Climbing at Phoenix Mountain

Trip Report
Phoenix Mountain (Feng Huang Ling), Northwest of Beijing, China
October 11th-13th, 2002
By Phil Magistro

I’ve been climbing in Beijing for about three weeks now. I had the good fortune of meeting and making friends with several members of the Peking University Mountaineering Association (Shan Ying She), and have been toproping and sport climbing in and around Beijing with them for the past three weekends. However, I had yet to find any nice long trad lines….and I was hurting to get out and do some multi-pitch. Jon Otto’s book “Climbing in Beijing” gives details for several big routes at Phoenix Mountain, which is located to the north west of Beijing in the Western Hills. Apparently, the area hosts several multipitch trad routes and is pretty easy to get to. So I tossed the idea out to my friends in the Shan Ying She and we made plans.

11A few people expressed interest in going on the trip, but a few dropped out, leaving myself and two of the better climbers in the Shan Ying She, Zhang Rui and Bai Cheng Tai. I had been climbing regularly with Zhang Rui and teaching him the basics of trad climbing on short, single pitch routes. They are both strong climbers…much stronger than I am, though they have less experience on natural cliffs. Bai Cheng Tai took 11th place in an Asian climbing competition in Nanjing just a week or two before our trip. So we prepared to climb in a team of three….which made me pretty happy. Having two ropes would be a plus on the descents…more than worth the extra time it would take to climb with three as opposed to two.

So I packed my bag on Thursday night with the regular complement of climbing gear….harness, rope, trad rack (including Zhang Rui’s set of forged friends)…clothes, camera, some spare webbing and toiletries. I brought my tent just in case, but left the sleeping bag and pad behind. According to the book, there was a cheap guest house at Feng Huang Ling. As for food, I prepared a decent selection of Chinese wilderness fare….a few apples, some smoked sausages, a bag of granola from the expensive western supermarket north of campus, a package of the egg flour biscuits known as sachima, some Ritz crackers, a bag of sweet coconut rolls, and two small round loaves of bread from the Muslim restaurant on campus.

On Friday, after Chinese class in the morning, I headed out to the east gate of Bei-Da to meet Bai Cheng Tai and get started. I ran into an old friend…actually, my first Chinese teacher ever, at the gate…quite a coincidence! Anyhow, Bai Cheng Tai and I caught a bus to the Summer Palace, met up with Zhang Rui, and loaded up on bus #346 for the hour long ride to Feng Huang Ling. Pretty standard…packed bus, no seats….but not bad for a dollar or so. Rolled along the old road, lined with trees painted white for the first meter or two off the ground, small shops, potholes, bikes, and taxis….

We made it to the last bus stop without incident and hiked the last few meters to the gate of the park. Picked up our tickets and inquired about housing….but didn’t get any clear answer. The manager said we needed to be out of the park by 6pm….which didn’t really make much sense to my Chinese companions. It was already 3pm. “Bu guan ta,” they told me. “Don’t listen to him.” Okay…I try to avoid asking questions in this country.

We headed to the first of the cliffs in my guidebook…two pitches, nothing harder than 5.4, about 60m altogether. After a bit of a rugged bushwack (first of many) through the prickly grass and thorny Jujube trees, we reached the base of the cliff and roped up. Already 4pm…I thought maybe this wasn’t the best idea…but I let my excitement get the better of me and I lead the pitch to the first belay. Great rock….reminds me of Joshua Tree….though it’s a little loose here and there. Doesn’t see the traffic that J-Tree gets. Anyhow, the friction is unbelievable…..just about makes up for the 3-6 meter runouts between good protection! Made it to the first belay and brought my friends up….Bai Cheng Tai fell once when a decent chunk of a flake broke off in his hand, but otherwise had no real problems. We were in something of a fairy-tale land….like something out of the Lord of the Rings. The weather had been foggy for the past day or two in Beijing, and it was quite the same at Phoenix Mountain. It was just possible to see the outline of huge rounded cliffs through the thick mists, rolling up the mountainside to the north. The sun set as we finished the first pitch and the lights from the nearest town gradually took it’s place. I headed out on the second pitch, dealing with some serious rope drag as I negotiated the shrubs and huge boulders that together made up the cliff. As I reached the second belay, it began to get a bit dark and I started to seriously doubt my decision to start climbing so late in the afternoon. However, Bai Cheng Tai and Zhang Rui were eating it up…this being their first real multipitch experience. Bai Cheng Tai cruised the second pitch, stopping twice to free the rope from a crack between two boulders. I fished out my headlamp after he arrived, put him on the anchor, and had him shine the light for Zhang Rui as he brought up the rear. As we organized the ropes and gear to prepare for the final pitch (which turned out to be a 4th class scramble across to the descent trail), I commented on my last experience climbing at night…at Seneca with my backpack, preparing to spend the night on the summit. A bit of linguistic humor…I was speaking Chinese, but my tones were a bit off. I said I was climbing with my “da4 bao4”, both falling tones….thinking I was saying “big backpack”….not realizing that the proper word was “da4 bao1”, fourth tone first tone. So Zhang Rui nods, then asks me with a puzzled look on his face, “Phil, who is your Da Bao?” Apparently, “da4 bao4” roughly translates to “Big Honey.” I definitely don’t have a Big Honey.

08We hiked down, scrambled back to our packs, and ate a pleasant dinner while the lights of cars on the farmland below floated about like fireflies in the mist. I noticed a small snake in a crack near where we were eating, and asked my companions if we should worry about it. “No worries…the snakes here are mostly not poisonous. The dangerous ones will hiss or rattle if you come close.” Sounds good to me. The really scary snakes are in the south of China, they told me. Cute little guy…

Exhausted, we pitched tents on the flattest spot of land we could find….I put on all my clothes, crawled inside my backpack, and spent a cold night on the ground. It wasn’t so bad, though….after spending a month on the painfully hard bed I enjoy each night in the foreign student dorm.

Saturday morning dawned clearer than the last week….and I awoke to the sound of Chinese tour groups cruising the main road through the park and commenting on the tents in the field below. I crawled out of my tent, and immediately became a greater attraction than the fantastic scenery of Phoenix Mountain. A crowd of schoolkids were passing by…with more than one head turned my way. I heard “lao wai” run through the crowd a few times, and a few of the bolder students called out “Hello!” and “Good morning sir!” Nothing beats being gawked at first thing in the morning after a relaxing 40 degree night sleeping on the ground. However, I do get a kick out of the response when a Chinese passerby comments on the lao wai in a not-so-quiet voice and I turn my head to check out my audience. They never realize that I just might understand what they are saying….it always gets a chuckle from the crowd.

We broke camp and headed for the hills….one hill in particular. Estimated at 200m, the last cliff in the park is a fantastically aesthetic piece of rock. Two giant slabs lean back into the mountain, flanked by cliffs, boulders, and deep gullies on all sides. According to Otto’s book, the climb hasn’t yet been finished…only climbed to the end of the third pitch. Seeing as we had the entire day to do it, we set our sights on the summit.

At the base of the mountain, a cemetery creeps up, almost reaching the base of the cliff. The cemetery, enlarged since Jon Otto’s time, presented a bit of a problem….so we took a circuitous route around the left side of the mountain, up some low angle slabs and through several hundred meters of unrelenting thorny brush and trees. The Jujube tree, or suan dao, is a horrible creature with half inch thorns that pierce clothing and flesh without mercy. On the other hand, the tree produces a tart reddish berry that is quite tasty, especially when you are parched on the way back down from a long day of climbing. After traversing the base of the leftmost slab above the cemetery, we arrived at the base of the rightmost slab and the start of our line.

I was standing with each foot on a pile of rocks, sideways to the crack that forms the beginning of our line, preparing to flake out the rope, when I heard something move to the side of me. Before I knew it, a two or three foot long flash of green and yellow shot out of the crack, right between my legs, and on past Zhang Rui and down the cliff. It took me a good minute for my heart to start beating again….could this snake be an evil omen? Of course not! The snakes around Beijing aren’t dangerous, right? Okay….so I finished flaking out the rope, double checked my partners harnesses, knots, and the belay, and started the climb.

First pitch was short and sweet…up the low angle face to a big boulder with a crack to place pro in, then up and onto a big tree-filled ledge to belay. Not even 15m. Brought my friends up and started the real climbing. The second pitch was sweet…easily 55m long, climbing the slabby face with amazing friction holds, with a left facing dihedral opening up every few meters to offer solid protection. Hanging belay at a big solid tree growing out of the crack….even had an old webbing and quicklink rappel anchor, probably dating back to 1998 when Jon Otto and Hu Dongyue establsished the route. I backed it up with a few slings and brought two smiling Mountain Eagles up to their first hanging belay. Third pitch became interesting. Same sort of slabby face climbing, but the crack in the dihedral was so full of dirt and plants than placing pro was more like digging in the dirt. Still, the pro was decent….and before I knew it Zhang Rui called out to let me know that I only had about 10 meters of rope left. There was a decent spot where I could establish a belay to in the crack to the right, though it was still pretty steep and looked a bit loose. Five meters above me, though, the face leveled off a bit and I could see an old sling tied off to a piton in a crack. I decided to head for the piton. The pro wasn’t great, but I got a pair of small nuts in a vertical crack to the right, a red tri-cam in the horizontal crack to the left of the piton, and used the piton, which appeared quite solid. The low angle belay spot was quite comfortable, actually…after Bai Cheng Tai and Zhang Rui finished the pitch we took a short break, gave our feet and calves a rest from the steep friction climbing, and took a few pictures. According to my book, this was the high point reached by Otto and Hu in ’98. I put my shoes back on, chalked up, and headed off into the unknown on the fourth pitch.

Immediately above the belay was a short vertical section with no protection but plenty of big features…above that I couldn’t see the route. I cruised up the steep section and was pleased to see the route level off onto a low angle slope of undulating rock….3rd or 4th class at the worst, but no obvious protection for the length of the pitch. I gingerly walked my way up the slab, 30 meters, 40 meters, 50 meters…finally reached a horizontal crack at the base of a final vertical section. I build a belay anchor in the crack and looked up….the final pitch looked tough but doable, and after that it seemed we would have the summit. Bai Cheng Tai and Zhang Rui practically ran up the fourth pitch….I had to take a minute to catch my breath after giving them the fastest belay I could manage.

The final pitch started off with a few friction moves to a good crack where I placed a really solid hex, then moved up and right into a small cave. I slotted the pink tri-cam in a crack in the roof and prepared for what looked like the crux move. Stemmed reaalllly wide to a small face on the left, out of the cave, and locked in a beautiful hand jam just above the small overhang. My left hand was on friction holds…so I took a breath, pulled hard on the jam, and stood up……quickly slotted my left hand higher in the crack and moved my feet up. Placed a piece and let out a whoop….I could totally feel the summit. A few easy friction moves and was there….standing on top of a boulder on a small plateau covered by windswept shrubs. No place to build a belay anchor, so I wedged myself firmly between two boulders with the rope running out through a six-inch gap….no way I would fit through that. Pulled up the rope, brought up Bai Cheng Tai and Zhang Rui, and watched the sun slip down over the mountain to the west. We did it….but the fun was only just about to begin.

The wind picked up after the sun set, so we stuffed ourselves with the bread and sausages that we had carried along on the climb, took some pictures, then scoped out possible descent routes. The cleft between the two main slabs looked promising….though uncomfortable. The wind became quite fierce….so strong that we had to drop down and grab the boulders to avoid being blown over. We hurried into the cleft, which provided an immediate refuge from the cold wind. Battled our way down through hateful vegetation, cursing the thorns and dust that rose off the leaves of the fragrant grasses. After fighting our way down a ropelength or so, we found ourselves on level with the final belay spot, at the top of the 3rd class slab. We gingerly traversed across the flat spot at the base of the final pitch and rebuilt the belay anchor in the horizontal crack. I gave my pocketknife and a piece of webbing to Zhang Rui, then belayed him as he scrambled back down to the piton. He cut the old webbing away and tied a nice new piece of red mil-spec in its place, as I belayed Bai Cheng Tai down to meet him with the rack and slings. They build an anchor, backing up the piton just in case, and put me on belay. I ever so carefully tiptoed my way down the slab….fully aware of the potential for a 100 meter fall if I slipped. The hard part was the last 5 meters, though…so I was safe for the crux. Finished the downclimb with no problems whatsoever, and prepared the ropes to rappel back to the big tree at the second belay. I was on autopilot…working quickly to get down in the safest manner possible. I was afraid that the ropes wouldn’t reach, as the Shan Ying She rope Zhang Rui had brought along was only 55m long, so I tied a stopper knot in the end of each rope and tossed the coil down the face. Zhang Rui rappelled first, using the piton as an anchor….backed up by a bunch of pro just in case. Bai Cheng Tai followed, with no problems. The piton was hardly rusted, and with my new piece of webbing in place I felt pretty comfortably using it as an anchor. I removed the backups and rappelled down to meet my friends.

It was becoming dark as I began my rappel….the moon and stars were beautiful, with the mountains silhouetted against the night sky I felt quite at peace. However, as I reached the belay, Zhang Rui called out to me, “Phil, there is a problem….the end of the rope is stuck.”

The ropes were long enough to reach the belay, but the tail end of the brown rope had fallen into the cleft to the left and became stuck on something. I tried to pull the tails up from above, with no success. My blue rope had become stuck as well. Not wanting to bounce around on the piton anchor too much, I lowered to the belay to take stock of the situation. We had a few options….cut the ropes and lose a few meters, but I feared that if we cut the tails off, we wouldn’t have enough rope left to reach the ground. If I swung over into the cleft to retrieve the tails, I may not be able to swing back to the belay. Finally, I didn’t want to do much swinging about using a single piton as the rappel anchor. Damn. We were in a tight spot. One thing at a time, though….I first added a piece of webbing to the old rappel anchor on the tree, as that would be necessary no matter what we do with the ropes. There wasn’t enough rope left to tie off the tails and lower out into the cleft, so I pulled out my cordalette and extended the anchor. I fixed the ropes to the belay anchor, attached myself to the climbing ropes with prussiks and my reverso, and gingerly lowered out into the cleft. The blue rope fell out of the flake it had been stuck in rather easily, but the brown rope wouldn’t budge. I eased over another meter or so, and saw the problem. Not only had the knot fallen into a flake, but it had also passed through a hole in the flake and was jammed in the hole. Mother Nature was certainly playing tricks on us. I wiggled the rope loose, untied the stopper knot, pulled myself back to the belay anchor, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We prepared the rappel, took a last look at the fantastic night scenery on the fields to the south, and rapped down to solid ground.

An hour of battling brush and boulders later, found out way to the packs…drank a bit of water, packed the gear, and hiked out of the cemetery and back to the main road. After a few kilometers, we found our way to a village with a restaurant. We cleaned up a bit, gulped a few steaming cups of tea, toasted our grand adventure with a round of tsingtao pijiu, and sat back to enjoy a classic Chinese dinner.

10Later on, we found our way to a local guest house where we secured a room for the night. I slept the best sleep I’ve had in a while. Sunday wasn’t quite as exciting….we headed back to the hills for a quick two-pitch route on a face above a crowd of gawking Chinese tourists, hiked back to the bus stop and headed back….to Zhang Rui’s apartment for a shower, dinner, and to watch a few climbing movies. I think next weekend I’m going to hang around Beijing and take it easy….I’ve had enough adventure for a little while.

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