China’s ‘Christmas Tree’ | Will Gadd & John Price Photo Essay

Words by Will Gadd. Photos by John Price.

When I saw a picture of China’s Christmas Tree last winter, I knew where I’d be this winter. It’s the most aesthetic ice climb on the planet, a natural wonder. He “River” Chuan and Liu Yang did the first ascent, but tracking them down was difficult as the usual social media is difficult to access in China. Eventually I did through Arc’teryx, and River and I planned a trip a year out. It’s a long way to China, but worth every second for this route. River was unfortunately injured, but Sarah Hueniken and I were able to climb it, one of the top three climbs of my life for sure!

The Christmas Tree is absolutely beautiful, but it’s also honestly really scary! Sarah and I flew to China, drove 8 hours to Linzhou, walked into the tree, and went for it, only getting off well after dark. We knew warm weather was on the way, and on ice this crazy you don’t want weird temperature stresses, nor the attachment points to the wall to start to melt. Bad. Sarah and I raced time up the tree, and came back the next day but it was too warm. I am very grateful to Sarah, John Price, River, Han Han and Arc’teryx for making this trip and these photos happen. Together we made the most of a really rare opportunity in life, and although we were scared we’re going to smile for the rest of our lives when we think about the day we climbed the Christmas Tree!

On really complicated three-dimension ice climbs navigation becomes a challenge. If you go right it’s hard to get back left. Where to put the belayer that’s safe from falling ice? Which features are strong, and which as fragile as they crystal they are? All climbing is mental, but while ice climbing I’m always thinking about the structure of the ice, not just the immediate climbing. Grading ice is like grading art, you know when it’s good or not so good but assigning numbers to something like this totally misses the point…

Pure magic. The power and unlikely possibility of of ice climbing inspires me just as much now as it did on my first day of ice climbing 35 years ago. It is magic. Inside my Alpha FL pack I had a full rock rack in case the temps warmed up too much and we had to retreat on the rock. This made leading a bit harder, but getting down safely is important. Alpha IS jacket.

Where’s Will? We felt as small climbing this route as we look in the photos. When I zoom into this photo I see the 40M hanging daggers, massive ice roofs, and general ice mayhem. But zoom out and it all looks so organized and logical, an ice tree… I’ve never seen four pitches look so crazy!

Not everything has to be rad to be rad. This was an FA in a beautiful canyon, and one of my best memories of the trip. The landscape in the Taihang mountains is generally arid and relatively snow free, but then there are these magic strips of frozen water contrasting with the dry brown shades. Magic again! Just after this picture was taken a horde of people showed up to check out the ice climbers, and as usual it turned into a selfie explosion for them and us, ridiculous fun on ice and on the ground.

A big part of travelling for me is to learn. I grew up with images of China from history books and news stories, but the reality is, as always, more complicated. We didn’t climb here out of respect for the shrine and people praying, but being a small part of that scene changed a large part of how I look at China. We’re all human once we get to know each other, and I won’t listen to the news on China with the same ear again. I’ll think of the people at his shrine, and the climbers cranking away in these mountains, and the education I received there.

Pitch two of Fairy Falls, where the ice mushrooms are the size of trailers, and ice climbers feel very, very small. We started out a little left of the line I’m on, but the ice was totally detached from the wall. I’m often surprised that ice climbs stay standing, but this was some sort of black magic insanity, so we moved right where the climbing was a lot steeper and more delicate but well attached to the wall.

But, even if the attachment points are strong, how does a mushroom the size of a small house and hanging out 20 feet off the wall work from a physics perspective? Placing screws into the overhanging ice at the base of each petal was really strenuous, but that’s where the ice is good. Above the attachment points it’s mostly air, and climbing it is like climbing an overhanging ladder where you want to be really, really delicate with the rungs. I write that and it sounds kinda crazy and maybe it was, but just look at that ice!!

I’ve climbed a lot of crazy ice formations on bolted mixed routes, but on this climb it was full madness onsight micro nuts, ice screws driven straight up into broken-off petals and every skill I’ve learned in more than 35 years of obsessive climbing to put the pitch together into something mostly reasonable. I love climbing when you forget everything but the climbing, and it becomes a 3d chess game pitting your vision to see a line against the lactic acid of your arms and physics.

The white stuff on my pants comes from dissolved minerals in the ice–it may actually be chalk that precipitates out when the water freezes. On the giant petals lower on the route I’d been using pretty much every part of my body to worm through and around the wild formations, so I got covered in the white stuff.

I’m going to remember this moment for a long time!

The first stick in a hanging icicle is a lot like the first bite of pizza after a big day out in the mountains: Satisfying. Then the icicle dance starts. The ice on these cool features is often more air than ice, so you have to find the strong points to hook your tools in, rather than swing. Because if you swing below the point where the ice meets the rock you’ll find out why that point is called, “The fracture line.” This is an action shot of swinging onto the icicle on “Beginner,” M10, near Miyun, China. Great memory!

Double stein pull madness into onsight success! I love onsight climbing more than anything else. Start, go up, do or don’t do, it’s always a deep experience. On this route I made it through the M9 climbing down low, which is hard onsight, then the holds ran out. I searched and searched, and then our our host River yelled up, “Ice normally lower, not possible now!” The funny thing about mixed climbing is that routes are good to go some years, but this year the route didn’t have enough ice. But I saw a perfect granite overlap, and went for a scratchy and not very secure stein pull with flashbacks to the winter’s Ouray comp route. It worked! Amazingly, there was another technical but useful stein pull a full crank higher, and with some careful placement of the pick and the head of the tool then very carefully maintaining pressure and constant pull I was able to stand up on it. From there it was a long reach to the ice, and I was absoltely beyond stoked to reach the top of a climb that a few moments before had been, “Not possible.” When I did a victory lap I didn’t maintain my tension and the upper tool skated; on sighting always brings out the best focus and intensity for me, yeah!

Caves are usually safe places on ice climbs. Protected from falling ice, quiet, and so secure you can often comfortably unrope and wander around on the flat floor. Maybe that’s why it’s always sort of awkward when you start the next pitch–it’s instant exposure instead of beautiful colours, and it always seems steeper and harder on the curtain than it looked from the ground. It’s also really rare in “normal” climbing to be ascending something so narrow and wide–rock just doesn’t generally form like this, but it’s common on ice climbs. The arid mountains of the Miyun range are behind me in the shot. I was really surprised by the lack of snow, but apparently it’s a pretty dry place normally. It reminded me a lot of Southern California, but with ice. The bouldering below and rock climbing on those walls to my left is also awesome, I’m already planning a trip back in the fall to rock climb there. China is full of contrasts in every possible way.


Follow Will and John on Instagram.