With Ben (l) on top of the cliff at Huangyukou

^ With Ben (left) on top of the cliff at Huangyukou

Most navigation arguments have little real consequence. “You missed the exit!” “That was the exit?” “I told you to get in the right lane!” You might be late, but you won’t have to sleep outside in the cold.

But on the side of a cliff in failing light, they take on a different complexion. So it was in Autumn 2013 near Huangyukou.

There were four of us, but really we were two couples. My regular hiking partner Ben and I on one hand, and my German friend Chinoook and his hiking partner Hin on the other. A simple but understandable error with GPS had left us beating a path up a steep, scrubby and rocky slope as the sun sank inevitably towards the ridgeline.

Finally, it was crunch time. “We should turn around”, I said. “Well, I think if we continue across this face we can probably make it to that tower”, said Chinoook. I looked up. Far across the valley, on a high ridge, a beautiful tower glowed yellow in the setting sun. It was hours away, even if we could traverse the rocky wall ahead – much of which we couldn’t actually see from here. I have had some unpleasant experiences on steep Great Wall hillsides at night – I had no intention of doing it again.

“The sun’s setting”, I reminded everyone. Chinook consulted his GPS. “The sun doesn’t set for three hours”. At that moment, I lost my patience. “Look at the f****g sky, man. Use your eyes. We have ninety minutes of light, max. You do what you like. I’m going down”.

Some of the easier terrain we covered on this trip.

^ Some of the easier terrain we covered on this trip.

GPS units can tell you the predicted sunset time but if you’re in a valley, with mountains to the west, you will lose sight of the sun and its precious light well before the sun actually disappears over the sea-level horizon. So I was particularly keen to get off the mountainside while we could still see, and therefore particularly annoyed at my friend’s undue reliance on his GPS. As they say in the classics, “old school is the real school”, and you should always consult your Mark One Eyeball before your high tech device. After my stroppy declaration of departure, Ben announced in his quiet English way that he would join me in retreat. Chinoook capitulated, Hin with him, and we all headed down. It was hard work, scraping over rocks, using our arms as much as our legs, until we hit the valley floor as the light failed (of course, as we descended beneath the ridge, we brought forward the effective sunset time).

We were stuck in the cliff area at A, aiming for the tower at B and regretting not simply walking up the wall (which was invisible from the bottom of the valley).

^ We were stuck in the cliff area at A, aiming for the tower at B and regretting not simply walking up the wall (which was invisible from the bottom of the valley).

Pigs and Summit Beers

It was dusk by the time we found the ruins of Great Wall we had previously dismissed as a standalone watergate. I climbed up it as the others built a fire, and back in the sun briefly I realized our mistake. We’d misinterpreted the GPS data and headed the wrong way up the valley. Back at the little camp site, near a ruined farm house, the others had built a fire. Ben and Hin had collected some chestnuts and after we set up our bivvies we busily roasted them and laughed about the day. Any remnant awkwardness about the scene on the mountainside dissolved when Chinoook, his stern Germanic face unable to conceal a smirk, reached into his rucksack and produced four cans of beer.

“Well, we didn’t make the summit. But does anyone want a summit beer?”

As we enjoyed that unexpected pleasure, someone commented on the turned-up ground we’d seen on the way back. “Do you think wild pigs live around here? Maybe we should sleep up on the wall instead”? No sooner had Chinoook expounded on the unlikely presence of wild pigs, we all heard, not very far away, a distinctive snorting sound. I bundled up my bivvy. “I’m sleeping on the wall”! The others followed and we all passed a beautifully quiet and pig free night.

Safe in my bivvy after a non-summit Summit Beer.

^ Safe in my bivvy after a non-summit Summit Beer.

Huangyukou – First Trip

The beauty of this navigational error was that we all decided, the next morning, to hike the nearby section at Huangyukou rather than try again to reach the other tower. On a glorious sunny blue sky day, we climbed up the big Ming Dynasty stone wall into the mountains.

The first tower of the day, glowing in the morning sun.

^ The first tower of the day, glowing in the morning sun.

After the first tower, which has been very well restored, the trail becomes more overgrown and gains significant height. Far above, we found a fantastic tower on a high cliff face. Crows wheeled in the wind, diving down like mad then soaring upwards with all that kinetic energy. There were two tricky cliff sections to negotiate, but we found a way around them safely enough.

Looking east. We camped in the valley behind the tower on the other ridge.

^ Looking east. We camped in the valley behind the tower on the other ridge.

Looking uphill - this is a classic route with many great watchtowers.

^ Looking uphill – this is a classic route with many great watchtowers.

Shards of Ming Dynasty glazed water and pickle jars were lying in the dirt inside most towers.

Shards of Ming Dynasty glazed water and pickle jars were lying in the dirt inside most towers.

"Crows Cliff Tower", as I called it, has a spectacular location.

“Crows Cliff Tower”, as I called it, has a spectacular location.

Detail of a doorway on one of the watchtowers.

^ Detail of a doorway on one of the watchtowers.

My Great Wall glamour shot, taken by Chinoook.

^ My Great Wall glamour shot, taken by Chinoook.

The sun was setting again by the time we reached the other end, where our friend Chen Huai was waiting. We heard his car horn honking as he raced up the valley to find us. We’d really hustled the last few kilometers to get off the mountain before dark. It was nice to share some beers over dinner before the drive back to Beijing.

Huangyukou – Second Trip

Huangyukou was so glorious, Ben and I returned the following year in early winter and did the route in reverse as a camping trip. Because it was later in the year, we wouldn’t have enough daylight to complete the route in one day. After all, last time it had taken us 12 hours and we were really trucking at the end. This time around I thought it would be more fun to camp, and do the route in reverse, with some cross country navigation at the end to make it a round trip rather than a point to point. We set off from the little hotel we’d eaten at a year before, closed now for the winter layover. Everything was brown and dusty, but it wasn’t too cold.

Beautiful stone fortifications hidden under the forest.

^ Beautiful stone fortifications hidden under the forest.

Ruined tower on the high ridge.

^ Ruined tower on the high ridge.

Crows Cliff Tower from a different angle in a different season.

^ Crows Cliff Tower from a different angle in a different season.

Typical early Ming stone wall

^ Typical early Ming stone wall

The High Cliffs of Huangyukou

High up on this route there are some spectacular cliffs. It’s the kind of place you go nuts with your camera. Twice, though, I nearly sailed over the side. As we shuffled around to get in the best position for our photos, Ben’s pack swung and hit me. A little harder and I would have fallen to my death! But as it turned out, we just got some great photos.

With Ben (l) on top of the cliff at Huangyukou

^ With Ben (left) on top of the cliff at Huangyukou

On the high cliff.

On the high cliff.

Further along, atop the highest hill, we messed around on the trig tower.

^ Further along, atop the highest hill, we messed around on the trig tower.

The route continued down the same way we came up the previous year.

^ The route continued down the same way we came up the previous year.

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Bivuoac

We bivvied in a tower on this trip, a lovely square floorplan standalone watchtower in the forest. It was cold, but not unbearably so, and once I was zipped up in my bivvy with some hot tea in my belly I had no trouble falling asleep to the sound of the wind outside.

Home for the night.

^ Home for the night.

Inside my bivvy bag is a nice warm sleeping bag and an inflated mat, as well as a tiny bottle of whisky.

^ Inside my bivvy bag is a nice warm sleeping bag and an inflated mat, as well as a tiny bottle of whisky.

Making tea, with whisky ready for later.

^ Making tea, with whisky ready for later.

More Ming Dynasty potsherds, this time blue and white overglaze.

^ More Ming Dynasty potsherds, this time blue and white overglaze.

Looking back at the site of our bivvy the next morning.

^ Looking back at the site of our bivvy the next morning.

Cross Country Nav

We navigated our way down the ridge from the lower tower, then deep into the forest to reach the exit road.

^ We navigated our way down the ridge from the lower tower, then deep into the forest to reach the exit road.

As we headed down towards the previous year’s starting point, we cut off the wall to the south and bashed our way down a very faint path towards a road below. This was deliberate, because we needed to get back to where the car was. Navigating by dead reckoning, we used the landscape to funnel us downhill and out onto some rocky terraces before hitting the access road to a small mine. This took us out a pretty valley to a small village and from there we were quickly back at the car.

There was just enough time to interact with the local grannies on our way out, before heading home for a well-earned beer.

Photobombing my own selfie.

^ Photobombing my own selfie.

I hadn't worked quite as hard as the guy on the label, but it tasted good anyway.

^ I hadn’t worked quite as hard as the guy on the label, but it tasted good anyway.