Image: Karl and Betty Schendel
Image: Karl and Betty Schendel
They say the first step is always the hardest, but on the Mount Hua Plank Road in the Sky, gathering up the courage to consider attempting the well-known walking trail is likely to be as big a hurdle. After all, the path’s reputation as the “most dangerous” or “terrifying” trail on Earth isn’t very reassuring. Nor, indeed, is the rumored – albeit completely unsubstantiated – claim that each year there are 100 fatalities on the mountain. In fact, there’s little encouragement to be found anywhere on the path – from its one-foot-wide wooden boards with no handrail to the 5,000-foot drop waiting just one misstep away.
The vertiginous plank path is among the trails located on Mount Hua, or Hua Shan, in the Chinese province of Shaanxi. The five-peaked mountain is one of only a handful of Chinese summits deemed holy by followers of Taoism. Indeed, Taoists built a number of places of worship here, including the millennium-old Jade Spring temple.
The mountain’s importance can be traced at least as far back as China’s ancient Warring States era, after which it became the unified nation’s primary designated sacrificial spot. Later, Emperor Xuandi decreed that regular journeys up the mountain were a must, and the peak remains a significant religious site today. Indeed, parts of Mount Hua are so out of the way that Taoism is still practiced there.
Mount Hua is a popular destination for local and international tourists, too – no doubt in part because of its notoriety. Even families with young children visit the spot to sample the nearby hikes, if not the infamous plank walk itself.
Adding to Mount Hua’s formidable reputation are some pretty intimidating-sounding landmarks – namely the “Hundred-Foot Crevice” and the “Thousand-Foot Precipice.” Plus, various trails aside from the plank walk itself are rather scary – though more on that later.
As for the plank walk, well, just getting there is a nerve-wracking experience. First, there’s an almighty leg-busting hike up innumerable steps, which is followed by a vertigo-inducing cable car ride. Finally, there’s the ladder down to the planks, which gives explorers unforgettable views of the some 1,300-ft drop below. This would be a good time for hikers to decide whether they really are up to the even more harrowing path ahead.
As you can tell from these photographs, the boards of the plank walk are not particularly reassuring. Just one or two feet wide, they are reported to flex and appear to be hammered together quite haphazardly – something that no doubt terrifies those intrepid enough to walk along them.
There’s no handrail to hold, either, but fortunately trekkers are handed a harness and two clips with which to attach themselves to the pathway’s safety lines. It’s only these clips and lines that stand between the hikers and the yawning gulf below.
Nothing, though, can really prepare visitors for that first step onto the plank walk. “Seeing the plank in real life felt like I was meeting a celebrity,” said blogger Natalia Sokolova on website Always Trekking. “At one point I imagined the wood breaking due to the amount of people and everyone tumbling to their death[s].”
“I have no idea how many people die here every year,” wrote China Nomads blogger Zachary Wang. “The anchors feel sturdy and with two safety lines attached at all times the chances of you falling are pretty slim (unless of course you un-clip both at the same time).”
That’s not to say that adventurers shouldn’t take the utmost care, though. As Wang explained, “Given the huge number of people that do this climb and the utter lack of supervision and safety instructions, I can’t imagine that there aren’t any accidents.”
Naturally, however, there are those who enjoy pushing the boundaries. At least two men in recent years have filmed themselves traversing the path while unclipped from the safety cables. In the videos, one even holds a foot out over the dizzying drop beneath him, while the other simply finishes the trail with a cool, “Catch ya later.”
According to hikers, one of the scariest aspects of negotiating the plank walk is having to cross walkers heading in the opposite direction. Indeed, there are times when people have to squeeze past one another on a ledge that can barely accommodate one, which must be particularly daunting for the person who has to pass on the outside.
Hikers should, though, try to remember that the walk is quite safe – unless they decide to take needless risks. Furthermore, the trail itself is surprisingly short, and there is little to see at its furthest point; it takes just a quarter of an hour each way.
Those who feel a bit lightheaded even contemplating crossing the planks should spare a thought for the man who spends his days balanced above the middle of the path, taking photographs for the passing tourists. It might be entrepreneurial, but it’s not a job many would envy.
The plank walk is not the only attraction on Mount Hua, however. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, it’s not even the only precarious pathway. There are various stairways on the mountain that are extremely precipitous, some of them offering only the support of a chain railing, at least one not accommodating any handrails at all.
Further danger comes in the form of wintery weather, while those arriving on national holidays may be alarmed by the number of people attempting to conquer the plank walk at the same time.
One explanation for the plank walk’s popularity is that getting to Hua Shan is relatively simple. A fast train from Xi’an takes less than 30 minutes and costs under $10, while two subsequent bus journeys land sightseers at the mountain itself. Then for about $24 visitors can go on the cable car up and down the North Peak of Mount Hua.
Entry on to Hua Shan is about $30, while the plank walk will set adrenaline junkies back another $5. It’s a good idea to get there early, too – the path closes in the early evening – and, as suggested, to avoid public holidays owing to the crowds.
There is plenty to see all around the mountain, and the short plank walk can form just part of a day’s exploring. Indeed, all Hua Shan’s peaks may be experienced as part of a day trip, assuming visitors are physically fit.
Image: Jinyan Su
The main event for most, though, will no doubt be the unreal Plank Road in the Sky. The tantalizing views and adrenaline rush are certain to be unlike anything else on Earth. If, however, even the thought of such a great height is paralyzing, then these photographs are the next best thing to stepping out on the ledge.