Emily Harrington climbing Moon Hill, China; Photograph by Rocker Wang

Emily Harrington climbing Moon Hill, Yangshuo, China; Photograph by Rocker Wang

I knew it was going to be a long trip before it even began on the day my Chinese visa was denied officially, after the Chinese Consulate had already sent it back to the agency two times prior. I’d been to China three times before and never had an issue, but this time around was turning out to be a total disaster.

The idea for this trip was cooked up by my friend Matt Segal, who pitched the idea to National Geographic as an article featuring the country’s unique and spectacular limestone formations in its southern provinces. He’d partnered with NG contributing photographer Carsten Peter, who has won the World Press Award twice and received several other prestigious honors (including an Emmy) for his talent behind the camera in some of the world’s wildest places.

The article, which will be published in 2014, is going to be about the geology of these rare natural wonders—above ground and below. Carsten had already been in the country for a month prior to our planned arrival shooting massive underground caves—one of his photographic specialties (see “Vietnam’s Infinite Cave in National Geographic‘s January 2011 issue for reference). The climbing would be the secondary story, and from my understanding provide some sort of perspective and scope to the photos.

Joining us on this random yet interesting trip would be another The North Face athlete Cedar Wright, prolific climbing photographer/videographer Keith Ladzinski (3 Strings Media), former Air Force pilot/Air Traffic Controller turned aerial and underwater cinematographer Chad Copeland, and National Geographic electrical engineer Brad Henning. The whole thing felt a bit convoluted and unclear from the start, but my curious and adventurous side took over and I decided to join. I did not have a clue what to expect and only hoped the experience would be worth traveling all that way for.

Honestly, I find China to be a challenging country to visit. It confuses me. I always feel like I’m stumbling blindly through life when I am there; constantly struggling to understand the cultural subtleties and wade through the language barrier. I often find myself trying to decipher and remedy the inevitable and countless circumstances lost in translation, always a test of patience and mental stamina.

This time these desperate feelings began even before I left the U.S. with the visa problem. But it was also China taught me my first lesson: things generally do work out, just not how or when you may expect. A trip to Chinatown in Oakland to meet with a man named Kiet, two trips to the Chinese Consulate in person, a messenger named “Jenni,” some special Chinese mooncakes, a couple of phone calls, two flight changes later, and I had my Chinese Visa in hand and was at the San Francisco Airport on a flight to Shanghai–just one week later than anticipated.

I flew into Shanghai then on to Enshi the next day via another Chinese city called Wuhan to meet up with the rest of the crew. In Wuhan I managed to get charged $110 USD for a cappuccino because I didn’t have enough RMB and there were no ATMs in the airport. I battled the waitress uselessly for 20 minutes, attempting to explain the exchange rate using a calculator and hand gestures. I was feeling so jet lagged, worthless, and dumb that I almost gave in and just handed her all the money I had when I was saved by a German man who offered to change some of my U.S. dollars for his RMB so I could pay the appropriate amount in the appropriate currency.

When I finally arrived in Enshi, Matt informed me that I had actually missed nothing during my delayed arrival because they had spent the last three days trying to get permission to climb the limestone spires in the park, called the Enshi Grand Canyon, and that the next day was the first day we were actually allowed to climb–excellent timing! The catch was that we weren’t allowed to climb while the park was open and tourists were visiting–I soon found out why.

We woke up at 3:30 a.m. and were climbing the “Mother Child Spire by 5 a.m. Well, sort of climbing. The towers turned out to be a bit more overgrown and loose than expected, demanding careful yet bold climbing on strange terrain with poor gear placements–nothing I’d experienced before.

We were required to be off the tower by 9 a.m., so our time was limited. For the sake of speed and safety, Matt and I jumared most of the route on fixed lines established by Cedar. We started referring to him as “The Choss Boss” because he was far more efficient and experienced than we were in the delicate ways of navigating gnarly webs of vertical jungle and heinously loose microwave blocks teetering like Jenga pieces every few meters. Save a few close calls, we all survived the mission and managed to summit the spire and make it down safely.

The reason we had to come down by 9 a.m. became obvious immediately after Cedar ripped the first death block off the wall about 150 feet up. It cratered past Matt and me, huddled together under a small roof to avoid getting hit, and exploded on the ground below us—right onto the nice stone pathway that wound its way throughout the park. The park service had built an elaborate concrete pathway that traversed the entire valley, snaking its way around and underneath the spires. It’s probably several miles long, complete with thousands of steps that take the visitor right up close and personal with the limestone phenomena. We rappelled down around 9 a.m., just as the park opened and tourists began streaming in by the thousands—thankful that no one had been below us just a few hours before.

So Enshi was odd and a bit scary, but pretty rad all things considered. I’d never climbed towers before, and these were truly special and like nothing I’d ever seen. Summitting such a narrow formation feels completely different than standing on the summit of a mountain or even big wall. It’s more exposed and feels somehow more wild and exhilarating. These towers were particularly special—bizarre fingers of oddly-shaped gravity-defying limestone scattered throughout a lush mountainous landscape, and no one had ever climbed them before.

Considering the headache it was to attain the permissions, it seems unlikely that anyone else will be able to anytime soon. One of the most aesthetic towers, The Incense Tower, appeared so narrow and lopsided that the park service refused to let us climb it, stating at first that they were afraid it would tip over. When we protested that that would never happen they simply replied that it was too dangerous, end of discussion.

Following Enshi, we moved on to the city of Kunming, where the famous Stone Forest resides just an hour outside of the city. At first I wasn’t as impressed, but was stoked to be actually climbing instead of jumaring fixed lines. We spent some time running around the corn fields surrounding the actual national park, scrambling up mini spires that just seem to appear out of nowhere by the thousands–spiky outcrops on the otherwise flat landscape.

We tried to get permission to actually climb in the Stone Forest on our last day–because we’d heard it was incredible and well worth inquiring about. Matt had actually already tried before the trip, but with no luck. We thought that if we physically went and spoke to someone in charge they may give in. Two hours of drinking tea and attempted flattery with one of the higher ups at the park and we left with a big fat “NO.” He said it was too dangerous. Strike two! I was even more disappointed when we ventured into the park to have a look later that night. I’ve never in my life seen such a bizarre array of formations. It was a massively condensed labyrinth of excellent rock; from smooth slabs to perfect overhangs, razor sharp aretes and wild curving wave features–it truly is a sport climbing/bouldering paradise, or at least it could be.

We left Kunming feeling antsy and slightly frustrated, more specifically we climbers felt that way. We’d been traveling for nearly two weeks, helping the media team capture phenomenal imagery and footage of these exotic geological locations, but we hadn’t really gotten our “climbing fix.” My forearms were craving that familiar lactic acid burn and my fingers twitched from not doing what they’re used to.

We arrived in Yangshuo, one of the most popular sport climbing destinations in China, and could barely contain our excitement for “real” climbing. Our main objective photo/video-wise was obviously the famous Moon Hill, the wildly steep and stalactite-infested arch located smack dab in the middle of the karst-ridden landscape (those camel hump-shaped mountain-looking features) that ripple along as far as the eye can see, giving off an otherworldly Dr. Seuss kind of vibe. We climbed there for three days, sweated in the humidity, greased off polished tufas, posed-down for tourist photos as well as for our own media team (lovingly dubbed ”Team Junkshow”), ate sorta-western food in the touristy sections of Yangshuo, got stuck in ridiculous traffic due to it being a Chinese national holiday the entire week, and overall had a relaxing and satisfying time.

China is country with several sides. As one of the oldest known civilizations, the traditional way of life is has maintained a presence in the rural areas, with people still farming and raising animals, living extremely modestly off  of the land.  Yet the urban centers are incredibly modern and experiencing rapid growth and technological advancement at a rate that has earned the economy the title of fastest growing in the world.  It is massively populated and condensed in the cities, with some of the most crowded streets and worst traffic I have ever experienced.  The geography is also diverse; the highest mountain ranges of the Himalaya, Karakorum, Pamir, and Tian Shan crop up out of the Tibetan Plateau in the southwest, which tapers off into to the Gobi desert to the north, and the valleys and rugged forested basins further east.  It is a fascinating country to visit, but also overwhelming and difficult to grasp at times.

China is a place I find very different from where I’m from, and traveling there will never be a mellow experience. Without fail I return home feeling drained and exhausted from battling the language barriers, dealing with the massive amounts of people, traffic, and hurdles that go along with trying to get by in place where I can’t understand anything that goes on. But I also feel appreciative. I love traveling and seeing firsthand how others exist and get on in their daily lives. The experience always tests my patience and traveling stamina and teaches me to let go a little, adapt to changing circumstances, and observe rather than judge.

Huge thanks to The North Face China, Alex Zhao and Rocker Wang for putting up with us and dealing with our junkshow all the time! Now I’m on a plane back to the U.S. while the rest of the team continues on to the Getu Valley, another phenomenal and gorgeous climbing area I visited in 2011 for the Petzl RocTrip event. I’m really looking forward to the comforts of home for a week before I leave again for my Speaker Series tour on the East Coast, followed shortly by my my return to Asia–this time to Nepal to climb Ama Dablam.