red beans, custard) or savoury (pork, noodles and veggies), and then grab a bicycle for the day.

After thrashing about on limestone, there are a number of cheap dinner options – clay pot, dumplings, noodles (handmade, on the spot) or, if you’re feeling financially reckless, roast duck or Indian curry. Then head to the Rusty Bolt for a cold Tsingtao beer and to discuss the day’s events, such as the massive whipper that Kiwi Shane Yates took, which snapped a carabiner in two and saw him nearly hit the ground from the sixth bolt. Was the quickdraw loaded at an unusual angle, or did it break simply because of Shane’s unique, muscle-filled heft?

One of the appeals of Yangshuo, and most climbing destinations in China, is the culture. It is not an isolated haven that caters solely to international visitors and bears no resemblance to any other part of the country. The streets are a cacophony of vehicular madness. When you want to empty your bowels, you have to squat. The markets are full of mandarins, rice, and fowl and dog carcasses. (You may get to sample some dog’s bollocks to see if it enhances your strength, as the Chinese claim; I found, if anything, my strength and general will to live had diminished). But it is also enough of a tourist town that if you want to, you can eat Belgian waffles with coffee every morning, and chicken fajitas every night. Or KFC.

It is also gentle on your wallet. A shared apartment with a bedroom and bathroom will cost you barely $90 a month. There are places with kitchens, but food is so cheap, you may as well eat out.

Life is so easy, it is tempting to never leave. Some never do, such as Ifor Williams, the smiling Welshman, whose invincible body could endure excessive smoking, liquor and general debauchery through a sleepless night, before heading to a steep crag the following day for some more punishment. Ifor came to China for a two-month holiday, and quickly fell in love with the lifestyle – and a local girl. He lasted five days back in the UK before resigning, waited until Christmas to tell his mother he was leaving the country, and is now happily living in Yangshuo – with a wife and baby.

Li Ming

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We left the relative comforts of Yangshuo and took an overnight train and bus to Li Ming, a charming, quaint village in Laojunshan National Park. The town boasts a handful of shops and guesthouses that sit beneath massive cliffs of radiant red, split by soaring crack lines as majestic as they are intimidating. 

The village is tranquil, except on Thursdays – market day – when the local Nakhi people descend from the rural slopes to fill the streets with caged chickens, fruit, dried penises of all creatures great and small, and other necessities of life. At 2100m above sea level, Li Ming’s mountain air is a refreshing change from the fumes that permeate the car-clogged cities of China.

Crack climbing is a unique discipline, protected by traditional gear that the climber places while moving up. It can be nerve-racking, climbing high above your last piece of gear, watching it shift mischievously and dangerously as you contemplate your next move. 

“Normal” climbing entails placing your hands and feet on features in the rock – anything from huge holds to tiny dimples that razor crimps to heart-breaking slopers. But crack climbing often only has one feature. Our hands and feet are designed for gentler activities, not for jamming into gaps in the rock and twisting violently until they gain traction – an activity that is usually accompanied by searing pain.

Things are fairly benign if your hand happens to perfectly slot into the crack. But if it doesn’t, some inventive twisting and cupping and pleading has to take place. And then there are the off-widths, cracks too wide for your fist, making you force as much of your body inside the crack as you can. Never climb them topless, unless you have a tattoo on your torso that you are too cheap to remove by means other than skin-grating. 

I had never climbed cracks before. A friend warned me that off-width climbing had been recently declared the most painful and joyless activity of all-time, just ahead of crack climbing. A crack-veteran, Sarah Rasmussen, summed it up by saying that it will take you 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 hand jam will hold!”
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 protective gear.”
Acceptance – “I am going to die. It is inevitable. Might as well go up.”

But despite all the whining and crying – and bleeding – there are benefits. I quickly became addicted to chopping my hand into a endless crack and moving up, smoothly and confidently, while the ground slowly shrunk below me. As for trickier cracks, I embraced the adage: “The more the struggle, the greater the reward.” I was soon wanting to see how I could manipulate my limbs and what pain I could endure to grovel to the top. And always on the most aesthetic lines.

Li Ming soon had us hooked on crack. We revelled in the longer approaches and routes, more rugged surroundings, and rustic streets. One rest day, I hiked up to Flying Buttress, a 90m overhanging crack that is hailed as the “best sandstone crack in the world” by the guidebook. 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 final five metres is an insecure, wide finger-crack up an ever-steepening wall.

At the end of 2015, after the climb had defeated many would-be conquistadors, it finally succumbed to Australian Logan Barber, who graded it 5.13d/31 – one of the hardest in the valley.  His secret? Placing less protective gear, which meant taking bigger falls if he came off. When he finally dispatched it, he said it was a battle royale: ” I had to try really hard. I was shaking, and holding my breath. I felt like I was going to throw up, and I had the dry mouth and the dry retching.”

Such suffering. It makes one ponder why we climb in the first place. But long after the day has gone to sleep, as the weary climbers’ clan gathers around bowls of greasy noodles and cheap beers, the suffering transitions to fatigued satisfaction, one of struggle and triumph, of camaraderie and rich, shared experiences, and of fun-filled journeys in charming, far-flung places. 

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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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