The iconic beginning for rock climbing in Li Ming, Yunnan. I was living in Lijiang, Yunnan helping a friend, Austin Stringham, start a guiding business that was going to cover outdoor adventures in Northern Yunnan. We had been climbing together for about half a year and both came to China at about the same time. He was a sort of hero for me and climbing being instrumental in teaching me to trad climb.
He had seen Li Ming in a tourism brochure and visited the place. He described it to me as a possible sandstone area that even has it’s own Monkey Face (iconic of Smith Rocks).
We first visited the place together in the summer of 2010. At the tourism gate on the outskirts of the town we got out of the car and asked for the boss of the park. The person to talk to if we wanted to go climbing. They looked at us funny and said there was no rock climbing here. And then we said…um yeah there probably is.
This began the long process of getting the area open for climbing. Austin Stringham’s wife at the time, Laojiu, helped us write and translate a proposal that covered an agreement and outline for rock climbing in the park. His company, Highland Adventures, would have exclusive rights to guide in the park and the area would be open for rock climbers for the future and forever. We helped explained that the climbing there would be a different type of climbing that hadn’t been introduced to China yet. Trad climbing with a sandstone crack attitude.
In October of 2010 they said yes to climbing! Open for everyone. We were guiding a group on the Haba Snow Mountain (5396m) and didn’t make it there until early November. The park put us in their private facilities and fed us for the initial trip. Austin found a nice hand crack on a wall that at the time we were calling, The Dinner Wall. Armed with a drill, a fistful of cams, and my new found friend and Chinese climbing partner Zhoulei, we headed up the wooded slope below the cliff to develop the first modern rock climb in Li Ming.
I told Austin to go for it. He found the place and the crack and said he deserved the first ascent. He started up the perfect hands and the suddenly said “take!” He looked down at me and said that the entire crack was flexing and was open on the inside. Looked that way for 3 meters. Scary! He asked to be lowered and when he got to the ground he said he didn’t know what to do about this section.
I had been rock climbing for about a year and a half at the time and luckily had been doing a good bit of route development in my limited time rock climbing. I had an idea. I pulled up to his high point armed with the drill. Despite my desires and ambition to keep things trad I looked at this potential killer of a 3m section of rock decided the only way past this obstacle was to bolt aid. No!!!! So I did it. Got above the bad section and anchored in. Told Austin and Zhoulei to take cover and I took out the loose rock in 2m sections. I continued climbing up and discovered another loose section of rock overhead. I pried it out from below and use my helmet as a shield to block the rocks from my body, a technique I haven’t used since for obvious reasons, and continued to climb to a point 28m above the ground. I slapped in a bolt anchor. I was looking down the first route in li ming.
When I look back on this moment I have to laugh. It was just the beginning for Li Ming and my development as a professional climber. The learning process and skills involved that started with this one climb going ground up begun the foundation for what I can call my greatest skill. Dirty scary and sometimes dangerous first ascents. Now 200 routes later I gotta say it has been fun.
Later Austin did the First Free Ascent of Soul’s Awakening and we didn’t do much more development that trip. On a rainy day I headed up to another wall and discovered what is now known as The Lisu Area. After finding this place it was my opinion that Li Ming was going to be a climbing destination.
The next month I returned with Zhoulei and China newcomer Darryl Kralovic to continue the development. It was more of the same! Adventures walking around trying to find weaknesses and cracks to climb. Darryl bolt aided up to a crack that became the route Orange Sky.
I returned to the Lisu Area and the two of us thrashed up the then dirty and now classic routes The Great Owl, Clamdigger, Foe-Hammer, and Morass.
The end of 2010 was very near and both Darryl and I had to go to Hong Kong to hop the border. We set the foundation for the future of Li Ming by doing lots of dirty aid climbing and cleaning. I began documenting all the progress in a form of a guidebook and the two of us planned to return in January and Feb. for more first ascents with a few additions to our team. Eben Farnworth and Xiao Shuang (the first female climber in Li Ming).
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