On May 5, 2021 at 12:26 pm, three months before her 11th birthday, Meini Li redpointed China Climb, a 5.14a sport route at White Mountain, Yangshuo, China. This makes her the third Chinese female who has completed this route, after Weijun Huang and Ting Xiao, and also the youngest Chinese climber to send the grade.
Meini spent nearly two months working the climb, traveling with her family to Yangshou from their home in Zhongshan, Guangdong on five separate weekends, beginning March 13. In all she needed 37 attempts.
China Climb (中国攀岩 in Chinese), graded 5.14a, was bolted by Australian climber Logan Barber in October 2006. Yongbang Liu (Abond) did the first ascent, and the name China Climb comes from a climbing club of the same name where Abond previously worked.
The first time I met Meini was during a celebration in March after another climber, Chuan He, sent China Climb. My friend Liang mentioned that Meini had already done all the moves during her first attempt. Sending China Climb is a goal for me as well—I know the amount of time and effort one needs to redpoint this route. During one of my attempts, I even tore the A4 pulley on my left ring finger.
One weekend in mid-April, Meini’s mother reached out to me about recording her process of projecting this route. When I was filming Meini on the wall in close-up, I could feel her emotions and witness her persistence. Every time she took a fall she would burst into tears. But she carried on. Over the following weekends, she would warm up on the project, and then go up the route three to four times a day. It is burning hot in Yangshuo this April and May. White Mountain is usually a winter crag, and the wall faces south. The temperature reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit at the beginning of May. Though China climb is mostly in the shade, it is really toasty on the wall. Projecting a hard route like this in such conditions is itself a huge challenge.
From the interactions I had with Meini’s family across those several days, I could see how important her family’s support was for her. Sending China Climb is just the beginning. Read on below the video for interviews with Meini and Meini’s mother!
Q&A with Meini Li
What do you think about climbing?
Climbing is exciting. It’s fun but also scary.
What is your favorite part of climbing? Which do you like the least about it?
I like that you can try different climbing styles. The moves are really cool. I feel awesome when I climb to the top of a route. It’s really exciting. I don’t enjoy taking falls outdoors or on indoor sports routes though. It seems really fun but when I look down at a crux or I’m far above a draw I get scared by the height and chances of falling.
What do you hope for your future?
I hope I can climb freely outside. I enjoy climbing with my friends, and chatting with them when we are not on the wall. For indoor climbing, I hope I can get an Olympic medal in the future.
Do you enjoy training in climbing gyms?
Yes I do, because I train with my friends in my home gym. It’s a good vibe. I enjoy trying new climbing gyms too when I travel. I usually train really hard and get exhausted in my home gym, but at other climbing gyms I can try new routes in different styles. I also enjoy the music played in climbing gyms. It feels good to send with music.
How do you feel about climbing outside?
I love the feeling of fresh air in nature, and the bird’s-eye view when I top out a route. I also like the feeling when I make small progress after each attempt and the excitement I get from my friends’ cheering.
What was it like to project China Climb?
It felt pretty hard when I was figuring out the moves at the beginning. I almost thought it was impossible for me to send this line. But I went through the process of optimizing my moves and got beta from other climbers. I didn’t feel as hard once I figured out the best way to do all the moves.
Does the idea of failing scare you?
Sometimes, but usually no. I’m not thinking of success of failure when the fear kicks in. But most of the time, I don’t think failure is intimidating. It feels awesome at the moment you find the solution to success.
What do you want to do and what kind of person do you want to be when you grow up?
If I can still climb hard when I grow up, I would like to consider being a professional climber. It’s also a good choice to teach people, just like my teachers and my coach. My childhood dream is to be a doctor. I hope I can succeed both in education and sports.
Q&A with Emma Li, Meini’s Mother
When did Meini start climbing? What was the occasion that led her to climbing?
At about 5 years old. We drove by an outdoor climbing gym in Zhongshan, Guangdong and were attracted by the colorful holds on the wall. She made it to the top of a 50-foot-high wall during her first ascent and that’s how it began.
How long has she been climbing? And how often does she climb?
It is her fourth year of consistent training. She trains two to three times a week.
How does she balance school work and climbing?
The unwritten rule we have for her is that she has to finish her homework before she can climb. We have insisted on this for years. For that reason it is common for her to finish her homework during class breaks and to leave for climbing right after school on training days. She often finishes her meals or homework on the car ride to the gym as well. Being in 5th grade, she now has to spend more time on school work and we make sure she finishes her homework everyday. We think going to school is more important than climbing and training can’t be a reason to skip homework.
What was the biggest change for her when she became a climber?
Time management and persistence. If she’s not at school, she is either climbing or on the way to climbing. It is especially important for her to properly manage her time. Climbing also builds her characters. She is more confident, persistent and now she often surprises us with how her dedication to keep trying on a route. She is getting tougher. We see her getting scratched up from the wall all the time, but she never complains about it.
What do you hope for your daughter? What do you think about her possibly becoming a professional climber?
I just want Meini to be healthy and happy, like any parents would wish for their child. Of course we hope she will have a fulfilling life, and it would be fantastic if she has the chance to realize her potential in climbing. As for whether she will become a professional climber, I think it all depends on how it goes in the future. We have a great coach here. If they can manage to build this into a career, we would be in full support as well.
What is Meini like in everyday life?
She is a thoughtful little girl. Maybe it is because she interacts with climbers that are older than her, but she appears to me more mature than children of her age. After all she is only 10 years old.
What other hobbies does she have?
She likes taking photos, skiing and taking care of her dogs.
How does she do in school?
She has top-of-her-class grades, and has won a lot of awards in school. She was the one and only student awarded the local, regional, and national Outstanding Young Pioneer in the City of Zhongshan.
What has she achieved in climbing so far?
She has won about 40 national titles, including championships in the national U Series competition in 2018 and 2019. She has won all titles for the youth national championship in 2019, as well as combined championship in the U11 competitions series in 2020.
How much did you change as parents after Meini became a climber?
Just like her, we don’t have normal weekends, vacations and sleep-ins anymore. It is tiring but we enjoy it. We try hard to work out a schedule for us. Meini’s little sister is going to elementary school this year so our schedule is getting even tighter. After Meini started climbing, we basically arranged our schedule around hers. We as parents have no excuses to slow down but to let her push us forward.
As parents, what do you hope climbing will bring to Meini?
We hope climbing will bring her a positive and hardworking attitude and that she can be a role model for her little sister. It is sometimes not easy to find a hobby you love. We hope that she continues to grow more confident, happy and persistent!
What led Meini to project China Climb? What does the redpoint mean to her? And what does it mean to you as parents?
Due to COVID, she was not able to train with her teams during the first couple months of 2020. We took her to climb outside in Yingxi (we rarely went outside before this). When she finished a 5.13, other climbers suggested that she try China Climb. She made a deal with her dad that if she grew to 140cm (4’7’’), she would go try it. This March, she told us that she was 141cm so we went for the project. Redpointing this route is a new stage of climbing for her. It is a validation of all the effort she put in as well as an inspiration for the future. We are just so happy for her and proud of her. For us, this is also our way of accompanying her. We cherish every minute we spent together in White Mountain as a family. We were there together, sharing every tear and laugh.