Luo Dengping has become famous as the only woman in a group of “spider men” who climb vertical cliffs of up to 100 meters high, without ropes or safety equipment of any kind, for the entertainment of tourists in China’s Guizhou Province.
Men of the Miao people, in Southwest China, have been free-climbing steep cliffs for centuries. They originally developed this skill as part of a burial custom, to lift coffins of relatives up the cliffs and place them in small caves or just hang them on the cliffside, like the Tana Toraja tribe, in Indonesia. This practice fell into obscurity, but the Miao spider men continued climbing the perfectly vertical cliffs of Ziyun, in order to collect rare medicinal plants said to cure asthma and rheumatism. However, as Western medicine started taking precedence over traditional Chinese medicine, spider men found themselves struggling to support their families. Today, only a few members of the Miao people still practice this ancient tradition, and one of them is a woman.
Photo: BBC video screengrab
Traditionally, only Miao men were considered brave and skilled enough to become spider men, but Luo Dengping had no choice but to break social norms and take up the practice. As the daughter of a skilled spider man, and with no brothers to carry on her family’s tradition, Luo began climbing the cliffs near the village of Getuhe when she was just 15-years-old. In the beginning, she felt scared and could barely move on the precarious cliffside, but as time went by, she perfected her skills and, eventually, making her way up the giant rocks using nothing but her hands and feet became routine.
In her late tees, Luo Dengping left the village and became a migrant worker at a construction site in Guangzhou. She returned in 2000, married a villager and had to children. To support her husband, who drives freight trucks for a living, she occasionally climbed nearby cliffs in search of medicinal plants to sell. Then, in 2015, the local government decided to promote the karst mountain as a tourist attraction, and started hiring spider men to practice their skills for entertainment purposes.
37-year-old Luo became the only spider woman in a team of five Miao spider men showing off their skill and courage in front of tourists, two times per day. She works from 8am to 6pm every day, for a monthly salary about 3,000 yuan (US$458). They couldn’t pay me enough to risk my life every day, twice a day, actually, but for people like Luo Dengping, who would have had to do it virtually for free anyway, it’s a good way to provide for her family.
“It’s not so bad, because the tourist area is within walking distance, so I can take care of my children,” Luo told Shanghai Daily. “They also provide lunch for us, which is good. I want my children to continue going to school.”
Asked to comment about being the only woman practising a trade that for centuries had only been reserved for men, Luo Dengping said “I think men and women are equal, if men can do it, I can do it too,”
As for tips on climbing vertical cliffs with no gear whatsoever, Luo had this to say: “Touch the rock first with your hand or foot. If you can’t touch it, don’t move.” Makes sense to me.