By Bill Pfeffer
As the aluminum cable cars hummed into the platform, swiveled around and stopped, I held up two fingers, and pointed to my wife.
We hustled to the rocky car, as the young man smiled, nodded, and held open the door. I distributed my weight, while my wife did her best ostrich imitation by covering her head with a jacket and pretending to be somewhere else.
Jerking forward, we lurched off the platform and began the steep ascent. Startled by the vibration as we passed through the first tower, I scanned for metal debris in the gut-wrenching granite abyss.
Crossing myself, while mentally donating to Saint Christopher, I exhaled and kept reassuring thoughts that more people probably die on the mountain than the ride up.
Hua Shan, a two-hour bus ride from Xian, is one of five sacred Taoist mountains in China. Taoism is a 2,500 year-old spiritual practice whose way of life explores the relationship between the forceful yang and the passive yin. ‘Go with the flow’ is its mantra, one’s life a constant gyroscope between these contending forces.
Nonetheless, on Hua Shan Mountain, I expected to see descendants of this teacher – contemplative holy men sitting cross-legged on rocks, pondering the universe and reconciling their place within it.
Hua Shan is reputed to be the most dangerous hiking mountain in China. Narrow trails, sheer drop-offs, marginal safety, and wet slippery conditions, all contribute to this dubious reputation. Therefore, we had to see for ourselves. Surely, such a reverent mountain would dare not endanger its worshipers. Besides, if it is so dangerous, why is it so popular?
Hua Shan village, the home base for any climb, nestles against the mountain, with several guesthouses sprinkled around the main intersection. Our guesthouse had a bathroom with a window that took up the entire wall.
The window both provided a panorama of Hua Shan Mountain and allowed anyone on the street below to intrude on our privacy. We laughed at the absurdity of it, and reminded ourselves not to use the light at night.
Both scenic and strenuous, a four-mile path (4-6 hours) to the top of Hua Shan Mountain begins at the Jade Fountain Temple in the village.
Alternatively, you can take a bus from the village to the cable car station for the mechanical ten-minute ascent. Many hikers embark at midnight to arrive at the peak for sunrise. Others, eager to catch the sunset, overnight at one of the dormitory style hostels on the mountain.
The cable car terminates at North Peak (5,298 feet), where indecisive tourists consult their maps and clog the path – despite the fact, there is only one way to go.
They reminded me of those challenged people who stop at the bottom of the escalator and swivel their heads. A pile of discarded cotton gloves leaned against a wall, and I sifted through for the cleanest pair.
A map with English translations is posted on a kiosk, and highlights the five peaks of Hua Shan. East (‘Facing Yang Summit’), West (‘Lotus Flower Peak’), North (‘Cloud Terrace Peak’), Center (‘Jade Maiden Peak’), and South (‘ Dropping Swallow Summit’), radiant like the petals of a lotus flower – a reason why Hua Shan is known as ‘Lotus Peak.’
Far off, people inched up steps like a string of hungry ants, climbing towards West Peak, 6,686 feet above the valley floor. At the apogee, a varying shaded structure, bordered by trees stubbornly growing from granite rocks, played hide and seek in a haze.
In front of us, a thinly cut trail extended for maybe two hundred yards. Green Dragon Ridge (also called Blue Dragon Ridge) was ready to challenge the acrophobic.
Constrained by a loosely threaded chain link defense, and edged by a sheer and mortal drop of a few thousand feet, Green Dragon Ridge provided singular passage to the other peaks.
Attached to the chains were golden locks, affixed by visitors to ensure good luck and safety. I quickly purchased a lock from an adjacent vendor, passed on the name engraving, and added it to the chain.
Already, I felt a tinge of vertigo, and excused myself to visit the restroom.
Intending to climb the five peaks of Hua Shan before returning to the village, we stepped behind a group of tourists, and started along the narrow ridge. Some sections were so bottlenecked that you had to turn sideways to allow passage.
At one point, a group of tireless porters squeezed by with an impossible load of supplies destined for mountain vendors. I vowed to not say another word about the daypack straps cutting into my shoulders.
Looking back from our roost atop West Peak, Green Dragon Ridge was clogged with tourists being disgorged from the cable car. As we continued on the circuit, we overtook a few stragglers, and entered a forest. Then it began to rain.
Seeking shelter under the trees, we waited for the storm to pass. Now the worn granite paths were slick with precipitation. The steps, curiously hewed for shoes size six, were unaccommodating for my size ten, and they required deliberate, sideways shuffling.
Many of the Chinese tourists wore rubber sneakers, especially slippery on the dampened walkways. Eager to hedge my bets, I looked around for another lock vendor.
For the next five hours, we looped and climbed the South (7,086 feet), East (6,889 feet), and Center (6,699 feet) peaks. Each afforded iconic views over the mist-shrouded countryside, with distant peaks receding into the horizon under a lighter shade of pale.
Chains, worn shiny bronze from usage, and linked to rusty posts embedded in crusty granite, presented a false sense of security. Superstitious strips of red silk and golden locks adorned the perimeter. Doubling down, I linked a more expensive lock to the chain.At the South Peak, a Chinese mother and I exchanged cameras and took each other’s picture. Near the peak’s marker, I inched close to the edge and peered over the cliff for skeletal remains.
The premier locations boastediIncense laden temples, accessed by narrow trails that traversed granite ridges. At one time, hundreds of temples were built on these mountains. Today, only a few survive.
I pitied the poor porters who hauled the building supplies up here centuries ago. Windowless and open to the elements, it would be cold and lonely in the winter.
A peacefulness and spirituality pervaded the buildings, with decades of smoke varnished into the wood. At one temple, a colorfully frocked priest discretely tucked into an alcove and talked on a cell phone (well, maybe not so lonely after all).
With continued threats of rain, we decided to ride the cable car rather than hike down the mountain. I tossed our gloves on the growing pile and waited in line. Standing on my tiptoes, I tried to follow the steep downward line of the cable.
Thunder ricocheted from the valley below and gray clouds were backlit by flashes of light. Even worse, my wife rudely ignored my words of encouragement. Plunging off the station, the car angled steeply down the mountain and my only thought was of being hit by lightning.
As the warm evening brought out visitors enjoying the balmy weather, we stopped for a beer at an outdoor table. The alpenglow reflected off my wife’s face, as the distant mountain tinted itself first yellow, then purple, and finally blue. With one last sunny blink, the day begat the night. We smiled, and warmly reflected on this sacred mountain.
Hua Shan Mountain is not for those who fear heights. Poking the clouds, it also has unpredictable weather patterns. For better or worse, the Chinese government does not publish statistics on mountain accidents.
For centuries, people have clamored up these peaks, some out of faith, others for thrills. Improvements have been made, with trails rerouted, and some even closed down. Additional safety features (lights, chains, walls, resting spots) have also been installed. Undoubtedly, tourists have suffered injuries or even fallen to their deaths.
On the mountain, I placed my faith and safety in the hands of the ethereal Lao Tzu, secure in the knowledge that he watched over me on his heritage mountain.
Well, that and a couple of cheap locks.