Adrenalin-Filled Climbing at Taiwan’s Premier Rock
Climbing Site By Eric Lambert
Rack your gear and pack your bags, because the Longdong cliffs, located on Taiwan's northeast coast, are calling climbers and adventurers worldwide. Longdong, which means "dragon cave" in Chinese, is Taiwan's premier crag and ranks among the top seaside-climbing spots in the world. With over 500 routes along a 2-km stretch of Pacific coastline, Longdong offers excellent sport and traditional climbing up to 80 meters that ranges in grade from 5.4 for beginners to 5.14a for high-performance climbers.
It was 9:10 am on a springtime Saturday morning as I rushed toward Taipei West Bus Station Terminal A with my heavy bag of gear. I arrived just in time to meet a couple of climbing buddies and catch a bus to Longdong at 9:20 am. We used the hour-and-a-half bus ride to plan some climbs with our guidebook, Longdong Trad Climbs, authored by one of the climbing community's best friends, Matt Robertson (climbstone.com).
We decided to start at an area known as School Gate, which is the first crag you get to when walking in from the north. After a short walk along a narrow road and some simple rock-hopping we reached it. For an easy warm-up with a rewarding view at the end, we started with a 5.5 trad climb called Staircase.
The trad climbing, which requires climbers to place their own gear in the cracks of the rock for protection, is excellent at Longdong. The blocky features of the solid Siling sandstone *please clarify: is this the ‘four corner’ sandstone? create a great mix of horizontal and vertical cracks, and the 25-meter climb up Staircase offered more than enough places to fit protective gear
From my perch at the top, I set up an anchor and belayed my partner as he followed my line and cleaned out the gear from the rocks. We took a moment to marvel at the vast Pacific Ocean, then agreed to continue south to the area known as Music Hall, where some challenging sport climbing awaited.
"Sport climbing" refers to routes that have bolts secured into the rock. The climber just has to attach one end of a quickdraw (a carabiner at each end of a nylon sling) to the bolt, and the other end to his rope, for protection as he climbs up. Compared to trad climbing, where you'd need an additional rack of protective gear, the sport climbs at Longdong can be done with less equipment. Still, it's suggested you have a 60-meter rope, 10 to 15 quickdraws, extra slings, and a few locking carabiners in addition to the essential belay device, climbing shoes, and harness. The necessary gear and Matt Robertson's new guidebook, "Rock Climbing Taiwan," can be bought from mountaineering-supply shops on Zhongshan North Road near Taipei Railway Station.
Climbing gear can be expensive when buying it all at once, so if you're new to the sport it might be worth joining an organized group trip to Longdong. Trips are usually arranged for weekends by some of the Taipei climbing gyms such as Y17 and IDEA Rock Climbing Center. They cost around NT$2,000 per day including gear, and the guides show you around and give you a safe belay whenever required.
When we arrived Music Hall was full of stoked climbers, including some of our friends, some legendary Longdong climbers, and even a lone business traveler who had no problem finding partners since he had wisely brought his shoes, harness, and belay device. The route we wanted, F-ing Fall *this hints at vulgarity, please take this out of the article, was just then being climbed, so we took the opportunity to get on a classic climb called Wedding Route, where two Taiwanese climbers once actually "tied the knot."
Wedding Route is a 25-meter sport climb that is rated 5.7. Most beginners climb from 5.2 to 5.8 and intermediate climbers from 5.9 to 5.11d, and the world's top climbers have pushed the top rating to 5.15b by finding and climbing insanely difficult routes. Thankfully Wedding Route did not fall into the latter category, but it still offered lots of excitement and fun.
My partner wanted to lead the climb, meaning he would climb up first and attach the quickdraws to the bolts in the rock and his rope. I belayed him so that in case of a fall I could stop the rope in my belay device. I paid close attention to my partner as he scaled the vertical wall, and fed rope out as he went higher. After he reached the top he secured himself to a pair of bolts and set up an anchor from which others would be able to run their ropes. This is called "top-roping," good for beginners because the rope-and-anchor setup at the top ensures that a fall will be shorter, softer, and more secure.
After lowering my partner I noticed that F-ing Fall was free, so I pulled my rope and left my quickdraws on the wall for others to use. F-ing Fall also had quickdraws still on the bolts, so I asked the climber nearby if it was OK to use them. Sure enough it was. I'd climbed this 18-meter 5.11a route before, but not "cleanly," meaning I had fallen while climbing or had been obliged to take a rest and hang on to the rope. As I tied into the rope my body tingled with adrenaline as my mind tried to focus on the holds and body movements of the upcoming climb.
My partner, sensing my mood, jokingly asked me the age-old question: Why do we climb? I smiled and shook my head. Actually, there are a lot of things that draw me to climbing, such as my love of the outdoors, the great exercise, the challenge it presents both physically and mentally – and then there's that feeling of being totally in the moment, when you've broken through the fear and adrenaline into a consciousness of clarity and focus.
"My partner, sensing my mood, jokingly asked me the age-old question: Why do we climb?"
As usual, we checked each other's knots and belay device and I searched the rock for any nubs or irregularities where I could put my feet. Using a pair of fingertip holds called crimpers, I set my feet up high, stepped up, and quickly sunk my hand into a higher crack for a much more secure hold. After I brought my other foot up to a decent hold I was able to reach the first quickdraw and clip my rope in for protection. The next ten meters went smoothly as I pulled, pushed, squeezed, and jammed my way up the route to a 15cm-wide horizontal crack – the crux.
Climbers refer to the hardest part of a climb as the "crux." Sometimes a crux requires precise balance, sustained power, or a complicated sequence of moves. On F-ing Fall it was mostly about balance, finger strength, and finding the holds.
I desperately searched the wall for any decent pockets, but could only find a small crimper and a slopey side pull (a vertical handhold that the climber leans away from). Eyeing a nice-looking horizontal finger crack about two meters up, I used what I had and pulled myself up, set my feet, and found myself within arm’s reach of the crack. As I delicately reached up for the crack, however, my balance was thrown off and I went flying through the air for about three meters before the rope and my belayer caught me. I let out a loud scream as if to release the adrenaline that was pumping through my body. What a fitting name for this route, I thought.
In truth, falling is inevitable for anyone trying to improve their climbing skills. Yet, as anyone would agree, this is the most terrifying part and what leads some people to classify climbers as crazy. So is climbing safe? Simply put, it should be. The inherent danger of rock climbing is taken very seriously by climbers, and safety is always the top priority. If safety is learned and diligently practiced, most climbing risks are comparable to the risk in many other sports.
On my second attempt I fell again, but on my way down I noticed a finger pocket that I hadn't seen before. It was the – until now – hidden key to unlocking the crux, and after finding it I was able to reach the top without further incident, letting out a sigh of relief as I did so.
We gathered our gear and continued south to a place named Golden Valley, where my partner suggested a high and fun multi-pitch sport climb called Snake Alley. Climbing the two exposed 5.10b pitches, high above the waves crashing against the rocks, was a total rush. By the time we had both made it to the top we only had a few minutes to take in the magnificent views, as dusk was upon us and it was time to rappel back down. We hiked out by way of the Golden Valley Trail to the south entrance of the rock-climbing area where we waited for a bus back to Taipei or Keelung.
With rough hands, pumped forearms, and smiles from ear to ear we recounted the day’s events on the way back. If there is a recipe for a great day of climbing, we must have included all of the ingredients – a few falls, a few accomplishments, some scary moments with sighs of relief and, most importantly, a bunch of laughs with some good friends.