Daocheng: Alpine Bouldering Routefinding
Climbing in Sichuan conjures images of sharp snow-covered granite peaks, remote areas, and a definite element of risk. Most people certainly don’t think about traveling days overland to wrestle what would be considered by alpinists to be chunks of non-epic stone littering the Tibetan plateau. But when Zhoulei, Huaci, Andy Dixon, Denise Tang and Mike Dobie were on a road trip through Sichuan in 2010, they stumbled upon the boulder fields outside Daocheng and realized the potential to develop something that China was missing: a good bouldering destination.
Check out Chris Miller's film of the trip here
This summer, a group of 11 revisited the area, seven of us traveled overland from Yangshuo (Mike Dobie, Chris Miller, Raul Sauco, Kris Mckay, Ansure, DaWei, and myself. An overnight train from Guilin (213 meters) to Kunming (1886m) then another from Kunming to Lijiang (2400m) gave us time to begin the acclimation process as we ultimately planned to climb and camp at 4400 meters above sea level. The slow journey also ensured that we confused as many people as possible since we were clearly not traveling light. We had six bouldering pads with us and when we met Zhoulei, SanWenYu, XiaoMo, and Mr Tao in Lijiang. We added two more crash pads plus gear for a mountaineering expedition post bouldering trip. From Lijiang we took the bus to Zhongdian (3200 m) where we spent the night and the following day had another bus ride over two mountain passes to Daocheng(3700 meters). In our attempts to avoid AMS (acute mountain sickness), everyone was aware of the need to drink lots of water. This resulted in plenty of requests to stop during the 10 hour bus ride. Half the passengers were in our group, the other half, weren’t as hydrated nor as thrilled with our level of hyrdration. At least the stops provided photo opportunities as we went across two beautiful mountain passes and through remote villages. The loading and unloading of the gear was another amusing process. Amusing for everyone except the bus drivers, who looked on with horror as we approached with far more than the average Chinese tourist (which is already a lot). At least when traveling with bouldering pads, you always have a couch.
Once in Daocheng city, we were met by one of the local families who has a house out in Ruba Chaka, a few kilometers from Daocheng city center. The local architecture follows the traditional Tibetan style where the animals live in a stable on the first floor and the family (and guests) live on the second floor. The residence is in walking distance of five bouldering areas and has private hot springs in the courtyard to wash and warmup post climbing session.
As we hiked out to the boulder field the first afternoon, everyone was breathless. The dramatic landscape turned the cliche stock expression about gorgeous surroundings and lack of oxygen into an altitude induced truth. All around us were granite boulders, some with problems already established and far more with unclimbed potential. Dobie led us straight to the potential problems and we wasted no time wandering around questioning if that rock over there is indeed to rock pictured in the guide. Having been on an expedition to a new bouldering area with “tons of potential, and so many rocks!” in the past, I certainly appreciated having some guidance from the guidebook author.
Area 5 in Ruba Chaka overlooks the valley and while it’s a long hike up, the views of the lush valley below are amazing. I am not the strongest boulderer even at sea level, but it was fun running from rock to rock with Kris tagging V0s while the others worked more challenging problems. We spent two days in Ruba Chaka enjoying a roof over our heads before organizing transit to Haizishan, where the greatest concentration of boulders lay.
Zhoulei organized the vans, and the drivers must have thought we were insane. Haizishan is a good 20k down a small road which is already an hour out of Daocheng. Our drop off location was seemingly no different from any other stretch of that road. But they dropped us, said see ya next week, and we shuttled our packs plus camping gear, food for a week, and bouldering pads down a shrubby hill and across a river to a sandy stretch where we set up camp. This should have been a fairly moderate task for a group of fit climbers, but everyone was feeling the effects of the elevation. I was happy to learn that the needs of acclimation require lots of food as this provided a great excuse to snack constantly. It is recommended that more than 70 percent of your diet should come from carbohydrates, so compressed biscuits with peanut butter, moon cakes, and dried juju berries were my staples plus lots of water and ginger tea. And for dinner Xiao Mo and Ansure would make the most delicious spicy stir fries. Yes, a wok and rice cooker were amongst the camping gear. This wasn’t a pack-light expedition…
During the week at Haizishan we had a mix of sun, clouds, and rain. It would frequently rain at night, but luckily the granite boulders dried very quickly. The bouldering potential of the area was incredible and in our group were some seriously strong climbers. Raul has an eye for seeing boulder problems and found a few group favorites including one that he named “Straight Outta Squampton” which requires the climber to heel hook along a ledge for a few meters then reach to a side pintch and pull up for the top out.
One of the hardest problems was discovered on one of the final days just up from camp. The climbing face is steep,the holds tiny and far apart, and even DaWei, arguably China’s strongest sport climber, was unable to put the moves together. The problem remains unsent and would possibly go at V10-13… if it’s climbable at all
(dawei on the unsendable)
After just over a week camping on our alpine beach, everyone was ready to get back to civilization. During our time around Daocheng the team of 11 set 30-40 new problems with another 40 still awaiting first assents. The climbing near Daocheng is certainly for the adventurous. The setting is phenomenal, the culture fascinating, and the bouldering will actually take your breath away.
For more information on bouldering in Daocheng, including Mike Dobie’s guidebook, see: http://junshanclimber.com/dao-chang-bouldering-weston-sichuan