Lynn Hill is one of America’s most famous climbers. Her illustrious climbing career started in a small climbing area called ‘Big Rock’ in Southern California. From there, she ventured across America, spent time honing her free climbing in Yosemite, rose to become a world class competitive sport climber which culminated in her being the first person to free climb The Nose. She then dabbled in the alpine world with the North Face team in Kyrgyzstan which comprised of hardened mountaineers like Conrad Anker, Alex Lowe and others.
During her phase of competitive climbing, her greatest rival was Catherine Destivelle. Lynn hill describes, “Just as I had cut my teeth on the big walls of Yosemite – typical of an American climber – Catherine came to climbing in a classically French way: armed with an Ice ax. She made ascents of snow and ice routes on the frigid north faces of mountains like the Ailefroide and the Olan, then at age seventeen she made a seven-hour ascent of the vertical and technical American Direct on the Petit Dru, a granite spire that rises above Charmonix.” Despite being one of the most famous female climbers in the competition arena in the mid 1980s, Catherine once told a journalist that, “I don’t like competing even when I win.” Her heart yearned for the mountains. When she retired from competitive climbing, she dived deep into alpinism. It culminated in solo ascents of the north faces of the Eiger, the Bonatti route on the Matterhorn and a 12-day solo ascent of a big wall climb on the Grande Jorasses.
These two excellent climbers were redefining the world of indoor sport climbing competitions. Yet at the same time they broke ground in very different areas, one in the big walls of Yosemite and the other in the European Alps.
To be a mountaineer is to be an all-rounded climber, proficient on rock, snow and ice. As a mountaineering gumby, I have only been exposed to minimal styles of climbing. Having dabbled in a bit of traditional climbing, sport climbing, some snow craft on TMCs, the last frontier would be ice-climbing. Ice climbing also has its variations, just like rock climbing. There are indoor plastic holds for ice climbing practice and competition. Outdoors, two distinct kinds of ice exists, glacial ice and waterfall ice. As an aspiring alpinist/mountaineer, one would also encounter sections of dry-tooling or mixed climbing, involving climbing of rock sections with ice tools and crampons. To illustrate this, watch this video by Petzl that documents that Scottish Ice Trip.
双桥沟 (Shuang Qiao Gou – Double bridge valley) is one of China’s most famous ice climbing areas and was poised as an affordable option for our team. This place provides plentiful waterfall ice for us to train on. This region is highly developed and infrastructure to support tourism is amazing. The road in this valley is about 30 km long and a bus serves the sightseeing tourists till the end of the road before making a u-turn back out.
Accommodations are plentiful here and you can choose to stay in a homestay or hotel. Prices are similar and range from 120-150 RMB per night which includes daily breakfast and dinner. You can expect heated rooms/beds in either choice.
Our plan was to lead on our own and figure out ice climbing all by ourselves without any guide. We had a full week here and all we were going to do was climb. After our 4 hour drive from Chengdu to the valley, we dropped our bags and made our way to the first waterfall outside our hotel. This was 无色 (Wu Se – Five colors). Within the 2 hours of daylight left, I gumbied my way up 5 metres to build a tiny top rope practice lane for us. This was probably on a 70 degree incline.
Buoyed by our ‘success’ we headed for 人参果坪 (Ren Sheng Guo Ping – Ginseng Plate) on our second day . We were dropped off by our driver at what we now know was the entrance to 木梯子 (Mu Ti Zi – Wooden Ladder) instead. There we spent close to 2 hours getting lost in the forest, trying to bash our way into what the driver pointed out as our waterfall. Eventually we found it, but it was not 人参果坪 or 木梯子, it was unnamed on the topo. Rule number 1 in ice climbing is: Don’t Fall. The stark difference in rock climbing and ice climbing is that protection is more uncertain. We did manage to set up 2 short top rope lanes, but also realized why this waterfall was so pristine. It had chandelier ice, hollow sections that make climbing more dangerous and even more so for repeated climbs on top-rope.
Our third day, we took a break and decided to explore the 30km of beauty that the valley had to offer. We learnt that the road really ended at a round about and there were shops there that were owned by villagers selling their own produce. Every once in a while, villagers would re-ballot their stall positions to ensure everyone gets a fair chance of getting customers.
We decided for our fourth day that we would hire someone to help us set up top-ropes and be our guide. The ice climbing scene is so established here that the hotels and homestay owners can arrange for instructors or top-rope guides for you. Of course, the instructors would be more costly than the guides who would only set up top rope. We paid 300 RMB per day (regardless of group size) and 100 RMB for a round trip by car for our guide’s service. We addressed him as 邓老师 (Teacher Deng). He grew up in this valley and was a shepherd in his youth. We learnt that ice climb was essential in this valley and the villagers had to cross waterfalls with spiked shoes for their livelihood. He told us stories of wild animals that the villagers would have to escape from by means of climbing waterfalls. Some even perished on them. He was a successful mountaineer during his prime, a Kailas athlete and had 9 First ascents under his belt, 2 of which were in 双桥沟.
We drove into the middle of the valley at 0800 hrs only for 邓老师 to realize he forgot his backpack of gear. We stood frozen in the -10 degrees cold alongside the road for what felt like eternity as we waited for him to go home to retrieve his pack. During that time we watched as 2/3 groups of other climbers alighted and went up the trail to climb in the same place as us. When he returned, we decided to head elsewhere, somewhere more peaceful.
This waterfall we climbed was 水帘洞 (Shui Lian Dong, Curtain of Water). This was a special location for local guides only. We had this place all to ourselves. It was comprised of a gentle 5 metre WI3 section, with a short WI4 90 degree-ish crux at the top. It was the first time for some of us on steep ice and we experience really sore thumbs and calf strains. Ice was also harder here, requiring more precise swings at the ice. No way would we have been able to lead this first go without taking a fall. We were glad we hired a guide for this, at S$20 each, it was the equivalent of entry to a climbing gym in Singapore.
The fifth day we tried 雪山老屋 (Xue Shan Lao Wu – Old Hut in the Snow Mountain), it was also a WI3-ish climb that involved an approached that required ice climbing. We were told that winter was warmer this year, else we could go up higher and find more waterfalls. This day we gained momentum in our training and we all made 4/5 laps up this short waterfall to practise our technique.
Day 6 we ventured into the world of hard core ice climbing. An artificially made ice climbing tree that was 90 degrees and tipped towards the WI5 grading of difficulty. The ice was hollow towards the top, making protection more dangerous the higher you went. We could not bear to watch as 邓老师 climbed precariously with a run out towards the top of the tree. He trembled as he tried to shake out his pumped arms and slipped a few times on his crampons. Inch by inch, he made his way up and topped out for us to have a go. Only then did the tension dissipate.
The second half of that day, we tried out dry tooling. Little bits of rock were chiseled out for our ice tools to be placed. Such areas are usually chosen because they are more chossy. Ethics dictate that good rock climbing areas are reserved for rock climbing, so you would not see chiseled out mono holds on good climbing areas. Mono point crampons had to be used in order to step in the same mono holds. 邓老师 stepped aside from this section and we had to set up our own ropes. I decided that the prospect of taking a fall with ice tools flailing about was too dangerous for me on first go, so I rock climbed up.
Dry tooling requires precision in your movements, and it was good training both for ice and rock climbs. The lack of feedback from the tools made it more precarious, which meant your choice of placement was all the more important. Calf strength was put to the test on these mono holds and arm pump was at its maximum.
Day 7 we headed to 撵鱼坝 (Nian Yu Ba – Fish Driving Dam) A training ground for most beginner courses. The grades here were WI2-3. But the ice was so chiseled out that it was akin to a staircase up. We were grossly annoyed by another noisy group here and we ended our day early. We headed to 邓老师’s house to have a tour of what a true local’s house was like.
He showed us his house under renovation and in the works to becoming a new homestay. This was his retirement plan from climbing, to run a homestay for climbers. He spoke about his life as a boy and how he joined a water rafting company before trying to escape from it to climb mountains full time. He was down to earth even as a sponsored athlete and posted truthful reviews on the quality of Kailas’s climbing equipment that would eventually get him dropped from their line up. He spoke about how climbers should carry themselves and told us, “看人不是看能力，是看人品” (a climber is not judged by his skill but by his character). It turned out to be a beautiful day at the end of it.
The last climbing day, we headed to 雪崩口 (Xue Beng Kou – Avalanche Pass). We were keen to test our mettle. All of us had been practicing placing ice screws on top rope and v-threads on the ground. This time we would be trying out mock-lead followed by a real lead up a WI3 climb. In this little corner of the valley, we had the waterfall to ourselves. We watched in silence, fearful of disturbing the concentration of the climber, as each of one of us took turns to lead the climb. This made the climber even more explicitly aware of each action.
At the end, we all gained more confidence on ice. We were exposed to vastly different kinds of climbing in this short period of time. We may not be experts in this field, but we all walked away knowing more of what we love/hate about climbing. Experience is what matters today, for we still have many good years to be truly proficient in the discipline of climbing that our heart truly yearns for.
By: Lim Joel
Team comprising Lim Joel, Ryan Ho, Samuel Sng, Pang Hui En & Su Fuming