Conquering Huashan Part I

Silhouetted crowds at the East Peak of Huashan - around 3:30 in the morning.
Silhouetted crowds at the East Peak of Huashan – around 3:30 in the morning.

Monday marked the day after my adventure with Peter biking around the city walls of Xi’an. Much of the day was spent figuring out the next legs of our respective adventures. At one point I was going to join him on his journey to Chengdu, but that opportunity seemed to flit away as soon as we realized that the buses, trains, and planes were all full – save for a few late night options.

We also were beginning to wonder how we were going to fit in Huashan – the epic mountain climb I had mentioned in previous posts – given the remaining options available to get Peter to Chengdu to see his friends.

We decided that Huashan would have to be a night climb. This way we’d be able to meet all of our schedules and take part in a very unique experience.

Figuring out how to get to Huashan was our first challenge. Trains were booked. Buses were booked. Renting a car would be too pricey. Everything was working against us. That is, until the opportunity for two standing only tickets were made available. We rushed to the train station with all of our hiking gear to purchase our tickets, only to find out that the train was indeed full. Fortunately for us, the ticket agent offered us two first class tickets on the high speed train. We gladly purchased these and were on our way – sometimes reaching speeds of almost 300kph.

As we raced towards the mountain, we chatted about the coming adventure. Specifically, we discussed the fact that we really didn’t know how to get from the North Huashan train station to the mountain, and the fact that our conversational Chinese was limited to saying hello, thank you, or asking for the bill, and the fact that we didn’t know how we were going to get back to Xi’an the next day. We probably should have been nervous, but what’s an adventure without a bunch of unknowns coupled with poor communication skills?

As we exited the train station, we were greeted by a very lively scene; people snapping whips (seriously), and a very large number of taxi drivers fighting to take us to the mountain for insanely inflated prices.

And then we met Gavin.

Gavin, from the US, had also decided to hike the mountain. Like us, he also wasn’t fully prepared for what was about to happen, but in a different way. While we had no idea how we were going to get to the mountain and home, or how to communicate with the locals, he had no idea what the hike involved or what equipment he might need.

Fortunately between the group of us we somehow formed a kick-ass team.

Gavin organized the taxi and got us to the mountain. Peter and I helped get Gavin up the mountain. It was a win-win situation.

Waiting for the sun to rise.
Waiting for the sun to rise.

After buying a twelve pack of beer (because why wouldn’t we want a twelve pack of beer for hiking a mountain?), and purchasing our entrance to the park, we started on our big adventure. The time was about 10pm and the way was lit only by the moon and the headlamps people were wearing.

The trek started simple enough – along what is known as the Soldier’s Road. The incline was gentle and the path was composed of a very well constructed set of stairs; stairs that went on. And on. And on. And on. And got steeper, and steeper. Oh, and steeper.

We weren’t alone on the trek. It seemed that thousands of locals were making the trek with us. Up and up we hiked. We stopped from time to time to catch our breath and give our legs a rest, and to enjoy a beer. We commented on the variety of people making the hike – some looked early on as if they weren’t going to make it, others looked strong and determined. Our collective goal – the east summit, where we’d be able to watch the sun rise around 5:30am.

In some sections the stairs were narrow – very narrow. In some sections the stairs were only big enough to put less than half your foot on. And in some sections the stairs were so steep (80% incline) they looked more like a wall with notches carved into it. And yet still we hiked, higher and higher up the mountain and into the night.

Eventually we found ourselves face to face with the steepest section. Imagine if you will a wall that leans out slightly towards you. Imagine three chains hanging down from above – setting up two lanes for potential climbers. Imagine stairs that are about 1 inch deep. And imagine people attempting to climb them, freaking out, and having to climb back down while others attempted to climb up. It was a bit chaotic. It was a bit insane. It. Was. Amazing.

Of course, it wasn’t necessary to take this route. There was a way to bypass it – and many people did. We talked about it, but I knew immediately that I was doing it. I hadn’t come all that way to wuss out. Peter and Gavin felt the same way. We were going to crush this.

All smiles as the sun starts to peak above the mountains.
All smiles as the sun starts to peak above the mountains.

As I approached the wall I simply took a breath, got my footing, grabbed the chains and started my ascent. I looked down, often, because why wouldn’t I? With each step closer to the top, I smiled more and more. With each step I took a moment and thought out my next move, then confidently made it. And it felt amazing. I fully expected some fear, but there was none. There was just an awesome sense of crushing the challenge.

And just like that we were past the wall and heading the rest of the way to the peak.

After about 4.5 hours we reached the eastern peak. The moonlight provided enough light to see that the valley below was expansive and incredible. The sky was huge and decorated with countless stars. It was an amazing moment and it was great to share it with both Peter and Gavin. We sat there, smiling, taking in everything, and celebrated with a couple beers.

We spent several hours chatting and napping on the mountain as we waited for the sun to rise. At some point I just sat there listening to the sounds of nature, and marvelling again at how lucky I am to be able to experience something like this.

I am the luckiest bastard I know.

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