China / Society

Cliffhanger for climbing 'cradle'

By Xin Dingding and Huo Yan (China Daily) Updated: 2015-07-31 07:45

Cliffhanger for climbing 'cradle'

Moon Hill is regarded as the birthplace of climbing in Yangshuo.  Liu Jiaoqing / for China Daily

A dispute in the self-proclaimed birthplace of Chinese rock climbing has resulted in devotees being banned from one of the region's most famous, and important, sites, as Xin Dingding and Huo Yan report from Yangshuo, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Yangshuo, the only county in China with a mature climbing industry, owes its fame as climbers' paradise to two visitors from the United States.

The first was former president Richard Nixon, who paid a visit to the scenic spot in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region during a visit to China in 1976. According to a tale found on many Yangshou-related tourist websites, Nixon was fascinated by a local feature called Moon Hill.

The 380-meter-high hill is named after a natural arch on the summit that resembles either a full or crescent moon, depending on the position from which it's viewed. Nixon was immediately attracted, and asked his Chinese hosts a question that probably seemed logical in those Cold War days: was the arch, about 50 meters high and 50 meters in diameter, the result of the People's Liberation Army firing a missile through the rock?

Although the former president was assured that the feature was entirely natural, he wanted to take a closer look so his hosts quickly cut a narrow path for him through the lush vegetation.

More than 15 years later, another visitor from the US, Todd Skinner, one of the world's best-known free climbers, used the "Nixon path" to walk to Moon Hill.

According to the climbing guidebook for the area, "following his (Nixon's) reconnaissance", Skinner spent time in Yangshuo sometime between 1990 and 1993. It's unclear how long Skinner stayed, but he is known to have used the "Nixon path" to approach the arch, where he established five routes, including one with a second pitch graded as "5.12d", which was "the upper-limit for climbers at the time", according to Zhang Yong, deputy director of the Yangshuo Rock Climbing Association.

Skinner, who died in a climbing accident in 2006, wasn't the first climber on the local hills, though. Germans Wolfgang Gullich and Kurt Albert and Austrians Heinz Zak and Ingrid Reitenspies explored the local rock faces in the 1980s, according to Adventure magazine, but Skinner is the person the locals credit with starting the climbing boom. "In our minds, Todd Skinner is the person who created Yangshuo's climbing history, and Moon Hill is the birthplace of climbing in Yangshuo," Zhang said.

"He (Skinner) showed people the beauty of climbing in Yangshuo, and laid the foundations for the county to become a paradise for climbing in Asia," he said.

On the way up

More than 20 years later, there are few records of Skinner's days in Yangshuo - no photos, no written evidence - but his arrival undoubtedly changed the fate of the small county.

"For a climber, the only way to rise through the ranks is to practice and complete routes of progressively higher grades," Zhang said.

After Skinner created the routes, other foreign climbers flocked to the area to attempt them, leading to the county becoming increasing famous overseas while remaining virtually unknown to the small number of homegrown climbers.

Ding Xianghua, former head of the Chinese Mountaineering Association's Rock Climbing Department and a pioneer of Chinese climbing, said he first learned about Yangshou's potential in 1999, when friends from overseas mentioned it.

"In Beijing, we mostly practiced on the natural crags in Miyun county. Yangshuo was better known to us as a tourist spot, not a climbing destination," he said.

After recommendations from climbers from Hong Kong and foreigners in Beijing, Ding and seven other enthusiasts spent a week in Yangshuo during the 1999 Spring Festival.

"From a professional perspective, Yangshuo has many advantages. There are abundant natural crags and Karst towers everywhere. The crags have the angles that all climbers desire, and the rock surfaces are clean, but also uneven, with cracks that provide plenty of handholds," he said.

The natural advantages attracted foreign climbers, some of whom settled in the area and helped to develop the burgeoning climbing industry.

Zhang, of the Yangshuo Rock Climbing Association, recalled Paul Collis, a British engineer who lived in Hong Kong. Collis came to Yangshuo in 2004, the same year Zhang quit his bar job in Hezhou, Guangxi, and moved to Yangshuo.

"Every month, he came to Yangshuo to open many new routes. He edited and printed a climbing guidebook in English to let people around the world know about Yangshuo," Zhang said.

Collis edited the guidebook until 2009, when he handed the job over to Chinese climber Qiu Jiang and Tyson Wallace from the United States. Some of the money earned from book sales is used to open new routes and maintain existing ones.

Many Chinese climbers are unable to afford the expensive equipment - primarily bolts, carabiners and rope - that are needed in large quantities when establishing new routes. Collis used his experience as an engineer to break down, then reassemble old molds and make replacement equipment. "That enabled us to open a lot of routes," Zhang said.

The number of routes has risen from 20-plus in 1999 to around 1,000, thanks to the efforts of climbers from home and abroad. In the guidebook, every route is marked with the names of the climbers, many of them from overseas, who created them.

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