Alex Honnold, Felipe Camargo, and China's Largest Cave

Two elite climbers conquer an eight-pitch 5.14b, one of the steepest, most sustained routes in the world.

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Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Felipe Camargo reaches the lip of the stunning Great Arch in Getu Valley, China. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Felipe Camargo: I first heard of China’s Great Arch from the legendary Spanish climber Dani Andrada in 2010. He’d been in Getu Valley to bolt routes for the upcoming Petzl RocTrip, and when he returned, all he could talk about was this huge eight-pitch line. He told me it was one of the craziest climbs he had bolted, and that it was very hard and consistent. In 2011, Dani flew back to Getu for the event and did the first ascent, sending all eight pitches of Corazón de Ensueño in one push without falling, giving it a grade of 8c (5.14b). The video came out a few months later, and I finally understood what he was talking about. The beauty, steepness, and quality of the limestone was so impressive that I knew I would have to one day attempt the route.

I’ve always had a great relationship with roof climbing, ever since I started climbing 15 years ago. Most of the gyms in Brazil have big roofs, so from a young age, I trained on them for national championships. This really defined my climbing style. In 2009, I climbed my first 9a (5.14d): Los Inconformistas in Rodellar, Spain, which features 15 meters of horizontal roof climbing at its finest.

While climbing in Rodellar’s crazy caves with Dani in 2013, he told me I would love Corazón and thought I would do well on it. He reignited that spark in me, so I searched for funding and a partner who was psyched to belay or try it with me. The steepness makes belaying serious work.

In October of 2015, I was climbing with Alex Honnold in Rio de Janeiro, and I mentioned Dani’s Getu route. Alex got psyched right away. He told me he would talk with sponsors and make the trip happen. Suddenly, a very faraway dream became a reality. In April 2016, I flew from São Paulo to Shanghai to meet Alex and our crew, and after working the route for a handful of days then resting, I nabbed the second ascent on my first redpoint attempt. Alex followed the next day with the third ascent. This photo is the perfect “victory” finish on some jugs over the lip of the last pitch (8a+/5.13c). After six hours of intense overhanging climbing, it felt great to top out this monster roof and cruise up to the anchor, with a lot of air below and a crazy landscape in the background.

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Camargo and Honnold both credited a solid partnership for their success. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold: More and more, I seem to choose my trips based on my partner rather than the objective. I happened to climb with Felipe for 10 days in Brazil last fall and knew that he was an amazing climber whom I would happily travel with. He struck the perfect balance between motivation and calmness—really psyched, but not annoyingly so. When he mentioned wanting to climb in Getu last year—somewhere I’d always wanted to go—I couldn’t resist. It helped that the route he wanted to climb, Corazón de Ensueño, seemed challenging enough that it was barely doable for me. That makes for a good objective. I figured whether or not I was successful, I could support him and have a good time climbing with someone much stronger than me.

Climbing with Felipe made me feel old. He was the over-stoked young gun who’d go up first and find the beta. Then I’d go up and look for kneebars and weird rests and easier ways to do the cruxes. He’s such a strong boulderer that he could just crank on whatever hold he wanted. I’m much weaker, especially on a horizontal roof, so I had to come up with all kinds of trickery to get through the same sequences. Ultimately, we tended to settle on roughly the same sequence, since to some extent we just had to work with whatever rock nature gave us. But it was always funny seeing how he could pull through anything on his first try while I struggled to figure it out.

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Honnold displays his signature efficiency with a kneebar. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold: The first pitch was the only pitch on the route that was easier for me than Felipe. That’s because it climbed like a slab—though it’s hard to call anything in the super-steep Great Arch a slab—with small holds and precise feet. It was strangely gratifying to me that being a good slab climber was helpful on an eight-pitch 5.14b roof climb. Unsurprisingly though, even being a good slab climber didn’t make climbing 5.13c first thing in the morning feel any less horrible.

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Although the holds look like jugs, many of them are slopey and angle downward, forcing technical movement. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Felipe Camargo: The first pitch (8a+/5.13c) was the most technical of the whole climb. Way less steep than every other, and with a lot of big slabby features, its crux revolved around small thumb holds and underclings—all standing on some slippery feet. Alex made it look very easy, and I had a hard time not slipping off every foothold! I couldn’t wait to get higher and steeper.

Honnold sits in a bamboo belay seat, which he called “a little island hanging in space…it was mildly terrifying.” They were unstable and tipped over easily, “like we were one false move away from capsizing.” Photo: Rocker

Felipe Camargo: We were so thankful to find this perfect no-hands kneebar right before the crux on the hardest pitch (8c/5.14b, pitch 6). I remember seeing the iconic photo of Dani Andrada hanging upside down on this rest. It felt great to be there in the same position, resting before going to battle on the crux. It’s inspiring to remember the photo and imagine Dani doing the FA a few years back—what a vision!

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Honnold finds his own kneebar rest after finishing one of the steepest parts of the route. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold: Several of the photos we took were strictly in homage to Dani Andrada, who opened the route in 2011. There were some iconic photos of him dangling from a double kneebar at the lip of the arch, which we felt obligated to recreate. And of course, we were pumped out of our minds and needed any rest we could find. At least I did.

Something that people never think about when they watch a film or see photos is continuity. We wore the same clothes for basically the whole trip so that all the photos and video would match from different days. That way all the angles can be cut together, but it meant we were both really stinky a lot of the trip. Nothing like physical climbing in jungle humidity to make you sweat. I washed my shirt in the shower halfway through the trip because I couldn’t bear to put it on anymore.

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Camargo enjoys what Corazón first ascensionist Dani Andrada called “some of the best rock I’ve ever seen in my life.\” Photo: Jimmy Chin

Felipe Camargo: Coming from the bottom, having sent all of the pitches below, I had a moment of doubt before trying the last pitch. It was the pitch that I had worked on the least, and I wasn’t sure of the sequences. On one particular crux move, I couldn’t use a kneebar sequence Alex had found because I’m shorter. Instead I had to grab a bad mini pinch and jump for the next hold, creating a pretty burly swing to hold after 200 meters of hard and steep climbing. I had to switch to fight mode and not think about it too much. Jimmy [Chin] and Alex were really stoked and supportive. They helped my mindset a lot. Luckily I stuck the move and went on to send it on my first try.

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Honnold finds a crucial sit-down rest as the steepness lets up to slightly less than horizontal. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold: Many of my friends warned me that it was hard to find anything other than spicy noodles once in Getu, and that we should come well-stocked with personal snacks. We all brought individual stashes of goodies, but as it turns out, our hotel whipped up amazing meals for us every night. After 10 days of rice and vegetable dishes, I started to think I could happily eat the same meals every night for the rest of my life. The great food was slightly offset by the bed. By all appearances, it was a nice mattress with a few blankets, but it was actually just a wooden box under a fitted sheet. I think the firmness was good for my back, though. [Ed. Honnold broke two vertebrae just a few days before leaving for China.]

During the two weeks we were dangling on Corazón, one of the most annoying things was the tourists that would walk the trail below. As soon as they entered the arch, they would shout and scream, making it impossible to communicate on the wall. I assumed it was some kind of cultural thing until our very last day when we decided to hike out through the opposite end of the arch. As it turns out, there was a sign (even translated into English) encouraging people to scream and listen to the echoes bounce.

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
A Brazilian boulderer and an American free soloist share beta. Photo: Rocker
Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Honnold finds an unlikely crack in the land of limestone tufas and blobs. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Alex Honnold: Simul-rapping down might have been one of the best parts about filming and having a photographer on hand. It meant we had a ton of static line available to tie together and lower all at once. Instead of walking across the top of the wall through what looked like a heinous bushwhack in the Chinese jungle, we just tied something like 250 meters of rope together and dropped straight to the ground. So civilized!

Alex Honnold Felipe Camargo Getu Arch China Climbing
Descending from the middle of the arch. Photo: Jimmy Chin

Felipe Camargo: Sending all the pitches in a push—which to me seemed nearly impossible after the first few days of trying—was one of the best feelings I’ve had in my career. A project that seemed ambitious and pretty far away from happening had just become a reality, and in great fashion. The sun was going down and it was one of those moments that you are really thankful for. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else or with anyone else.