Seven of the best places to go rock climbing in Hong Kong, plus preparation tips and why it’s good for your health and fitness
Hong Kong’s many granite and volcanic outcrops make it a great place to indulge in a sport that provides an intense workout for both body and mind
Big webs usually mean one thing: big spiders. And there are a lot lurking around on this hot and steamy July Saturday, the creatures patiently waiting for lunch in the centre of webs that stretch across our path.
“Duck your head – there’s a lot on this part of the path,” says Francis Haden, stopping to peer closely at a web. “They’re called Nephila pilipes [also known as the northern or giant golden orb weaver]. The females are the big black and yellow ones, the males small and brown. They’re not venomous to humans but the females have huge fangs – you’ll know it if you’ve been bitten.”
Haden knows a lot about nature – he used to be a reptile handler in Australia. But his number one passion is rock climbing and today we are on Tung Lung Chau, also known as Nam Tong, a relatively small island (2.42 square kilometres) off the tip of the Clear Water Bay Peninsula in the New Territories.
It is a popular spot for dogs to swim; on this day about 20 of them, mostly shibas, cool off on the main beach where the ferry docks. Camping and hiking are also popular, but mainly it is one of the best places in Hong Kong to rock-climb, with the pristine granite and volcanic cliffs ideal for both beginner and experienced climbers.
Rock climbing is growing in popularity in Hong Kong, Haden says, fed by an increase in peoples’ appetite for outdoor activities and an influx in the number of indoor climbing walls – the best way for beginners to train. He started rock climbing in Britain aged 12. Now 40, his passion has taken him all over the world. “I’ve climbed and developed new climbing areas all over Europe, North America, Asia and Australia,” he says on the 45-minute ferry ride to the island from the Sai Wan Ho Typhoon Shelter.
“Hong Kong is a climbers’ paradise – it is so accessible and the added bonus is that it is a great way to explore. Over there,” he says pointing to the right, “that’s Cape Collinson [on the eastmost point of Hong Kong Island] which I developed in 2010. It is a great spot – you can climb in the morning, then do a 50-minute walk to Big Wave Bay where you can be drinking a cold beer in the afternoon.”
As a professional bolter, Haden spends most weekends cleaning cliffs of loose rock and fixing bolts into rocks, which climbers clip into for protection. “The blank faces here generally require climbers to use pre-fixed bolts, unlike other forms of climbing where the protection is hand-placed into cracks and removed later.”
Bolt-protected climbing is called sport climbing and almost all of Hong Kong’s routes are bolted.
Haden has attached thousands of the bolts and knows the crags and crannies of the city like the back of his hand. He has created more than 250 climbing routes in Hong Kong, and more in China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Europe.
The sport can be dangerous, so Haden says knowing proper climbing techniques and how to use specialised equipment is crucial. “The risk can be largely controlled by the style of climbing you want to do, the difficulty and location. High-altitude mountaineering is at the opposite end of the risk scale compared to sport climbing on Tung Lung.”
Today we are heading to an area called the Technical Wall (another area on the island, the Sea Gully Walls, is also good for climbing).
First we stop at Mrs Li’s old-style cafe. It has been around for decades and is a popular hangout for climbers craving a pre- or post-climb carb fest (try the home-made noodles or pork and chive dumplings).
Haden points to one of the hundreds of messages written on pieces of styrofoam that have washed up on the island’s shores and now line the cafe’s ceiling and walls. It is a message from the late, great American climber Todd Skinner, who visited the island in 1992. Haden says Skinner bolted a route called the Tung Lung Bad Boy before heading to the mainland to establish lines in the southern Guangxi region of Yangshuo.
Skinner’s autographed message reads: “Live your life like a thrown knife.” He died in 2006, aged 47, during a climb in California’s Yosemite National Park.
Back on the road we continue past a couple of tents, before coming to the edge of a cliff. The only way is down and after 20 minutes of scrambling over rocks we arrive at our destination, a flat area surrounded by cliffs on one side, crashing surf on the other. A handful of climbers have already arrived, some attaching harnesses and ropes, others powdering themselves with chalk. The chalk absorbs sweat and moisture on their hands to improve friction and grip, much needed for the tight and challenging crags Hong Kong is known for, Haden says.
Hongkonger Winsome Fung is among the group. She took up climbing three years ago and has become a big fan. Checking her harness is her boyfriend Rex Chu, a climber for 12 years.
“Rock climbing is a great workout and on super hot days like this you burn a lot of calories,” Fung says.
Haden agrees, saying rock climbing is a tonic for both mind and body. “It is a great cardiovascular workout and tones and strengthens muscles,” he says, adding that the slim and agile Asian physique is ideal for the sport.
Haden scales the 16-metre cliff face with spider-like ease, checking the fixed titanium bolts that he positioned there in 2016 on the way. Next to climb is his wife Donna Kwok, a keen climber who has taken part in the sport around the globe. She shows the ring Haden gave her when he proposed at the top of a 275-metre climb having spent one week bolting on the Greek island of Telendos in 2015. The ring is made from titanium, of course.
“Some days it gets busy here, but the heat has kept it quiet today, which is good,” Kwok says. “I come here to switch off and calm the mind. I mean, look around – it is beautiful.”
She’s right. It is a beautiful scene: blue sky, fluffy clouds and waves crashing against the rocks, sporadically sprinkling sweaty climbers with seawater. In the distance are a huge cave and more cliffs. Haden says zipliners have been known to “zip” between the two cliffs.
How long rock climbing has been practised by humans is not known, but paintings dating to 200BC show Chinese men rock climbing. Hong Kong has a relatively short but intensive climbing history. The first routes were recorded after the second world war when, in the 1950s, British military personnel climbed on Lion Rock in Kowloon, a spot that continues to attract climbers. Climbing remained an eccentric preserve of predominantly British expats until the early ’90s, Haden says.
This year, the sport made global headlines when American Alex Honnold “free-soloed” (climbed alone with no rope, harnesses or protective equipment) El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park in under four hours, making the 31-year-old the first to achieve the feat.
For most, however, rock climbing offers a more interesting alternative to a gym workout.
Stuart Millis is another Hong Kong-based climber. He set up hongkongclimbing.com in 2000 and agrees rock climbing is a great way to stay fit while experiencing the great outdoors.
“It is a great workout for the body as you need to be fit and have a good strength-to-weight ratio to climb well. Mentally, it requires focus and dedication to achieve your goals. Basically, climbing has an almost endless scale in terms of route difficulty, meaning you never ‘finish’, you just keep pushing for the next level,” Millis says.
Haden advises those planning to take up the sport to first train on an artificial climbing wall. Hong Kong has about 10 of them.
Attic V Climbing in Wong Chuk Wan is one. Established in 2015 by Joanna Lam and her partner Gwie, it specialises in bouldering, a form of rock climbing that’s done on large boulders and small rock formations without the use of ropes or harnesses. They have 40 years of climbing experience between them, and have climbed all around the world. Lam was part of the Hong Kong Climbing Team and in 2008 placed second at China’s National Bouldering Competition.
Lam says training your core and legs, and aerobic training in general, play key roles in climbing. “But the best exercises to improve your rock climbing vary depending on whether you’re a beginner or a pro,” Lam says.
To improve core muscles, Lam recommends plank exercises, pull-ups and push-ups. She suggests squats to strengthen leg muscles and says running is the best way to boost aerobic training.
Seven great places to go rock climbing in Hong Kong
Francis Haden outlines his favourite places and why they are so fun to climb.
Ap Lei Chau
“A large climbing location with more than 100 climbs along the coast, reached by the new MTR South Island Line, and the most recent [climbing] area to be developed in Hong Kong. Currently 112 routes spread across 10 separate sectors in a seaside setting. There’s something here for everyone.”
“Perched right above the heart of Central District, these crags have a commanding view of Victoria Harbour and one of the busiest districts of Hong Kong. Access is relatively easy, but does require some time to locate each wall on a first visit as the climbing is spread across eight sectors. The range of grades and length makes this a popular venue.”
“Good quality granite and easy accessibility make Black Crag on the south side of Mount Nicholson very popular with climbers.”
“The climbing at Cape Collinson, northwest of Big Wave Bay Beach, includes three distinct sectors, with The Zawn undoubtedly the showpiece. The routes here encompass a wide variety of climbs from short power fests and moderate technical slabs to long pumpy routes – something for everyone. ”
Tung Lung Chau
“Long considered one of Hong Kong’s premier climbing areas, Tung Lung is a fantastic island that combines a pleasant ferry ride [45 minutes from Sai Wan Ho, around 20 minutes from Lei Yue Mun] with a range of grades on high-quality volcanic tuff in a very social setting.”
“Short and easily accessible sport routes on very rough granite provide the Kowloon side with a popular crag.”
“Dominating the skyline behind the Kowloon Peninsula, Lion Rock is Hong Kong’s best mountain crag.”