Women building confidence in climbing and bouldering. Yangshuo, China
Photo: CC chensiyuan, with changes by OWA

Serene waters move along lush paddy fields; a backdrop of karst towers soar into endless sky. This is Yanshuo, one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It’s famed in classical Chinese paintings for its stunning tropical limestone landscape. It is also quickly transforming into Southeast Asia’s premiere climbing destination, surpassing Krabi in its notoriety for solid single-pitch bolted climbs.

Yangshuo holds a particularly special place in my heart because it is where I led my first outdoor sport climb nearly eight years ago. The ‘Elvis-leg’ shake I experienced on the rock as I clipped into those bolts is still vivid in my memory, as is the feeling I had when I could finally relax into my harness after securing into the anchors at the top of that climb. 

Women building confidence in climbing and bouldering. Yangshuo, China

Much changed between my visits to Yangshuo. In November 2007, the first time I visited, the region was on the radar with only a handful of climbers — mostly male — who took on the area’s then nearly 200 bolted routes. Now, a growing number of female climbers are part of this climbing community, tackling the roughly 800 established routes with grades ranging from 4 to 9a+ (5.4 to 5.15a). The number of routes continues to grow as the karst towers have development potential, including multi-pitch sport and traditional climbing routes.

And along with the number of routes increasing, so does female participation in Yangshuo’s climbing.

All the growth is due to the proliferation of development in the area, a rise in climbing tourism, and a new generation of gym-trained athletes taking their skills outdoors. These women are crushing harder, faster, and stronger than ever before. 

On my last visit, I was curious about the bouldering possibilities along the Lijiang (Li) River. I’d heard about them from Aniu, a North Face athlete, pro climber, and climbing guide. It was my intention to run a bouldering clinic for local women who had never bouldered outside before, and I wanted to find a place where I could make this happen. In response, Aniu, a local, grabbed a sturdy crashpad, shoes, and chalk from his shop, Black Rock Climbing, and made a couple of calls. 

Shortly thereafter, we were on our way to the Li River boulders.

Women building confidence in climbing and bouldering. Yangshuo, China

Our crew consisted of me, Aniu, Bowen (who runs Black Rock Climbing’s Hong Kong shop), and two ladies named Jing and Jessica. Jing, an avid gym climber, was in Yangshuo for the first time and psyched to be on real rock. Jessica climbed outdoors a couple of times before, but never in Yangshuo.

Springtime climbers in this area can be met with isolated thunderstorms and chilliness, but we were blessed with blue skies and temperatures fit for sunbathing. Limestone towers jutted from the horizon, marking our arrival at the boulders. We placed our crashpad by a riverside boulder and warmed up on a mellow v0 with big flakes for our hands and lots of solid foot placements. 

Jing delicately placed her feet on the little limestone ledges and locked off a giant flake. Then, she looked down. In her nervousness, her arms began to shake.
I called up to her. “Loosen your grip, Jing. Take long, deep breaths, and take your time coming down.” 

I continued to talk her through the downclimb until she hopped off the boulder. “How did it feel?’ I asked. 

Jing beamed. “It was an amazing experience!” she replied. “I got scared in the beginning ‘cos it was my first time bouldering outdoors without protection. But I felt really great when I recognized that I did it!”

Her contrasts in a single experience is not uncommon amongst those new to the sport. Topping out on a boulder can be freeing and frightening at the same time. As I continue to work with novice boulderers, my focus is on securing their safety and building confidence. 

Jessica was up next. She exuded calm and confidence as she climbed, choosing to downclimb instead of top out. Once at the bottom, she said, “It was a fantastic first time to climb without a rope!”

We endcapped our morning bouldering session with a beautiful topout on a slabby, mossy v1 problem I established. There were crimps for hands and delicate foot holds — ideal for female climbers. Jing and Jessica radiated from the top as I snapped their “summit selfies” and took in the incredible view.
. . .

About the author: 

Jeanne on climbing and bouldering in Yangshuo, China

Jeanne is an avid adventure traveler and professional rock climbing instructor with a passion for rock, ice, and snow. She recently started her own female-f