In the ten days I spent in Xi’an, China, the person I got to know best was Huang Banglong, aka “Mengyan”. After countless conversations about the development of the Xi’an climbing community and his personal journey with rock climbing, I recorded an informal interview with him to get the full story.

Mengyan began his journey in the outdoors hiking. In 2008, the nearby mountains sparked his interest and he decided to take a closer look. Always in search of the next challenge, he soon found himself ascending the snowcapped peaks of Sichuan and Tibet. The longer and more arduous journeys provided a greater sense of accomplishment but he still hadn’t found his true passion.

After a couple years, I wasn’t interested in just hiking. That’s when a friend brought me ice climbing.

Ice climbing finally provided the sense of thrill he sought. He loved every bit of it but soon realized that, living in Xi’an, it was only available in the winter. That’s when another friend introduced him to rock climbing. Apparently, he didn’t even know the sport existed but fell in love with the idea and has had the stoke ever since.

The problem was, no one in Xi’an knew anything about rock climbing training, and much less about developing. Luckily, a lead gym did exist and provided enough equipment to give birth to the Xi’an climbing community.

None of us knew what we were doing, and there weren’t any teachers so we taught ourselves from scratch. We would look at various websites and buy books to see how others taught the sport.

Mengyan and his friends made plenty of mistakes during the first few years, but their spirit remained strong.

One of the main climbing gyms in Xian

Mengyan (in blue) and friends training at one of their favorite indoor spots

We took a lot of wrong turns in the beginning (laughs). There was one 6a in the gym that none of us could even start. We would get on each others shoulders to get the first clip until someone finally solved it after a year. It took a lot of people two years to get the redpoint…

He mentioned another route whose beginning frustrated them so such that they stacked bricks to get a higher start for 2 years before anyone sent it cleanly. Eventually, they did progress, working off each other to solve various gym problems and move towards outdoor development. That being said, their early attempts at bolting weren’t exactly smooth sailing.

When we went out bolting, we would need as many as seven or eight people per route: Two people would stand at the bottom to watch, one at the top, one guy belayed, while the rest would get the gear to the person who drilled and put in the bolts.

This involved process was further complicated by everyone’s ignorant yet fervent opinions regarding each bolt’s placement.  Needless to say, Mengyan and his friends could not develop more than one route per day. They also made the mistake of developing above their grade, discovering improper bolt placement once they climbed the lines. However, route after route of development followed by practical usage eventually gave them the experience they needed to become capable independent developers.

The developing in Xi’an has retained a couple quirks. Firstly, trees are on. More than anything this reflects the developers self-taught background, and may change as more non-local climbers visit the area. They also drill the rock with finger holds here and there in certain cases.

The granite here has these middle sections that are totally blank. Without a drilled hold or two, none of us could climb through it… I don’t totally reject the idea (of drilling holds) but don’t openly support it either.

Most of the routes in Xi’an remain untouched, but a few do show this characteristic.

When it comes to developing philosophy, Mengyan values safety above everything.  He likes to drill the first bolt low for quick protection and bolts densely on slabs. This is especially true of his early bolting.

Back then everyone was at a really low level and lacked proper footwork. Some got injured falling, especially on slabs and most were scared once they got above the bolt. When we bring beginners out for there first time, we want them to have a good experience. If they get up on run out routes and fall or get scared they may decided rock climbing isn’t for them.

Introducing beginners to outdoor rock climbing has always been a key part in building the local community. Mengyan and his friends have organized free intro to climbing trips for years. They even gave free classes to spur interest and bring up the group level.

In recent news, Mengyan plans to open his own climbing gym. He has yet to find the right location, but by listening to him talk with the other climbers, it’s clear that he has full support from the community. Everyone is on board.

Meanwhile, Mengyan looks forward to climbing’s debut in the upcoming Olympics for a nationwide boost in interest and understanding of the sport. With the backing of a dedicated community, the vision to create a new training space, and endless potential for outdoor development, he looks forward to better climbing ahead.

Read more about rock climbing in Xi’an here