Elephant Riders, Liming Shandys, and Spring ADventures
A long-overdue article by: Ryder Stroud
photos by: Irene Yee (www.ladylockoff.com)
LIGHTS OUT! GUERILLA RADIO! TURN THAT SHIT UP!
Woody reclined and leaned on the belay tree, incongruously head banging to Rage Against the Machine coming out of the battery-powered, can-shaped speaker we had clipped to one of the bolts of the belay station.
“Alright, duzi! (1) Time to send!” He clipped my rope into his GriGri and offered his heavily tape-gloved hand in support.
“Well, I’ll give her hell, but we’ll see. Maybe if I biff it on this go, I can lower back off a piece and try again. That top section will drain me for a second burn…” I nervously looked up at the huge, overhanging flake above me.
“Just do it right now, man, and you won’t have to redo anything!” Woody fed some rope through the GriGri.
“Right…” I already felt heavy looking down at my rack: a single 1, 3, and 4 cams and a smattering of draws for the bolts dangled next to the business: triple 5s and double 6s.
Wide. The sound of colliding aluminum clanged around me.
ALL HAIL! CAN’T STOP US NOW! ALL HAIL! CAN’T STOP US NOW.
The music blared from the speaker. I knew it was not a natural, out-in-the-wild climbing experience. I knew this was a bit of a gumby-esque moment. But I needed the music boost. I wanted to send.
I scrambled out of the tree towards the short hand crack that lead to the elephant ear. I left the 1 cam at the start of the crack and followed the slabby angling crack up to the base of the business.
CAN’T STOP US NOW!!!
I started scrubbing the pitch and the two pitches below over a year before, trundling loose rock and scraping off layers of sand and lichen that coated any new route in Liming. The cleaning job was immense, but the route looked so good: technical, balancey face climbing, cracks of all sizes, a chimney, and the most prominent feature the massive elephant ear flake. Other climbers visiting Liming began to take notice, and it was only a matter of time before someone would hop onto the absurd crux pitch in attempts to free it: the monstrous, steep ear flake is so visible on Liming’s Dinner Wall that climbers can see it from the local hostel, The Faraway Inn. I had freed the lower two pitches earlier in the year, but the ear felt far out of my pay grade. The wide crack behind the ear itself eats wide gear, overhanging with marginal handholds. The crack then shoots out across an adjacent wall that comes about as close to glass as sandstone can be: steep, iron rust red, and completely featureless.
above: Some pictures from the early days in the development of Elephant Riders with James Huang. After bushwhacking and clambering our way to the top of the Dinner Wall, we found the top of the route, rappelling our way down to clean up jungle-crusted section of the cliff to see what climbing lay beneath.
I had given the pitch a few earnest burns in previous months. My life spent doing housing renovations back in the nearby city of Dali, Yunnan had not really prepared me for the requirements of this route. Sheer liebacking power was the first in a whole pile of dilemmas. Just holding onto the mediocre holds of the elephant ear seemed a tall order. Not once in the first fifteen meters of the climb does the route surrender a jug. Clinging to terrible holds AND placing gear AND climbing out well beyond each piece to keep the weight of my rack down? Back then, a send seemed out of the question. I was flabby. My grip strength was only good enough to hold a saws-all for 2 extra minutes when cutting plywood. Beer had been copiously consumed in the past few months every day after (and before) 5pm. And this route was hard.
The intimidation factor did not make things any easier. The crux of the whole thing comes nearly 80 meters off the ground, with featureless wall for feet and handholds that required more of a hands-open ‘high five’ position than any position that helped with making upward progress. During the project phase, it felt more like the parting high-five as I split ways with the crack and winged off into the dizzying space below. The exposure is stomach-turning, a sensation that carried with a very real possibility of gastrointestinal distress—or worse—for the full-body struggling into the offwidth and squeeze chimney above.
“You want me to restart the song again or let the playlist go through?” Woody hollered up from the belay as I stood at the lone rest stance before the crux. A burst of wind rushed up the cliff, slightly obscuring his voice.
I thought for a moment. “Put Guerilla Radio back on. I need some more rage… Ha! Pun.” My weak attempt at humor evaporated as I nervously looked back out at the flake.
Woody reset the music while I kept reaching into my chalk bag in a vain attempt to slow my heart rate at the lone rest before the crux.
I took one last chunk of oxygen to save for hyperventilating later and launched into the flake. My feet pasted on the wall, and I could already feel my shoulders starting to strain under the sudden load. I tried to delay the pump by easing my body weight onto my shoulder joints. The 5-sized crack slowly widened as the holds became more rounded and slick. I glanced into the maw of the ear and then down at the exposure below. My heart rate continued to rise.
“C’mon dude. Do it!.” Woody yelled up at me.
I cursed through the first crux and wedged my right foot into the first section of crack where my foot could touch. A terrible heel-toe was all I could manage. The crack steepened again and the holds got worse. I climbed out beyond the highest extent of the belay tree. Nothing was left between me and the ground except air. The real crux was near. I rammed in a 6 cam and screamed as my breathing sharpened to sudden puffs of air.
“FUUUUUCK.” I looked up at the crux slopers and considered how pumped I was. I was not yet fully redlining–the recent sport climbing I had done helped with that. But I knew it was not far off. The fear of not sending (a.k.a. the FONS) was quickly speeding me along an express route to lactic acid and spent forearms.
I screamed again as I reached across the crux’s horrendous boulder problem slopers and to the sharp edge of the flake near the pitch’s first bolt. I knew a knee bar lurked nearby.
“FUUUUCKING KNEEBAR. WAAAAAA.” I gasped as my kneecap grazed my lower neck and locked into the edge of the flake. I felt like I was cheating gravity. My left shoe was pushing off a steep, featureless wall. The absurd angle of my leg and my shoe’s rubber were the only thing holding the knee bar in place. I kept gasping for air, attempting to recover. A burning sensation filled my lungs.
“You’re so close! Don’t give up now!” Woody looked impossibly small and far away back down at the belay tree.
“I just need to milk this kneebar for everything it’s worth!” I yelled back. I looked up at the grainy, rounded flake edge above. They were hardly glory jugs, and the pitch was not even half over. My right leg dangled uselessly in space, forced out of the crack by my left knee. I shook out both arms and unlocked my knee. Instantly, my arms began opening up. I thought I was hopelessly pumped, and my attempt was over.
“OH, SHIT.” I screamed and desperately reversed the moves I had made up the grainy sloper holds.
“You can’t give in now, dude. You’re in! Finish it!”
I wiggled lower and locked my knee back in place, freeing most of my weight from my upper body. I needed more time to recover. I forced my leg harder into the edge of the flake. I could already feel the abrasive sandstone tearing at the skin, even through my pants. I had to make it up to the offwidth crack above. I had to tap the reserve gas tank and commit to the grainy slopers that I almost certainly could not reverse a second time.
“Here goes! Watch me! It either goes or its donezos!” I unlocked the kneebar one last time and moved up the flake. The rest had returned just enough to pass the moves that previously stumped me, but I knew this last boost I felt would run dry soon. I screamed one last time as I hit the sloper at the start of the offwidth. I thrashed and did a 180-degree turn to face away from the cliff. My chest and shoulders compressed against the crack’s sharp edge. As I wiggled into the cavernous interior of the flake, sand from deep in the crack hit me in the nose and eyes. My desperate movements disturbed some of the less-than-clean sections deep in the cliff. I was fully hyperventilating as my knot and belay loop jammed against the lip of the crack.
“GODDAMNIT, DON’T DO THIS TO ME KNOW.” I yelled. I freed one hand from an arm bar and jiggled the knot until it cleared the lip of the flake.
“WHAT?!” Woody hollered up, unable to see me when I disappeared into the top half of the flake.
“ROPE! SHITTY!... GAHHHH.” I yarded on the rope closest to my harness, trying to flip it across to the other side of my body.
I sucked my chest, gut, and hips in one more time and lunged. I slithered into the crack and locked my position in with a knee bar. I had done it. I had made it into the slot. I was not going to fall know. I continued slithering. The crack tapered slightly, pushing me back out into the daylight, I had to get back on the face to reach a rest ledge. Another 180º turn, and I started scumming up the edge of elephant ear, each leg compressing the sides of the narrow flake. I had enough exposure. I leaned in and kept my face close to the wall. I reached the final 5 meters of the pitch: less than vertical, but with a little trickery hidden inside. Guilt-free glory beer consumption felt so tantalizingly close. But 5.10 climbing felt like an impossibly tall order then. I was exhausted, wishing for a non-existent jug haul that would take me to the chains.
“Watch me here, Woody!” I hollered out into space.
“OK.” Woody’s voice echoed through the crack below. Surprisingly, the acoustics inside the flake were much better and I stuck my head back into the crack to reply. I clambered up the lip of the final slab, carefully stepping up to avoid my feet suddenly shooting out from under me. I reached the last steep section, delicately working my feet over small rounded edges that were the first decent footholds on route. The pump was already creeping up as I reached up the last vertical section, meat hooking the edge of the belay ledge as I beached-whale-belly-flopped my way onto the flat area beneath the anchor bolts.
“AAAAAAOOOOOOOOO!” I let out a deafening celebratory scream. I half-turned my body to look down at the valley below. I could tell that some of the local Lisu people below heard me scream. I could see a handful of them emerge from a farmhouse and base the Dinner Wall.
“Fuck, yeah, dude! The Elephant is DONE!” Woody called up.
I built an anchor and prepped for Woody to follow, I clipped the rope into the anchor and paused. I could still hear music floating up through the gaping crack below.
Woody had set Guerilla Radio on repeat.
That night, back in town the local canteen was packed with climbers practicing their Mandarin by ordering dishes from the restaurant’s owners. JoAnn lugged a big hot water jug over from the corner and placed it on the table with a dull thud. Cigarette smoke from some local diners at nearby tables curled up into the restaurant’s fluorescent lights.
“Wo yao… nei ge… tu… dou… Hey, Woody! What’s the word for potato pancake again?” Dave called out from over by the vegetable refrigerator. Hongyan, one of the local restaurant owners, chuckled.
“Bing!” She completed his thought for him “TudouBING!” She said back at Dave, laughing. Her husband Aguang emerged from the kitchen and grabbed a bowl full of potatoes.
“Tudoubing!” Woody hollered back. Hongyan, like a lot of locals, got a kick out of foreign climbers lurching their way through speaking Mandarin.
Climbers began pulling up chairs around the big, round, Lazy Susan-clad dinner table.
“I think we’re calling it Rainbow Road.” Wade looked around excitedly at the other climbers. When the rest of us were tired and waiting for food, Wade had an energized look on his face, natural considering the beautiful crack lines he, JoAnn, Nick, and Brittany had discovered in the highlands above Liming.
“As in Mario Kart Rainbow Road?” I pulled up a chair and sat down, pouring sickly, piss-yellow Snow-brand beer in a cup with lemon soda we all began calling The Liming Shandy.
“Yeah, and the route that goes up to meet it from the other side of the road is the Rainbow Connection.” Wade shook his head in a rapid “yes” motion as he handed me a large, fancy camera. The screen lit up with an image of a beautifully curved, nearly symmetrical arch, its back split by large cracks. Little specks of color, Skittle-colored Kailas climbing pants, dotted the arch and the belay below.
“Did you send?!” Woody sat down next to me and instinctively began pouring himself a shandy. He took a sip and grimaced a bit. “Needs more lemon soda.” He emptied the rest of the can into his cup.
“Naw. I had a good flail sesh on it though. Got super close. Danny, here, put it up in the end.” He motioned over to Danny and Ashley, the two offwidth climbers who recently arrived from the deserts of Utah. I put the camera down on the table and looked over at Woody.
“You think they could do it as an offwidth?” I chuckled. Woody took the hint.
“Haha. You didn’t look too good when you tried it!” He feigned an out-of-control flipping motion with his feet, flailing his arms above his head to make his point. I winced, but he was right. My first foray into inversion went… poorly.
“What? The Elephant? CAN you invert it?” Ashley’s eyes lit up at the possibility of more wide cracks in Liming.
“I tried,” I laughed. “But I haven’t the slightest clue of how to invert. Not that it means much for you two offwidth masters. I never inverted until I tried and failed hard projecting it. You and Danny could probably figure out some sorcery. You guys want to go tomorrow?”
“I’d be keen. We could get some killer photos.” Irene picked her camera up off of the table, inspected it, and slung the keeper strap over her shock of pink hair.
“I’d dig it.” I said as an eggplant and pork dish appeared on the table. Wade and Woody grabbed some chopsticks and dove at the dish. “I’d dig seeing what some real desert climbers think of the route.”
Danny and Ashley looked at each other for a moment. “OK. Let’s do it!”
The tudoubing emerged from the kitchen and was placed on the table. Everyone’s eyes locked on the crispy strips fried together and topped with hot pepper flakes. The conversation stopped and everyone jockeyed for position to turn their favorite dish close to them on the Lazy Susan.
left: Wade Plafcan wields some of the tools used to clean out the dirt from the classic Rainbow Road.
right: Wade Plafcan mid-route on Rainbow Road.
© Irene Yee/Lady Lockoff Photography
“Whaaaaat? No way!” I gawked up from the belay.
Ashley inverted into the first section of the flake, locking her left leg into the section I thought impossible to invert–a nearly horizontal 5 cam-sized crack slashing left and up the elephant ear.
“These shots are gonna be so good!” Irene’s camera shutter clicked from high above us.
“How is that… I don’t even understand what’s going on there. I couldn’t even get my foot started in that crack!” I shook my head seeing how quickly she inverted a section I stared at for ages and could not fathom inverting.
Ashley grimaced as the crack pulled at her pant leg, exposing her calf to the abrasive sandstone. She moved into the first crux.
“Yeah, well, let’s see how this works out. Kinda hurts already. Should’ve taped up more…” She thrutched upwards and jammed her hands in a stack “…FIRST!” Her calf grated along the edge of the flake.
How she suspended herself in space with a single cammed knee and marginal stacks was light years beyond my comprehension. I stared. Danny saw my expression and laughed.
“You get used to it. Just like anything else in climbing. It has its own techniques: double stacks, teacups, sidewinders…” He drew that last one out, knowing it would get me to respond.
“Side… wuh??” I vaguely remembered reading Rock and Ice articles about offwidth climbers in the Utah desert and the wideness of Vedawoo. I somewhat recalled them mentioning sidewinders. I also remembered I could not wrap my head around the word. Danny started explaining as he fed out more rope to Ashley.
“Once you’re in, you twist,” he made a small turning motion with his torso, “and you lock in!”
I started at him blankly. “Nope. Still don’t get it.”
“When you come visit us in the desert, I’ll put you on a route that needs one. You’ll know what it is then!... C’mon Ashley!” He fed out more rope. Irene’s camera shutter clicked in the distance above us on the wall.
“GRRREAAAWW.” Ashley continued knee locking her way up the flake. It was so obvious that it was a technique she had down and execute eyes-closed, but the abrasive sandstone and the loss of the pant leg protection made her calf look like a gunshot wound. I kept gawking. I imagined the astronomical pain threshold she and Danny must have from climbing so much wide in the desert. In my mind, technique can only save you so much pain when crack widths reach a certain size.
“GODDAMNIT.” The knee lock Ashley had so sturdily held through the first section and up into the start of the crux finally peeled out. She flipped back over, righted herself, and took a long look at her leg. “The leg lock felt OK. If my pants didn’t roll up…”
“C’mon!” I yelled up. “Embrace the sport climbing REVOLUTION. Lieback it! Do it NOW!”
“Hell no!” She screamed back half-jokingly, catching her breath. “Face climbing sucks!”
I knew she was not going to face climb it. She and Danny were crack climbers down to their bones. She re-inverted and locked her already gory leg back in the crack. She forged on into the final crux, finally reaching the slot.
She returned to the belay twenty minutes later from the top of the pitch, panting from the crux and the ensuing wide crack. Danny and I could already tell the gears were turning in her mind on how to go up again and send it.
“I want to come back.” She glared up at the elephant ear. “It’s such a good line, and if I can get that leg lock and not wreck my calf…” She glanced down at the bloodspot on her bright red pants. “I’ll get it, for sure.” She looked at me.
“You could always try…” I sheepishly started, but I already knew she would cut me off.
“Nope!” Ashley laughed. She paused and looked up again. “Nah, maybe it’s the way! We’ll see. I’d love to give it another try while we’re here. But I still want to do it as an inversion. I hate face climbing.” She looked over at Danny.
“C’mon. You’re talking to a dude raised on a crusty New England diet of trad climbing. I love cracks, too. But sometimes… face climbing… has some sorcery that crack technique doesn’t.” I cinched my harness tight and roped up.
I took a post-send fun lap up the route and for some shameless route photos with Irene. My purple party shirt Woody bought me for my birthday paired well with the Tropical Skittle-colored Kailas pants she wanted me to wear for the photos.
“Do you have ANY color in your wardrobe??” She jabbed at me as I dug through my van drawer one evening.
“Uhhhh, does a dark blue shirt and khaki pants count?” It was the best I had.
She scoffed. “No! You’re the son of artists and THIS is what you have??”
I looked out my van door at Irene. She looked serious for a moment then started laughing. I retreated back inside the van and kept digging through one of the drawers.
“Actually… I have this party shirt…” I held out the party shirt. Its purple base was covered in garish-colored vertical stripes of yellow, red, and blue from the shoulders all the way down to the bottom edge.
“You have any pants to go with it?”
“Again… khaki pants?”
“Oi.” She grumbled. “I think I can help with this.”
The next morning she returned with a pair of bright blue pants.
I returned to the belay, and Danny geared up, clipping the pile of wide gear to his harness while staring up at the flake.
“I think I’m going to invert it right… there.” He pointed to a very precise spot in the 5-sized cam section not too far from the start of the flake itself.
He effortlessly scrambled up the slab crack and launched into the first crux section. Right at the very spot he claimed he would invert, he whipped his feet over his head, locked in both feet and dangled both arms down the wall out in space.
“Goddamnit,” I laughed and looked away. I was thoroughly entertained by how much both of them were avoiding face climbing the elephant ear. But I was also wildly impressed. They were showing me a whole part of the climbing universe I barely knew existed. I was watching some crack masters at work.
Danny scooted his butt along the featureless wall where I normally raced through in a lieback. Where I desperately found my first foot jam, he flipped over, camming one of his knees into the crack. He released both of his hands.
“Hey, look!” He grinned down at my disbelief. “Knee lock.”
He moved into the main crux of the route, where the ear widens into 6 cams and larger. The wall gets even more exposed and the flake gets outrageously steep.
“Gonna try the double chicken wing!” He hollered back at Ashley.
“You think it’ll work out there?” She yelled back.
“Time to find out.” He grunted and twisted his arms above his head to where the crack widened.
“Wait... That’s a thing?!” I looked over wide-eyed at Ashley.
The crack turned into a tight squeeze-chimney-sized at the spot by the first bolt, but the angle of the flake was so unrelentingly steep that Danny’s body was nearly parallel with the ground 80 meters below. We could hear him begin to redline as he fought harder and harder to make progress into the squeeze without succumbing to the steep angle of the slot.
“C’mon, Danny!” I screamed.
“DAHHHH.” One of Danny’s feet shot out of the crack as he started making hiccupping sounds from deep in the flake. His face flashed outside the crack, and he was grimacing.
“You OK?” Ashley called up after him.
“Not sure! Hold on!” Danny thrashed higher in the squeeze, not wanting to lose any progress and slide out the flake. His foot still dangled at the entrance of the squeeze. Suddenly, he pulled his foot back into the crack, and we heard another gurgling hiccup sound.
“Oh, shit!” I thought Ashley and I were about to get rained on.
“Danny! Are you… dry heaving?!” Ashley’s face was more amusement than worry. I was sure this was not the first time the two had the same exchange.
“BLOEEEEAAAHHHHH.” Danny heaved and coughed violently. I recoiled expecting something semi-liquid to fall out of the crack. After a beat, nothing did. I cracked open an eye and looked up. He hiccupped again.
“I’m good! Just worked a little too hard!” His voice echoed from inside the flake. He was surprising casual.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I just need a sec. I think I made it into the squeeze!” To my surprise, the rope suddenly moved again, and the last of Danny’s feet slithered into the squeeze chimney.
“Wow! Totally didn’t expect him to make that!” Irene yelled down from the fixed line.
“Yeah, I didn’t either!” Danny grunted as he wiggled through the upper slot.
He climbed the remaining fifteen meters of the pitch without stopping. He reached the chains and began lowering off the gear we left at the top anchor, expertly swinging around the flake and digging in to retrieve the gear he buried deep in the flake. He reached the belay tree.
“Welp. Now we know. It goes as an offwidth!” I laughed and shrugged jokingly. “5.9 offwidth, right??”
“Sure, it CAN go that way. Doesn’t mean it should go that way.” Danny dusted some sand off his newly purchased Lisu, country-style, button-down shirt he had recently purchased at the thrice-monthly Liming market day. He adjusted his bright yellow pants. “But I don’t think it’s any easier inverting. Actually, it felt way harder at the slot than the way your beta looked!”
Ashley seemed unmoved by the beta assessment. “Still gonna climb it as an offwidth…”
We began rappelling the lower two pitches. And I stared up at the wall above. The enormous chimney above the wall would eventually take the route to the top in two pitches, but I would need a cleaning brush the size of an actual elephant to clean the monstrous chasm the elephant ear linked into.
That would wait for another day, I thought. I had enough of scrubbing and trundling. For the moment, anyways, Elephant Riders (5.12b/c, 3 pitches) was done. First, I was going to drink a Liming Shandy. Then, I was going to find the Xbox and play Halo with Woody, Wade, and Nick.
1: “Duzi” (Chinese characters: 肚子) is literally the word for “belly” or “stomach” in Chinese. Some of us have started using the word in place of the English word “dude.” This all started with the climber’s restaurant owner in Liming, Aguang, a former wood sculptor with a very round belly, being referred to as “Duzi Duzi” for his very prominent stomach: “the dude with a duzi/belly.”