PLANET GRANITE BLOG

Hello again, PG community!

I’m currently writing this from the final stop on my 2017 global tour: China. The main objectives of this trip were to compete in the final two lead & speed World Cups of the season as well as try out the outdoor climbing at the legendary crag of Yangshuo. While there were many ups and downs along the way, I feel hugely satisfied with my travels both in China and around the world.

Following the World Cup in Edinburgh, I headed down south to do some sightseeing around London with my family. As it was my first time there, it felt obligatory to visit all the touristy stuff the city had to offer, such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, The Sherlock Museum, and, of course, Platform 9¾. The city itself felt magical; each location had a rich history dating back hundreds if not thousands of years, vastly exceeding any historical landmarks in the US. Also, it felt like I got to follow in the footsteps many of my favorite fictional characters and movies that were set or filmed in London 🙂

Also, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I also caused a minor injury to my right thumb while trying to move some of my bags in transit. This would turn out to have larger repercussions later on in the trip.

After finishing my stay in London, I packed my bags and headed off to Shanghai for the competition portion of the trip! This trip was my fourth to China, the other three being for the Youth Olympics in 2014 and two business trips during my internship with Apple in 2016. The entirety of those trips had been contained to major cities, so I was definitely looking forward to getting outside to the natural beauty of Yangshuo after the competitions were over.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, I had a week of training in the city before the first World Cup in Wujiang. The previous times I’d been to Shanghai, I had mostly trained at the Hengyi Climbing Gym, but it had shockingly burned down since my last visits. Forced to find new training facilities, I decided to go check out the brand-new Pongo Bouldering Gym just south of the city center. After some wandering in circles on Google Maps, I finally found it! The gym itself was impressive. Modeled after modern bouldering gyms in Tokyo, this Japanese-inspired creation consisted of a single extended bouldering wall of painted wood and fancy lighting. It turned out to be the perfect training facility for doing some bouldering circuits, essential to World Cup training in lead.

Just before the first Chinese World Cup, I met up with fellow competitors Elan Jonas-McRae from Canada and Campbell Harrison from Australia. As the sole athletes from English-speaking countries, it made sense to travel together, but we also were close friends prior to the trip and had a great time hanging out in Shanghai and at the competitions.

The first event was held in Wujiang, about 1 hour west of Shanghai by bus. I felt much more prepared for this event than the previous two lead World Cups this season, and even had gotten used to the unique Chinese holds and time change. The first qualifier route suited my style quite well with technical boulder-y moves on slab separated by a complete no-hands rest and a roof section. I made it all the way to the second to last hold, a right-handed pinch, before peeling off the wall. This performance placed me quite high, and after checking my result, I felt elated that I had all but clinched my place in the semifinal round. Unfortunately, a low slip on the second route (again off of a right-handed pinch) landed me nearly in last place for that climb, and knocked me out of my all-but-solidified semifinal position to 28th place, two spots out of semifinals.

I was definitely disappointed to blow such an excellent opportunity to qualify for my first World Cup lead semifinals since 2012. At first, I was confused as to where my climbing went wrong, but I quickly realized that the two right-handed pinches I fell off of caused some slight discomfort to my right thumb. It was then that I realized that the minor injury I sustained while moving my bags had been a ticking time bomb, minimizing what I considered to be one of my strengths in climbing – pinches.

On the plus side, my two travel buddies (Elan & Campbell) both qualified for semifinals, a historic milestone for Campbell as the first Australian athlete to do so since 1997. Congrats man! I also had the honor of commentating for speed finals which is always a fun activity in the case that you don’t qualify for the next round.

Following Wujiang, Elan, Campbell, and I traveled back to Shanghai for the week in between competitions. Since the Chinese World Cups are slightly less attended than the ones in Europe or the US, we had a great time hanging out with the small group of World Cup competitors that were staying there as well, as it felt much more like a community than a competition series. Always the best part of climbing!

The following Thursday, we left Shanghai to travel to the coastal city of Xiamen. Xiamen is a really cool place, located entirely on an island and much more tropical in nature than Shanghai. Elan and I had a great time checking out the oceanfront before the competition and seeing the hundreds of Chinese couples taking wedding photos on the beach (apparently that’s a thing there).

The competition for me in Xiamen started off well again, with a solid highpoint on the first climb. Unfortunately, on the second qualifier, I again slipped off low on a right-handed pinch, placing me 4 spots out of semifinals this time. Dang. On the plus side, I again got to commentate, this time for the lead semifinals, which was almost canceled due to weather.

On the downside, Elan ended up injuring his hand during his semifinal climb, meaning that he couldn’t join us for the next adventure for outdoor climbing. Following the end of the competition, I bade goodbye to my new friends I had made on the World Cup circuit and prepared for the final stage of my journey: Yangshuo.

Yangshuo has been one of the top 3 outdoor climbing destinations I had wanted to visit for a very long time. Comprised entirely of limestone, the overhanging tufa climbing looked (and sounded) like some of the best in the world. I had planned this trip with my friend Andi Aufschnaiter from Austria while we were in Innsbruck, and we couldn’t wait to check out the climbing that the location offered.

Upon arrival, we took the bus from the airport in Guilin to the nearby town of Yangshuo. During the drive, we were treated to the first glimpse of the geography: natural towers of Karst as far as the eye could see. It truly felt like an alien landscape. We couldn’t be more excited to climb.

We happened to be staying with a Polish friend of Andi’s named Ola Przybysz while in Yangshuo. Ola owns an apartment in the center of the town and was kind enough to let us stay there during our visit. It wasn’t until after arrival that I realized just how much of a superwoman Ola actually is; she’s sent 5.14c, written her own guidebook, and became the first woman to complete the Chinese Ninja Warrior course, X Warrior. Did I mention she also holds a graduate degree in Engineering? Yeah.

Anyways, Yangshuo! One of the most unique features about the area is that the best way of getting around is by moped. Andi and I were lucky enough to buy one from a local shop for 500RMB (~$75USD) with the help of our roommate Juan. We then wasted no time in moped-ing our way to one of the coolest climbing walls in Yangshuo: White Mountain. To navigate around, we used an offline maps application called maps.me, which actually had all the trails for mopeds and crags listed on the application itself. Pretty cool, we thought! (spoiler alert: it’s too good to be true) The trip unfortunately got off to kind of a rough start as maps.me routed us on a trail that dead-ended in a ravine, crashing the moped and injuring Andi’s hand. Moral of the story: Don’t trust maps.me.

While Andi rested his hand, I tried climbing at several different areas over the next couple days, including White Mountain as well as Lei Pi Shan and Riverside. Lei Pi Shan is the best for sunny days as it’s completely shaded, while Riverside offers an amazing view of the Li River and zero approach time. White Mountain has the best selection of harder climbs, but faces the sun all day and is basically unclimbable if there isn’t any cloud cover.

The main project I wanted to focus on during my time there was a route called Spicy Noodle. The climb ascends the left side of White Mountain, following a sea of wild pockets and human-sized holes you can rest in, culminating in a difficult boulder problem halfway up and finished with two perfect, parallel tufas (‘noodles’) at the end. I have a poster of Chris Sharma climbing this route hanging in my bedroom, and it was easily the most awe-inspiring route of the cliff.

After several goes figuring out the bottom section, I realized I kept getting stymied at the crux move up higher on the route. The move revolves around a single right-handed pinch as you jump from a left-handed crimp to a left-handed edge. My right thumb, still not at fully-functioning capacity, simply wasn’t up to handling a move of this difficulty. As hard of a decision as it was, I made the call to give up on the climb so I could move on to routes that were closer to my ability level.

After some refocus and getting a couple more moderates under my belt, I eventually settled on a project at Lei Pi Shan called Thunder, a 40+ meter long 5.14a. The first 60 feet of the climb consists of a bouldery 5.12d, followed a tufa section and a no-hands rest at around 80 feet. You’re then hit by three bouldery sections back-to-back, gradually getting steeper and steeper with each section up the wall. The second bouldery section involves a huge dyno to a one-handed bucket with your left hand. I knew it was going to be the ultimate test of my endurance training and mental strength to get through all the sections on redpoint.

With our trip winding down, Andi and I found ourselves with one day left to send our respective projects. With his hand healed, Andi had selected a relatively short 16m called Blue Magic at White Mountain to project. I was set on Thunder.

On our last day, we headed to Lei Pi Shan in the morning so I could give Thunder a go. After a quick warm-up, I tied up my shoes and set off. Following a pumpy first 80 feet, I found myself staring down the first of the three crux sections. I felt more pumped than normal, but gritted my teeth and barely pulled off the moves. A couple quick shakes, and I was off to the dyno. I had fallen off here once before, but with some new beta thanks to one of the local Chinese climbers, I was able to set up much more efficiently for the move. It stuck! I was super fatigued both physically and mentally at this point, but knew I couldn’t give up. I rested for as long as I could, then fired the last bouldery section to the chains. Psyched!

After the initial elation had worn off from the send, I realized that this was the hardest sport climb I had sent since my shoulder injury over 3 years ago. More than that, the injury had mostly prevented me from doing large dynos to anything left handed. The fact that I could both complete the climb and do a dynamic move on my left side proved to myself that I had fully overcome the injury itself.

With Thunder finished up, Andi and I then headed over to White Mountain at the end of the day so he could give his project a shot. After one failed attempt, Andi rested, pulled back on, and yelled his way up through the upper crux moves to the chains! Sharing in his success was one of the best feelings of the whole trip. Double #sendday!

All too soon, it was time to head home. After 4 months of travel across 4 continents, it felt weird to finally be boarding a plane headed for the Bay Area. It’s difficult to put the emotions of these travels into words. I had just experienced over a dozen different countries with their own sets of rich histories, languages, and people. For me, at least, they were all bound together through climbing. This sport has a unique way of defying all cultural boundaries, so no matter whether I’ve been exploring the wild sandstone of South Africa, trying out the local indoor climbing in Jerusalem, competing at a World Cup event in the Olympic Stadium in Munich, or discovering new limestone karsts of southeast China, they are all tied together in my heart, one move at a time.

Josh Levin

Photo Credit (Headlamp climb over Moon Hill): Andi Aufschnaiter on Instagram as @ansichtssache.photography.