Dewerstone ambassador Tom Bunn recently got back from a rather enviable month climbing in Yangshuo, deep in remotest China. Once the jetlag had subsided, we interviewed him to get the inside line on what it's like to crank hard at one of the world's most exotic climbing destinations.
1) So Tom, these days there are lots of exotic desitinations which just cry out for a long haul climbing trips. What made you choose Yangshuo over, say, Mount Arapiles in Australia, or Vietnam’s amazing DWS venues?
Right from the very inception of the trip, whilst chatting with Tom [Newberry] about where we should go, we knew it had to be a “good” spot. Foremost it had to be a world-class destination in terms of climbing quality but it also had to have a REAL cultural difference. Having read several articles about Thailand that outlined how it has become largely westernised in the popular areas, it got me thinking it would be a real adventure to head somewhere not-western, somewhere that not many people even speak English.
2) Did you have any specific routes in mind for your visit? What were your goals, and how did they go?
To be honest, I left the UK with the only a couple very vague goals. Having climbed my first 8a+ in Turkey just a few weeks previous, my mind toyed with the idea of investing a bit more time into trying something slightly harder. The alternative was to drop the grade just a touch and try to get more mileage in. After a fairly ‘baptism of fire’ style beginning to the trip the obvious choice was the latter. In the end I climbed four 8a’s, two of which I ticked in the same day, whilst also to flashing up to 7c+ (solid beta, and luck!). I should really get round to updating my logbook…
3) What did you do to prepare for your visit? Any training secrets you’d care to share? Anything you’d change with hindsight?
Obviously, I tried to focus my training towards the power-endurance, but I also knew it was going to be very exhausting for my body just being in such a different climate. Probably the most ignored form of training is some simple, all-round body conditioning. It gets the body prepared for hard work and helps it cope with the additional strains of working hard for extended periods of time. Climbing trips, no matter how far flung, are hard on the body and this kind of training really helps prepare for climbing several days on without rest. Also, simply getting out on rock and “fine-tuning” is something that will save you valuable climbing days when you’re out there.
4) Tell us a little more about the climbing – was it mostly on pockets, or are there holds for every occasion? And were the routes well bolted, or did they feel pretty spicy in places?
Well the rock, as with most major sport climbing destinations, is limestone and in Yangshuo you are entirely surrounded by towers of the stuff known as karsts. Totally covered in jungle and brush, these Karsts often have sections that have been severely weathered over time to create huge overhangs and giant walls. In short, the rock varies wildly. The steeper sections (that are climbable) tend to have relatively positive holds, often in the form of pods or large pockets, but the more vertical angles tend to be covered in crimps with the odd pocket. Of course, there are stunning tufa lines that run for anything up to 30 metres, but no one wants to hear about that…
5) Did you see much new routing potential, or do the main areas seem pretty well worked out by now?
There are three main crags, White Mountain, Lei Pi Shan and Moon Hill. Obviously, as far as big features go, these will probably remain the most popular crags in the vicinity, but there are a lot of smaller crags with great climbing dotted around. We did see some pretty cool features, including some bouldering caves, but they were mostly inaccessible due to near vertical dense jungle approaches. I think the newer routes will come in form of hard multi-pitch climbs on some of the taller karsts or additional developments on a world-class level from visiting super-humans like Adam Ondra.
6) And how was it living in China for a month? Was it what you’d expected, or a total culture shock?
It’s hard to describe. I didn’t feel like an alien to the local people (even if I looked like one to them!), it was easy to understand, sort of, why people were doing certain things, even if it wasn’t what we were used to. However, that said, those differences do make you think of life at home and who’s way, if either, is the ‘correct’ way. For instance, compared to what we have in Europe, their road trafficking systems – or the lack of – seem ridiculous! Total chaos everywhere (in our eyes); however we saw only one crash (due to wet roads) in our five weeks and there is ZERO road rage. And when you ride a moped out there for a while, it makes sense.
Staying with two other blokes, Tom Newberry and Gavin Atkins, in close quarters was… interesting. Actually, it was really great. I’ve not been so relaxed since I was a careless teen on summer holidays. The local culture is very chilled, and that rubs off on you especially when beer is so cheap! The living costs all round were incredibly cheap, apart from coffee - £3! Dinner was £1, beer 40 pence, moped hire for our entire stay just £40 and after getting used to their pricing it was actually more of a culture shock coming back to the UK and re-adjusting to our prices.
7) How did you find it flying out of a Devon winter to climb in the heat? Did you acclimatize to it, or was it a permanent issue?
The first week was dire – a never ending, incredibly humid heat that really sucked the life out of you. I’m ashamed to say that on our first day, after 36 hours of epic travel, I failed to even finish a 6c! The middle couple of weeks were a lot cooler, so we acclimatised fine until the final week when temperatures begun to rise again. Buzzing around on the mopeds in nothing but t-shirts or vests kept us cool on the way to the crag.
Unfortunately, I got full blown flu in that final week. I spent three days solid in bed, feeling like death; I wouldn't wish that on anyone!
8) What was the highlight of your visit? Did any particular route or crag stand out, or was simply being there, immersed in another culture, a highlight in itself?
Having the opportunity to spend such a long period of time just focussing on climbing and nothing else was simply amazing. Even though I really used the time to relax and de-stress from the hustle and bustle of home, it was an eye opener for my climbing. It was great to spend that time with very talented climbers and learn from them, whether through understanding different approaches or reinforcing ideas or methods I already had. I suppose it was the same being in a different cultural situation too, you learn new things and understand yourself better, which makes you grow as a person.
9) If you could offer one piece of advice to anyone heading over to Yangshuo to crank hard, what would it be?
Be fit and healthy before you go. The last thing you want is to feel run down and get ill often. That and, go for at least a month.
10) And what far-flung destination are you hoping to crush at next? Any big plans?
The whole trip got me thinking of all manner of adventures further afield! I’d love to go somewhere totally remote and surrounded by wilderness, as long as it’s not arctic. As far as plans go though, there are none for any trips to anywher too far-flung, unless you consider Ireland to be in this category? Elaine and I are hoping to take a couple of weeks and tour the emerald isle with the aim of bouldering and headpointing some tricky climbs. That said, I wouldn’t mind a trip to somewhere further afield but with the simplicity of our western ways.