A couple of months ago I attended China’s first ever Trad-Climbing Festival in the small village of Li Ming with fellow athletes and good friends Matt Segal, and Yuji Hirayama. Matt had visited Li Ming the year before and established “Air China,” the hardest trad-climb in China, and roped me into the trip. “Dude you are going to love it their,” he told me. I’m always game for something new and adventurous, but was skeptical. As far as I was concerned the only good sandstone crack climbing was in the U.S.
Li Ming is located in a river valley surrounded by wild red and black streaked Sandstone walls and happens to have hundreds of cracks of all sizes splitting through the steep towering walls. The terrain is reminiscent of Zion, Arches National Park, and Indian Creek, if you mashed them together with the sensibilities of a Buddhist landscape artist, and then dropped the amalgam into a mountainous high altitude jungle.
I first visited China for climbing about eight years ago to visit Yangshuo, the premiere limestone sport climbing area in China. I was excited to see a budding Chinese climbing community that was still finding its legs, and “learning the ropes.” Returning this year I was impressed by how quickly the climbing community has grown and progressed in China. Not only were are ten times as many competent climbers as my last visit, but many had graduated from sport climbing, to the more technical and committing world of gear protected Trad-Climbing.
Three years ago there was no climbing in Li Ming to be heard of! American Mike Dobie was one of the first climbers to realize the epic potential of Li Ming and has spent the last three years leading the charge to develop what may be China’s best Trad-Climbing resource. Mike, put up countless routes, established trails, and made a guidebook. With the area opened, word caught on in the Chinese climbing community. Soon, the Chinese were putting down their quickdraws and putting together racks of Cams for burly crack climb assaults!
For Mike this years Li Ming Trad-Climbing festival jointly sponsored by The North Face, and Black Diamond was a emotional and cathartic experience. Over two hundred climbers from around the world showed up to climb on the routes that he had developed. “Sometimes I wondered if I was crazy to spend so much energy on this project,” he told me one evening, “but seeing everyone enjoying the climbs here makes it feel like it was all worth it!” Yuji, Matt and I all agreed that Mike’s time was well spent!
I lead two days of intermediate crack climbing clinics, and was impressed by the enthusiasm of my group. Most of them were sport climbers but they seemed much more open to trying something new than most American sport climbers. I think because China is a young climbing community there are less preconceived notions of a separation between sport and trad that have developed over time in the U.S. To them it’s all just climbing.
I put up several burly offwidth climbs for them to practice on. Offwidths are considered by many to be the most physically demanding and miserable form of climbing in existence. I think offwidth climbing takes, heart and grit. Most American climbers avoid offwidths like the plague, so it was heart warming to see my motley crew of Chinese climbers throwing themselves at this unique type of challenge with boundless enthusiasm.
Almost all of the good sandstone crack climbing is in the United states, so the fact that China now has what I would consider a world-class crack climbing destination is huge for Chinese climbers, but also for Eastern European climbers who now have a way practice this unique art form much closer to their homes! And Li Ming is only about twenty percent developed, with many side valleys that have yet to see first ascents, so crack climbing only just beginning in China!
In America the routes of our climbing history are in trad-climbing and while I believe it’s all just climbing, there is a special place in my hear for trad-climbing. It requires more expertise, commitment and risk, and therefore I believe yields a deeper and more meaningful reward than sport climbing. To put it simply, Trad-Climbing is more adventurous. To put it colloquially, Trad-Climbing is more badass!
Because China is still a developing country, especially in terms of climbing, there are literally hundreds of world-class crags waiting for a motivated soul to develop. In the United States several generations of climbers have left few crags left to pioneer, but in China a country with as much land and variety of terrain as the U.S.A.! It is truly a climbers frontier of mind boggling proportions.
I’m already planning my next trip back to China to travel deeper into the beautiful and in terms of climbing, unexplored country.