I remember as a child watching ‘Journey to the West’, a famous old Chinese story featuring a stone monkey with super powers, fantastical monsters and even more surreal and fantastic landscapes. Who knew one day, climbing would take me to that same landscape.
We started our journey in Hong Kong. We could have flown to any of the major cities in China but we had heard that there was a lot of good climbing in Hong Kong, most of it very close to the city centre. However, with jet lag setting in and limited time to explore the concrete and glass jungle, we chose to do a bit of sightseeing and dumpling eating instead, before taking the one-hour flight to Guilin, the gateway to Yangshou.
The amazing karst towers of Yangshuo came into view as we left Guilin airport, the multitude and vastness of this was lost on us as the sun set and we were left to watch the lights of passing traffic.
Yangshuo is a major holiday destination for mainland China, outnumbering the foreign tourists who come to explore the cycling and walking trails as well as taking the famous bamboo rafts along the Yulong river. The level of English spoken in the town centre is excellent and most of the restaurants had English translations on the menu, although sometimes it seems more like Chinglish so you still don’t quite know what you're getting!
We booked a hostel just 20 minutes outside the city centre as we'd heard that it could get potentially noisy in the evening due to the many bars and clubs in town. As luck would have it the owners of the hostel were also climbers, and they organised a scooter for us to rent, as this would be the best way to access the majority of the climbing. (Note: riding a scooter in China involves a lot of dodging - dodging cars, other scooters, people, random animals, big pot holes…so if you have a little bit of the artful dodger in you it should be fine, otherwise there are bicycles and taxis that can be taken to the crags).
As the temperature hit 30°C with humidity set to 100% we headed to our first crag, Wine Bottle. This is one of the easiest crags to find as it’s situated along the main tourist road out of town and opposite a huge butterfly sculpture. As we rode out of the town centre the horizon full of limestone towers loomed all around us, most covered in greenery, however the rock that was exposed looked absolutely amazing. For anyone wanting to put up new routes this would surely be the place to go, as the potential is there as far as the eye could see.
We had heard that the grading was a little stiffer than those found in either Thailand or Greece, which is what we attributed falling off most things at Wine Bottle down to, or it could be the sweaty crux that was encountered halfway up the routes.
The rest of the first week was spent following our hosts Daniel and Frieda to different crags. They must have known we would get lost trying to find the different areas, even with a guidebook the majority of the crags needed local knowledge to find.
The climbing was varied, there was technical face climbing on small crimps and tufas at Swiss Cheese and Spearhead; long, massive and pumpy roof climbing at the famous Moon Hill; some very 3D manoeuvres at Treasure Cave and the very stiff grades at Lai Pi Shan where all the locals hang out on their projects.
Just as we were getting used to vertical bikram yoga, the second week brought cooler weather, 21-25 degrees of relief took us to white mountain, an impressive face that got more overhanging and harder as you progressed along it. Many years could be spent just at this one crag, however we only had another week left to try get in another few places. This took us to Baby Frog which contained some friendly grades, and the many faces of White Cliff and Banyan Tree (which famously has an 8a trad route put up by Steve McClure, the locals thinking they were doing him a favour bolted it later!).
As the trip drew to a close, we realised that we had not even begun to explore some of the non-climbing related things to do, as well as leaving a trail of routes to finish. It’s always good to have lots to come back for.
Try the local dish of beerfish, bring a clipstick some of the first bolts are pretty high, go and see the large local market, (not for the faint hearted). A huge thank you to Daniel, Frieda and Chocolate the poodle at the Stonebridge Hostel for showing us around, belaying us, cooking the best fried ribs ever and making us feel at home.
Some people will have heard of Hanwag, many people will be new to them; however they are not a new brand and have been making footwear since 1921. Distribution to the UK has been sporadic at best, however long term investment here began 6 years ago and they are looking to increase stock.
Hanwag are based in the Bavarian region of Germany where they still make some of their footwear, while the rest is made in their Croatian factory. They specialise in traditional boot making, only making proper lasted boots and old school double stitched boots (click these links for more info on their cemented construction and double-stitching). They are the only company we work with that only uses these 2 methods, even for their shoes. This means the starting prices for Hanwag are higher than other brands, but you always get high quality construction; their priority is not selling the greatest numbers.
For the last 3 years Hanwag have organised an Alpine Experience event, inviting people from all over the world to learn more about the brand and have a lot of fun at the same time! Two places were given to the UK, one for a Hanwag rep and the other was luckily (for me at least) given to Outside.
The plan was to climb the Zugspitze, which is Germany’s highest mountain at 2962m, by one of four different routes (the Reintal, Juilaumsgrat, Hollental and Stopselzeiher in increasing difficulty). We opted for the Hollental as it looked like an interesting route with a bit of glacier crossing and lots of via ferrata. For the week before we went, I was checking the weather, which looked perfect... until the weekend we were supposed to get there! The temperature on top was dropping down to -3 with 10cm of precipitation due the night before and another 10 on summit day. We also received an email a couple of days before the trip saying that the hardest route, the Stopselzeiher, wasn’t going to happen as snow was forecast down to 2000m. Hmmm.
We arrived at the lovely Eibsee Hotel on Saturday afternoon, greeted by the enthusiastic Hanwag organisers and grey murky overcast weather. After checking in and enjoying some German buffet food we headed down to a conference room for the briefing. It was a great atmosphere with everyone excited about staying in a great hotel with views over a lake, and a massive pile of fresh Hanwag boot boxes behind us. We were introduced to the Hanwag team and organiser Chris Wittig, a great character with a massive ginger beard. The poor weather was eventually mentioned as Chris introduced the guides ending with the phrase “we have to talk”. Everyone knew what this meant, but instead of boos and groans there was a lot of grinning and laughter, which set a great precedent for the trip.
We were informed that the latest forecast went from bad to worse over the two days on the mountain. With 60 people that the guides had never met before the decision was to play it safe and for everyone to attempt the most straightforward Reintal route. I was a bit disappointed as I’d been looking forward to scrambling around on ladders and cables, but it was the correct decision to ensure everyone had a chance at reaching the summit.
The next morning we strapped on our new boots and headed off to the evocative 1936 Winter Olympics stadium where the route began. From here we quickly got into the Partnach gorge, which was one of my highlights of the trip. It’s a steep limestone gorge with a glacial sediment rich river running through it. The path runs next to the river, but it is almost entirely carved out of the cliff, rather than a natural open path. This gives it a great atmosphere with the echoing sounds of the river, dark tunnels and many drips from the seeping limestone. Well worth a visit.
We continued on our way to our first hut where we stopped for coffee and cake. It’s probably worth pointing out that for the whole trip we never walked for more than 3 or 4 hours without reaching a hut where you could get a hot meal. This was my first experience on this hut to hut style of walking and it makes these areas incredibly accessible and safe. A holiday experience rather than an expedition. I was also shown the alpine umbrella waterproof. This would never work here as there’s usually too much wind, but low down on a hot day they were the best option. You know it works when all the guides are using them!
The rest of the day was basically a lowland drizzle walk to our accommodation at the Reintalanger hut at 1366m, but it was a great opportunity to plod on and meet some new friends. This was a fantastic hut, built in 1912 and you could feel the history of it. It’s a great setting next to a river, and high enough to feel away from everything. Once the whole group of 60 had arrived and drinks started to get served the whole place came to life. Lots of chatter, laughter and some live music meant everyone had a great night despite the 6am start the next day. We actually found a few people on benches in the hall the next morning who hadn’t made it to bed and looked a bit sorry for themselves!
After an excellent breakfast we headed up the valley and began to notice patches of snow. Before we knew it we were in full on winter conditions. Definitely time to stop at the Knorrhütte at 2000m for some hot chocolate and cake! The wintery theme continued as we made it up to the Gletscherrestaurant Sonnalpin. The guides started gathering, looking sceptically at the massive group with no winter kit, as there is a cable car stop at this restaurant. We were told that the route was going to get much more challenging and anyone who had doubts should get the cable car to the top. It wasn’t far to the top at this point, less than 400m, but enough for some to take the easy option.
There was stress in the eyes of the guides at this point with lots of shouting information down the line. It wasn’t long before we got to some steep ground and found some via ferrata cables, but with no equipment we just had to hold onto the cables with our hands as we scrambled up. The conditions were better than everyone had feared though as no ice had yet formed and our new boots gripped to the powder snow. We all cruised our way to the summit hut. Before we could get stuck into the strudel though we had to make it up to the summit pole, the very top of Germany and of course the most technical ground we had covered all day, but with the hazards guarded by guides everyone made it.
The best part was we didn’t even have to get ourselves down from the mountain. It took us 2 days to climb up and about 10 minutes in a cable car to get down; followed by an arduous 5 minute tarmac walk back to the hotel for a shower and a relaxing afternoon. The event finale was another great buffet in a large wooden hall, complete with a traditional band dressed in lederhosen, who seemed to get bored half way through, giving up on traditional German folk to performing rockabilly covers! It was a wonderfully weird final evening that I had the pleasure of sharing with some great new friends and a memorable ending to the trip.
The idea must have seemed irresistible. To confirm or otherwise the rumours and estimations and search for a secret mountain, reported to be higher than Everest. It was one of the objectives that lead in 1932 to the exploration and ultimate ascent of a mountain in a remote corner of Sichuan Province of China called Minya Konka. An area that some of us refer to these days as the Tibetan Alps. We know now that Minya Konka isn’t higher than Everest, but it is still 7556 m (Everest being 8848m) and is the highest mountain east of the Himalaya.
Such romantic speculation is of course not possible in these days of Google Earth. Whilst all that technological knowledge is great, something special can be lost. Reassuringly though, despite all today’s technology, the best map we found for modern mountain exploration around Minya Konka is still a slightly inaccurate sketch map.
The mountain was first climbed by four Americans on the 1932 expedition and they also set an altitude record for American mountaineers that stood for a further 25 years. To put the achievement in context, until 2003, the mountain was only climbed eight times; 22 people reached the summit and 16 died.
The 2016 KE Adventure Travel Minya Konka trek lead by me this autumn had rather more modest ambitions. Still it was a huge adventure amid wild, infrequently visited mountains in which we only met one other foreigner, a few Chinese trekkers and at the end a Chinese climbing group heading for one of the many smaller peaks in the area. As well as Minya Konka the range is crammed with beautiful snowy peaks that top out at just below or just above 6000m. It’s a potential alpine playground and nobody has heard about it.
Trips to this part of the world start in Chengdu, the world centre for Panda breeding and conservation amongst other things, so you can go and have a look at them too if you are interested in that type of thing. A new highway is being built from Chengdu to Kangding, which is a sort of Chinese Chamonix, nestling in the base of a steep valley with a backdrop of rugged peaks.
Our crew consisted of the boss of our agency in Chengdu, two cooks who hadn’t been into the mountains before and 3 excellent Tibetan horseman and their horses. A modest and lightweight set up compared with say a trek in Nepal and certainly much more at the pioneering end of the spectrum.
Our trek had an ominous start in thick cloud and rain for the first two days before a wondrous transition to blue skies was hailed by the most magnificent rainbow over our camp.
One of the high points of the trek is crossing the 4900m Bhuchu La pass which gives a stunning view down the lengthy Moxi Valley and the line of flanking high peaks. It’s quite hard to trek past and resist the temptation to go up each side valley and explore them. Another time perhaps.
After a couple of days trekking down the Moxi Valley we had hoped to get up close and personal with Minya Konka by staying as guests of the monks at the Konka Monastery right below the mountain’s main glacier. It’s a place apparently unchanged by the troubles in both China and the nearby so called Autonomous Region of Tibet since the mid-20th century.
Unfortunately, as is often the case it remained coyly wrapped in a blanket of cloud. We were however rewarded a couple of days later after a pre-dawn start and a long wait on another pass, the Tsemi La in the snow as slowly and tantalisingly Minya Konka threw off its cloud cover. It certainly is one of the great mountains of the world and one of the most secretive.
If you want to have a short trip to a region with hardly any foreigners, see some great mountains and experience unchanged Tibetan people and culture, this could be the place. That is until the word gets about, so don’t tell anyone.
Has anyone noticed today's Google Doodle? Today is the Autumn Equinox, the leaves are turning, temps are dropping...friction is increasing...midges...well they're still hanging on a bit but the wind is keeping them down. Yup, bouldering season is coming!
Just look at all those jolly little boulders, don't you just want to give them a squeeze with your big chalky hands? I know I do!
I arrived Friday evening at the boat in Stromness after train, plane and automobile. Dad and I had planned on two days in which to try and climb the Old Man before my friend Tom arrived and we had to set sail south back to the Scottish mainland. The forecast for the weekend was not good and the week before also had been quite poor.
We woke on the Saturday to see the hills of Hoy covered in cloud, with blustery rain showers blowing through frequently. It was obvious there was to be no climbing and Sunday’s forecast was also poor. However, the weather for Monday looked ok, and when we checked our itinerary we realised the third crew member, Tom, was not arriving until Monday evening so we had one more day. We decided it was worth a try and caught the 7:45am passenger ferry from Stromness to Moaness on Hoy with our folding bikes, in dry but windy conditions.
Once on Hoy we rode 6 miles along the quiet roads to Rackwick Bay where the road ends and the path begins. After reading the famous climbers’ warning sign we walked over the cliff tops where you catch the first sight of the Old Man. Once at the view point you get the full scale of the Stack, it is very impressive and quite intimidating. It was very windy, which was concerning as strong winds can be a problem on the final abseil which is a free 60m.
We started the descent down the cliffs which was not much fun. It was very muddy and slippery and feels very exposed, you really can't afford to slip as if you did you would not stop. Dad was using walking poles for the approach; we took one each for the descent, which was very useful and I strongly recommend it to anyone considering going down there. Once at the bottom the wind felt better so we racked up and set off.
I took the first pitch which is very straightforward and enjoyable climbing, we both agreed it was a very nice steady introduction to quite an intimidating environment. All the belays on the route are on good stances and well equipped with slings and tat which make it obvious when you’ve arrived.
Dad had the second pitch, but having climbed the route only seven days before with the first crew of his Orkney trip he ran up it! The waves below were quite big and noisy and as the pitch goes round the corner and up the chimney, you soon lose sight and sound of your partner. Three tugs on the rope were my signal to start climbing.
This is a very exciting pitch, with great climbing and amazing exposure. The initial traverse is delicate and quite sandy so you have to be careful – as with any traverse you wouldn't want to fall on lead or second. You then start up the chimney, where good bridges and jams get you moving. The most difficult move involved getting out on the left wall of the second chimney section. There are three stuck cams there which give the leader some welcome protection. After that move the major difficulties are over, good solid climbing follows. A #5 Friend is needed which you can work up the crack as you go. The 3rd and 4th pitch are easier but the rock is not so good. The fulmars also nest here but didn't prove to be too much of a problem for us.
The 5th pitch is a fantastic corner crack on good rock which takes you right to the top. I was glad this pitch fell to me and I really enjoyed it. It has good gear, bridging moves and solid jams. Towards the top you can see right through the stack and out to the sea in the west. As I pulled over on to the top the people on the viewpoint gave a cheer and waved as I stood on the summit. Dad was soon up as well and we took in the views and had a quick bite to eat knowing we were only halfway through the route, we had to get back down.
We did it in four abseils. You could do it in three, but we decided shorter more manageable ones would be better due to the wind. The first three went well and the final 60m free abseil is really quite impressive. It starts from the top of the second pitch but you have to be careful in the wind as the ropes could easily be whipped away and jammed. Dad went first but as he got off the ropes there was a gust of wind which blew the ropes below me out at a strong angle, they were fine but I had to move quickly to stop them wrapping round the lee side of the stack. It really is an amazing view as you look up and see how overhanging the whole thing is! The ropes pulled through easily and we were done!
The walk back up the cliff is better going up but you are still glad to be back on the cliff tops. After a few more celebratory pics, we were back along the path to the bikes and rode back for a quick beer in the café while we waited for the 4:30pm return ferry (the last ferry is 6:30pm and a there is a bothy at Rackwick bay in case you miss it!). I am so pleased that we had a weather window and we managed to do such an iconic classic British route, and with my old man! Now all we had to do was sail the boat back to Inverness, but that's a different story altogether...
If you continue to use the site we'll assume you're happy to accept the cookies. Find out more .