Photographer set to climb Snowdon 50 times in name of art

Updated 2018-05-12 05:12:04

Photographer Simon Wan begins his ascent of Mount Snowdon in Northwest Wales.ANGUS MCNEICE / CHINA DAILY

Greek mythology tells of the legend of Sisyphus, the man condemned to roll a stone up a mountain every day for eternity, and Chinese folklore has its own equivalent. This is the story of Wu Gang, who tried to become a Taoist immortal by chopping down a cherry laurel. Unbeknown to him, the tree had special healing powers and grew back each time it was cut, leaving Wu to hack away forever as punishment for his hubris.

Recently, a modern-day Chinese Sisyphus has been toiling away in the United Kingdom, repeatedly cutting a punishing path up Wales's Mount Snowdon, day after day, in the name of art, adventure and Taoist philosophy.

Photographer and artist Simon Wan is almost at the end of a performance art project where he will attempt to take a photo from the summit of Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales, 50 times over the course of 22 days, before repeating the feat at Lion Rock mountain in Hong Kong.

It is a bitter minus 2 degrees centigrade when Wan completes his 33rd ascent of Snowdon on a foggy morning in late April. Sleet lashes at his face as he takes out his mobile phone to capture a photo for a 100-image series he hopes to exhibit at museums in Wales and China.

The majority of the 50 images from Snowdon will be obscured by mist, but a handful taken on rare clear days will show the valleys below.

Wan is using his phone because his film camera broke the day he arrived in Wales, one of several occurrences so far in the project that have not gone his way. Initially, he had planned 100 ascents of Snowdon, but an unexpected family event means he needs to be back in Hong Kong sooner than anticipated, so he will complete his project with treks of Lion Rock.

"Psychologically it has been tougher than I thought it would be," Wan says. "Each day I wake up in pain and look out of the window and think, today will be a hard day."

Wan puts his phone back in his jacket pocket, and descends quickly, navigating a stony trail down the southern face of Snowdon. He reaches his hostel at the foot of the mountain, where he eats pork and noodles and changes into dry clothing. Within half an hour he is charging back up the trail.

"I feel like I can do it blind now. I know where each and every stone is," he says.

Guidebooks say the average hiker should take six hours to go up and down the 1,085-meter peak. Wan does it in three hours and 40 minutes, leaving enough time for up to three climbs a day. It is the frequency of his hikes, as well as the pace, that impresses the locals.

"People here are like, 'who is this crazy Chinaman?'. They ask me if I get tired or bored," Wan says. "But each time the experience is different. There is a saying in Chinese — you can never step in the same river twice."

On each trek, Wan says he holds a different image or thought in his mind — his wife, his child, a faded memory or a pressing problem — and sometimes he empties his mind to meditate.

"I love to study Chinese philosophy, especially Taoism, which involves the concepts of harmony, balance and the power of nature," Wan says. "In a way, climbing this mountain is studying Tao. I am at the mercy of nature and the weather can make some climbs impossible."

Physical endurance is another theme that runs through Wan's work. For his 2015 project No Man Islands, Wan completed a solo 12-day kayak voyage during which he photographed each of the 107 uninhabited islands off the coast of Hong Kong. In 2013, he scaled each of the 134 hills of Hong Kong in a 19-day period, documenting his journey in the book Post-Urbanization.

"I climbed Snowdon as a teenager when I came to the UK to study and change my life, like a lot of Chinese people have done over the years," Wan says. "The mountain is part of my childhood, and the pain I feel when I climb represents the hardship of previous generations of Chinese migrants."

By late afternoon Wan has arrived at the summit once again. The sun has burned off the fog to reveal a vast network of lakes and rivers snaking through the green hills and valleys of North Wales.

"How can you get bored of this?" he says, taking his 34th photograph. "I hope it's like this tomorrow."

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