Virgin climbing trip to Yangshuo

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Table of Contents

HOW IT STARTED

Back in March 2018, my father-in-law suggested to the family about going for an ancestral village visit in Guangdong province, China. The idea of climbing in China had never crossed my mind. However, it changed after I read the article on 5c Climbers of Yong En’s multi-pitch adventure at Yangshuo on the route – Happy New Year.

I gave the thought some consideration that it might be possible. It would be relatively convenient as we would be able to link the trip from Guangdong (广东) to the neighbouring Guangxi (广西) where Yangshuo is, using the China High-Speed Rail network! I then proceeded to pitch the idea to my father-in-law for us to head to Yangshuo while conventional wisdom says that Guilin was an inspiration for sceneries of Chinese shanshui art, the rightful location was actually not in Guilin city but in Yangshuo county – administered by Guilin… and thankfully he bought the idea!

We had one major constraint though. My wife and I were concerned if my in-laws would be able to find other activities to occupy themselves, so we compromised by blocking just two days for us to climb. That means we had no time to spare in Yangshuo to ask around for directions. We’ll need to maximize our time in a productive manner.

GETTING TO YANGSHUO

This first method might be the easiest to work with:

1. Fly into Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport.

2. Take DiDi Chuxing (China’s Grab/Uber) for about 200 RMB to Guangzhou South railway station.

3. Get on the high-speed rail to Yangshuo station (actually in 兴坪镇 Xingping township, as stations are occasionally named after prominent landmarks that aren’t exactly nearby)

4. Take the public bus for about 25 RMB to go into the main bus-stop in Yangshuo town. Tickets are in an official service centre. You’ll meet a LOT of touts here for a direct car/taxi to Yangshuo town. Please do your own math to see if it’s worth it.

Alternatively, head straight to Guilin’s Liangjiang Airport – then take a bus/DiDi to Yangshuo.

OUR TECHNICAL SKILLS JOURNEY

Singapore is unique from most countries as we have a nationally standardized climbing syllabus. I got my SNCS Level 3 in August 2016 (it’s a fundamental multi-pitch climbing course) but had never attempted a multi-pitch until Massage Secrets, at 123 crag in Krabi, Thailand with my wife in March 2018! But why such a long wait of 1.5 years until a first attempt after I got my certification? Simple, because certification is not competency! That’s something well put into words that I learnt from my very recent Instructor Training Course conducted by Adrian and QX just before my family left for China. 

Essentially, all of us climbers ought to excel at risk management. We have to consider not only our personal abilities but also our partners’ abilities. Would your partner be able to get both of you out of an emergency and not risk both your lives? I didn’t want to think that just because I completed a course, that I would be perfectly competent to handle contingencies in the real world. From August 2016 to March 2018 I was working on my self-rescue drills as required in the SNCS Level 3 syllabus. The counterbalance abseil (counterbalance rap) and others (although ascending via Prusiks still isn’t my strong suit). But what good would it be if I can master the skillset, but my partner can’t do it in an emergency? (By the way, “rappel” is French while “abseil” is German). I’m very sure that far too many certified climbers will plain forget, or stay with some traditional methods via rote memory, or just not bother with it. After all bad things always happen to other people, right? Remember, “practice makes perfect” isn’t exactly correct – it’s “perfect practice makes perfect”!

PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE

I decided that a partial experience for my wife on Massage Secrets would be good enough, without committing to a full multi-pitch climb. She’ll get an introduction to the idea of multi-pitching while the risks are minimized. I belayed her up to the anchor to join me, as well as having her learn to rappel while I provided backup in the form of a fireman’s belay, descending before her.

Late in 2018, we watched Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall together and it convinced her to think that multi-pitch wasn’t too far-fetched anymore. And so she took her SNCS Level 3 in Jan 2019. Around this period, I also called some friends who wanted to practice ropework to join us, so my wife and friends could revise the full sequence of a multi-pitch climb while safe on the ground. You may not know that both of us had only about 4-5 outdoor climbs at this point, and were far more of a gym rat. Hence, we had many good reasons to practice on the ground in the meanwhile.

PRE-TRIP PREPARATION

Considering that I fractured my 5th right metacarpal in September 2018, it was pretty evident that I wasn’t going to have enough mileage in climbing to build up endurance in the months preceding the trip. Fortunately for me, I’ve always joked with friends about climbing as slack as I could. Which was actually about efficiency and not with brute power. My wife also didn’t climb as much since we were defacto climbing partners. We’re even, I guess!

A friend kindly gave me a copy of the Yangshuo guidebook before our trip. I put in a lot of time trying to whittle down the routes that we would spend time upon. I listed everything from 1-star to 4-star ratings, all across the Yangshuo region up to 5.10d (6b+) grading although I thought I should have a taste of what their 5.10b (6a+) is like… a little future-proofing here! I was confident of leading 5.9 pitches although I listed down route graded up to 5.10c if I happen to be better than I thought. For our attempt in March 2019, I believe it would only make sense for me to dial back on expectations so the route Happy New Year was a reasonable target.

Pitch 1 – 25m – 5.9 / 5c,
Pitch 2 – 15m – 5.7 / 5a,
Pitch 3 – 20m – 5.9 / 5c,
Pitch 4 – 20m – 5.9 / 5c,
Pitch 5 – 15m – 5.10b / 6a+

Looks reasonable, I guess?

TRIP PROPER

Day 1 – Recce Ride

Daily staple in Yangshuo - and the air quality isn't great
Daily staple in Yangshuo – and the air quality isn’t great

For some reason on Day 1, perhaps it was me being overwhelmed of having come to the big outdoors for climbing and the previous night’s persistent rain. I suggested to my wife that we should head out on the rented electric scooter to the various crags to assess the feasibility of the crags that should still be dry for climbing. We paid special attention to Treasure Cave, Brother Cave, and Panda’s Thumb, thanks to Andrew Hedesh’s Yangshuo guidebook as well as information we got from Lily of Climbing Inn and the chaps we met at Rock Abond the previous night.

How we loaded the scooter
 How we loaded the scooter
With the Garmin GPS neatly held, and haul bag on the floorboard
With the Garmin GPS neatly held, and haul bag on the floorboard

E-Scooter

I’ve been a bicycle user since 2002 on mountain and road bikes, and for the last 6 years, a folding bike. However, I do not possess a driving nor motorbike license at all so that limited me to renting the electric scooter to get around. Thankfully, the handling feels just like my folding bicycle, so we went out gingerly with all our gear in our 20kg haul bag, to scout for possible climbing crags based on the coordinates I saved into my Garmin GPS. Rental cost was about 50-60 RMB per day. Take note that the maximum range of the bike is 40km so don’t push the limit… guess how we found out!

I was pretty glad to have made the purchase of the RAM Mount set for my Garmin GPS. It made getting around a lot easier because the turn-by-turn navigation was all hands-free. All I had to do was to ask the scooter rental store to remove the plastic cover for the rear view mirror so that I could clamp on the RAM mount onto the mirror stem. The Metolius Quarter Dome haul bag was also able to fit snugly onto the floorboard of the scooter while holding everything in place. Although my wife carried our rope in our climbing backpack/rope bag to lighten my bag. However, with the haul bag on the floor of the scooter, the fit was so snug that when I tried to turn the handlebar fully to the left, the button for the horn would be activated by the bag…

Around Yangshuo on E-Scooter

Lo and behold, we ended up enjoying riding around so much on the electric scooter that we didn’t climb much. We did try a 5.10a top-rope route at Golden Cat Cave when we met one of the guys at Rock Abond the night before. He works at this spot for tourist-but-wannabe-climbers to belay them to reach some strung up teddy bears you’ll have a good laugh over it! Both of us just managed at most a third of the route and we were a little concerned, wondering that if we had a problem with 5.10a, how would we fare for Happy New Year with 5.9 a grade lower?…

Thanks to the day’s persistent light drizzle that never seemed to end. I was scurrying at midnight to come up with a refined list of possible locations suitable to climb in light rain with an emphasis for multi-pitch. Since we do not have that option here in Singapore. I also lowered my expectations as I had just recovered from a fracture in my hand incurred just six months ago, and my hands didn’t have enough climbing mileage to last on long climbs. And so, Happy New Year will be our primary objective! 

Day 2 – Climbing Day

Thankfully it wasn’t raining much at night and it felt like a suitable day for our attempt! So we went for breakfast at 9 am, thinking that we had lots of time to finish the climb… how wrong I was…

Scoping and surveying Happy New Year

Morning and the Prep

We reached the Panda’s Thumb about 1045 am and we proceeded to scope out the route. I knew there was going to be some confusion on the 3rd pitch. We also surveyed the base of Pitch 1 up to 1125 am, set down our gear to prep for the actual climb around 1140 am. But we only started climbing at 1230 pm! To keep things clean, the waterproof silnylon tarp that I bought from Taobao came out first, and all our gear just got piled on it including flaking of both our Mammut climbing rope as well as the unrated Xinda 8mm static haul line. As I was flaking the latter, I immediately regretted going cheap because the Xinda line had a tendency to not obey the laws of coiling movements…

Laying out gear on a silnylon tarp
Laying out gear on a silnylon tarp

It was good that we did the recce for the route before we started because I got a good idea of the line of the route… and most importantly where the first bolt was. However, the height of the bolt was too far for me to stick-clip even with my 3.2m clipstick, with my arm fully stretched! There was some video that I referred to online for the start of Happy New Year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to show the correct starting point.

Be Careful of Bad Beta

Our climb was anything but smooth sailing! Due to the misidentified start that I thought that would start from under a roof, it made spotting before my first clip almost impossible. Imagine the possibility of sliding down tackling one’s belayer due to a slip from a slab, which sounds more consistent with soccer instead of climbing! And please do NOT copy what looks like peeing from the route in the video by the guy who made it! One of the unusual things about Pitch 1 was that I managed to Z-clip because there was a cluster where 3 bolts were spaced less than a meter apart from each other! So now you know your ABD verification Z-clip drill wasn’t done in vain!

Seems like P1 should have started with the large pocketsholes instead of from under the roof on the left... we only found out after the descent
Seems like P1 should have started with the large pockets holes instead of from under the roof on the left… we only found out after the descent

I reached the top of Pitch 1 only to see where the two bolts forming the anchor were vertically oriented – a far cry from a typical horizontal orientation that we normally see! It wasn’t hard to reconfigure my quad anchor to fit into use here… and two key things remain to be done. Haul up the haul bag, and to belay up my wife…

From the belay ledge at Pitch 1 before hauling

Getting “The Pig” Up

We had to shout over the 25+ metre vertical distance a fair bit. Although I did prepare a set of walkie-talkies. However, I couldn’t use them unless I had one free hand! The decision was made to bring up the haul bag first before belaying my wife on a direct belay. To prevent her from potentially slipping down the platform where she belayed me from earlier, I took up the slack of the climbing rope and loaded the Mammut Smart Alpine in the direct belay configuration so she was on belay. Only now did I whip out my two sets of Climbing Technology Roll N Lock (one set is my own, the other is my wife’s) as progress capture devices and brought the haul bag up, tethered it to another locking carabiner on the anchor using a Munter Mule Overhand. Part 1 done!

Vertically oriented anchor bolts 27cm apart, and a direct belay rigged to prevent a fall for my wife before she started climbing. About to start hauling The Pig first though…
The orange Xinda haul rope defies gravity after multiple attempts to organize it

And Now, The Wife…

Now for Part 2… belaying up my wife. She climbs less than me, so her minor technical shortcomings of climbing were sabotaging her – she fell off the line as there was a minor traverse towards her right, and ended up on a blank wall that she said had no handholds nor footholds! That was where my other simulation and practice sessions came in handy, so I was able to quickly put her rope on a backup clipped to my belay loop, and I used my Sterling Hollow Block 2 with my DMM Revolver to give her the 3:1 hoist, which still suffered as there was additional rope drag from the line of the bolts, as well as from the ledge that I was on! It would be prudent for me to acquire one or two rope abrasion protectors for this purpose in the future…

3:1 hoist on direct belay

Curveball Belaying

What happened shortly was that she called for slack so that she could get back to a set of holds to retry the beta. But are you familiar with lowering your climber in a controlled and safe manner with a Munter hitch backup after overriding your direct belay device? Thankfully I’ve done all my homework, so I was able to rig it up fairly fast to lower my wife just about a metre or so… but once she started climbing, I would have to take out the Munter hitch. This happened about 4 to 5 times, but given my deliberate choice using direct belay, I knew how fast to transit between configurations. Have you practised it? Are you aware there are three ways to belay on multi-pitch climbs – direct, redirect and indirect – do you know which is which, when do you use each of them, and understand their associated pros/cons?

She Reached the Belay Ledge!

Unfortunately, shortly after my wife reached the belay ledge the skies decided to rain, and the death knell of lightning came in. We had a discussion and it was time to retreat. And you might have guessed was this at the end of Pitch 1? Frankly, I was upset, to have only climbed just ONE pitch out of FIVE pitches only to be ended by inclement weather. However, it would be a smarter idea to call it quits safely, rather than succumb to foolhardiness… And so our climbing trip ended prematurely and felt like constipation. There was some relief but mainly pain as the goal was abandoned due to unforeseen circumstances…

Before we rapped off…
Tangles? What tangles?

Encore… More hiccups?

However, we did have a little extended adventure trying to rappel with the haul bag – this was something that I didn’t have enough simulation nor practice back home. Let’s just say that a fireman’s belay for a haul bag for it to be lowered is fine provided you do not use the high friction configuration of an ATC for it…

 About to start our rap
Alternate undocumented method of using Mammut Smart Alpine without assisted braking for rapping. The third hand is a must!
Seems like P1 should have started with the large pocket holes… not the roof… Oops…

AFTERTHOUGHTS

I’m pretty pleased that some things that I prepared and did well for the trip:

1 – Dropping by Rock Abond and Climber Inn to ask for others’ advice about where to climb in the constantly drizzling weather.

2 – Having plotted the locations of all 41 crags in the Yangshuo region on my Garmin GPS, so I could just retrieve the saved location and ride wasting time on the rented electric scooter. Take note that OpenStreetMaps works perfectly fine – I’m not sure about other map sets though. I’ve also yet to add in crags that are only listed on TheCrag.com.

3 – Having referred to the Yangshuo guidebook to list out all those recommended routes within my climbing grades (1 to 4 star), and keying them into an Excel spreadsheet for sorting and selecting routes based upon the location, estimated periods of time when the sun would be out, and so that I could correlate the proximity of the crags taking into context the roads that link them up… lots of work, but it made sense when planning where to climb. I could also sort out the crags by the fact that if they were fine for climbing in light or prolonged rain.

4 – Having bought the RAM Mount holder for my Garmin 64s GPS. I was glad to have a handsfree reference on turns, and being able to zoom in/out when needed.

5 – Bringing along my climbing helmet which worked fine as a helmet when riding the scooter.

6 – Bringing up a haul bag – having water, food, rain jackets, approach shoes while up on the climb is the best way to prevent theft or animal-incidents. Headlamps and other items that are for emergency usage can be kept inside until needed. Using a haul bag also makes it easier for both climbers to focus solely on climbing without an extra load on the backs.

7 – Spending time and effort researching techniques for big wall climbing although most friends were in disbelief that I even bought a haul bag.

8 – Having weather forecast apps to refer for a general idea of how the weather would likely turn out.

9 – Buying Andrew Hedesh’s guidebook via Rakkup.com instead of from Apple’s iTunes Store, saved me a couple of bucks this way. Turn by turn navigation to the crags and photos to show the approach to the routes saves time!

10 – Having cycled a lot on bicycles helped me to master the electric scooter pretty fast although I’ve never ridden one before – let alone with my wife and the heavy haul bag along with me!

11 – Having done research on various technical skills such as a Munter or French Prusik backed-up lower on a direct belay device – how to transit in and out of it.

12 – Having my Goretex jacket – it was cold on the first day we rode around on the scooter, it worked great as a wind blocker!

13 – Having my leather belay gloves to shield my hands from the numbing cold when on the scooter. Very useful to prevent bashing up my hands while doing rope management on the belay anchors and belaying, of course.

14 – Mastering the Munter hitch – it’s absolutely essential in lowering the climber in plaquette mode as a backup if your third hand has been used. It’s NOT optional!

15 – Mastering releasable tie-offs – the Munter-Mule-Overhand and Mariner’s Hitches. This skillset is absolutely essential! The former is superior since it is a belay hitch when untied.

16 – Having bought a cheap monocular from Taobao years ago as we could scope the route before attempting it.

17 – Learning 2:1 and 3:1 hauling systems helped my wife to get up when she was unable to get past some trickier sections.

Happy New Year – 5 pitches, good candidate!
Topo of Happy New Year from the Rakkup Yangshuo guidebook

Here’s a list of things I thought that I could do better for this climb trip:

1 – Go for the simpler setup. Ha, this is hard!

2 – Consider not bringing the haul bag – hauling is a new skill to master by itself and has its own complications. Be very prepared if you want to do so.

3 – Lowering the haul bag as an independent item would have worked if I rigged the ATC in a low-friction mode. I almost died/cried laughing over this…

4 – Consider insulation for food containers – nothing picks up the psyche on a multi-pitch like warm food on a cold rainy day!

5 – Get more mileage, try out even more alternate beta/techniques (heel, toe hooks, Rose move) when leading in the gym.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Rope handling

Learn how to tie the clove hitch and Munter hitch one-handed. This will pay dividends someday!

Descending with the haul bag

1 – If you’re lowering haul bag using a firemen’s belay, please set the ATC in LOW friction mode. You’re welcome.

2 – Ideally, the haul bag should follow the first descending climber, attached in a pick-off spider so that it can be controlled and moved off snag-points.

3 – Remember to tether to anchors using releasable hitches  – MMO (Munter-Mule-Overhand) and Mariner’s Hitches are the main ones – please be familiar with them!

Rope

1 – Please get only fully waterproof-treated rope. You do not get to control the rain clouds. Heavy wet rope will be a challenge when leaving the crag as well. Our waterproof rope did not have a perceivable increase in weight although we were in the rain for hours!

Belay Device

1 – Being very confident with your chosen device – you will not have room for error!

2 – Direct belay (belay device directly attached to the anchor) will have its challenges. However, the overall benefit it provides is more than worth it. If you haven’t learned how to use direct belay – please practice on the ground. It will come in handy some day.

3 – Practice on the ground if you need to, on how to lower your follower with a Munter hitch or third-hand backup.

Anchor types

1 – Redundancy is key!

2 – Know when and how to use a pre-equalized or a self-equalizing (properly: load-distributing) anchor.

3 – Do NOT use a Magic/Sliding X as the sole anchor!

Quickdraws

Long quickdraws are good! My 22cm ones weren’t long enough to reduce rope drag. I should have taken the time to extend them since I have more than enough of them.

Others

1 – Having two mini ascenders (we use the Climbing Technology Roll N Lock) makes hauling and single-strand rope ascending a lot easier.

2 – Sterling’s Hollow Block and DMM’s Revolver wire-gate carabiners are fantastic pieces of kit. Go get some!

3 – Bring up a designated pee bottle, at least. It’s not fun risking urinary infections for holding one’s pee for extended periods. Face it – you’ll need to drink water – dehydration could jeopardize your adventure!

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