Magazine editor Alex Zhao descends a frozen waterfall in Longqingxia, Beijing.
Living on the edge
Alex Zhao,s elevated passion for adventure means that for him, the cold, hard realities of ice climbing are the high point of wintertime in Beijing.
The 30-year-old magazine editor says he got into the extreme sport in 2006 because there weren,t enough outdoor pursuits in the capital during the colder months, when most rock climbers seem to retreat into hibernation - or at least to indoor venues.
But the high-adrenaline, low-mercury enterprise can be trickier than its summertime contemporary. That,s mostly because it usually involves scaling a naturally frozen cascade, says Zhao, who also rock climbs in the warmer season.
"The shape and condition of a frozen waterfall,s surface changes every second because of shifts in temperature and weather, posing a huge challenge for climbers," he says.
"But that is also the most amazing thing about the sport. You can never scale the same waterfall twice."
In addition to grappling with constantly morphing routes, ascending masses of frozen water requires equipment such as crampons, pick axes and ice screws. So practitioners must be able to make experienced analyses of different types of ice and potential hazards, Zhao says.
Unlike alpine ice, which forms from densely packed mountain snow over long periods, water ice can change from slushy to brittle in a matter of hours. Sometimes it coats snowdrifts with a slick enamel, or forms into massive protrusions or drooping icicles.
The best conditions for climbing are -1 C to -10 C.
A rock climber scales a frozen waterfall in Miyun, Beijing.
When temperatures drop below freezing, the ice sometimes snaps off in hunks when struck with climbing tools - a phenomenon known as "dinner plating", because the slabs are often platter-shaped.
He recalls an incident in 2007, when a friend who was climbing above him accidentally dislodged a chunk of ice that tumbled down the declivity, crashing onto Zhao,s helmet. The jagged slab sliced through the flesh near his left eye, ripping a gash that required six stitches.
But the accident did not keep Zhao off the ice. Instead, his zest for the sport continued growing.
"I don,t feel any sense of safety in my heart when I do lead climbing, but I enjoy the feeling of surviving while staring death in the face," he says.
"Sometimes, I ask myself, ,Why am I doing this?, when I,m taking on a really treacherous route."
He says his motivation stems from an inspirational snippet he once heard: "Life isn,t about the number of breaths you take but rather, those moments that take your breath away." And he believes he has seized many of these during ascents.
"I have experienced something worth remembering when I grow old," he says.
The outdoorsman has visited many of China,s top ice climbing spots, including Sichuan province,s Shuangqiaogou and Beijing,s Yunmengxia. He also scaled the Rhne-Alpes, Chamonix while studying in France in 2003, when he took his first excursion.
"A lot of the people around me were doing it as a lifestyle," he recalls.
"I later became one of them."
And his zeal for the pastime has remained as solid as the ice he has climbed over the years.
"I love traveling and photography," he says.
"It is very soul-cleansing for me to spend time alone in wild places, communicating with nature and experiencing the smallness of being human."
Simon Adams (pictured) says rock climbing in China has taken his engagement with local culture to greater heights.
While the country offers incredible precipices for those inclined to scale them, it,s encounters with the people who dwell in these formations, shadows that make climbing in the country exhilarating to the 29-year-old Scotsman. "Climbing lets me experience an area and the local culture so much more than just going on tours and hanging out in bars," he says.
Adams works at the O,le Climbing Center in Beijing. He explains his passion for the sport and for China while seated in the center,s lobby, with a bag of frozen peas lashed by a bandana to his arm. He believes the twinge in his elbow comes from bouldering - a form of climbing involving shorter, more difficult ascents undertaken without ropes - a few days before.
"Frozen peas mold to whatever part of your body you put them on, and they,re cheaper than a gel pack," he says, smiling.
Adams recalls an adventure he shared with several friends when they spent days searching for an unknown climbing spot in northern Xinjiang. Armed with nothing but a photograph of a 300-m-high rock tower and powerful determination, they set out on a mission to locate the place.
They hopped trains and buses, and hitchhiked, scouring the region and camping at night until they finally found the site. They discovered it was a park that hadn,t yet opened, but the developer let them in anyway. After several days of rock climbing and bouldering, they headed into town for supplies.
Turning down a 300-yuan ($44) jeep ride offer, they hitched a lift on a big blue truck. The vehicle, it turned out, was one of two that were carrying a large extended family to a get-together. They welcomed the five foreign climbers aboard, shared snacks and posed for photos with them.
On returning to the park they were asked to leave and the jeep driver, who they previously thought was trying to overcharge them, ended up slaughtering a sheep and hosting a lavish feast for the group, featuring several dishes and homemade wine.
"It was so amazing that he did that for us," Adams says.