Stalking the White Cliffs of China

I’ve done some climbing. I’ve been cold, hungry and scared, but my first climb in The People’s Republic was all that, with some rustic flavor thrown in.

It's my third week in China, and my climbing partner heard a rumor of some cliffs north of us. Based on only a sparse description and a very small photo, I quickly agree to spend my weekend looking for China's next climbing Mecca. It’s like that here. The climbing areas are mostly untapped, and the secret hope of being the first climber is a haunting dream. But in China, even the promise of a new cliff sometimes pales to the challenge of getting there.

The Journey…

Saturday morning, 7:15 a.m. We were supposed to meet at 6:30, but my partner overslept—again. I make an effort and greet him with a smile. To get to the downtown bus depot, we use Guangzhou’s modern and efficient subway system and arrive two minutes too late for the early bus. I keep my comments to myself.

My partner doesn’t seem to mind. Being from here, perhaps he’s used to these delays. I also notice that, even though I have the bulk of the climbing gear, his backpack seems fuller than mine.

An hour waiting in a crowded, under-ventilated depot is the perfect prelude to the rest of the trip. With 11 other passengers, we board an exceptionally large, extremely well air-conditioned bus for a two-hour ride.

Within minutes I regret not packing my sleeping bag. An arctic blast pours from the air-conditioning vent. It’s a cold that lets you count every nasal hair. My partner casually pulls out his down jacket. Settling into the deep cushioned seats, I drink my bottled water before it freezes.

Our mobile meat locker lands us in Ying De. It’s a cliché that China is a nation of contrast, but one I wholeheartedly embrace. Dressed in shorts and T-shirt, the 90-degree heat outside is a welcome relief. But Ying De isn't our final destination. We need to take a second bus from the opposite side of town. This means a taxi ride.

Our driver has all the survival instincts of a lemming approaching a cliff. Potholes and the occasional pedestrian flash by, only inches away. Windows down, the smells pour in: rotting vegetables, essence of wet dog, eau d’sewer.

We reach our destination, and I leap joyfully into the dust and sunshine, shouldering my overloaded pack. Strangely, my climbing partner doesn’t seem as unnerved as me. He gives me a wink before boarding our next bus, a modified 18-passenger van.

I take it all back. The taxi we just left was a first-class limousine. Half a dozen fans keep the air circulating. Twenty-one passengers and 18 seats means bundles of China Daily Post double as seats.

Unfortunately, I can’t read the Chinese characters between my thighs but, if I could, they would probably say, “Passengers are requested to remain optimistic.” Our packs are placed with the gaggle of geese on the roof, which I envy.

For the next hour and a half, I watch and listen to coughs, hacks and spits. The spitting is most attractive and done with much clearing of the throat, just to make sure no one sleeps through it.

On two separate occasions, a young boy spares us a pit stop and relieves himself on the floor. Through it all, one thing keeps me smiling: the countless limestone towers we’re passing. I point them out to my companion who is smiling too. As far as the eye can see, limestone totem poles proudly stand 200 meters above flat ground.

Dizzy, stiff, and disoriented, I step off the bus. We barter with two motorcycle-taxis for the trip to the cliffs. The two oversized mopeds strain up the hills with two riders and 60-pound packs, continuing my recent pre-occupation with the fear of death.

The driver must feel my heart pounding. My arms circle his narrow chest like a shrinking rope. There is a God! The moped wallows in the dust as it comes to a six-G stop, and we arrive. Tattered, tired yet eager, we waste no time getting on the rock.

…The Destination

If we’re not the first climbers here, we’ve got to be among the first. In 95-degree heat, and matching humidity, we harness up. I gulp down a liter of water and launch into the first lead. At only 5.9, the first pitch is straight forward climbing. Within 10 minutes I finish my lead and my partner follows.

Pitch No. 2 is a vertical two-inch crack to a slightly overhanging face, with tiny holds. At the end of the crack, I find a small no-hands rest and make the most of it. Holds above appear small. With a sequence in mind, I climb toward the crux. My arms must weigh a hundred pounds; sweat strings my eyes, and my calves are on fire. Still, I continue to climb.

Instead of enjoying the challenge, I fight to control the situation. Is it a spill over from our death-defying rides, lack of sleep, or just a new environment? Fear starts to creep in like seawater in a wetsuit.

I grip the rock harder, causing more lactic acid to build up in my forearms. Legs shaking, hands over-gripping, and my focus on where my last piece is, I fall. After several more attempts at the crux sequence, I decide I have no more strength and bail. It is a decision I did not want to make.

Sunday morning, 6 a.m. We are back at the start of the route. Cooler air and a more limber body make the first pitch feel easier than it is, and my climbing partner doesn't struggle nearly as much.

I re-climb the familiar two-inch crack. Yesterday it felt 5.11, but today if feels like 5.9+. It’s amazing what sleep and some shade will do for your climbing. The third goes just as smoothly; too smoothly, actually. Before we know it, we are rappelling down to pack up and begin our trip home.

At the trailhead, we flag down a local bus, fully equipped with the requisite geese, chickens and animal parts. Initially it’s empty, but soon we are fully loaded with more than 30 passengers. The natural air conditioning system is quite good. Open the window and drive fast. The faster, the cooler, making the bodily fluids on the floor less pungent and the hacking and coughing more tolerable.

Next, another exciting tax ride followed by the mobile meat-locker. Once again, my partner stays warm while I freeze. Shivering, I ask his impressions of the trip. He shrugs and smiles. Evidently, he’s used to the scenic transportation, and the festive air of a Chinese climbing destination. The climbing was incredible, but next time I’m bringing my down jacket.