Huashan is a mountain located about 120 kilometres east of Xi’an- China’s old capital. It’s home to some very dicey walking tracks, a really spectacular set of cable cars, a tea house perched on a cliff face and a photo studio with some genuine occupational health and safety issues.
My guide and translator and long-time friend Andrew Haddow agreed to follow me out to visit Huashan when we passed through Xi’an. Our trip did not get off to a promising start. A set of bus transfers took up the main part of the morning- each one accompanied by a lengthy explanation of schedules and meeting times and itinerary information. When we arrived at the entrance to the National Park we looked set to be part of a large group of middle-aged Chinese folk wearing matching hats condemned to follow around a lady with a personal PA system and a flag for easy identification. Having escaped that situation we opted for the stairs instead of the cable car and started on a very precarious hike underneath the cable car route. The path has been known as the ‘Soldier’s Way’ after local guides used the route to lead a squad of Communist troops to flank a Kuomintang garrison posted on the mountain during China’s civil war.
The path only covers about 2 kilometers in terms of horizontal distance but takes you up more than 1500 meters vertically. The Soldier’s Way is carved into the rock face and, at times, the steps turn into something more like ladders with only a metal chain to act as a hand rail. Not many people were on the route but those we did come across seemed very under prepared- one lady was wearing heels, most were dressed in casual shoes and streetwear. Some were carrying water bottles in plastic bags.
The view from the mountainside was absolutely astounding- even with the low-lying haze from the nearby cities. The cable car towers are set into the cliff face at extreme angles and the spans between them are massive. The system was design by the Austrian company Doppelmayr and it is a spectacular feat of engineering. The further we climbed the more we wished we’d taken advantage of it. A couple of hours later we made it to the top of the north summit (1,614m) and joined a crush of tourists heading to the higher peaks. The danger of Huashan is not so much in the terrain as it is in the sheer volume of people on the mountain at any given time. People of all ages crowd along narrow paths, jostle and overtake one another at will. The concentration required to keep your footing and avoid absent-mined tourists is a rather unusual extreme sport. It’s like Christmas shopping on Bourke street if you were never more than a few steps away from a fatal fall.
Haddow and I did find one quiet part of the Mountain. The ‘Changkong Zhandao’ or Vast Sky Plank Walk is a section of the old pilgrimage route where the path descends into a string of footholds carved into the rock combined with timber boards fastened to steel pins driven right into the cliff face. The path has been there, in one form or another, for more than 700 years. Until very recently it was the only way to reach certain shrines on the south peak. Nowadays it’s been turned into a short via-ferrata route and you can borrow a harness and take your chances with the anchors. I say it was ‘quiet’ but only relative to the rest of the mountain. There were still large numbers of people waiting to walk the route- no more well equipped than the people we’d already encountered. I saw young girls in sun hats, skirts and sandals putting on harnesses and cheerfully climbing down the metal pins to where the timber section starts.
Halfway along the plank walk there was a little alcove with a cabinet and a bench. A massive extension cord ran down from the top of the cliff to a battered looking Epson Inkjet. I don’t know what he did to to deserve his fate but the official Plank Walk photographer makes his living traversing cliff face taking photos of the tourists which he then prints from his tiny alcove office and sells for 30 RMB. The photographer had clearly been doing it for long enough to become completely desensitised to the risks. On several occasions I watched him unclip from the safety line in order to overtake tourists on the boards. He moved like he was threading his way through a crowd at a music festival- in a hurry but totally unfazed by the thousand meter drop.
Watching him was completely terrifying so, after taking a few shots, I climbed back up to the relative safety of the south peak. Before leaving Haddow and I stopped at one of the many souvenir stands and bought cheap metal medallions certifying that we had successfully summited Mt Huashan. The medallions were attached to red ribbons and painted gold. For a small fee the guy manning the stall engraved my name in Chinese characters on the back. Proof of our pilgrimage in hand we joined the long line for the cable car to return us to the park entrance.
Huashan made me realise that one of the drawcards of hiking and mountaineering is the elitism of it all. I think I’d assumed that my appreciation stemmed from the beauty of the peak or the challenge of the climb. Being in the crush of people on top of Mt Huashan forced me to consider that maybe the reason I find mountains so appealing is their tendency to act as a filter for the people that visit them. After all, mountains are generally pretty inaccessible and the people that are willing to visit them have similar qualities. At the very least the average mountain climber doesn’t mind the outdoors, enjoys a challenge and is young enough or fit enough to manage the climb.
It’s a selfish instinct that makes me want exclude the people that don’t fit that criteria but it’s one that I find hard to shake. Even on the Plank Walk- part of me was disappointed to discover a safety line. Not because I resent my life expectancy but because I was looking for people more like me- people who would be willing to tolerate that risk in order to have that experience.