Thousands of karst pinnacles pierce the sky. In the village of Yangshuo, in south-central China, a cafe is frying the local specialty, beer fish, for a band of half-drunk Western tourists. They clink tiny, toy-like glasses of baijiu. Some manage to drink it. You would rather drain a lawnmower’s gas tank than partake of that grain alcohol.
In the light breeze you catch a whiff of the Li River that wraps about town like a lazy serpent. You look to the horizon. Limestone formations curtained in green extend until they go out of focus. Your fingers, swollen from days of crushing tufas and slotting into pockets, wrap around a cool bottle of Liquan, the local suds. You tip back the bottle and feel the cold stream flow into your belly.
You aren’t the first American in Yangshuo. In 1972 a visiting President Nixon was also enamored by the limestone towers and hills. Specifically, he couldn’t quit staring at the 200-foot-high natural arch of Moon Hill.
“Was the moon-shaped hole in the mountain blasted there by a People’s Liberation Army missile?” he asked.
No, replied his bemused guides, the arch was all natural. To prove it they chopped a path through the underbrush and led the President up to the rock to see for himself.
Nixon’s visit is said to have been the most important international Presidential trip of all time, reopening relations with a closed-off China. For climbers, though, a more important visit loomed as large as Moon Hill itself.
In 1990 a team of American climbers rolled into Yangshuo on the recommendation of Mark Newcomb. Back in his hometown of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Newcomb had told his friend Sam Lightner, Jr. of rock similar to the limestone he and Lightner had recently started developing in Thailand at a then-unknown beach called Railay.
Lightner enlisted Todd Skinner and Jacob Valdez, and in Yangshuo they found rock. “It wasn’t,” says Lightner, “like Railay, it was just like it.”
The trio set to work on the underbelly of the arch that squats atop Moon Hill like a Taoist shrine. They established Over the Moon (5.12c), an epic ascent by any measure.
“The Chinese airline [we took] had a strict 20-kilo rule per person,” says Lightner. “We couldn’t bring a power drill plus batteries plus a bunch of bolts and hangers. We had to improvise.”
Improvisation on Over the Moon meant no bolts. For pro on the overhanging arch Lightner and Skinner tied off tufas—the bolts now on the route were added later by other teams.
Lightner and crew established four routes on that trip, putting Yangshuo on the map for tufa-hungry climbers. Now, the once-sleepy village bustles with 200,000 people, countless bars and nightclubs provide background base thumping, and some 800 hotels await arrivals. On the positive side, according to Yangshuo Rock (2017) by Andrew Hedesh, Yangshuo offers up 900 routes including 500 that are 5.11 and easier.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 259 (September 2019).