Extended Video: Climbing China's Incredible Cliffs

See the related National Geographic magazine “Empire of Rock” feature story, 3-D cave tour, and 3:30-minute video from the July 2014 edition. This expedition was supported with a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council.

I’m teetering on a precarious stack of limestone “Jenga” blocks on a huge spire in Enshi Grand Canyon in southern China. None of the rock I’m ascending is attached to the wall. One bad move could send the whole pile of rubble to the deck—and me along with it. Some would call this their worst nightmare; I call it par for the course.

“How does it look up there?” I hear Matt Segal yell up through darkness, with palpable concern in his voice. “Well, honestly, it looks pretty screwed up,” I yell down, as I chart a theoretical path through a 60-foot jumble of kitty litter and teetering death blocks that lie between me and a somewhat solid looking tree jutting from the wall. My rope arcs down to Matt without a single piece of protection between us. If I fall, I’m going to crater in a bloody mess at Matt’s feet.

“You’ve got it, Ceedy,” I hear Emily Harrington yell up, in a tone that sounds more like a question than encouragement. Translation: “You’ve got this right, Cedar? You aren’t going to send down a giant block and kill us are you?”

“I sure hope so,” I whimper. “Just watch me good.”

I immediately realize the irony of saying, “watch me.” They are both hiding underneath a small rock roof praying that they won’t get scraped off the wall by a boulder … they aren’t watching me at all; that would be suicidal.

I enter a state that I call “survival Zen,” when things are so urgent that the only way to survive is to relax. I take a deep, calming breath and reach up to grab a solid-ish looking hand hold.

“Ahhhh…nooo,” I scream, as an entire panel of rock the size of a toaster oven comes off in my hand. I teeter backwards about to reverse swan dive off the mountain. Time slows down. I can barely hold the block, but in a moment of superhuman adrenaline, I manage to use momentum to throw the block behind me … hopefully out of the way of my rope and Matt and Emily. As I swing back in to the wall, the huge chunk of rock slashes audibly through the air, and then, explodes like a grenade shooting sparks across the ledge below. I’m alive! 

“Are you guys alright? I shout down to Matt and Emily. “Are you guys good?”

“Yikes, dude, we’re alright,” Matt shouts up to me. 

This is all Matt’s fault really. Matt was the mastermind of this mission. It all started a year before when he had gotten work as a camera assistant for Carsten Peter, who was shooting a feature article for National Geographic on caves in Hawaii. Matt spent several weeks living underground with Carsten, and managed to get him psyched about the idea of shooting a climbing adventure story in China. Carsten pitched the idea of documenting the unreal underground and above ground limestone geography of China, and Matt gave Carsen a dream list of the most spectacular places to visit in China. The editors at National Geographic like the idea, and, when all systems were go, Matt invited Emily and me to accompany him and Carsten on a journey to explore the climbing potential of the unique limestone towers and arches of China, that are known as karst formations.

Emily and I met Carsten for the first time once we arrived in China, where he’d already been for a month photographing the underground karst formations that made up half his feature story assignment. We were recruited for the above-ground part of the shoot. I had no interest in mucking around in dark, dank caves, but unclimbed towers—now we’re talking!

My first impression of Carsten was that he was what climbers call “classic,” meaning this guy was a total character! With his thick German accent, welcoming yet mischievous smile, and an undying penchant for adventure that may, in fact, trump even mine, I immediately liked the guy.

Our month in China was a whirlwind of transit, with tens of thousands of miles of driving, hiking, and flying, that left every one in the crew exhausted and, at times, perhaps a bit grumpy and un-psyched—everyone except for Carsten.

“Cee-dah,” he cried, with the last embers of light upon. “You think you can stand on that tower, and maybe you change into brighter shirt? We need one more shot.” After a long day of intense climbing, all I wanted to do was get some rest and a beer. But I reluctantly engineered my way up yet another death mission.

Who was this guy? The more heinous the food, the more arduous the driving sequence, the more difficult the language barrier, the more lost we got, the more Carsten seemed to thrive. No matter how ludicrous and exhausting the scenario, he found the energy to photograph it. As the trip went on, I came to realize that Carsten was born to do this. He was an unshakeable, crazed, adventure masochist! We’d roll into a destination at three in the morning, and he’d be up at 5 a.m. to shoot the morning light! Neither fever, nor dysentery, nor utter exhaustion was going to stop this guy.

Over the whirlwind month, we were tasked with exploring four unique areas that showcase China’s otherworldly limestone Karst formations. The plan was to start in Enshi Grand Canyon National Park, in the Hubei province, where there were some massive unclimbed limestone towers that Matt had managed to negotiate permission to climb. From Enshi, we would fly to the Yunnan Province and then drive to the Stone Forest, an area of more 200 square kilometers of free standing limestone towers.

Next we would head to the Guangxi province to climb in Yangshuo on the famous 200-foot Moon Hill Arch, which is the heart of the local Chinese climbing community. Finally we would finish the trip in the Guizhou province at Getu, home of the Great Arch, one of, if not, the largest limestone arch in the world.

As days blurred into several weeks, it really struck me what an incredible opportunity had been afforded to me, and just how varied and unique China’s karst landscape is. The climbing community in China, which is now in it’s adolescence, will enjoy a virtually unlimited supply of incredible rock to climb on as they grow in numbers and expertise. The vastness of China’s geology is hard to overstate. For every area we explored there are hundreds more that we didn’t have time to investigate.

It was wild to think that the arches, spires, caves, and sinkholes we were exploring were at one time ancient sea floor before thousands of years of wind and erosion had persistently carved and dissolved the seabed into the surreal forms we were climbing on today. Like the cavers in the caving side of the story, we were there to explore and interact with the beautiful Karst geography. Our climbing abilities gave Carsten access to unique perspectives on the stone, and images of us pasted to the side of these wild rocks, gave the formations a sense of scale.

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Each member of our team brought strengths. In Yangshuo, Matt and Emily were in their element, where the task was to climb on Moon Hill, which is a huge arch that features bolt protected climbing for “sport climbing.” This type of climbing is less about adventure and more about pure difficulty—and Matt and Emily were ninjas in that arena! They both came up in the indoor competition circuit and are used to the difficult, gymnastic climbing that Moon Hill demands. Watching Matt pull on an edge the size of a credit card, or witnessing Emily breath and move with the focus and skill of an Olympic gymnast was truly inspiring to me.

I came up in a different universe of climbing—from the crumbly sea cliffs of Northern California to big first ascents in Yosemite, for me, climbing was more about risk and bravery than acrobatic skill, and right now half way up this spire in Enshi, all those skills were coming in handy. 

“Are you going to be able to make it?” Matt called up to me with genuine concern. 

After I had sent the block down, Emily and Matt were pretty worried. I was 60 feet up with no protection, and the terrain below was too dangerous to climb back down, so I really had no choice but to go up. “I’m going to try,” I replied. I just had to have blind, illogical faith that somewhere up there I’d find salvation.

I tiptoed with the careful precision of a technician trying to diffuse a bomb. I banged my fist urgently on each handhold and tried to equalize my weight as much as possible. The tree that was my imagined safety was tantalizingly, but between me, and security was a crack completely filled with dirt. I dug franticly. Moss, lichen and soil poured down into my face, filling my eyes, mouth and ears, but I excavated purchase. A few more difficult moves and the tree was just out of reach. I all out jumped for the tree and grabbed it with both hands like Michael Jordon dunking on his adversary. Grabbing that branch was cathartic. I felt like a shipwreck victim who had managed to swim to shore. I looked up at one more rope length to the summit. Emotions of relief, excitement and fear rushed to my head. 

“Alright guys, the belay is set! Come on up!”

In climbing terminology “choss” means really loose or bad rock. By all means the length of rock I had just lead was pure and unadulterated choss, but at the same time, it was an amazing experience. After all, we were on the most impressive unclimbed spire I had ever seen. It was less about the quality of the climbing and more about being the first humans to stand on top. I think that this is a primal human desire; to explore the unknown, to be the first person to touch a unique piece of our beautiful world.

Matt and Emily followed the pitch and were both covered in dirt and shaking their heads. “We’ve got a new nickname for you,” Matt smiled. “Yup,” Emily piped in, “Were going to call you the Choss Boss: Take us to the summit, Choss Boss,” Matt encouraged.

I managed one more loose, terrifying, life-risking pitch to the summit, complete with a dynamic jump for an adjoining wall, and some use of grass hummocks for holds. Standing on that spindly island in the staring out into the karst wonderland, was a truly beautiful moment in my life. This was the opportunity of a lifetime, and a moment that we would carry with us to the end of our days. Honestly that’s why I continue to find myself in these risky situations. They pay off in these unforgettable life experiences. “Now how do we get off this thing,” I half joked.

See the related National Geographic magazine “Empire of Rock” feature story3-D cave tour, and 3:30-minute video from the July 2014 edition. This expedition was supported with a grant from the National Geographic Expeditions Council.

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