writing, photos, and videos by: Ryder Stroud
with contributions from Dane Schellenberg
Foreword: This wall was an absolute adventure to climb. While the story you read below hopefully gives you a sense of what development duty and lead bolting is like, Dane and I want readers to know that we meticulously cleaned our route so that YOU can climb it and have a good time. Baiyansi is an incredible, high-quality wall that has the potential for hundreds of amazing lines. Go climb it!
“Dane did some insanity… literally climbing through piles of dirt.”
“I had… a mental breakdown!”
Dane half-smiled spat out a mouthful of dust and dirt that he stirred up from lead-bolting the crux pitch. I pointed my phone’s camera back in his face. He shuddered.
I looked at him and then to our bivy ledge below. I could see our camping gear was slathered in dirt from the cleaning we had let loose down the route.
“Now time to descend to the ledge for some fangbianmian (instant noodles)!” I clapped Dane on the shoulder.
I tried getting him to emote a little bit, but the prospect of MSG noodles barely caused him to stir.
“Yeah… and drunk…” His catatonic gaze barely moved from the bolts in front of us.
Dazed, Dane stared longingly down at the ledge. The flood of adrenaline pumped into his system over the last 2 hours had finally subsided. He was exhausted, his mind still emerging from the dark tunnel of fight-or-flight mode. His mind seemed fixed on the flask of cheap, oil-red “Jinjiu” booze we had stashed in the camp food stash alongside some coconut milk.
We started calling it the “White Chinese.” It tasted even worse than a White Russian.
“I’m… SO EXCITED you’re leading the pitches tomorrow! I’m so done… so done.” He lurched forward and rammed the drill into the dry bag. Bolts rattled around the bottom of the bag like little bells, reminding us how much more terrain we still had to cover before we could even dream of topping out. He grabbed his belay device off his harness and threaded the rope through it in silence.
“Oh, SHIT!” I whipped the steering wheel left. The van lurched across granite blocks wedged into a concrete irrigation canal in the cracked, broken road slicing between farm fields. My van suddenly dropped a few inches as the wheels barely made the width of the ditch.
“This better be granite! The van needs to be taking abuse for something good!” I whipped the steering wheel from left to right, avoiding more quarried blocks the locals left on the side of the road for house foundations. The engine lugged and rumbled slightly as I slowed to round a sharp bend in the road, dust kicking up outside across the windshield.
Dane shot an arm out the window as the car slowed.
“Damn sure looks like it! Look at that!”
Above the village rooftops, a massive dome of rock came into full view. I stole glances up at it through the windshield as I continued whipping the steering wheel to avoid potholes in the road. I snapped the wheel hard left.
“OHHHH, NO.” I knew an inevitable drop was coming.
THUNKCRACK. The van dropped into a hole with a dull thud. The kitchen gear clanged loudly in the back. A spoon dropped off the counter and clattered around against the floor. I hit the clutch and put some gas into the engine as the van crawled out of the small ditch we had dropped into. The engine let out a high-pitched whine as the engine spun without the clutch engaged.
Reuben’s motorbike shot out ahead, deftly maneuvering around all the obstacles my van dropped straight into. The road suddenly turned to concrete, and Reuben stopped his bike, flipping up his helmet visor and flagging us down.
I grumbled something about all the loose parts I could hear rattling around in my van, and I pulled to the side of the road and hopped out of the car. I thanked the climbing gods for cheap, Chinese made car parts and simple machines as I inspected the van. Reuben hopped off his bike.
“What do you boys think?” Reuben motioned towards the huge series of cliffs on the mountaintop in the distance. The full size of the cliff was just beginning to sink in. Obscured through the dust, the cliffs looked pretty small. But we suddenly realized how far we were from the cliff, maybe 6 kilometers away.
“150 meters?!” I looked over in disbelief at Reuben. “You’re full of shit.” I cracked. “This thing is huge!”
I looked at Dane, his eyes had wide in disbelief. After saying he was almost sure it was all gneiss, he walked over and picked up one of the heavy stones quarried near the side of the road. He put it down and wandered over to a huge stone jutting up out of the ground next to a local’s farmhouse.
“Holy shit. I thought it couldn’t be for real, but this is DEFINITELY granite…” He ran is hands over the surface of the boulder. “Could have sworn it was gneiss…”
Back at the hostel a day earlier, Reuben tried tempering our expectations.
“It’s definitely granite, but I am not sure if it is as tall as you guys are hoping.” He took a long drink from his beer bottle. I leaned over and opened up the hostels beer fridge and grabbed another beer. “100 meters? Maybe 150? Though who knows? I still haven’t been to the base.”
Back out in the village, I squinted up through the dust and mid-day sun.
“That’s gotta be way taller than 150! 2…300?” Dane walked over to the car to grab a pair of binoculars off the dashboard.
“Well, you boys can find out! I still haven’t been to the base, proper.” Reuben flipped the visor on his helmet back down. “Come on. I’ll show you the road that should get you up to the base.” He stomped on the kick-starter, and his bike roared to life. Dane and I clambered back into the van.
The pavement only continued for a few hundred meters before turning back into loose dirt and clay above the village. As the van rumbled across the mountain path, the potholes grew, turning into monsoon rain-carved trenches more than a meter across and deep. The maw of these holes threatened to swallow the van on terrain from which I could never save it. The road angle steepened as the van crept along. Reuben doubled back on the road and pulled up alongside the van.
“I’m gonna head back to the guesthouse. You think you’ll continue? The road gets pretty nasty a little further ahead…”
“This van has been through hell. I think she can handle it.” I patted the quarter panel below the driver-side window. I looked out across the trenches that crisscrossed the road ahead, wondering if I would regret what I had just said.
“Alright, let me know what you guys find! ” Reuben revved his bike’s engine “Send some photos!” He yelled over the sound of his motorbike. He sped off down the dirt track, his bike easily dodging the obstacles that my van had to creep around. I gripped the wheel, a little bit damp from my sweaty palms.
“What do you think?” I looked over at Dane. He was eyeing the road ahead, too. Both of us stared nervously at the track ahead, squeezed between a trench about half as wide as the entire car on the left and a steep hillside on the right.
“You think that track is wide enough?” Dane kept glancing between the car and the track above. “That hill on the right would… well, there wouldn’t be much left to find of the van…”
I turned the key in the ignition and the van’s tiny engine roared to life.
“Well, I guess we have to find out.” I fed gas into the engine and the van crept forward. “We went through worse out in Sichuan.” I dug around, trying to find confidence to make the situation seem less scary.
The van crawled up the incline, and the whole car started pitching to the left as the outside wheels went up the small embankment at the edge of the track next to a death drop. Dane leaned out the window.
“Uhhhhh, dude?!” He nervously waved his hand away from the cliff. You’re getting really close!”
“I think we’re alright! Just keep checking my right side!” I started intently out the windshield, hunching closer to the steering wheel and watching the wheels on the left inch closer to a huge trench. The van pitched steeply one last time, before lurching back flat. The trench relented and disappeared into the hillside on the left.
“See! That was fun! Wonder if there’s more of that…” I stared out at the rubble strewn clay soil ahead.
If it was wet, even the van’s brand new set of all-terrain tires did not stand a chance. The van rumbled across the rocks as the rocks embedded in the dirt got bigger and jutted further out from the ground. The van bucked as it crossed over them, and I tried to have the tires take the brunt of the rocks rather than grating on the undercarriage of the van itself. The road narrowed to barely the width of the car for a few kilometers and took some sharp bends around a ridge line. The tires noisily spit rocks out from the undercarriage. We rounded a corner and stopped dead. Another huge pile of rocks blocked the road. Dane looked skeptically at me.
“You REALLY think we can cross this?” He began reaching towards the handle to open the passenger door.
“Well, we’ve made it through everything this far. See what happens.”
“O…K…” Dane let go of the door handle and wiggled a little further into his seat.
One last time I added some gas into the engine, came up on the clutch, and accelerated to carry over the rocks. One wheel lifted violently over a big, flat, triangular rock, and the car suddenly came to a near halt.
“UH… DUDE?” Dane stuck his head out the window and looked at the rubble pile below.
“I got it! One sec…” I came down on the clutch and dumped more gas into the engine. The sound of the 1.3 liters of revving lawn mover engine filled the cabin, and the van came down with a dull thud on the other side of the rock pile. Dane and I lurched around in our seats as the car’s hilariously bad suspension absorbed the last of the shock from coming off the rocks. I inched the van around the turn.
Dane chuckled. “Your van… is a beast.”
“YEEOOO, you bet she is!” I turned up the music and inched the van around the bend ahead.
We rounded the bend and spotted a spring coming through rocks in the hillside. The road above kicked back to an angle impossible for the van.
“I guess we found camp!” I said. I reached down and pulled up the emergency brake as hard as I could. “Water, shade, flat ground. What else do we need??”
I reached down to take the key out of the ignition, and my eye caught the trip odometer. We had barely gone 5 kilometers from where Reuben left us on the road, and it was nearly an hour later…
“Here goes Dane… up into the unknown on this shit…” I panned my camera up the slab then back to Dane, who was fiddling with the cams hanging from his harness.
“This video was taken MOMENTS before the accident…” Dane laughed, half-jokingly and nervously looking from my camera lens up to the cliff above.
“Don’t say that shit, dude. Who’s coming to help us if that happens? Reuben and the crew at the Drum House?” I said, looking down into the valley. Reuben and our friends at his guesthouse were at least half a day away from the mountain to start mountains a rescue effort if, climbing gods forbid, we actually needed it.
“Well… we do have 4G coverage…” Dane readjusted his harness.
One side sagged uncomfortably beneath the weight of the 36-volt Hilti drill clipped to one of the gear loops. It was a whale. The hammer’s handle clacked against the pile of bolts clipped to his other gear loops.
I recalled the cell tower we passed on the way up the dirt track above the village. Its new tower balanced atop the cracked, unfinished masonry local builders hastily slapped together to house the electronics. It was an insurance policy… of sorts…
“Time to do science!” Dane hiked his harness higher on his hips, the drill still making it slide just a little too low on his hips.
Dane slowly crept up the first pitch, clinging tenuously to friable rock as he tore off carpets of Jericho Rose flowers and dried dirt from the slabs above. I paid out rope slowly as he climbed up, staring out into the cloudless January morning. The rope started whipping back and forth as Dane leaned out from his stance and looked down at me.
“Oh, SHIT!” He screamed from high on the pitch. “RYDER, CAN YOU GET TO COVER?” He yelled from above. “I’M GONNA TRY TO CLEAR THIS ROCK. THERE’S BASICALLY DIRT HOLDING IT TO THE CLIFF!”
“OK!” I yelled back. “How big is it??”
“FUCKING BIG, AND IT’S RIGHT NEXT TO ME. I’LL TRY TO HEAVE IT. GET TO COVER.”
I hastily stumbled forward towards a small hole at the base of the cliff, my hand nearly dropping the belay rope as sand and pebbles showered me from above.
“Goddamn, I love Grigris.” I muttered. “Alright! I’m good!”
I quickly unzipped my chest pocket and snatched my phone, hitting the Record button on as the falling pebbles turned to dirt clods and gravel.
“RRRRRRRRAAAAUGGHHHHH.” Dane let out a guttural roar, and I heard the crack of rock colliding with the cliff. I smelled sparks.
BOOM. The rock cratered in the dirt 5 meters away from me, sending an shrapnel of dirt and small twigs spraying towards my meager foxhole near the base of the route.
“WAIT. WAIT. ONE MORE.” Dane screamed.
BOOM. Another rock cratered right next to the hole left by the previous one. I cracked open my eyes as more soil came pouring down the cliff.
“DAMNIT. ARE YOU DONE?!” I yelled up. I tilted my head up just in time for a pebble to come whizzing down the cliff, the small rock pinballing in the space between my sunglasses and helmet.
“For now!” Dane called back. “Shit that was heavy!”
Days went by. We only had vague notions of what to do. Neither of us had put up a multipitch of this size before. We followed our normal route development playbook, hauling thick stainless chain, maillons, and a pile of 316 stainless bolts up the wall. Mornings were spent drenched in sweat, as we hauled all the gear from our posh van camp to the wall, weaving through a rare bit of old-growth forest to the base of the wall, passing an old temple en-route.
above gallery: The namesake of Baiyansi. Up in the forests beneath the wall are two abandoned temples. One is likely a few decades old, sporting wood timbers and a mostly intact temple structure. The other, right next to the base of the wall is likely a few centuries old, with only a stone foundation atop an enormous boulder remaining as a testament to what used to be on the mountain.
We made supply caches and tried all sorts of ways to push progress faster. We cached gear and even hauled up camping equipment to a ledge a third of the way up the route. We mulled over the idea of supply caches on-route to minimize the number of times we had to go back to the van, which was parked near a spring in the forest nearly an hour away from the cliff.
By the morning on day 4, we sat at our ledge camp, groggy from the terrible bivy platforms that only let us sleep 4 hours a night. We downed some instant noodles and coffee, scampering through thorn bushes across the ledge to find our toilet pit near a tree at the ledge’s end. After scampering up the pitch beneath our high point, I dumped my gear onto the gear sling, blankly staring at the anchor station before looking up to the slab above. Dane arrived, clipped the gear to his harness and took off.
I stared up at Dane perched tenuously on a slab covered in friable rock. Bits of decomposed granite showered me at the belay.
Click. Dane clipped into a bolt.
“This looks pretty spicy!” Dane looked down at me. His face was coated in dirt. We knew that we were on one of the crux pitches from the get-go: a broad, open slab covered in friable rock and small holds. It was a minefield on a ground-up ascent. We only had trial-and-error to really know which holds were usable, and error usually involved violent downward motion.
“Small holds?” I yelled back.
“Yup! And I can’t tell if it is any good above me! Damnit, why do we do this to ourselves??” He hollered. He slowly moved up and left.
Bits of sand dribbled past my sunglasses and hit me in the eye. I winced, my eyes watered as I struggled to keep my eyes on Dane. He had moved 3 meters past his last bolt, constantly moving out into the unknown and back to his last rest. Each time, he desperately paddled at the rock, trying to strip it of its bad rock.
“DAMNIT. EVERYTHING IS SO SHIT!” Dane clung to a small edge as he drew his feet underneath him and stood on some tiny holds. They cracked, sending more pebbles down to the belay. He reached up, desperately looking for an exit onto the ledge above. His body swayed and rotated as he tried in vain to counter the barn door forces peeling him off the wall.
“FUUUUUCK. IT’S ALL DIRT ON THIS LEDGE!” His fingers tore at the hard-packed dirt sitting above his head. I could hear him spitting out dirt. On of his foot holds suddenly popped.
“RYDER! OFF!!” I could see more dirt coming loose and begin to skitter down the slab towards me, and I instinctively recoiled. Dane’s left foot peeled off as his body tried fighting the twisting motion of a barn door. Two clods of dirt, his only hand holds, parted from the mat of dirt on the ledge, and he went into free fall. The rope snapped tight as he swung right sweeping across the slab and pendulum-ing around the last bolt he placed. I could hear the drill scraping heavily across the slab as he pinged off the wall and did a half twist. He whipped past the bolt and made a small swing back left until he came to rest 3 meters beneath the bolt.
“You alright!” I yelled up, I relaxed my death grip on the brake strand and could feel blood returning to my fingers.
He propped his forearm on the rope, taut like a guitar string after absorbing the impact of the fall. He put his head on his arm.
“Guhhhd, that was FUCKING terrifying.” Dane called back, his voice obscured by his panting breaths and dirt-covered arm. He reached down to his foot where the drill bit stuck out from the drill itself, checking to see if the bit had impaled his ankle in the general violence of the fall. He looked at his fingers sighed happily when he found nothing there. “Oh, god, dude. There’s nothing on that ledge. Just dirt!”
He pulled back up to the last bolt and stared at the terrain that spit him off for a few long minutes in complete silence.
“You gonna give it a go again, or do you want me to take over?” I said.
I paused. “Dane…?”
He did not acknowledge me or even move for a few long moments. There was a long silence before he stirred.
“No.” He began moving slowly, checking that his limbs were all still intact. “No. No. No. I am getting this damn thing. It’s terrifying, but I’m gonna give it another go.” He quickly rearranged gear on his harness and scrambled to the highest point the rope and bolt would allow.
“Alright, give me some rope!” He set out across the slab above his bolt again, reaching the moves beneath the ledge. He pulled up as high as he could, clawing at the dirt again. For every inch of progress he made upwards, the dirt would decay in two-inch intervals.
“COME ON.” Dane slapped at the small edges rock above the ledge, scumming his lower body over the dirt that launched him down the wall 15 minutes earlier. “DAHHHH.” He stood up, and I could see the dirt he had loosened from his previous attempt lurch under his feet.
“WATCH ME!” He grabbed tiny holds above the ledge, tiptoeing his way to the apex. With each step, he recoiled slightly, half-expecting the dirt to give way again. He slowly pulled the drill out and began placing a bolt. “Goddamnit, that bolt is so far away!” He looked down fearfully at his last bolt–six to seven meters away—as the dirt underneath him continuously shed down the wall. He began hammering the rock, searching for a place for pro. He drilled, cleaned and finally sunk a bolt. He clipped in and let out a scream.
“Good god, I was ready to take a massive fall there!” He looked down at me then over to the last bolt, now five to six meters below. “Every step felt like something was gonna give way!”
“What does it look like above you? Better?” I squinted up at him through the late-day sun reflecting off the wall.
“More tiny holds.” He scanned the headwall above him. “ There are… exactly… zero jugs!” He laughed. “Why would you think of such a ridiculous thing?”
He laughed again, coughed, and spat out some dirt. He slowly made his way up the next headwall. I could see his calf shaking from fatigue and fear.
“Watch me REALLY close here! My calves are destroyed, and there’s a real decking potential with that ledge!” He once again grabbed the drill. I squinted up at him again, and my eyes widened. He was clinging to tiny, friable crimps while drilling the bolt.
“DAHHHHH.” Dane screamed, using what little energy he had left to pushed the drill towards the cliff and engage the drill’s hammer. Those tiny holds were the only thing separated him from a gravity-fueled meeting with the ledge below, almost certainly an ankle-mangler. He frantically hammered the bolt in and clipped a draw to it. He let out a relieved sigh as I took in rope, finally allowing him to rest.
“Hold on… let me see…” He put both hands on the small crimp he used to steady himself on the headwall and pressed his thumbs into the cliff, pulling the small hold outward. He grunted and pulled on the hold harder as it flexed away from the cliff.
“Ohhh, shit.” Dane lurched forward as the small hold tore off the cliff. “Well, thaaaat was the only thing keeping me from decking on the ledge.” He held up the fragment left in his hand and then chucked it down the cliff. “I’m so done with this day… So done…” He shook his head and reset the drill on his harness, continuing to climb slowly through the headwall. The last 5 meters dragged on for over an hour.
The late-day sun disappeared behind the big wall of the mountain, putting us deep into shadow as I slowly crept up towards Dane up the big, friable slab.
BRRAAAAAAAP. The sound of the hammer drill pulsed against our eardrums. Dane paused the drill to shake out his arm. He stared blankly at the rock until the drill bit completely disappeared into the cliff. He yanked the drill out and hammered the last bolt. I pulled out my camera.
“Dane… just did some insanity… literally climbing through piles of dirt.”
He looked over his sunglasses. I was surprised he could hammer the bolt, seeing as there was more dirt visible than lens. He spat out some granite dust and dirt and cracked a half smile.
“I had… a mental breakdown!”
We both looked longingly down at our high camp a few pitches below on the ledge. We were already dreaming of the taste of MSG and cheap Chinese sorghum alcohol in our food stash. We began rappelling in silence.
Our headlamps danced around the ledge. The massive thorn bush that had sliced Dane’s ear earlier in the day lay in a pile, sawed into chunks and teetering precariously close to our sleeping area: two poorly dug out dirt ledges. I clipped to a sling hanging from the belay bolts placed on the wall just above our bivy spot.
Kinky love. Kinky, I’m mad about your kinky love. I need you so bad… The song’s jazzy baseline filled our camp from the speaker I had hung to one of the anchor bolts. I started laughing uncontrollably, nearly choking on coconut milk and cheap booze.
Dane spat out a mouthful of noodles, doubling over laughing in his pink pajamas we pilfered from a Chinese game show film set a week before down in the valley.
“HA. BAHAHAHA. This makes this meal SO MUCH BETTER.” Dane shoveled a pile of instant noodles into his bowl, eating a big mouthful while simultaneously reaching over for the flask of Jinjiu.
A friend had sent Dane the song earlier that week. While we opted for metal and rock high on the wall, this song, Kinky Love, was the beginning and end of our day, and for some reason, left us unable to breathe every time it popped up on the playlist.
“I… I…HAAA” Dane could barely form a sentence through his laughter. “Ryder… think of all this kinky love on this big wall. You and me, shitting ourselves everyday on lead… eating dirt… drinking Jinjiu…” He held the small glass flask up in the light of his headlamp. “What could be better??”
Dane emptied the remainder of Jinjiu into his cup and shook the can of coconut milk. Empty.
“Well, looks like it’s just Jinjiu for the rest of the night with dinner!” He reached out to clink out cups together. The two of us took a long drink. I stared out through the stand of small trees at the edge of the ledge. Faint LED lights twinkled in the tiny villages below, nearly 10 kilometers away. We were the only ones around for kilometers, save for the lone, elderly, 77 year-old Baizu man who lived alone in a rammed earth farming compound a kilometer downhill from the cliff.
“Yeah, what could be better?” I said to myself, staring out into the total darkness at the edge of the ledge.
Click. Click… Click. Click.
I rearranged the development gear on my harness, swapping carabiners endlessly to find the best combination that would not trip me with the gear’s leashes. I was stalling, and I knew it.
ERT. ERRT. The drill head spun as I depressed the trigger and checked the battery levels.
“Alright, buddy! You’re up! I’m going to… sit here and… NOT shit myself!” Dane laughed as he clapped me on the shoulder. He reached out and pressed the power button on our speaker that was clipped to the anchor bolts. He reclined in his harness, ready to pass the next 2.5 hours of listening to me whimper as I desperately scratched at rock looking for protection.
I let out a long sigh. He was right. It was my turn to do something. Dane had shouldered the scariest of the pitches to that point. Endless days of scrubbing and lead bolting above our bivy ledge, and I somehow seemed to luck out and get the pitches that were easier to protect. Where I would get a short crack system, Dane was usually left with runouts on slopers. Where I got a great stance to place a bolt, Dane was protected by two horrendous cams on steep terrain. We doubted those cams could hold body weight, let alone a climber under the influence of gravity.
I craned my neck out to look around a pile of blocks right out from the belay.
It was an airy traverse over a huge wall that dropped straight down for a couple of pitches to a terrace that separated us from a huge, free-standing tower across a gulley. I felt my pulse jump and my mouth go dry. It looked like a long way to get to a really dirty crack out right. The pendulum fall looked horrible. I pulled out my nut tool and clipped it to the front of my harness.
“Well, time to dig!” I feigned confidence and started up the blocks off the belay. I hit one with the heel of my hand.
THUNK. THUNK. Completely hollow. I looked behind: definitely not attached. They were buried into the mountainside dirt enough that I thought they would not move.
“Good way to start!” I muttered to myself and grabbed the next boulder perched on top of the one I was already climbing. I looked back down at Dane a few meters below. He fed out some rope while staring over at the tower next door.
I reached the top of the boulders and placed a bolt. Better to keep the rope off the boulders I thought. I stepped down cautiously to the start of the traverse. The distance to the corner crack seemed longer than it appeared from the belay. I stepped gently right and suddenly felt my right foot begin to slide. I suddenly recoiled in horror. My foothold vaporized in a cloud of small granite shards and dirt. The Jericho Rose embedded in the dirt pinged down the wall and landed with an audible THUNK on the ledge far below me.
“You alright??” Dane called from down behind the blocks. I yarded my rope to keep it above them. The top block seemed precariously held in by dirt.
“MY FOOTHOLD JUST DISAPPEARED.”
I scrambled back up and clawed at some dirt and friable rock looking for protection. Despite having a month and a half of climbing and development that season, I could still feel the pump breaching my forearms. I scrambled desperately for the hammer on the side of my harness. My first bolt seemed impossibly far away.
I tapped the rock face around me, reaching as high as I could in search of solid rock for a bolt.
The sound of hollow rock was everywhere. I peered harder at the edges of the small face, following the fissures with my eyes, horrified as I realized they were connected all the way around. It was just a shield of rock perched on top of layers below.
“NO PRO!” I shouted, more-than-half-panicked, back at Dane. I clawed higher up the rock and dirt mix.
“No bolts?!” Dane called back in disbelief.
“Loose rock!!” I grabbed a piece of friable rock, pulled up and locked off and hurled it down the slab. I could feel bits of rock moving beneath my shoes. I desperately unclipped the hammer and reached up one more time, swinging the hammer while holding a horribly awkward stance on small, dirty holds.
CLACK. CLACK. CLACK. CLUNK.
My hammer drifted from the top of my reach down towards my head. The closer it got, the worse the rock sounded. My eyes widened with excitement, and I knew I could finally sink a bolt if I could keep my lockoff and drill as high as I could reach. I flailed blindly at my harness, searching for the drill. I felt my left foot lurch as a piece of the foothold below me broke off. Pumped full of adrenaline, I tried to slow my movements, dreading the snapping sensation would next involve a bigger chunk of rock. I lifted the drill above my head.
BRAAAAAAP. I held the drill as high over my head as possible, feeling the blood draining from my arms as I tried to engage the drill’s hammer. I pinched my shoulder blades, pushing against the drill until my entire right arm felt like it was crawling with ants. I finally cleared out the hole and hammered in the bolt and fearfully glanced up at it, desperately hoping that the rock was as solid as it sounded. I lowered myself back down to the traverse below and slowly moved right, picking out which holds were actually rock and which were just Jericho Rose and dirt perched precariously on the slab.
Arriving at the crack, I looked back at the last bolt. Questionable rock, and now I was four meters across the traverse. I looked up, blinking some dirt out from eyes. The crack was choked with dirt and greenery. Vines draped down the rock face next to the crack. I cursed at no one and began tearing at the vines, questioning if I would have been better off climbing out in a desert somewhere in Inner Mongolia. Who the hell would climb a monsoon rainforest big wall?
“How’s the crack!” The boulders at the beginning of the pitch obscured Dane’s voice.
“Full of dirt! Were you expecting something else?” I grimaced as I scraped dirt off the face around the crack. I winced. My hands were cut up and rubbed raw from the 10 pitches below that we had cleaned.
I peeled the nut tool off my harness and began digging. Clods of dirt sloughed off and showered my shoes. I peered into the crack and slotted two tiny cams. I shot a glance back left. If these two little cams in the thin crack section blew before I reached the hand crack above, I would cheese grate across the slab below before that bolt next to the hollow flake would even begin to slow me down. I slapped some long runners on the two cams in a vain attempt to reduce the already horrific rope drag.
“Well this sucks, “ I yelled back at Dane while staring at my garbage cams. “Gonna go for it, Dane!” I locked my fingers into the crack as hard as my worn fingers would allow and started jamming one foot in the corner and scumming the other on the face I had just cleaned. Bits of moss I had not fully clean crunched beneath one of my shoes. The cuts in my hands stung as I buried the exposed ones into the gritty crack.
“DAHHH.” I yelped in pain as some sand from the crack dribbled out, caught the updraft, and hit me in the eyes and face. My vision blurred from all the water dripping from my eyes, each blink grating what felt like sandpaper over my corneas. I half-blindly thrashed higher and finally sunk a hand jam in the crack above, and I desperately rammed a #1 cam into the crack, slowly clawing my way up to the overhang above until my chin poked over the top of a small ledge. A large, square jug poked up through some dirt, tantalizingly close, but at the very end of my reach. I crept my fingers towards it, feeling the pump slowly build in my left arm. I grabbed it, quickly realizing it was a horn poking straight off the ledge.
“Ohhhhhh, boy. Please don’t blow up.” I stared intently at the rock, waiting for it to reply by exploding off the ledge and rocket me back to the last cam I placed below. I added more of my body weight to the hold, continuously cursing myself over why I would call this whole project “fun.” I unceremoniously groveled onto the ledge, lifting my head to spot a huge catwalk ledge above for the anchor station. I lumbered towards it with the grace of a drunken bear. I spat out some sand as I crawled on all fours and continued up a small groove to the ledge.
DING. DING. DING.
My hammer rang out as it collided with the anchor station bolt. I recoiled at the high-pitched ring as it hit my ear drums.
CLICK. I clipped into the anchor. My hear rate began to drop, and I felt the adrenaline begin to flush from my system. I felt like a rube as the high wore off. Why did I enjoy this? I was climbing and scrubbing a pile of stone, enduring sand in my eyes, and having numerous small panic attacks as rock snapped in my hands, all just to get to the top of a pile of stone. I turned around and suddenly remembered the reason. The long rays of afternoon sun clipped the tops of the forested mountains across the valley, streaming into the valley below in narrow golden beams. As my eyes panned across the valley, the updraft from below caught my attention and turned me left. Across the gap, the freestanding pillar, which seemed to forever loom above us during the entire project, was finally at eye-level, a big, crack cutting up its main face to the summit. It was yet another project we had to take care of on our return trip.
Dane followed quickly, annoyed by my long reach at the overhang where he could not reach the horn I was able to grab at the exit moves. We both sat silently for a few minutes at the ledge, looking at the mountain’s other formations towering above us. We new we were near the top of this route, but not nearly at the top of the mountain. There was more climbable rock on this single mountain than could be established in a lifetime.
Dane reached over and began clipping the development gear to his harness. I stared blankly out into space. A week straight of hauling ass up and down the wall left us both exhausted. We were ready to descend the scary road and find the nearest palatable beer.
We sat and argued over which direction to go, Dane motioning towards the bush-covered gully near to the belay station. I humored him and put him on belay, the whole time giving him shit over why he would not just go across the exposed catwalk that traversed the cliff in the opposite direction from the gully.
“I think this way goes!” Dane wriggled through a bush with vine-like branches beneath a huge overhang. I chuckled as he disappeared into the brush-covered cliffside.
“WHY would you want to put yourself through that?!” I called after him. He poked his head out through the plants.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. But I just don’t know how we’ll get back here to rap the route!” Some rocks dribbled down gully as he thrashed his way back to the belay station.
“Well, only way to find out, right?” I squatted and pressed down on the rope to let Dane clamber over. He disappeared down the catwalk and around a corner out of sight, the whole time the rope slinking steadily through the belay device. I sat alone on the belay ledge listening to the air rush up the massive walls below. Finally, I heard Dane’s voice, just barely louder than the wind coming up the cliff.
“YEEEOOOOO! OFF BELAY, RYDER.” I quickly broke down the belay station and scrambled across the catwalk. Easy climbing. I finally reached a deep V-groove in the cliff, Dane’s gleeful face poking out at the end of it.
“We are DONE! That’s the top of the formation right there!” Dane motioned to a big, flat terrace above his head through a short stand of bushes.
We shed the rope and battled through the short brush, emerging on a terrace about the size of a helipad. We both stood in place in the middle of the flat space, turning in place and looking at the walls still towering above us. I pointed across a massive gully.
“So wait… this is actually TWO granite mountains.” Dane turned around and scanned the formation at which I was pointing. He grinned and kept admiring the walls surrounding us.
“Yup, climbing here for a lifetime.”
I plopped down on a flat spot on the rock and stared out beyond the rock towers on the outskirts of the formation. Far out in the distance, some 50 miles away, I spotted a shimmer of snow in the late afternoon sun. I stared at it without thinking at first, a combination of daydreaming and exhaustion. I snapped my head up and quickly shook it back and forth. I realized I was looking at the heavily glaciated Jade Dragon Mountain (5596m), the enormous snow mountain massif that looms over Lijiang.
BRAAAAAAP. I turned around to see Dane hammering in anchor bolts.
“Alright! Let’s get the hell out of here!” He called over to me. “12 raps to the ground. Lucky if we get there before dark!” I stumbled after him, hurriedly putting on all the gear I haphazardly dumped in various places across the ledge. We descended slowly, digging out, scrubbing, and cleaning every pitch as efficiently as we could in the waning daylight.
Halfway down the wall we descended in complete darkness, our headlamps the only lights for kilometers. The mountain was shrouded in mist as light rain began falling on us. The wind picked up. We both shivered silently at each station waiting for the other to rap down the pitch. What little moonlight shone through small breaks in the clouds lit up a ghostly shadow of the tallest section of the wall as it rose above our descending position on the mountain’s shoulder. I turned off my light, listening to the rain bounce off my not-so-waterproof jacket. I stared out at the big wall’s shadow, and a little light popped up behind it at its base far down the ridge. It bobbed up and down, floating ghost-like through the forest of pine trees below.
“Dane!” I called out into the darkness below. “You see that light over there?” I motioned into the darkness, not realizing the absurdity of my pointing in the dark to Dane, who was over 30 meters below me.
“A light?? No! What? Where?” He sounded genuinely confused.
“It’s…” I lowered my arm and laughed quietly. The light continued bobbing up and down, suddenly turning downhill and disappearing into the darkness below. It was a greater-than-50 percent chance I was hallucinating. “I… Never mind!”
We continued rapping down the wall, finally reaching the base long after the sun had set. I lit up my watch’s backlight. 10:07pm. We chucked the remainder of our development kit into a giant hole we used as a gear cache at the base of the wall and picked up our bags, sliding down the wet leaves towards the lone trail that would take us back to my van parked nearly an hour’s walk below. The only sounds coming from the gear sloshing around inside our packs.
I slid down the trail, suddenly digging my trekking poles into the wet leaves to stop my self from sliding. Dane bumped into me, throwing me off balance on the slope.
“What?” Dane looked up from the trail in front of him. I motioned silently with one of my poles.
The light I had seen bobbing in the darkness far down the mountainside two hours earlier was suddenly right in front of us, rounding a small turn in a faint goat trail and floating its way towards us. The beam flashed across our faces, blinding us to seeing who the owner of the light was.
I ducked slightly.
“Hello?” Dane called out hesitantly in Mandarin.
“Hello!” A voice called back, his Chinese heavily accented with the telltale Yunnan-dialect from the mountain regions.
The light walked right up to us and lowered to the ground. Behind it was a deeply tanned man with jet black hair. We scanned him in the half-light, confused by his office-style shoes, wool business-style jacket, and jeans. He was definitely not a Chinese hiker. Our eyes snapped from the man to what he was holding: a rifle. My American sensibilities led me to recoil slightly. But as my eyes adjusted to the dim light between the three of us, his gun came into focus. It looked like it was straight out of the Communist Revolution. The crude bolt poked prominently and awkwardly up from the barrel of the gun, housing a lone round in the chamber. The whole gun, beaten and worn with too many trips through the mountain forests, looked ready to fall to pieces at any moment, the sight held in place with a generous layer of cellophane packing tape wrapped around it and the barrel. My headlamp scanned the rest of the gun. The barrel and stock were so horribly misaligned that this hunter had attempted, mostly in vain, to realign the two using metal wire and even more layers of cellophane tape. I stifled a laugh.
“What… are you doing out here so late?” I looked at him, still tense to be standing next to an armed man in the middle of nowhere.
“I’m out hunting!” He said, his voice having a surprising amount of energy for someone who slogged so far up the mountain at a late hour.
“Hunting? This late? For what?” Dane kept changing his gaze from the man’s face to his rifle.
“Rabbits!” We guessed he said rabbits. His thick Yunnan-ese accent garbled the tones that define Mandarin.
“This late? In the rain??” Dane asked quizzically.
“Yeah! Night is the best time to hunt here.” He lifted his flashlight and pointed it down the trail, craning his neck as if looking for something.
“So… you know where to go to find these things?”
“Of course, I do!” He scoffed. “I live around here!” He motioned down the hill through the trees towards the small village
“Labili?” I asked, almost certain I would annoy him by butchering the pronunciation of his town.
“Yup! That’s the one! I know all the trails around here!” He chuckled. Dane and I were both relieved and worried to be around a total stranger with a gun so readily friendly and willing to make small talk in the middle of the night.
“Well… OK. Be safe out there.” Dane and I stepped aside to let him pass.
He hefted his rifle with one arm and waved goodbye, plodding off into the woods with his flashlight sweeping back and forth scanning for his prey, occasionally turning around to shine the beam back towards the spot in the dark where Dane and I stood frozen in the darkness. Dane crouched down.
“What was that all about?” Dane asked in a hoarse whisper.
“I dunno. A bit weird that he is hunting now, right?” I watched as the hunter’s light rounded a boulder and disappeared from view, the faint beams still visible sliding across the trees in the forest.
“Should we go grab our gear cache? I reckon he wouldn’t take it, but… some of that hardware could be useful to a hunter type…” Dane turned his head and looked back uphill towards our stash spot.
We debated in the darkness, ultimately deciding to leave most of the cache and take only a bit of the hardware. We stumbled down through the wet undergrowth, finally reaching my van parked at the last turnout on the abandoned forest road. 11:24pm.
We cooked in silence. Dane nodded off in his chair, one hand still clutching a beer resting on the table. I mindlessly stirred the pot of vegetables, eggs, and noodles, half-assedly spooning them into two bowls on the table. Each spoonful dumped a quarter of the contents onto the table rather than the bowl.
“Dude… I don’t know if I have the energy to even eat right now” Dane lifted his head up and slowly took a swig of beer. He gazed into the van. “All I can think about right now is crawling into that sleeping bag and sleeping for 10 hours… nah, more than that.”
We crunched through the slightly undercooked carrots and eggs slathered in hot sauce, letting the music from my portable speaker fill the void. We packed up in silence, thinking only of the great sleep that was about to ensue.
I lay on the crash pad mattress, drifting off to sleep. Suddenly, my eyes snapped open. HAD we actually seen an armed hunter up in the forest 2 hours ago? I turned over to face Dane.
“Hey, Dane. Did you…” Dane snored loudly from inside his sleeping bag.
I laughed silently and rolled back over. We would discuss it in the morning over a liter of coffee.
Epilogue: The Beginnings of Another Multi!
After waiting pout the summer rainy season, Dane and I returned to Baiyansi, this time in search of a new route that would reach a huge network of caves high on the wall!