Three Days in on the Zhejiang/Anhui Border
With my left hand on a crimper and my feet on precarious nubs, I smear a few inches to gain a better balance. Drawing on every sun salutation I have done over the past few years, I arch up my spine, weight my left foot, raise my right hand and shoulder, and lock onto the small block. I am out of the crack.. Joy overcomes me as I make the next few easy moves onto the ledge, remove my cell phone from my jacket, and heeding the wisdom from my belayer Doreen below to be careful, snap a few on-route photos.
We have just spent the past three days trad climbing at the Qianmutian crags, a perfect granite cliff near the 1587 m Longwang mountain on the Zhejiang/Anhui border in East China. We are enjoying the May Day Holiday, named first after the Lenninist “International Labor Day,” then changed to “Golden Week” after the Japanese example of enjoying the glory days of full-Spring, and now in a bit of confusion as the economic stimulus of a weeklong holiday did not work out as policy and thus reduced to four days. The weather is perfect, though. Sunny skies, the spring seeming to have flashed by in an instant leading to full-blown summer, azealeas and rhodedendroms blooming, beatles, hornets, and ants swarming, and a green to inspire the living out of the winter dead.
The area itself, Qianmytian, was recommended by my friend and often mentors Baozi and Mali, owners of the Cooble climbing shop beneath the Masterhand climbing gym in Hongkou in nearby Shanghai. Baozi is off leading a group to Siguniang in Western Sichuan—unfortunately we have no time for such a lofty venture so chose to stay close to home. Qianmutian has come into a bit of fame recently as it is a part of Anji County, the setting for the dramatic bamboo forest fighting scenes in Ang Li’s 2000 “卧虎藏龙“ （Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon） and not far from Moganshan, the famed summer retreat of 1930’s Shanghai luminaries such as Generalissamo Chaing Kai-Shek and triad boss Du Yuesheng along with later communist leaders Chen Yi and Mao Zedong. Since around 1998, the area has been explored by local climbers.
We took a bus from Shanghai to Huzhou, a medium-sized city just south of Lake Taihu, as due to the holiday options were limited. Arriving in a vast concrete parking lot/bus station at 10:30 pm, we decided to go with the local driver for a 250 RMB (about $38 US) trip to Zhangcun which would put us close to our destination. Our driver took us to the toll gate at Anji, and then asked us to switch into another cab with a local Anji driver ferrying passengers towards Huzhou. This is a fairly common practice in China, and in my opinion it works out well—the drivers do not have to pay tolls, and the passengers get a new driver near the destination with more local knowledge. We then headed up the mountains to Lao Wang’s place, a sanctuary recommended by out folks at Cooble. He was full, but graciously allowed us to pitch our tent under an awning of peach blossoms on his property and we slept soundly through the night.
The next day, we had a nice breakfast of zhou (rice porridge) and apples and found a driver through Lao Wang to take us up the mountain. This was a good idea as was suggested by Mali, as the “hike” to the top would have taken 6 hours over mostly paved roads. At one point, we were stopped by local police and informed that the road was closed due to rockfall, but fortunately our driver knew the officer and we sped merrily upon our way. We soon reached the basin at Qianmutian, and after napping a bit (having arrived at 1 am and woken at 6:30 am) and checking out some fancy GPS maps of other hikers we went up the trail.
We followed the trail and other hikers up to Qianmutian basin, a beautiful marshland amidst a valley of rolling peaks and cliffs, and set off on the trail to the crags. Xiao Tong’s place, who we would later get to know well, marked the turnoff onto the climbers trail and led up the ridgeline. The cliffs spilling off the ridge seemed to become increasingly overhung to the right, so we targeted the left side for our first climb. After about 20 minutes of scrambling, we reached the ridge and looked for a good anchor.
This was a double first for us in many ways. Doreen, although having spent a month climbing in Yangshuo on sport and supplementing this with lots of gym climbing, had never been in an undeveloped area on trad gear. I had followed trad before and done a bit of precarious toprope-self belay soloing in Mt. Lemmon in Arozona, but had never trusted my anchors to another. Thus we were bound in the climb, and found a .75m diameter pine as our bomber. I rigged it, and rapped to the first flat area about 10 m below. The climbing was not difficult, mostly fourth-class with some 5’s in between, so I rigged a ground anchor on a tree and self-belayed on my Petzl Ascender back to the main anchor. Then Doreen rapped down, and self-ascended back up, rapped again, and we were ready for the next pitch (still on the same rope).
The next pitch was much steeper, and I rapped down first to the end of my 60 m Beal 10.5 to check it out. The rope was literally bottomed out, and tying in again would offer little flexibility. I had rapped to the right of a tree protruding out from the cliff, but upon reaching the bottom I realized that there was a great climbing line along a crack/face to the left. To get the rope through to avoid a big pendulum fall, though, required squeezing through a bellybuster space between a thick pine branch and the cliff. Doreen made it, though (I am a strong believer in autoblocks on rappel, and this is just one of many instances where it is essential), and rapped down to our ledge. She put me on belay, and I tried repeatedly to gain a 4 m section of featureless face (eventually giving up and moving right), and then top belayed her to the midpoint-anchor. We ascended the last bit again and retired to the tent among fierce winds.
On Saturday, we rapped down off the anchor from the previous day for a warm-up. I solo scouted the steeper cliff sections off to the right, recognizing the magnificent semi-detached rock pillar off the main cliff. At the time, I thought it was fully detached and would require traditional lead climbing, but later found there was a small rock bridge connecting it to the main buttress. We climbed back up—I was hungry by now having forgotten to buy gas for the stove and was relinquished to pulling on the rope to get over the hard part from the previous day—and went down to Xiao Tong’s place for a feast of fried rice, potatoes and green pepper, and tofu all washed down with green tea. I placed four chairs in a line, laid down, and soon lost consciousness.
After returning to the crag, the weather turned nasty, and the winds were ripping across the valley with ominous clouds of the portending rain. We found the bridge to the pillar, and I set up an anchor on the slim outcrop despite the raging wind. After rigging it, I rapped down to the ledge I had scouted earlier in the morning and enjoyed the calm of the sequestered canyon. Doreen took her first serious cliff-rap down to the ledge, and put me on belay.
This was the peak of the trip, and the moment I began to see the potential that Tianmuqian had for trad climbing. From our little ledge, there were five or six perfect routes, and off to the right on the overhang, many more… Those will wait for a later adventure. I chose the pristine splitter crack between the main cliff and the outcrop. Although not particularly long (maybe 7 m) or challenging (10+) it seemed the cleanest and purest line I have ever climbed. At the crux near the top of the crack, Doreen again yelled “C’mon, man!” a phrase plucked from the karst of Yangshuo and now neither English, Chinese, or anything but a battle cry to ignore the pump and the fear and to make the next move. I did, grabbed the ledge, and snapped some sappy photos with my cell. Doreen had a great climb too on the pitch, at one point thinking “do I trust my belayer?” “Yes!” She went for her big move and made it.
So we sat at the top of the pillar, wonderlust and postclimb in our eyes. The sun was setting, and we decided not to go down again. Soon the rain started pounding, and we were happy that we had usd the last remaining light to secure the tent from the deluge. The night was full of broken dreams and flailing tent wings, fierce downpours from above, insects crowding to our headlamplight in the night upon the walls of our tent, but we knew we had climbed.
The next day, as we descended from the crag in the driving rain and descended from the mountain with our driver and new friend Xiao Tong, we knew this would be our base, our home in the mountains in Eastern China.
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