What is it that drives humans to conquer great heights? Is the urge to look up built into our DNA? Is there some instinct buried in our eek-ook ape brain that tells us the sweetest fruit hides at the top of the tree? Do we reach towards the sky so we may brush the face of God?
"It’s not the Mountain we conquer, but ourselves." – Edmund Hillary
New World City on People's Square has re-opened with a 55-meter climbing wall. Ten stories tall. Five times the height of the walls that will be debuting at the Tokyo Olympics this year. As far as we can tell, it's the tallest indoor mall-based climbing wall in the world. Ten meters taller than this "world's tallest" climbing wall in Dubai.
When I first saw it online, I thought "Finally. Something that matters."
5.30pm - Setting Off
Our mixed expedition of climbers, moral support staff and photographers have arrived at New World City. It's already dark, and a cold drizzle pecks at our faces. Not ideal climbing conditions by any account, but the forecast doesn't look optimistic, and there's a risk we wouldn't make the summit before dinner. We must carry on.
5.37pm - Obstacles
We've managed to cross the Cosmetics & Brand Accessories icefall and passed through a treacherous section of underwear.
5.40pm - Base Camp
We've reached the entrance. Beyond the counter and the racks of climbing shoes, we see muscular climbing wall attendants doing kettlebell exercises, hanging off the bouldering wall by their pinky fingers, and doing one-arm pushups. I do not learn their names. I call them Mr. Biceps, Mr. Pecs and Mr. Kettlebells.
Entrance is 152rmb per person. A small price to pay for a shot at glory. Most other walls around town are between 120-140rmb or so, but none of them have a 55-meter wall. Or a whiteboard with the names of the two steely-gripped mountaineers who have already reached the top.
"If it is a shame to be the third person to summit Mt. Mall, then I will live
with that shame." - Alex Panayotopoulos
5.42 - Preparations
We're finally in, and catch our first glimpse of the monolith.
It's... way higher than it looks in pictures. Craning our heads back, we struggle to pick out the neon-lit route along the grey multiplex face. It goes on forever. Past L5 (Leather Articles & Bags). Past L7 (Household Appliances). Beyond, to the limits of the imagination.
On Everest, the top of the mountain is called the Death Zone, so high that it's hostile to human life. In the New World City, it's called the SFC Shanghai Cinema.
There are five routes to climb, including the march to the summit. At the top of four them is an auto-belaying device, a machine that does the important work of ensuring climbers don't fall screaming to their death.
The king route, Route 3, the stairway to L11 and glory, does not. They don’t make auto-belayer machines for such dizzying heights. Only humans can be trusted.
Most other climbers seem to be children. Innocent. Carefree. They have not yet learned to respect the Mountain.
6pm - Route 3
Kettlebells is busy with an exotic sit-up variation, so Biceps hooks me into the auto-belaying device. I begin my first climb. I have chosen an easier route. To survey the territory.
A promising start. My fingers are firm and my footing steady. I rise quickly, buoyed by confidence in my ability to conquer this plasticine hillock. Why, this is hardly a challenge at all.
I reach Leather Articles & Bags and risk a look down. Mistake.
Everyone is so small. Puny, insignificant ants, milling about their pointless, meaningless lives. Why, if this piece of plastic wall I cling to were to fall, it would crush them completely.
My will is gone. I can't get any further. This goddamn green grippy thing in front of my face squirms and shifts under my palm. My hands are too sweaty. My knees begin to quiver. I lean back off the wall and let go, putting my faith in the mechanical auto-belaying device to catch me in my ignominious fall. Like a shorn nose hair, I drift slowly to the floor.
This wall is a fine foe.
As I recuperate, SmartShanghai intern Lynn conquers the short route with a steady nerve. I have wagered her a pizza when we get back to civilization. She has won.
6.45pm - Base Camp
Rested, prepared, full of water and bravado, I dust my fingers with chalk for a second dance with fate. I approach the loose line at the foot of the monster. This is it. I will climb the 55-meter route to fame and glory or die trying.
At those heights, bodies do not decompose. Should I fail, my carcass will remain on Mt. Mall forever, dangling like a Christmas ornament around L10 (Madame Tussauds). I can only hope my family would fund the expedition to recover my corpse. It could take months. A proper burial must wait; for a while, my tomb would be a waymarker for those who pay the 152rmb after me.
My heart begins to race. The world narrows until it's just Mt. Mall and I. I bite down on a SmartShanghai flag I intend to plant at Naruto World on L11. I will need my hands.
I check the straps. The harness grips my buttocks firmly through my climbing jeans.
I turn to Pecs and indicate the rope.
"Good sir," I say. "It is time.”
His chest muscles look at me bulgingly. They bulge to the wall looming before us. They bulge to the dangling rope.
“Belaying for the big route is 550rmb.”
This expedition is over.
For half a grand I expect you to strap me to your chest in a baby harness and deliver me to the top.
For 550rmb, I could pay a couple Sherpas delivery guys to hoist me up like a sack of potatoes.
For 550rmb, I could hire a slack-lining coach from West Bund, string a cable across the L12 cinema mezzanine, walk out into space, backhand the winch, and still have enough left over for a bottle of sparkling wine.
550rmb! I could get a peak permit for Mt. Everest for that much. How much could one of those cost, anyway?
Eleven thousand dollars?
Okay, well, still.
7.00pm - The Defeat
My name will not be carved into the whiteboard of mall history with a dry-erase marker.
I boulder a little to hide the pain. I laugh and joke with the ground support staff to cover my disappointment. In my unworthiest thoughts, I blame them. Why do none of them know how to belay? And even if they did, why haven’t they eaten more pizza? Don’t they know they must weigh as much as I to ensure a safe balance?
I must search for new challenges. New meaning. What can I conquer instead, preferably for under 200rmb? Fastest solo crossing of People’s Park with a corgi sled team? First person to circumnavigate Global Harbor using only the directory pamphlet? First unsupported ascent of Shanghai Tower by stairs in a tutu?
7.15pm - The Street
The rain has not abated, and the chill wind freezes the droplets on my face. Or are they tears? Tears of shame. Tears of hurt. What pitiful stuff. To be pulled back from the brink of immortality by crass economics.
The season for mall wall climbing is limited (the mall says it's a permanent feature but is anything, really, in Shanghai?) but the season of life is shorter still. How many more attempts will I have in this lifetime? How many more chances to touch the heavens (Cinema) and survey the world from the vantage of a God, powered to the summit by man’s unquenchable need to go higher?
Tons, actually. Mt. Mall is open seven days a week, from 10am-10pm.
Find more climbing walls in Shanghai here.