Get me outta here!

The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail

Formerly the five mountains were dotted with temples but now only a few remain. These days the majority of visitors to Huashan are Chinese youth on vacation. However the mountain routes are still trekked by devoted pilgrims and wandering monks intent of visiting the sacred shrines.
In order to reach certain temples and the caves of the sages great courage is needed. Pilgrims must scale cliffs with only a linked chain for support and to fall is certain death.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail01 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
After the Heavenly Stairs, Canglong Ridge (aka Black Dragon Ridge), is Part Two of the climb.Now the grade becomes even steeper than the Heavenly Stairs.
You may be incredulous to discover people make this climb in the winter snow!
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail02 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
Climbing to the top of the South Peak brings every climber a great vision. What’s more, the temple for God of Mt. Huashan is situated on the South Peak.
Mt. Huashan is famous for its egregious cliffs. Nowhere are the cliff more difficult to climb than the South Peak. A tortuous 15 kilometer stepped path leads to the Green Dragon Ridge (Bilong ji) where other trails lead to the major peaks.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail03 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
This picture was taken at the base of the West Peak climb. These are the Heavenly Stairs.
These steps are the Starting Point for the hiking trip up the West Peak mountain.
As you can gather, the initial part of the climb seems steep, but safe.
In addition, the view is awe-inspiring.
Who wouldn’t be tempted to look for the incredible beauty said to greet each traveler at the end of the climb?
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail04 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
The Middle Peak, which is always connected with a beauty, is also called Jade Maiden Peak. Story goes that Nongyu, the daughter of King Mugong (659B.C.-621B.C.) of the Qin Kingdom (770B.C.-476B.C.), was tired of the life in the court. So she and her husband lived alone at Middle Peak.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail05 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
The North Peak, which was called Clouds Stand by ancient people, looks like a flat platform in the clouds. The peak is 1,614 meters (about 5,295 ft) high above sea level. The most important site on the North Peak is the Zhenwu Hall for God of North. The North Peak is very popular for climbing.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail06 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
The East Peak is 2,090 meters (about 6,857 ft) high above sea level. It is also called Facing Sun Peak because the top of the peak is the best place to watch the sunrise.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail07 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
When seen in a certain way, the five peaks of Huashan look like five petals of a flower. This is how Huashan got its nickname of Flowery Mountain.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail08 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
Mt. Huashan consists of five peaks. Originally Hua was called Xiyue – meaning ‘Western mountain’ – because it was the westernmost of the five sacred Taoist peaks.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail09 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
Mt. Huashan is also a holy mountain of Taoism. It is said that Lao Zi (Lao Tzu), the founder and patriarch of Taoism, once lived and gave sermons here. Today many Taoism temples are also located on Mr. Huashan which helps explain why this is a much-visited area.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail10 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
As far as we were concerned, the worst was over. Let it snow.
We were now on the original Staircase of Suicide. The cable car station was just a couple hundred yards away. The end was in sight. Suddenly something happened that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
About fifteen yards in front of me, a Chinese man was walking carelessly along a relatively flat portion of the walkway. I had noticed he wasn’t even holding the metal chain. Without any warning, he suddenly lost his footing, slipped and fell.
With only a few thin pine trees on the snowy slope separating him from a 600-foot drop off a sheer cliff, he reached back with one had to grab onto the safety chain just as his feet slid under it. If he had missed the chain or his grip broke, the pine trees would be his last chance. But he held tight and broke his momentum. Slowly he pulled himself back to his feet.
Laura and I were too stunned to even move. Only a lucky last second grab of the chain have saved him. This guy had missed death by a hair. Before I could even muster a breath, he turned straight around and looked at me. In perfect English, he calmly said to me, “It’s very dangerous here. You should be careful.”
I just about fell off the mountain myself from shock. An instant before, only a rusty, icy chain had come between this man and almost certain death. But the man’s first thought after almost dying was to warn ME to be careful! What an amazing man.
Fear of heights must not be part of the Chinese ethos. Not me. This guy’s brush with Death had me spooked. Now I kept BOTH HANDS on the safety chain. I had not taken one carefree step in over an hour, but now I concentrated even harder.
Not two minutes later, Laura screamed in terror as she slipped on the ice just like the Chinese man had. She saved herself from careening down the slope by bear-hugging the safety chain just as the Chinese man had. I was there in seconds, almost slipping myself as I hit an ice patch. These icy steps were deadly!
As I helped her up, I did not feel as much shocked, scared, or relieved as I just felt angry at myself for allowing us to be in this spot.
From the very start, my better judgment had been put aside by a combination of wanting to get “my money’s worth” and from observing all the Chinese people giggling up and down the mountain without regard for consequences. Always way too competitive for my own good, I had allowed my judgment to be clouded by my need to think I was just as brave and athletic as these kids.
As a result, we had spent nearly two and a half hours on this icy, treacherous mountain path with scant guardrails and few safety features. Deadly drop-offs were just one mistake, one slip away the entire time.
Now as exhaustion set in, Laura had made a near-fatal mistake. I was beside myself with anger at my stupidity for putting us in this spot to begin with. If she had gotten hurt (or worse), I would have never been able to forgive myself. I was furious with myself for my ignorance. I had no idea how easy it was to slip going down the steps.
But mostly I was angry for trying to compete with the Chinese. I had gotten so used to thinking the Chinese knew what they were doing that I did not realize until the man slipped in front of me that my judgment had been right all along – this mountain path was a death trap.
Someone could have a heart attack from exertion and fall to their death. Or a trembling foot could miss a foothold and make a fatal slip that would cost them their life. Even a simple mistake like Laura’s could end it. We were lucky to be alive.
Ironically, two days later, we stopped at a temple in nearby Xian. Laura picked up a pamphlet and started to browse. I heard her giggle. Curious, I asked her what was so funny.
She handed me the pamphlet and told me to look for myself. The first thing I noticed was this particular pamphlet was written in English.
Laura grinned as she pointed to the Third Wisdom of Tao:
“He who knows when to stop does not find himself in trouble.”
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail11 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
I had two thoughts. I smiled as I realized the experience of going up did make getting down a lot easier. But I frowned at the unbelievable amount of concentration I was forced to use to ensure my safety. The pressure was enormous.
After Foothold Lane, we were now back at Boardwalk. With white knuckles firmly clamped onto the icy chain handrail, we inched our way across the ice-glazed boards. A dark thought crossed my mind – maybe they could use this mountain for a season of “Survivor”. They wouldn’t have to vote anyone off. Contestants would “fall off”. Ha Ha. I guarantee I’d watch!
Next we climbed across the path carved out of the cliff. This part wasn’t so bad because there was actually a chain fence for safety. The path took us back to the Chimney. Heck, the Chimney was just a ladder. At this point, I was starting to feel about as confident as I had all day. After Foothold Lane and Boardwalk, the rest was just a hike. Nothing too scary. Laura seemed to relax as well. Holding on tightly, we made it down in good time.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail12 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
There was an observation post at the very top that allowed us a 360 degree look at the world around us . Everywhere we looked, huge mountains and deep valleys greeted our eyes. The beauty of the view really escapes description. I could have stayed there all day just to watch.
But our reverie was shattered when a Chinese park ranger came up and warned us that it had begun to snow further down. For our own safety, maybe we should go.
Laura’s face turned white with fear. Me too. Sorry to say, any courage I had in reserve left me immediately.
Oh, shit.
All that work to get here and all that risk for a lousy ten minutes on the top of the mountain. But we didn’t have any choice. It was time to go.
Laura and I gathered the courage to descend South Peak. I was astonished to realize I had not given a second thought to getting back down. I was sick in my stomach again. Knowing what we had to go through to get back down with snow and ice making things worse had me worried.
Sure enough, the winds were even tougher as we climbed down the treacherous Staircase. But at least we enjoyed having gravity on our side for a change. Snow mixed with ice fell on us.
The snow had just been flurries as we climbed down the steep staircase. Now as we reached Foothold Lane (known as Somersault Cliff to the locals) the snow began to fall in earnest. As a result, we found the steps were filled with slush. That didn’t help a bit. Moving at about the speed of molasses, we took it one step at a time. I was so glad there weren’t any chirpy college kids around expecting us to move faster.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail13 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
From that point on, we were completely exposed to a strong wind that never let up. However, now we were ready for it so we continued to make headway anyway. Despite good winter coats, Laura and I were both shivering. It had to be close to freezing this high up and the wind sure didn’t help things. No wonder they call it “wind chill”.
But we were too close to stop. One step at a time we climbed the stairs. Gosh, my legs ached! But we made steady progress and soon we were finally safe inside a beautiful Tao temple atop the summit.
As I stared out the windows safe from the wind and the cold, I don’t think I have ever felt happier in my life. I was so relieved to be here. I could not believe what Laura and I had to overcome to make it this far.
I made a quiet prayer of thanks for our safety to the Almighty.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail14 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
The end was in sight. All we had to conquer now was the Staircase at the top of the world. I called it “Stairway to Heaven”. Led Zep would have agreed.
I noticed the Temple at the top and idly began to wonder how the people who worked there got up and down the mountain. Was there a secret elevator? I was immediately suspicious there might be an easier route, but if there was, I never found it.
The excitement of almost being at the end made us take the steps too fast. Almost immediately we were hit by a gust of wind that knocked us both off balance. Both of us grabbed the chain for dear life. Any stronger and we could have easily been swept away!
For the second time on this trip, we had to drop to our knees for safety. The gust had taken us off guard. Just when we thought we were in the clear! Slowly we got to our feet and started climbing again, albeit more slowly this time. My heart was thumping at the near call. This climb was definitely not for the faint of heart.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail15 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
That said, I found this 20 feet climb to be incredibly scary. What if I slipped? The fear alone made my hands and legs tremble. Every motion I took was careful and deliberate. I didn’t trust myself to make even the slightest aggressive move.
My caution paid off. Amazingly we both made it to the top without problem. Now it was time for one last obstacle.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail16 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
I shook my head in disgust. One mistake would kill you instantly. This area was so dangerous it required proper mountain gear: climbing boots, carabineers, belay devices, bolts, and ropes. But all we had was our bare hands.
Now it was our turn. However, before we could start, a bitter wind picked up. I dropped to my knees for protection and Laura took my cue. For what seemed like several minutes we huddled there on the trail waiting for the wind to let up.
Finally the wind abated, so we stood up. Time to go. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing that wind hit us on the foothold path.
Laura gave me a wan grin. “Boys first!” I smiled, but disagreed. I told Laura I would rather let her go first in case she slipped. This way I might be able to catch her if something bad happened. Laura nodded. Looking at it this way made sense.
I watched as Laura grabbed the chain with both hands and stuck her right foot in one of the footholds. Putting one hand over the other, she slowly shifted her weight to her right foot. That’s when she discovered the footholds were wide enough for both feet. Now it was time for her left foot to join her right foot in the first foothold. The next foothold was about six inches apart. Clinging to the chain with both hands, she fished around with her foot till she found each new foothold.
Now it was my turn. The path was diagonal – part sideways, part upwards. I estimated the climb at about 20 feet. One mistake and I would die. I could feel the adrenaline surging through my body. I felt shaky and scared. But I wasn’t going to stop now.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail17 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
Now I could see our next challenge. There was more climbing ahead for us, but this time we would use footholds instead of ramps. There was an enormous round boulder. Someone had risked their lives to cut footholds into sheer rock. Nice feature, but this still wasn’t going to be easy.
Laura and I stopped to watch the Chinese kids. I gave a silent thanks that they had not gotten too far ahead of us. Now I could watch them to give me some more inspiration.
I quickly realized how we had managed to catch them – two climbers were trying to descend. The college students had to wait till these people got down. The foothold path was definitely not a two-way street.
One girl slipped coming down and screamed. I swear my heart almost stopped beating as I watched her struggle to regain control. But she recovered and eventually so did I.
Now the kids who had passed us began their climb. There were six students in the group – four boys and two girls. As I watched them go up, I got a new sick feeling in my stomach when I realized how precarious this new section was. Those footholds made me wish for the wooden planks again.
When they were done, we had to wait for yet another group to descend. In all, we spent nearly twenty minutes at this spot. The entire time my anxiety was ratcheted up.
Like the wooden boards before, this particular section had no safety features at all.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail18 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
The spot where we stood was actually quite beautiful. We could see the vast wilderness of the valley below and three of the other four peaks of Mt Huashan. I was overwhelmed by the splendor. No wonder this place was revered as a religious area.
Unfortunately this place was dangerous in the same way a beautiful woman is dangerous – too risky, but too hard to resist! My inner conflict continued. Part of me could not bear to give up this adventure of a lifetime. The beauty of the mountain was overwhelming!
On the other hand, I wished we had stopped a long time ago. The Staircase we had just completed had been no picnic (see the two pictures above). For the entire climb the two of us had been clinging to the railing for dear life! However, despite the freezing cold, the blustery wind, and steps that were iced over, like fools we stubbornly kept walking.
I admit it. This was mostly on me. I had not wanted to stop. We had not paid 300 yuan apiece ($80 total), spent 3 hours on a minibus, sat through a half-hour lecture about the mountain, taken a 20-minute cable car ride, and climbed snowy, icy steps for 45 minutes just to get so close to the top! It was impossible to quit now that the top was in sight.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail19 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
I kept telling myself if they can do it, I can do it. Nevertheless, I nearly slipped one time. Normally I never actually picked up my feet, but there were places where the new set of boards didn’t match the set I was standing on. Since I didn’t dare look, when I switched to a new board, each step was an adventure.
As I took a step to the new board, my foot didn’t hit the board right and my heel slipped on the edge of the board. I had only my left leg for support. I gripped tightly to the chain and regained my balance. Laura, bless her heart, didn’t see it. She had enough problems of her own.
A panic attack immediately kicked in. I could feel my knees shaking. I was scared to death to take another step. I just stood there and breathed a while. Laura asked me if I was okay. That broke the ice. I decided I hadn’t come nearly as close to dying as I first thought. So I nodded I was OK and started moving.
Soon I actually managed a laugh of my own. I found a spot on the rock smeared with lipstick. I suppose one of the Chinese girls had pressed her face so close to the wall, she kissed the rock.
It wasn’t easy walking sideways on this vertical cliff. One mistake and I would fall straight to that valley about a mile below. If it was on flat ground, it wouldn’t be that tough. But here the stakes were certain death. That knowledge affected my poise considerably. I thought about the Chinese kids some more. I wondered what would their parents would think if they knew one of those climbers was their kid?
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail20 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
Yes, it was cold, icy, and threatening to snow, but this would probably be the only chance we would ever have to climb to the summit of Huashan. This was one of the most famous mountains in China! I uttered a lukewarm response to Laura’s idea of quitting. We talked a little more, but soon the subject was dropped. Laura said she had not really wanted to give up either. ‘Yeah, sure,’ I thought to myself. I was very worried I had made the wrong choice here, especially since I had no idea what was up ahead.
We continued to inch our way up the steps until they suddenly became steeper still, and even closer to the 400-foot drop on either edge. I forced myself not to look down. Finally we made it. Now we could see what was up next. Instantly we both stopped breathing.
We stared up at a steep vertical cliff. It was the final major obstacle before a hike to the temple. Fear gripped me as never before. The cliff ahead frightened me out of my wits. At this point, my fear escalated to a level I had never previously felt before. My inner debate raged on. This was the third time “Courage” was in great danger of losing.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail21 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
The next part of our journey was almost more than I could bear. As we turned the corner, I was sickened to discover a perilous walk across the cliff. There in front of me were nearly two hundred feet of wooden planks jutting out from the side of the cliff. Nor was it a straight line – the damn thing turned a corner!
Yes, there were chains to hang onto, but there was ice and there was wind and the margin for error was very small. Those planks could not have been more than two feet wide. Exposed to the elements, I wondered just how safe they were. (Note: This ramp had a name: Floating-in-Air Road. But I called it Boardwalk)
The only reason we continued was those Chinese college kids. Laura and I watched them cross. It looked like they were dancing… step apart, step together, step apart, step together… they walked sideways across the cliff! And they were laughing!
I swear to God if it wasn’t for those kids, Laura and I would have turned around a long time ago. Left to ourselves, we would have given into our panic, but to see those crazy kids fearlessly move across the cliff made us think we could do it too.
Laura and I gave each other the “what are we getting ourselves into this time?” look. I grabbed the chain, made sure not to look down, and did my step-together-step across the face of the rock.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail22 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
I was the cat who had climbed the tree and could not get down, only here nobody would or could come to my rescue. It felt like a bad dream; I wished I could just escape, and wake up in my warm bed, but there were no warm beds here, only biting cold winds, ever-accumulating snow, and icy steps. I knew we would have to get out of this on our own. I was overwhelmed by fear-induced nausea. I don’t have a head for heights. I felt rather sick looking at the rickety wooden walkways and the rusty chains hanging over the precipitous drops ahead of us.
I gazed up at the cliff above. I was astonished to see an absurd number of giddy Chinese scaling the treacherous steps with almost reckless abandon, some wearing what can only be described in English as “dress shoes,” specifically the kind with smooth outer soles.
“What is wrong with these people?!” I thought. “Are they insane?! Stupid?! Both?! Why aren’t they afraid?!” Why indeed did the Chinese people seem so unfazed by this treacherous path?
My mind drifted back to reports that people regularly fell to their death attempting to climb the mountain. After what I have seen so far today, I had no doubt these reports are correct. And I had a sixth sense that told me the worst was yet to come!
Why on earth would I try? Picking your way along a sheer cliff surely isn’t an enjoyable way to spend a holiday, no matter how good the views are at the end. Had I discovered a previously undetected ‘Death Wish’?
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail23 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
This climb had become incredibly dangerous. What was it about about the Chinese culture that permitted their citizens access to such a dangerous route? I honestly believed that some people died doing this! The only reason we were here was because we didn’t know any better. I was incredulous that something this deadly was open to the public. Sure there were warning signs down below, but nothing had been said that could possibly let us know how much trouble we were getting into.
I thought back to a presentation that had been given on the bus trip. An expert on this area had given a lengthy outline about Mt. Huashan in Chinese. Our bus guide whispered a shorter version in broken English to us. It probably would have been interesting if we understood Chinese. It might have kept us from being here!
My hands were starting to hurt from gripping this freezing cold chain. I wished I had the foresight to bring some bicycle gloves for protection. My heart went out to Laura who was bravely inching her way across the wooden planks. She would follow me anywhere. Laura didn’t say a word. Another wave of guilt came over me. I hated myself for getting Laura into this mess.
Moving at a snail’s pace, slowly I neared the end of the plank. It had taken me twenty minutes to move a couple hundred feet. It had been the longest twenty minutes of my life.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail24 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
There is, off course, a certain type of traveler who enjoys the bravado and back-slapping of dangerous travel. I’m certainly not one of them, although I suppose I am more adventurous than most. But today, I was not here out of bravado. I was here because I really didn’t know any better! I was the accidental mountain climber who got in way over his head.
Danger is a hazy concept. For starters, we never know the exact probability of an unfortunate accident. Our minds try to estimate it based upon past experiences, hearsay, and whatever knowledge we have accumulated. Even once we think we know the chances of tragedy in a certain situation, there is still the question of whether or not to be afraid.
I wished I had a feeling for the frequency of accidents at this part of the climb. But no one around us spoke a word of English. What was the probability of an unfortunate accident? I was more scared than at any other time in my adult life. How much risk is too much?
Was I supposed to be afraid of this? Maybe it isn’t as difficult as it looks. Everyone else I can see is motoring up the cliff. It can be quite difficult to know when to say “no”.
Laura and I talked some more. As we talked, one Chinese person after another walked past us and started to climb the ladder without even a moment’s hesitation. That’s when I decided to continue. I wish I hadn’t. As long as I live, I will never forget the next part of our climb.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail25 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
As we neared the place where the trail changed from rock to wood ramp, I was grateful to find a small recess in the mountain. Laura and I stepped in to allow the Chinese students to pass us by. I could not help but notice their smiles and laughter.
Their fearlessness had begun to aggravate me. Why weren’t they afraid?! They were laughing and joking. No fear. Heck, I was glad to let them go by. Now we could move at our own pace.
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail26 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
I asked Laura if she wanted to go first or have me go first. Laura nodded for me to lead. The first thing we did was climb a metal ladder that had been bolted into a natural chute (see picture at right). In other words, there was a chimney-like crevice in the side of the cliff. The consequence of a mistake was certain death. On the other hand, how often do you fall off a ladder when you are paying attention? Just make sure the grips are secure and you have a firm footing before taking each new step. This climb was scary, but we made it.
The next part was actually pretty cool. At the top of the chimney , a skimpy trail had been carved into the side of the mountain. This trail wound through improbable niches in the rock face. (see picture at right- people in red and blue are still in the chimney)
Laura and I moved sideways across the face of the cliff. Things got much easier. We soon discovered there was a natural ledge that had been used to create a trail. Where the ledge was not sufficient, a man-made trail had been carved out of the rock. We were very relieved to discover there was also a metal fence to help as we crossed the cliff to the other side (see lower picture at right – there is a path and chain rail for safety).
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail27 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
The uphill climb in the chimney had been tough, but I started to relax when I found how easy it was to walk on this path. The chain fence added much-appreciated security. Yes, it was still possible to slip, but if you held onto the chain, it was unlikely you would plunge over the edge. Believe me, I held on tight.
In addition I dared not look down. My balance depended on my confidence. The more scared I got, the worse my balance became. I kept my eyes glued to the granite surface of my path. I missed the beauty of valley because I kept my blinders on.
Stupid me, I made a mistake – I looked ahead. That’s when I discovered my safe rock trail was about to end only to be replaced by an absurd wood ramp of some sort. I panicked and stopped in my tracks. Seeing this ramp coming up, for the fourth time that day I had myself convinced to go back down when out of nowhere 6 Chinese college kids caught up to us.
Although they were unfailingly polite, I could see they wanted Laura and I to get it going. Since this place was too narrow for them to pass us, we were holding up the line! Embarrassed, Laura and I started our slow trudge forward.
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(Note: both pictures of the staircase below were taken by the author of this story.)
the deadly mt huashan hiking trail29 The Deadly Mt Huashan Hiking Trail
Source: flickr