Would you walk along a narrow plank 2,000 botled to the side of a mountain feet in the air? (Photo: Florian Blümm / Alamy Stock Photo)
By Jarryd Salem and Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus
I still remember the first time I saw photos of someone traversing a narrow plank of wood bolted to the side of a cliff, 2,000 feet in the air. I sat up straight in my chair, eyes open, and mouthed the words, “I have to do this.” I was in Canada at the time, and a bit of research made me discover that the pictures I had seen were not just of any old via ferrata — these were images of Mount Huashan, and the world’s most dangerous hike.
I made a promise to myself. Come hell or high water, I would make my way to China and scale this exhilarating mountain.
It takes guts to stand on the edge of Mount Huashan’s Plank Walk. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
The 2,154-meter tall Mount Huashan is considered to be one of five sacred mountains in China, and locals know it as the ‘most precipitous mountain under heaven’. Adorned with influential Taoist temples, this mountain has been part of folklore for thousands of years. Five peaks make up the jagged mountain, and each one offers teahouses and shrines. Impossible pathways have been carved all over the crags, and it is this place that has caught the imagination of adventurers everywhere.
Sheer cliffs of Mount Huashan. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Years later, Alesha and I found ourselves in Xi’an in the Shaanxi province of China. Xi’an is famous for its Terracotta Warriors, but I was more interested in Mount Huashan, which stands tall only a few hours from the city. Alesha needed little convincing. She had seen the photos and watched videos. She too was keen to tackle the world’s most dangerous hike. A few days of city exploration was enough; it was time to climb.
The bus ride seemed to last forever as our excitement levels grew with every passing kilometer. Eventually we drove into Huayin city, disembarked and made a beeline towards the west gate. In true Chinese fashion there are two cable cars that ferry hundreds of people to the summit every day, but we avoided this cheat —it was not our style.
A Taoist temple at the west gate. That is Mount Huashan in the background, on the left. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Picturesque shrines near the west gate. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
An ancient Chinese legend states that there is only one true path up Mount Huashan — the 12km trek rising 1,800m that took 3,000 years to build. This is where we began.
The trail started off pleasantly, with few people along its leafy, meandering path. Most Chinese tourists now opt for the effortless cable car. We followed the river past small temples and shrines, closing in on the mountain above us. Along the way we met a young English man named Jon who was trekking on his own, and we decided to join forces. Soon we started to climb, higher and higher, up steep staircases carved into the stone.
The beginning of the path follows a river. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Steep stairs lead to the top of Huashan. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
We were barely on the mountain but already the danger was rising. Hours passed and we pushed on into more beautiful scenery, before finally reaching the cable car station. Scores of domestic tourists now slithered all over the mountain, snapping photos and screaming out to the vast sky above. Desperate to get out of the shambles, we set our sights on an abrupt stairway that followed a ridge like a knife’s edge.
The knife’s edge to the top. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Each step required both effort and vigilance, as sheer drops on either side tumbled into jagged rocks below. Only pausing to snap a photo, we charged up the famous stairway and moved closer to the peaks.
As we gained altitude the vistas improved. In all directions were equally impressive summits, covered in trees clinging to cliffs. The pathways split across the mountain, heading off toward various temples and peaks. Vertical ladders dug into rocks to allow access to higher points, sometimes with only steel bars or chains for support, but often with nothing to arrest your fall. We spotted a sign leading toward the “Plank Walk In The Sky” and ignored any other distractions.
Climbing more stairs. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Incredible views over the surrounding mountains. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
The afternoon sun was now beaming down on us, but we had reached the site that had first attracted me to China. From a vantage point we could see the narrow plank bending around the edge of a mighty cliff, with nervous hikers clutching at chains along it. We looked at each other, grinning from ear to ear, and joined the queue of adventurers.
A man in military uniform was issuing compulsory harnesses for $5 and we enthusiastically grabbed ours. They were of poor quality, only securing the upper body. The lanyards and carabiners had seen better days, but we didn’t let this deter us. The shrills of Chinese students echoed all around and we clipped in to a steel cable that would be our only lifeline along the plank.
We descended down a set of reinforced steel bars that had been bolted into the stone, inching our way towards the cliff.
Getting harnessed up for the plank walk. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
The ladder down toward the plank walk. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
In a moment it was there, right in front of us, in all its glory. Just as I had seen in those first images all those years ago. The planks, the chains, the relentless threat of death over the side of the mountain, all of it. Like an excited child the night before Christmas, I was getting jittery.
Clipping in our two points of contact on the lanyards, we stepped out onto the plank and away from the safety of solid ground. With no one else on the plank it would have been fairly tame, as long as you weren’t afraid of heights. But the fear came from putting your trust in both ancient Chinese engineering, and in the terrified students that groped and grasped at anything they could to steady their trembling bodies — ourselves included.
No one was willing to move out from the edge of the cliff, so we were forced to step behind the scared locals. With one hand on the chain, we would swing out over the edge and continue on. It was exhilarating.
No fear from Alesha! (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Lesh and Jon loving the thrill of the world’s most dangerous hike. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Check out that girl’s face! (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Jazza was pretty happy about it too! (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
The path was only 50m or so, and once we reached the end there was a small platform to climb and enjoy the panoramic views. Once we’d take a few pictures, we turned around and headed back across the plank walk.
The magnitude of the second crossing kicked in when we found ourselves as the only ones on there. We had managed to capture a brief moment of solitude, and we just stood still, mouths open, looking at the scenery around us. Leaning right out over the edge, we stared down into the vacant space below. Rumors of 100 people a year dying on this mountain may be unfounded, but I still wondered how many corpses lay at the bottom of that cliff.
We moved further on and finally completed the world’s most dangerous hike. We cheered in jubilation, hugged and threw high-fives all around. A part of me wanted to climb back out on the plank to conquer it once more, but with the daylight hours dwindling and a long bus journey to get back to Xi’an, it was time to move on.
That is until we saw the Chess Pavilion…
The Chess Pavilion, stuck out in the middle of nowhere on Mount Huashan. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Jutting out from the East Peak, the Chess Pavilion is a lonesome pagoda in a precarious position. The only way to reach it is via a dangerous climb down a slippery rock face, with aged footholds carved into the side and metal bars providing occasional leverage. We saw another military-costumed man issuing harnesses and we quickly rented three from him.
Unlike the Plank Walk in the Sky, the hike to the Chess Pavilion can only have a limited number of people on it at once. It just isn’t wide or large enough for a whole barrage of adventurers trampling down the side of the cliff.
We set off on our own, descending carefully toward flatter ground. This hike required a lot more strength and climbing techniques than the Plank Walk, which was far more enjoyable. And while the heights weren’t anywhere near as overwhelming, the danger was still there. Luckily our pathetic harnesses gave the illusion of safety.
The footholds of Mount Huashan. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
The descent… (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Arriving at the Chess Pavilion, we were of course met with humbling views of the mountains and valleys around. After a few last snaps, a quick game of fake chess, and a worrisome look at our watches, we knew it was time to leave this sacred mountain.
We turned and climbed as fast as possible, rushing to get back toward the bottom of Mount Huashan. At this point Jon said he was going to continue on and visit the other peaks that we had missed, as he had a private car waiting for him at the bottom. He graciously offered to give us a ride, but we declined, having already prepaid for our bus tickets. We hugged, parting ways, stoked with how our new friendship had brought us to dizzying heights.
Playing chess at the Chess Pavilion. Naturally. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Lesh admiring the view from the side of Mount Huashan, on the way back from the Chess Pavilion. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)
Alesha and I ran down the mountain, still pumped up on adrenaline. We made it to the top of the cable car in record time, but saw that with the sun already setting behind the mountains, that we were too late. We wouldn’t have enough time to hike down to the bottom before 7 p.m., when our last bus would depart. In a heartbreaking sigh of defeat, we took the cable car to the bottom of the East Gate.
We ran and hitched to get back to the village, just in time to board the last bus to Xi’an. Sitting down on the bus, rumbling down a manicured Chinese highway we were absolutely buzzing. The hike was everything we had hoped it would be. The thrill of surviving the world’s most dangerous hike was as immense as the mountain we had just scaled. But with such an important goal ticked off, it was time to turn our eyes onto a new challenge. What out there will compare to the magnitude of climbing Mount Huashan and traversing its infamous Plank Walk? Only time will tell…
Stopping on the Plank Walk for perhaps our coolest selfie ever. (Photo: Alesha Bradford / NOMADasaurus)