The hike to the top of the east peak of Huashan was the first of three specific adventures that Peter, Gavin, and I had set out to do on Monday night. Watching the sun rise over the Yellow river valley after spending the night at the top of the mountain was the second. The final adventure was the descent of the mountain and a detour to brave the infamous plank walk.
For those who aren’t aware, Huashan is known for its treacherous and deadly paths. Despite chains and fences that have been put in place, alternate routes up the mountain, and the construction of a rather amazing set of lifts, people continue to die while attempting to summit. Where most of the deaths occur I have no idea, but my guess is that it has to do with the plank walk.
Situated more than 2km above sea level and at approximately 1 foot in width, the planks look like nothing more than dilapidated wood that may have once graced the side of a barn. Three separate pieces of wood make up the width of the planks, and these run the length of a shear cliff face. The planks appear to be held together by glorified staples. Beneath them, mostly air until you hit the base of the valley far below. For the faint of heart it might be a paralyzing view.
For us, it was a must-do adventure.
Before beginning our climb down an almost 90 degree incline, we were strapped into harnesses. In theory the harnesses provided some measure of safety – but I’m more convinced that these were a money-making scheme above all else. While I have had some training with carabiners, I’m not so sure the 30 second demonstration provided most of the Chinese tourists attempting this now well-known path was sufficient. Nor was I convinced that the harness was actually set up to do what it needed to do should someone slip off the edge.
Of course that didn’t stop us.
Nor did the fact that the one-way path was, at least for that day, a two-way highway. As we descended, others climbed around, beside, and sometimes on top of us. It was chaotic, at times a bit frustrating, but more than all of that, it was amazing. Whenever I could I leaned out from the mountain wall to look down. The view was spectacular.
Eventually we found ourselves at the base of the rock-face – or at least the part where we would start traversing the cliff. This meant working with footholds that had at some point in time been carved into the mountain. Some were large enough to rest more than half a foot in, others not-so-much.
All along the path Peter and Gavin and I attempted photos of each other and ourselves. I leaned back several times as far as I could and held the camera above my head to capture the most perfect selfie possible.
At this point the two-way traffic became a bit bigger of a challenge. While it was perfectly comfortable to traverse the cliff via footholds in a single-file-moving-one-direction way, oncoming traffic added a new element of thrill to the entire venture. Without communicating a word we learned that returning traffic had to stay to the outside of the mountain. That is, they had to traverse the cliff-face by leaning out and around us.
Amazing! I won’t lie, I was pretty stoked to try this on my way back.
Before long we were at the planks. More oncoming traffic had us dancing with many other people – some more frightened than others – and all making their way around us back to the safety of where we started. The experience on the planks was exhilarating. More photos, lots of smiles, and lots of laughs were had as we gazed over our shoulders or turned around completely to face the valley below.
Shortly after the planks we found ourselves climbing up a final set of stairs. These were very narrow, not very deep, and filled with a stream of fellow plank-walkers who were returning to home base. This meant that the three of us were stuck in place as 10 to 12 people maneuvered around us. For those who were far too nervous to descend confidently, I took the time to guide their feet, tell them when and where to stop – allowing me ample time to unbuckle their carabiners one at a time, releasing the second once the first had been reconnected to the available safety lines – and then giving them instructions to continue on their way.
After what seemed like an eternity hanging out on the very narrow stairs, we were able to climb up and over to find an open area that was home to a small Buddhist temple. Again we laughed at what had just happened, thrilled that we’d had the opportunity to walk the planks.
Of course, we still had to return to home base. Which of course meant that we were on the outside path of the planks as we maneuvered around those who had begun the trek to the temple after us. I had thought that I was going to find this scary, but in all honesty it wasn’t. There was ample room to move, and while I wasn’t so confident in the harness I was wearing around my neck, I was cautious and safe, and I was confident in my ability to do what needed to be done.
After returning to home base we were all smiles, because holy shit, we’d just completed the plank walk. And once again I couldn’t help but shake my head smirking, thankful for the opportunity to do something so incredibly amazing with two great guys.
The rest of the morning was spent exploring the remaining peaks and finding our way down the mountain. I was tired and weary, desperately in need of a shower and food, but energized by the adventure that was Huashan.
Thanks again to Peter and Gavin for making Huashan such an amazing experience. This adventure wouldn’t have been the same without you.