Mount Hua 华山 : Plank road in the Sky

When an opportunity arises to put your life in danger, by walking precariously along two planks of wood some 2000m above sea level, it’s impossible to say no. At least, it was for me, a few friends and some other 50 or so people one freezing mountain morning in May. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Of course to get to such a place required walking the countless steps up the mountain first, and Mount Hua Huashan just so happens to hold many unusual qualities from start to finish.

(Immortality seekers and imperial pilgrims used to climb Huashan in belief that it was home to the God of the underworld and a place where many herbal Chinese medicines were grown. Along with Taishan, this stunning collection of peaks is considered one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains.)

 

Views from the ridge

 

The trek started off as expected – overrun with Chinese tourists enjoying their 3 day weekend. Soon enough the trail became steeper and fewer people crowded the steps (perhaps the option of an 8 minute ascent by cable car seemed more realistic in the 30 degree humidity).

During the 6km plod to the North Peak, paths became narrow and steps steep. Seriously steep. At one point the line of people became a single file in order to pass up the 70 degree gradient between two sheer rocks. Just when flat ground was reached and a breather was welcomed, the Hundred-feet gorge reminded us that it wasn’t yet over.
A further 91 steps standing at 90 degrees was the only way to reach the top of this mountain. Either side were heavy chains bolted into the rock – in front of me trembling knees and unsure footing, below me the people I would help bowl-over should anyone misjudge their next uneven step.

All worth it of course for the 360 vistas, the fragrant flowers and the orange light now hitting the peaks. As the majority headed back down the cable car, a minority opted for small temple ‘hotels’ and a night in a tent. Camping certainly had its appeal until one hopeful lady attempted our denial by showing a video of ferocious winds from the night before. It worked. Her reward? Three super sweaty, somewhat smelly hikers set to stay in her accommodation. Our reward? A night inside a hollowed rock, protruding high into the clear evening sky.

 

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Make-shift bunk beds in a rock – an unusual nights stay
A porter casually carries up kilos of rice and vegetables
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The next morning clouds, wind and a cold chill kept us in bed to happily miss the hidden sunrise. My main worry was that the supposed most dangerous walk in the world would be closed in such conditions. After over an hours hike up higher that morning, I ran with excitement to the temple gateway after hearing the good news: death could be cheated today after all.

Let me paint a picture: one harness, two carabiners, an entrance fee so cheap (£3) it suggests they have never been replaced. A queue of people not only going out, but coming back the same way. A thick cloud that made it easy to believe the drop was a mere 20m. A wind chill so cold my hands went numb and I had to watch as I gripped the metal chain to convince myself I was indeed holding on. The odd idiot unclipping both carabiners at once to step around and pass by the next person. Perhaps the thick cloud had created too much of a false sense of security.

As I noticed the 2m sections between bolts* and clambered my way down the metal pins, a sudden realisation found me cutting the adventure short; if I (or anyone else) were to slip at this point, 15 people would pile to the bottom. My faith in the plank in the sky surviving so much sudden weight? Ziltch. It was time to get off!

Once I had found feeling in my hands again and had time to reflect, I concurred that this may well be the most dangerous walk in the world. Not necessarily because of the plank road itself, but because of the sheer lack of liability, the super-thin, feeble wiring system and the blind ignorance and experience of it’s participants. The saying rings true that ‘If something goes wrong it’s your own fault’ in this country, and I certainly felt that during this particular experience.

Am I glad I did it? Why of course, there is nothing like a lovely, relaxing day in the mountains 🙂

 

*Like most Via Ferrata in Italy, these bolts are points in which carabiners need to be unclipped (one at a time!) and moved across to the next section of wire. In theory, if you fall, it is these bolts that will save you. However, China being China, health and safety is pretty non-existent and a 2m stretch of wire will do nothing to stop you taking out a lot of people on a downward section. There is also a rule that should be followed; only one person per stretch of wire at a time. In China? Oh expect at least 4 or 5.

 

Peering over the edge of the beginning descent – metal pins and holes in the rock for footholds
Chains were to hold on to. The wires you see above were used to clip on for ‘safety’.
When I came across someone coming the opposite way, I’d hug the rock as they stepped round me – rather them than me!

 

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