What defines the mountain climbing experience in China?
Steps. Lots of steps. Lots and lots of steps. Climbing mountains in China is a curious experience. I’ve hiked in parks and mountain ranges from the UK to Southeast Asia and enjoyed and endured these outings for their scenery en route to and their views from the top but few, if any hiking experiences compare to what you meet with in China.
China’s mountains are plentiful and some have stood tall through history as sacred. Of these, Mount Hua (华山) is renowned as sacred to Taoists and dangerous to hikers. The highest of its five peaks, which together represent the petals of a lotus flower, rises 2,154m from the farmed plains below.
Famed for being the “most precipitous mountain under heaven”, it has reached a somewhat cult status to climb its steep trails at night to watch a spectacular sunrise from the East peak the morning after. Therefore, having not long arrived in nearby Xi’an and hungry for adventure, a friend and I found ourselves drawn to the challenge and set off on a bus bound for HuaShan on a fresh spring afternoon.
It was mid afternoon when we entered the park, teenaged boys watched the crowds from atop large boulders, as they milled about in the temple at Hua Shan Gate. Girls posed for photographs on a bridge straddling a fishpond and groups of yellow and red-hatted tour groups bumbled passed, following their umbrella-wielding guides as they barked out information through tinny speakers. Not ones for crowds, we set off at pace.
The initial trail ambles along the course of the river, ascending slowly and offering enticing views of the South peak. The late afternoon sunshine kept the chill off and we worked our way up the initial sets of stone steps. The crowds were far below now; small birds flitted between the still bare branches of the trees and still the trail ascended. Its path, interspersed with vendors selling polished rocks, overpriced drinks, snacks and walking sticks at various holy sites and points of interest on the climb, usually on platforms above steep steps.
Its bottom is bottomless
Each point of interest distracted us from the apparently endless succession of steps we had to climb, with a factoid of folklore or a seemingly more absurd name than the last. Hairy Woman Cave lingers long in the memory, as does Black Dragon Ridge, whose ‘middle is outstanding, its side is low and its bottom is bottomless.’
Section after section presented us with impressively steep stairways carved out of the rock face, between boulders that provided railings of chunky cast iron chains. None tested us like Hundred Chi Gorge – a series of hundreds of steps just beneath Thousand Foot Cliff. The names of each deflated and amused us in equal measure as we struggled onwards and upwards. The steps are short and we quickly gained some height, which spurred us on as much as our fear of slipping and descending without choice did. Midway up the crevice the steps are cut from, we got a dizzying view back down from whence we came. I was glad I was went first; my climbing buddy could perhaps catch me, slow me down or break my fall if things went wrong – not that he knew that was my contingency plan at the time.
Night had fallen as we approached the first of the five peaks; North peak. We hadn’t seen another soul in over an hour and the full moon now lit our trail but with the help of a few softly lit path side lamps, which took some of the edge off the ‘danger’ we were in search of.
We weren’t to be disappointed though. With nightfall, the temperature dropped rapidly and the fresh breeze of the afternoon turned into a biting wind. The sheer face of the West peak jutted out into the night sky and silhouetted against the starry backdrop. The distant climbing face of the mountain intrigued with a long stretch of neon blue glow. Below us, surrounding Shaanxi was shrouded in darkness but for streetlights glowing yellow-orange like campfire embers spat out onto the earth. We hiked on, needlessly checking photographs of a map we’d taken at the start of the trail to plot our course – essentially we had to go up, up and then up some more. Using our phones as torches to find our footing in the blackness, we looked out over the edge of the pathway at Green Dragon Ridge to the moonlit ridges of rock face far beneath us. Heart rates already raised from the ascent sped up further, our knuckles whitened from gripping the railings and we made estimations of how long of a fall it would be.
We thought we were finished, but then… the Cloud Ladder
Through light woodland the pathway led us to one of those decisions you don’t really want to make. Should we climb the Cloud Ladder or take the precarious looking platform that was wobbling to our left? The former is a long, near vertical series of steps cut into the rock, which you climb as the name suggests, like a ladder. The latter is essentially a few planks of wood supported by steel poles over a disheartening drop of…well, I couldn’t say as it looked so unbelievably sketchy it made our minds up for us. ‘Cloud Ladder it is then’, I reassured my friend.
At this stage though, with our proximity to the summit, the wind was ripping through the trees and around the rock face making the Cloud Ladder exhilarating enough. Especially as like before, from midway up we turned and looked down, but this time into gloom. I reached the top and had the enjoyable experience of watching and photographing my friend struggle in the strong winds to stay tight to the rock in order not to be blown off. Needless to say he didn’t appreciate it.
Once reunited, we walked around the East peak and at around 1am, checked into a dorm room for a few hours. Before daylight broke, we left the relative shelter of our room and made our way over to the sunrise viewing ledge. The view out East over the mountains below with the Sun rising far in the distance wasn’t exactly what we’d hoped for with haze obscuring most of it but we still felt it worth shivering in the wind to watch. Now everything was bathed in the pink hue of morning light we were presented with all that we couldn’t see during the ascent; pavilions and temples on mountain precipices and railings adorned in thousands of engraved locks and red ribbons that whipped violently in the wind.
In the quiet of the morning we spent time on each peak, marveling at the trails we’d followed in the darkness of the previous night and as the first hikers made their way up to the West peak summit, we started our descent. The closer we got to the lower North peak the more people we encountered until the paths and steps were as jam-packed with people as any Xi’an bus during rush hour. Men in business suits with cigarettes hanging from their mouths, women in heels and skirts, tour groups with people of all ages and sizes, most with bags of food which they continually graze from as they make their ascent; Hua Shan is a different beast in the daytime. The night climb is not only more dangerous and more exhilarating but the solitude it provides and the challenges it presents you with plus the reward of a sunrise viewed from 2,090 meters combine to make it the only way to consider climbing it and I’m glad I did.