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Luo Dengping: The Spider Woman

Luo Dengping is China’s spider-woman. At 15, she became the first and only woman to take part in the traditionally male practice of climbing the cliffs of Guizhou province with no safety equipment—just her strength, her smarts, and her courage.

This story was produced by Haley Dapkus. Sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Our narrator was Angela Liu. A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!

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On a crisp, clear day in the Guizhou province of China, a girl named Luo Dengping stood on a bamboo raft with her father. They both held long poles in their hands, using them to push the raft down the calm rippling water of the Getu River.

As they glided, they slipped between stunning mountain ranges that rose and fell against the bright blue sky. There were so many thick, green trees surrounding them that Luo felt like she was traveling through halls of emerald. 

She and her father floated the raft toward a cave that opened up like a giant keyhole. Passing through it was like going from day to night. Outside, everything was bright and colorful. But inside, the walls of the cave glowed a pale gray, lit up only in patches, where the sunlight slanted in between the shadows. 

Like generations of Miao men before him, Luo’s father spent his days climbing these steep rock faces. Because their ancestors hadn’t had access to things like helmets or harnesses, Luo’s father didn’t use them either. He scaled these walls like a spider, defying gravity with the other Miao men. Some people called them free climbers or solo climbers, but lots of people called them Spider-men! It was amazing to witness. 

As they got closer to the start of the climb, Luo could hear thousands of swallows chirping above. One of the reasons that Miao men went up into these cliffs was to gather the birds’ droppings to use as fertilizer. They also gathered special plants that grew here and could be used to heal people or prevent illnesses. Luo wanted to do that too.

As Luo’s father headed up, she stayed on the raft, watching. She was in awe of how quick and precise he was as he zig zagged up the rock. But Luo was also frustrated. She knew that if she were a boy, she’d be training to climb and collect plants too, instead of just tagging along. Why wouldn’t someone give her a chance?

When her father finished climbing for the day, they stepped back onto the raft and began their journey home. Luo held both the bag of supplies her father had gathered, and her dreams of becoming a spider woman, close to her heart. 

She vowed to herself that she would climb these cliff faces soon. She would make sure of it.

Luo had a plan. In fact, she’d been working on her plan for a while now. You see, on days when she could sneak away without being noticed, Luo headed out to smaller, safer cliffs to practice climbing without anyone else knowing. She was teaching herself how to be a swift and daring spider girl.

She knew she had to take it very slowly. Even the smaller cliffs were very tricky to navigate. Sometimes the rock she’d take hold of would scrape her palm, or a step that seemed solid would crumble below her foot, leaving her dangling in midair. She slipped on bright slick moss or fell short of spots she’d tried to reach. Sometimes she even fell on her back and got the breath knocked out of her. 

It was rough, but Luo would not give up. She wanted to make her mistakes now so she’d be ready to prove herself when the time was right. So she watched her father and the other climbers, and practiced her moves in secret, honing her skills. 

Then, one day when Luo was fifteen years old, she decided that she’d done enough asking, enough dreaming, and enough practicing in secret. She made a decision. No matter what he said, Luo was going to follow in her father’s footsteps…literally!

That day started out like any other. She pushed the raft toward the cliffs along with her father like she had so many times before. She felt her whole body humming in anticipation about what she was going to do. She waited for her father to begin his climb. Then, she crept along the wooden platform where she usually waited. She got close enough to rest her hands on the cool surface at the base of the cliff. She felt its beauty and strength charging through her. 

Let’s do this, she thought.

Then quietly, ever so quietly, and carefully, ever so carefully, Luo reached up to grip the first rock. It was ragged and sharp under her palm, but she wouldn’t let that stop her. She was stealthy. She found a handhold, then a foothold, then a handhold again. She watched what her father did and copied him exactly. 

A big flock of swallows living in the cliffs flapped their wings and took off as she got closer. She marveled at their grace and ease, but she couldn’t be distracted. She had to focus on matching her every hold with her father’s. 

There was no slant to this cliff, just vertical, towering rock. As she rose higher and higher, she made sure she was just far enough below her father that he couldn’t see her. Her muscles burned all over now — in her upper arms, in her thighs, even in the determined set of her jaw. Beneath her, there was nothing but air, and then, far, far below, river water. Luo had never been up this high before. It was terrifying and exhilarating. It was where she was meant to be.

Until…her father stopped. He glanced over his shoulder. He knew something was different. As he peered around, he saw his fifteen-year-old daughter just below him, gripping the side of the steep cliff with no harness, no net, nothing but her wide, hopeful stare. 

Uh oh, Luo thought. 

Her stomach tightened. For the first time that day, she was actually nervous. She held her breath, waiting for her father’s reaction. After all, she had openly disobeyed him and their people’s traditions. She didn’t know what he would do. 

But her father just stayed there, a few yards above her. He tilted his head to one side, examining her with his gaze. And then Luo thought she saw…was that a little twinkle in his eye? 

“Can you learn to climb by heart?” he called down to her.

Her pulse was thumping so loudly in her ears she could barely hear him. But of course she called back, “Yes yes!”

Her father gestured at the ground, which was so far below them now that the Getu River looked like a slim, green-blue ribbon. “You need to not only climb up, but also come down,” he warned her. “Touch the rock first with your hand or foot. If you can’t touch it, don’t move.”

Luo nodded, a huge smile spreading across her face. She drank in his words and promised to follow his directions. Her lessons had officially begun!


Fluttering of birds

On that momentous day, Luo started an apprenticeship with her father. She was part of a small team of students training under him. Luo’s father was getting older, so it was important for him to prepare the next generation. Not many people in the village did this type of climbing anymore. Luo was the youngest on her team, and she was the only woman. In fact, she was the only woman in history to learn this amazing skill.

As part of the training, Luo learned more about the traditions of climbing, too. How it had started as an ancient burial rite, a way to honor members of the community who had passed by hanging their wooden coffins in groups from the cliffs. Her father still knew the songs that had accompanied the ritual. As they took their rafts down the river, they sang about birth and death to the beat of a drum. Luo felt the music echo inside her, urging her forward. 

As she gained experience, Luo learned how to identify the best routes up the cliffs, the safest and swiftest ways to climb. She would pause sometimes to take it all in: the rays of sunlight through the cave entrance, the inky darkness of the shadows, the birds circling below, and her father up above. Luo felt like she was connecting to her ancestors. 

Her thrilling work made her feel brave and independent. But these climbs were also incredibly scary at times. During one of her first training sessions, Luo tried hard to keep up with the group and climbed too high for her own comfort. A pebble dislodged from beneath her pinkie and plummeted down, down, down, hitting the river so far below her that she couldn’t see or hear it splash. 

What if I fell like that? she thought. 

She clung to the cliff, too terrified to move. She closed her eyes and took deep breath after deep breath, remembering her father’s words. She reached with her foot and found a rock that felt steady. Slowly, surely, she made her way down. She was okay. She wasn’t the only trainee who found themself paralyzed by fear on the precarious cliff face. It was part of the training process. Over time, these moments happened less and less, until they stopped happening at all. 

Before too long, through rigorous practice and persistence, Luo became an exceptional climber. She could scale a 262 foot cliff face in twenty minutes without any equipment. “To me,” she said, “climbing is just like walking on the ground.” 

Before each climb, she pulled on her black jeans—just regular jeans!; laced up her sneakers–just regular sneakers!; and slipped her arms through her red jacket—not just a regular red jacket, but one designed to be bright enough for people to be able to keep their eyes on her as she scrambled high up the cliffs. 

She set out into the cool morning, rowing her raft down the river toward the cliffs. She thought about how powerful the water was; it was water that had, over many centuries, dissolved the stone of the mountains to make the caves where she climbed. Strength could be found in unexpected places! 

As she reached the base of the cliff, the raft wobbled beneath her feet, but her bravery was solid. After she got her first foothold, she made quick work of the climb up. Some of the rocks were sharp and jagged, but her hands were callused now, protecting her from scrapes. In other places, the rocks were slippery, but she knew how to keep herself steady and secure, only moving when she was sure she had a safe and sturdy place to support her weight. 

When she came to a patch of herbs, she grabbed on to the stalks. She was always amazed by their fresh leaves, their pale roots, the green, springy smells they released. At herb gathering, too, she was now an expert.

As she worked, she looked around her at the rolling mists and listened to the birds, who didn’t fly away now when she crossed their path, but instead greeted her like a friend.

To anyone seeing this all from below, watching Luo rise three hundred feet straight into the air, looked death-defying. It looked daring. It looked impossible! 

To Luo, though, hanging onto the side of the cliff as her ancestors had done before her, and as she hoped her children might do after her, she felt perfectly at home. 

After all, she was China’s first Spider-woman!