Mike Dobie new-routing in Li Ming, ChinaWednesday, September 7, 2016
Photos By: Garret Bradley
Li Ming’s isolation and beauty make it a special refuge for many people, especially climbers. Sandstone walls flank the town’s main road, giving it a feel similar to Zion National Park. Rivers drain out of the Hengshan Mountains, home of the Yunnan Golden Monkey, and feed the temperate forests growing on and around these massive cliffs. For hundreds of years, the Lisu people who inhabit these valleys used simple ladder systems to scale these walls. Rustic wood ladders remain lodged in the cracks and snake their way up, ending at the beehives and bird nests where the Lisu once harvested.
When I arrived in Li Ming in 2010, I was overwhelmed by the untapped potential of this place. Locals showed steel nerves by climbing around their back-yard cliffs without much of what we’d consider essential gear. My limited first-ascent experience made the first few months in Li Ming pretty desperate. For week after week I threw myself at cracks that I had no idea how to climb. Li Ming demands a level of creativity and versatility unmatched by most locations. Excellent jamming techniques are mandatory—not to mention a large rack of cams. It’s not uncommon for a single pitch to include everything from fingers to offwidth.
As time passed I learned the necessary techniques and got more confident climbing the sandstone walls above the valley, and I began putting up more, and harder, routes. Since those first pitches in 2010, over 200 new routes from 5.5 to 5.13 have been established. Some are single-pitch lines, and others stretch to the top of the 250-meter wall. The Wind of the North and the Wildman Variation of Back to the Primitive, both in the 5.12+/13- range with crux pitches well off the ground, rank among my favorite hard lines.
In the fall of 2012 Canadian James Cherry aided the Flying Buttress Direct. Shortly after, I teamed up with fellow Black Diamond Athlete Cedar Wright to try and free it. Day after day we climbed the two pitches of forest-filled chimney soloing, pocketed face traverse and overhanging hand cracks to reach the crux headwall pitch known as the Great Firewall. After an offwidth start, this crack thins to thumb stacks before turning to 70-degree overhanging hands and fingers. The pitch overhangs at least 15 meters, and this combination of steepness and ever-changing sizes have thwarted everyone. Some have suggested that this may be the hardest sandstone crack in the world.
In November 2013 the second annual Black Diamond/The North Face Traditional Climbing Festival took place in Li Ming.