I Went to China to Hike the Most Dangerous Hike on Earth
I Hiked the Most Dangerous Hike in the World…
… and it wasn’t so bad.
I woke up around 5:30 in the morning and grabbed a “didi” taxi cab to the nearest red line subway station in Xi’an. My backpack was loaded with 3 L of water, a tube of zinc sunblock and a few snacks — on this day I would hike what Google likes to call the “World’s Most Dangerous Hike”. Hua Shan (华山) peaks at 2,154.9 meters (7,070 ft) and is one of the Five Great Mountains (五岳).
Huashan is located in the Shaanxi Province and 120 km east of the province’s capital, Xi’an. Given it’s the biggest city, most will find themselves using Xi’an as a base to travel in and out from. From Xi’an you can jump on a subway to Xi’an North Railway Station (西安北站) for 4 yuan followed by grabbing a train to Huashan North Railway Station (华山北站). There are multiple trains that go between Xi’an and Huashan throughout the day — I’d recommend hopping on a high-speed G train, which costs 54.5 yuan each way. The high speed trains takes 30-40 minutes to travel while slower trains and buses could take up to 2 hours to get to the hiking area. I should also mentioned that if you’re a foreigner, like myself, you’ll need to show your passport to the ticketing office each time you purchase and pick up tickets.
Once I arrived at Huashan North Railway Station in the rising 32°C heat, I exited the building and maneuvered around all the dodgy taxi drivers who will stalk you to the edge of the parking lot. The drivers will do their best to convince you that they’re the only ones who can take you to the trailhead. However, at the end of the parking lot there’s a yellow bus, also known as Bus No. 1, which will take you directly to Huashan’s visitor center at no cost. If anyone tells you otherwise, then I’m sorry dear reader, you’ve been scammed.
Entrance into Huashan is 180 yuan or 90 yuan with a valid student ID card. From there you have the option of booking a cable car to one of the peaks or taking the free green bus to the trailhead. For the sake of experiencing the hiking internet sensation through my senses, I decided to take the long road up.
Hiking up to Huashan’s multiple peaks is a treat for the eyes. The mountains and greenery humble you with their size and majesty. Ascending the many, many stairs feels like walking into an iconic Chinese watercolor painting.
The never-ending layers of mountains and rich history are what I enjoy the most on this hike. Everything is absolutely picturesque and the road up reminds you of all the other people who gathered for the same pilgrimage up. Red prayer ribbons and love locks are never too far away. In a way, it’s comforting knowing that you’re taking part in something that has been cherished for generations.
The trail will also take you through a number of temples. Granted, the majority of them have been converted into convenience stores.
As a fair warning, the goods sold at each of these shops accept only cash or WeChat pay (which is only available to those with a Chinese bank account) and have marked up prices. For example a 1.5 L bottle of water costs 15 yuan on the mountain, while only 3 yuan in the city. Why the mark up? All consumer goods sold on the mountain are lovingly carried up the mountain by old Asian men.
Now before I give the impression that the hike up Huashan is a breeze, there are a couple of things to be mindful of. The first being the lack of overhead coverage and high temperatures. It was 10:00 a.m. when I began hiking and since leaving the train station temperatures were up around 35°C . I wore running shorts, a merino wool tank and a baseball cap, and still felt the effects of the unforgiving sun. Beads of sweat perspired from me constantly and would dilute my sunblock. It’s imperative to hydrate regularly and reapply sunscreen, otherwise, suffering from a heat stroke is a possibility.
The second thing I noticed about the trail is that switchbacks are nonexistent! The purpose of switchbacks on trails is to ease the elevation change while climbing, thus making it easier in the long run to go up steep hills. A lack of switchbacks means that the trail shoots straight up! The majority of Huashan is a series of tiny steps carved into the side of a mountain. If your cardio is in good shape then the heated stairmaster on steroids is doable.
The main trail eventually leads to a central area with additional trails that branch out to the different peaks. I gave my knees a rest on top of North Peak before setting off to South Peak, home to the internet famous plank walk.
The Plank Walk
I have an unusual affinity for heights. Looking down and seeing the world thousands of meters below me injects me with a dose of pure euphoria. The plank walk was right in my alley of things that I’d do in a heartbeat. As it turns out, I’m not the only one that feels this way towards adrenaline-inducing activities. Arriving at around 1:00 p.m., the plank walk required a 40 minute queue to the admission area. The walk’s 30 yuan admission fee provides you with access to the walk, a chest harness, a pair of carabiners, and an area to toss your backpack.
This is the part where the hike is supposed to be dangerous, and it does get dangerous, but not for reasons that you’d expect. The plank walk consists of wood beams that are less than a meter wide and are supported by metal rods jammed into the mountain side. Hikers are to walk along the series of planks around the side of the mountain and ascend ladders to a viewing area. When you’re done, you return via the same route. For the most part, the wooden sidewalk felt sturdy and if it were just a handful of people and myself with traditional climbing harnesses, I’d give my trust to the mountain.
This was not the case of course. After you pay the admission fee, a chest harness is thrown over you with a pair of locking carabiners. Each carabiner has a fabric cord attached to it with a cow hitch knot (the same knot you’d use to attach charms to a cell phone) and has another carabiner attached to the opposite end in the same fashion. In this position I’d feel a lot safer with a figure-8 knot tying me to the safety line.
Like sheep, you’re herded into another queue to proceed down the first makeshift ladder. No instruction nor safety brief is provided (neither in Mandarin nor English.) Despite the lack of safety instructions, the operators of the plank walk are more than happy to help you photograph and remember the experience for a few yuan. They have a photographer and laser jet printer waiting for you at end of the first ladder.
My biggest worry with the plank walk is the fact that the route tends to be crammed with ill-prepared hikers and is used for two-way traffic. This is a cause for concern because a crowded path traveling in both directions creates a higher likelihood for an accidental misstep.
At one point, a couple of Germans in front of me decided to wait and let a large group pass before continuing to move forward. This gesture allowed a safer passage for the group since the two-way route temporarily became a one-way and I was able to grab a photo of myself without the crowd in the shot.
Unfortunately this gesture wasn’t returned. There’s a point where instead of walking on a plank, hikers are to tread carefully along carved rock ledges. This area tends to bottleneck and without the right-of-way gesture being returned, two-way passage seemed unnecessarily capricious. At one point I shouted “停止！人太多了” (“Stop! There are too many people!”) to the nearest plank walk operator who kept ushering people down the ladder. He ignored me and kept bringing people down.
Getting off the plank walk felt like a game of chicken. When I decided to stop being polite and start making my way forwards on the carved rock edge I was finally able to climb up and get a quiet spot to admire the scenery again.
How to Not Die on Huashan
As narrated above, Huashan isn’t as deadly as the internet proclaims. If you’re in relatively good physical condition and have a good sense of judgement, the hike is very doable. Just in case, here are some tips to keep you from dying.
Wear Good Shoes
I cannot recommend wearing good shoes enough. It takes at least a day for the average hiker to climb up and down Huashan. You’ll be on your feet the entire day and they will take a pounding from walking on the rock trail and stairs. And if not to give your feet protection and support for the trail, at least wear shoes that cover your feet to protect yourself from being stomped on by the crowds. I watched a lady nearly take a fall while on the plank walk because another hiker accidentally stepped on her foot while trying to pass her. She was wearing flats with a slight heel.
Move Your Safety Clips One at a Time
Following the side of the rockwall of the plank wall is a thick chain and a pair of cables. Hikers are meant to use the chain for assistance with their hand and the cables are meant for safety lines to clip into. Each hiker has a pair of carabiners which should be moved from cable to cable one at a time. There were times during my hike when I saw fellow hikers with both carabiners unclipped from the wall. Some may call this courageous, but just one unwelcome nudge on the crowded wall could send the unclipped to a 2,096 meter drop. Move each carabiner one at a time to guarantee that you’re always connected to the wall.
Climb Down the Ladders Facing the Mountain
I noticed a number of hikers would climb down the ladders on the plank face facing away from the mountain. Although being able to see what’s ahead of you and where to put your feet next may give a sense of security, it’s better to face the rock wall as you descend. In this manner, you’ll still be able to look down to see what’s next, and in the event that you slip, your arms will be able to grab a metal rung or rock to catch yourself.
Check Conditions Beforehand and Pack Accordingly
Huashan’s trails are very exposed and will leave you vulnerable to the sun and/or wind. Check the weather conditions before embarking on this trek and pack accordingly. Since I was hiking during the summer, I prepped myself with anything I could carry to shield me from the sun (sunblock, sun glasses, hat.) The forecast also had predicted a 40% chance of precipitation, so I packed my rain jacket as well. The jacket came in handy later in the afternoon as it started raining while I ascended towards the South Peak.
In the event that you didn’t account for the changing conditions, be sure to bring cash. There are plenty of stops through the mountain that sell water, meals, and even rain parkas.
Go Early or Late in the Afternoon for the Plank Walk
For those daring enough to try the plank walk, I’d recommend starting the hike up to Huashan early in the day or plan to stay overnight in one of the hotel’s located in the central peak area. I noticed that the number of people queuing for the plank walk was significantly less compared to my afternoon trial. My assumption is that less people are likely to do the walk during the late afternoon because they’d like to catch the last cable car to get down the mountain. The same goes with starting the hike very early during the day. When there’s less people on the planks, there should be less of a chance for an unfortunate accident. Avoiding the crowds would also mean you’d be able to take your time to enjoy the view from the planks.