The word is slowly getting out — Long Dong, a seaside climbing area north of Taipei, offers one of the best rock climbing experiences in Asia.
As I heave myself up the last stretch of the wall, I hear waves crashing behind me. I can feel the cool sea breeze blowing through my hair. After an hour of scaling an unfamiliar crag, I reach the top of the seaside cliff, and gaze at my reward — a breathtaking view of sapphire blue waters and sheer quartz conglomerate cliffs. The rocks range in color from dull gray and black to dazzling shades of red, orange, silver and gold. I can’t believe that I’d never heard of this place before; this 2km stretch of cliff facing the roaring Pacific is so stunning it’s otherworldly. To a climber, it’s paradise.
I’d traveled a long way to get to Long Dong, a seaside climbing spot in northeastern Taiwan, fueled by Asia’s rising reputation as a climbing destination over the last 10 years. QX Cheang, a certified rock climbing instructor who runs Qxadventures Rock Guides, describes the scene as “still budding”, not quite an international destination yet but starting to attract regional climbers. He adds, “Most of the weekend crowds are locals, sprinkled with climbers from surrounding countries.” QX moved to Long Dong from Singapore in 2013, the same year he set up his adventure company. Two years later, he and his wife, Kelly Khiew, opened The Bivy, a charming little climber’s hostel that became my home away from home during my visit to the seaside climbing spot.
Long Dong (“Dragon’s Cave” in Mandarin) is just an hour’s drive from Taipei but seems untouched by modernity. The closest town, Bitou, is a small fishing village where the seafood is fresh and plentiful, giving those who make the trek over an extra reason to stay. As a climbing destination it’s not quite as popular as Yangshuo in China and Railay Beach in Thailand, but that’s the upside: smaller crowds mean more space on the wall.
The cliffs at Long Dong were first explored in the mid-’80s, when the completion of Taiwan’s Provincial Highway 2 — as well as the lifting of martial law in 1987 — encouraged locals to travel around the country more freely. By the ’90s, many local and international climbers started climbing routes that are impressive even by today’s standards, but still, Long Dong was largely unknown, remote and a bit of a trek to get to.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s, however, that the true potential of the area was realized when climber Matt Roberson arrived from Yosemite and systematically explored the cracks and faces at Long Dong. Matt spent years researching and writing what is considered the definitive guide to climbing in Taiwan, Rock Climbing Taiwan, and its most recent 2012 edition contains over 500 climbs all over the country, including those in Long Dong.
There are nine different climbing areas at Long Dong, most offering a mix of traditional (often dubbed “trad”) and sport climbing. Sport climbing has pre-placed bolts in situ, whereas trad climbing requires gear placed by the climber during the ascent. I’m still a relatively new climber, so I only climb sport routes, and as with most people, it will be years before I begin considering trad. In both types of climbing, the rope is clipped into the gear to ensure safety. There’s no feeling like climbing five feet above the last clipped bolt, holding onto the rock with (usually) sweaty hands, and taking a few seconds to clip the next bolt. Rock climbing is a great sport for adrenaline junkies.
The climbing areas at Long Dong are separated by five to 10 minutes of walking, scrambling and even the occasional unroped traverse — an easy afternoon out for Spider-Man, but perhaps not so much for mere mortals. Most of the cliffs at Long Dong are under 30m high, but there are longer, more adventurous climbs.
Some of Long Dong’s routes often feature catchy names like Birth Canal, and others have been baptized with serviceable names that best describe the ascent — Inconvenient, and Very Inconvenient. Birth Canal involves shimmying up a small hole between rocks to reach the top of the route. Inconvenient and Very Inconvenient, located right next to each other, are what their monikers suggest — one is a tad more challenging than the other. The selection of climbs at Long Dong spans the full spectrum of difficulty. Sport climbing routes are somewhat limited at 5.10 and under (a grade that takes most new climbers a year or so to reach).
For trad climbers, Long Dong is a great place to hone skills with routes at all levels. The stone features excellent cracks for placing protective gear. There are even a couple of deep water solo routes, which involves climbing over water without a rope.
For anyone who’s elbowed their way around crowded climbing spots like Krabi, however, the real draw of Long Dong is the fact that, for now, it’s under the radar. But that might not be the case for long. In 2014, Alex Honnold, the world’s most famous free solo climber (climbing without ropes), visited this rather sleepy seaside town. Alex has free soloed some of the world’s most famous rock faces like Half Dome and El Capitan, both in California’s Yosemite National Park. He came to Taiwan originally to free solo the 508m-tall Taipei 101, but that climb was called off due to logistical problems. Instead, he headed for the cliffs of Long Dong.
“There was great hype among the local climbing community when Alex visited, but there wasn’t much regional buzz,” says QX. The visit, however, has certainly raised Long Dong’s profile within the global climbing community, and it’s very likely that it will rival the popularity of other world class climbing areas in Asia. In the meantime, amazing climbing without the crowds awaits at Long Dong, and a trip there should be a high priority before that changes. Taiwan’s local climbers frequent the cliffs on weekends, but weekdays yield even thinner crowds and a high likelihood of finding a crag to yourself, a luxury that regular climbers know not to take for granted.
Arriving at the cliffs for a final morning of climbing, I’m pleased to see that we’re the only climbers there. As I tie my rope into my harness and start one final climb, I look up and see the rock and the sky; I look below and see only my belayer; I look out and see only the ocean.