On December 20th of 2006, I received an e-mail from my dad. It contained this Powerpoint file.
The forwarding messages all included such phrases as:
“I CANT EVEN LOOK AT THE PICTURES WITHOUT GETTING DIZZY!!”
“NOT A CHANCE IN HELL”, and
I took a look. And immediately knew that someday, I would stand atop that mountain. I didn’t even know the mountain’s name. Just that I had to climb it.
Almost exactly two years later, I found myself sitting with my buddy Andy on a rickety old bus winding up a small mountain road with sheer rock faces on both sides. An old Chinese man sat in the front singing religious hymns as we stared out the window wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into.
We were on our way to the base of Huashan – one of China’s 5 sacred peaks and supposedly the most dangerous tourist hiking trail in the world. It took several hours to reach the mountain from Xi’an, the nearest big city – due mainly to the fact that the once-daily bus departs “whenever it’s full,” which could be as early as 7am or as late as…any time.
We got there early and waited.
Then it was a quick cablecar ride up to the starting point of our journey.
During the planning stages for this trip – mostly via E-Mail – Andy and I had concerns about making the climb so late in the year. Not only would ice on the trail make for a much riskier ascent, but the cold weather would make gripping the metal handholds much more difficult…not to mention the negative effect thick fog would have on any potentially breathtaking photos we hoped to obtain. But as it turned out, the Gods were with us that day and the weather was just PERFECT.
The scenery was spectacular, so we took our time climbing the thousands – if not tens of thousands of steps to the first three of five peaks.
But the more time that passed, the more concerned we became that we might have somehow missed the infamous “plank path.” Quite different from the linear one-path hike we expected, Huashan had a network of rock staircases branching out in every direction – making it easy to miss a given section altogether.
Many of these staircases were so vertical that our backpacks felt like they were trying to tug us right off the mountain, while others were relatively flat…with sheer drops for hundreds of meters on either side. But despite all the views and vertical craziness…what we really wanted was to traverse the planks.
Then we saw it.
Man, was it ever crazy.
First, you descend a vertical “staircase” made of little more than a few chunks of rebar stuck between a split in the rock. Each step was barely two inches in diameter, the drop below over a kilometer.
Then, after manipulating your way around a short bend, you see the start of a rickety path made of rotting wooden planks jammed right onto the face of Huashan.
…Over the path you go…
Until someone comes along in the other direction, and you have no choice but to let them pass (!!)
And just as you think you’ve finally reached the end, it gets yet a little bit crazier:
Small footholds carved into the rock.
As you can probably tell, the world’s most dangerous tourist hike did not disappoint.
But now we had ourselves a slight problem. We’d spent so long taking photos (hey, we did travel hundreds of miles just for this!) that the sun was starting to set, and it looked like we wouldn’t have time to reach the fourth and fifth peaks before the tram down the mountain would close.
We decided to go for it anyway, scrambling upwards as fast as we possibly could, then sprinting back down.
By the end of the hike our legs were so fatigued we could barely walk, and all we could think about was (in my case) a bed and (in Andy’s case) an hour-long massage.
Luckily, even though we did indeed miss the last tram, the staff was still there – and started it back up just for us – saving an additional few hours of hiking.
Unluckily, by the time we got to the bottom it was already well after sunset – and there were no more buses into town. We got stuck making the 7km walk to Huashan village on foot. In the dark.
An hour or so later, an approaching taxi flashed its headlights in the distance. We told the driver we were trying to get back to Xi’an. He called his friend, the bus driver, who just happened to be RIGHT about to hop on the freeway back to Xi’an.
The driver wanted 40 kuai to drive us to the bus. We told him to use the meter. He refused, eventually agreeing on 20. He then proceeded to SPEED his way towards the bus, flying past a cop car on the wrong side of a double-yellow line. “What are the cops even for,” I asked Andy. “To extract bribes from people of course,” he replied.
We reached the bus and the taxi’s meter read 30, but the driver accepted the agreed-upon amount without a word of protest.
As we boarded the completely full bus, it became apparent that the driver had been waiting there just for us. We paid the 30 kuai ticket fare and made it back to Xi’an just two hours after the official bus would’ve arrived – having conquered the plank path and all five peaks of Huashan.
That was one lucky day.
Time to give my legs a rest.
In case you missed it, HERE is a video clip of our hike up Huashan.
Q: Was it really as crazy as it looks?
Q: How did you manage to get those photos?
A: I attached the camera to my wrist with a small bungee, so I could drop it if needed.
Q: Did you have a harness?
A: Sort of. There were two straps of questionable reliability that we used to fasten ourselves to the face as we shimmied across (see photo to the left). However, they had to be frequently removed and replaced as we made our way down the path – and during the vertical sections, there were often multiple-meter drops during which the system would do nothing (if you lost your balance, you’d fall to the next point where the chain attaches to the rock. It’s a bit tough to describe…)