Emerging trends among Chinese climbers. China not only has the tallest mountains in the world, it also has some of the most technically challenging, least explored, and most varied. What does this all mean for a burgeoning Chinese middle class that now has economic means, a love of the outdoors, and a desire for a higher quality of life? They have an “infinite” playground of incredible mountains and an immense backcountry to explore.
The Chinese are wasting no time in discovering their mountains and crags. In China, the development of climbing as a recreational sport has grown rapidly in a short period and is steadily gaining steam. In 1995, it is safe to say that all the serious Chinese rock climbers knew each other. Now, climbing and outdoor-enthusiast clubs are springing up at a dizzying rate across the country. It is difficult to judge how many climbers and want-to-be climbers there are presently in China. One thing is clear: the sport is growing exponentially. There are several popular rock climbing areas in the south and north, most major cities have rock gyms, people are starting to pursue alpine climbing, and Chinese are climbing Cho-Oyu, Everest, Mustag-ata, and other peaks throughout all of China and Tibet. ISPO (the giant international sports trade show from Europe) held its first show in China on March 14,2005. One can now find all essential equipment for climbing, and most major brands have entered the market. It is an exciting time to be a Chinese climber.
This explosion in outdoor sports is clearly being driving by the private sector’s new young middle class. Traditionally, the focus among Chinese climbers was on altitude: climbing 7,000m and 8,000m peaks siege or expedition style. Although this mindset is still prevalent, a new trend is developing in alpine climbing: attempting 5,000m-6,000m peaks in a lighter, small-team approach. Chinese climbers are starting to choose a mountain by what the route has to offer, where style counts, and where the challenges of the line are the goal, rather than simply getting to the top any way possible. This is a huge paradigm shift, and very well may be what makes climbing a popular sport in China. Alpine-style climbing is more suitable for the working, middle class climber who has economic constraints and limited vacation time.
However, alpine climbing is still in its infancy. In the past, Chinese overlooked their “shorter” mountains. Foreigners, especially Japanese and Westerners, pioneered many of the hard lines. For example, Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden’s award-winning ascent of Mt. Siguniang’s north face in 2002, Charlie Fowler’s first ascents of unknown peaks in western Sichuan in the mid 1990s, rock routes in the Jarjinjabo massif in the remote Kham region, and Craig Luebben’s ice lines in Shuangqiao Valley. We are now just starting to see Chinese climbers attempt new ascents on technically challenging routes and really get into their own backcountry. As a result, the Chinese have to learn a new set of climbing and backcountry techniques and safety skills. The first climbing school dedicated to teaching such skills started two years ago (AAIC—Arete Alpine Instruction Center—I am a co-owner with Ma Yihua, from Chengdu; the website www.aaic.cn is currently only in Chinese, but it will soon be in English also and will offer assistance to foreign visitors). In China, the scope of climbing is expanding along with the rising number of people coming into the sport.
I see the Chinese climbing scene advancing in several areas: quadruple the number of people going into the mountains during the next two to three years, pursuit of alpine style climbing, and subsequent opening up of new areas and many new routes and peaks. The number of rock climbers will also continue to grow, with sport climbing being prominent. While official standards for guides are now nearly non-existent, the next five years should see a basic development of qualifications. It is safe to say that China’s climbing scene is still in a pioneering stage. However, 10 years ago it was no more than a seed. During the next decade I am confident the development of climbing in China will surpass all of our expectations.
Jon Otto, AAC