My first rock climb after a 20 year hiatus was 5 years ago in Yangshuo; Tommy Ouyang put me on the Miracle at Wine Bottle and I struggled up on top-rope. Shaking from fatigue I was re-hooked when I got back down. I discovered ‘sport’ climbing: it was safer, physically more challenging, and much more social. Not the rugged mountain climbing I’d grown up with but I could get on climbs I would not have looked at before. The psychological aspects of sport climbing are not as gripping, the cost of failing usually not as severe. Everyone is stronger and climbs are more difficult. Good formula!
Once I started bolting new routes three years ago, climbing returned to its roots for me. I’ve even stopped dropping important stuff like drill bits and hammers! This fall I lead a new line on the Camel’s Neck, ‘Bedouins’ on trad gear that followed an obvious crack system and went at 5.10b – right at my limit. Exploiting a crag’s weaknesses is become a familiar game again and climbing on trad gear here makes everything more serious, everything turns fluid and uncertain. I stay focused longer, know my strength and equipment better, and I realize my mistakes can have dire consequences. My relationships to my partners deepen, interdependence becomes absolute, trust develops.
Traditionally protected routes in Yangshuo do not see a lot of ascents in a year: the Middle Finger is almost never climbed although it is an obvious and readily accessible crag. After climbing in the US last summer in areas that have only traditionally protected routes I realize the game is still alive and well in other places; sport climbing hasn’t completely taken over and Yangshuo would benefit greatly from a bigger group of trad climbers putting up new lines, even if they are subsequently bolted for sport climbs. With all the possibilities for new lines on untapped crags within 10 minutes of town we’ll never run out of projects.
I'd put up quite a few new lines with Paul and in late 2007 I finally got on the sharp end. I on-sighted a trad FA lead (see photo) on the extension to Wonderful World at the Egg. It was bad enough having to step up above my last piece, but the slick Yangshuo limestone made it even scarier! Still, I couldn’t keep letting Paul have all the fun!
We climbed up ShaBi Abi and traversed on gear to the left and set a belay anchor at the top of our intended new line. I came across, got the kit and stepped up onto a line that followed the obvious crack system up for the second pitch. Doesn't get any easier really, but I was still struggling inside to keep my head about me.
I had pretty much stopped trad leading just about the time cams (Friends) came out - late 70s CE. I’d put together a rack with 2 sets of cams at its core because I’d heard that’s what everyone climbs on today. Paul took one look and asked, ‘Where are the rest of your wires?’ That is what it really comes down to in YS – wires (US – nuts and stoppers), and whenever possible a nice, big hex! Cams too, but only when a solid crack cries out for one, and that isn’t often enough.
On this climb there were two bulges, both well protected, the second one with a solid yellow Camalot and a thread. I don’t remember how long it took, but I do remember realizing that cams just don’t fit the inconsistent features as well as wires. Thus began my apprenticeship in ‘fiddling wires’. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still much rather fire in a perfect cam instead of searching around for some small constriction that might take a Rock 1 or DB stopper.
Now, whenever I set off on a trad lead, which is usually an on-sight on a new line, I anticipate going slowly, looking for small constrictions and fiddling wires in before stepping up. This results in much shorter leads because I’m always running out of gear; 20 pieces in 20 meters no longer sounds like too many placements to me, two or three placements right next to each other is fine if that is what I need to convince myself to keep stepping up. And if gear doesn’t do it for me, up comes the drill!