Traditional climbing is more akin to fighting than effortlessly gliding up rock faces, and even the most experienced climber should expect to see blood on the route.
A day-long trip from Hong Kong there is Liming, a university of traditional climbing (trad) for Asia-based practitioners, from where Alex Reshikov, a Hong Kong photographer, graduated this April.
“I loved the feeling of being completely beat up at the end of the day in Liming. There was lots of blood left on the rock every day,” Reshikov said. “As you gain confidence leading on trad, it makes you want it more, push more. My goal now is to keep climbing trad for many years and keep myself safe.”
Trad climbing requires climbers to place their own protection (pro) by finding cracks in the cliff to fit equipment to which they can then clip their climbing rope.
In Hong Kong there is mainly sport climbing, where bolts have already been screwed into the rock so climbers can clip their ropes with relative safety.
Any climber can attempt the transition from sport to traditional, you just need the right place to do it and someone to teach you both the technical and psychological requirements.
The psychology cannot be underestimated; sharpness of mind is needed for placing pro.
First, a climber must choose a piece of the right size, then insert that piece into a crack, give it a sharp tug to test and then clip the rope to it.
Gravity and fatigue can rush a climber to place pro but the force generated by falling can rip a hurried, careless placement out of the rock, and even well-placed smaller pieces come out routinely.
Fortunately for Hongkongers, in Liming they can get one of the best trad educations available as a number of climbers have made it their home.
“Trad climbing is not so much about how athletic you are” explains Ryder Stroud, a Yunnan-based American. “Trad climbing means you have to be able to keep your mind sharp while doing a very intense, adrenaline-filled activity. It takes a particular head space.”
It is like a combination of boxing and chess, he said.
In 2002, American Mike Dobie turned up and saw massive potential in Liming. He is still there developing routes.
“I wanted to reconcile my selfish desire to climb with doing a service to the Chinese climbing community, so that they would not have to travel abroad to experience this type of climbing,” Dobie said.
Trad climbing is not for the faint-hearted, even if you are brave enough to trust your own pro, and lead a route by placing equipment as you go, the physical aspects are as brutal.
Climbers in Liming follow long cracks up cliffs.
Hands, fists, feet and fingers are jammed inside these cracks, then torqued against the walls of the rock, turning the climber’s own flesh and bone into anchors to pull on.
This joint-wrenching sub-discipline of traditional climbing is known as crack climbing and Stroud likens it to “putting your hands through low-grade sandpaper.”
Thanks largely to Dobie’s efforts, Liming is now one of world’s top crack climbing destinations.
The best months to climb in Liming are between April and May, or September and October, due to the favourable weather conditions a that time of year.
Cristoph Bode, a Hong Kong-based German engineer has been trad climbing for three decades and helped coach Reshikov.
“Liming is a really special place,” he said. “I love everything about it. Liming is very good to learn crack and trad because there are many routes here where you can start learning in safety how to place a pro.”