The second most terrifying experience of my life (Hua Shan, Shaanxi Province, China)

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October 21st 2008
Published: October 23rd 2008
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(Day 200 on the road)I am not a daredevil. How I found out? By climbing across wooden planks that were attached to a vertical mountain cliff, a 1000 meters high up in the air! The pictures I took do not really do the experience much justice, but it was by far the scariest experience of my life that I had sought deliberately. Chinese official statistics put the death toll on this hike at a comforting zero (how comforting indeed), but non-Chinese figures show a much higher rate of death, some of them putting it as high as 100 per year. Who knows who is right, but I was going to make damn-sure I would not be included in these statistics. I am not sure how dangerous this hike really is (some call it the most dangerous tourist route in the world), but Eric later called it "High risk, low probability", which sums it up pretty well I felt.

But first things first. On the overnight train to Xi'an from Qingdao, I was luckily able to upgrade my hard seat to a hard sleeper: After boarding the train, I had put my name down on a list of the people that wanted to upgrade, and after four hours (and at a point where I had almost given up hope) a bed became somehow available and I was very relieved. After arriving in Xi'an the next morning, out of nostalgic reasons I checked into the same hostel near the south gate of the city wall I had stayed in months ago. The next morning, I met up again with Jen and Eric, a couple I had climbed Hua Shan with previously and whom I had also met in Beijing for the Olympics. It was great to see them again, and looking back there could not have been a cooler couple to climb the Hua Shan planks!

The next morning, we were off to Hua Shan, and unfortunately it was a rainy and foggy day. As our only goal was the plank walk on the south peak and since we had climbed the mountain before in June 2008, we took the cable car to the north peak and walked to the start of the plank walk from there.

About halfway to the south peak, Eric took what we later termed his "4000 Yuan Piss" (4000 Yuan equals about 400 Euros). He went off the path a little to pee and opened his belt. Unfortunately, his camera case was attached to the belt - guess what happened next. The case fell to the ground, and both Eric and I were watching as it slowly started rolling down the cliff, picked up more and more speed, and then raced down the mountain, never to be seen again. The case included his camera and spare batteries, all his memory cards and his pictures from climbing the Yellow Mountains in the east of China from the previous week. So sorry Eric, but looking on the bright side I guess you will never forget that pee!

But back to the crazy hike across the plank walk. Before starting it, you can rent out a harness (absolutely mad not to do this, so take it), and without further ado we found ourselves on a vertical "ladder" going down, below us a thousand meter drop down to the valley. The ladder consisted of some iron bolts that were somehow drilled into a narrow chute on the mountain, and quite a few of them were loose and moving. I was shaking badly and gripped on tight to the handrail, seemingly taking forever to descent. One slip on the steps and I guess this would have been it, if it hadn't been for the harness. Then again, the cable that ran down the wall and where you clipped your harness into looked anything but trustworthy, and I didn't want to find out if it actually supported my weight in case of a fall. But luckily, none of us tested the usefulness of the harness during our hike. This first bit of the climb was actually the most technically challenging one, especially as we needed to clip our harness in and out the rail as we descended, requiring to take one hand off the handrail in the process. The only good thing really was that you couldn't look down much, so I didn't see the bottom far below until later. Coming to think of it, I don't think I actually ever saw the bottom at all, it was that high.

The ladder led to a short passage were a few steps were carved into the mountain face, but this soon led to the above mentioned wooden planks. This part of the hike is called "Changong Zhandao", with the English name aptly being "Floating-in-Air Road". The first view of the only 0.3 metres wide planks was simply and quite literally breathtaking: The half-rotten planks lay on some iron bolts that were drilled into the mountain every five meters or so and were held together by a few rusty nails. Walking onto the planks leaves you with nothing below you for at least a 1000 meters. Somehow, I had been the first to go down the ladder, and thus I was also the first to walk onto the crazy planks. How or why someone had placed them there in the first place remains everyones guess. I am not sure how dangerous the walk actually is, but all three of us were holding on for dear life and walking ever so slowly, making sure we did not slip or let go of the handrail (unless we had to clip the harness into the next section).

The planks eventually led to a small cliff and a shrine, and the first thing all of us did after we finally arrived was to go for a pee (no, not in the shrine). After that we compared how much we were all still shaking, and I guess none of us was being able to act like a real hero, although Eric seemed to be doing slightly better than Jen and me. I also noticed that some of the skin on both of my hands was gone, I must have gripped onto the chain a little too hard. And as it turned out, the cliff we landed on was actually a dead end, and we soon realised that we had to go back the same way we came. Argh!

There was no escaping it, so after taking a few pictures we headed back. This time it was Eric first, then me, then Jen. Jen had our only remaining camera, and Eric and I somehow managed to find the confidence to sit down on the planks whilst Jen took a few pictures of us. I think sitting there, with our feet dangling over the edge of the planks, and looking straight down the 1000 meters, was the worst of it all. It got better after a while, and after even more time we were brave enough to take our hands off the handrail. By then, we were just sitting up there, peeking straight down and making brave faces for the camera. Getting back to our feet was difficult, and we were happy to get going again and off the planks.

Back at the ladder, one final challenge awaited us: Two Chinese guys were coming down, and we had to pass each in order to move on. It was a scary manoeuvre to say the least, but after that was done the climb up the ladder was pretty straight forward. About ten minutes later we were all back on solid ground, laughing and smiling at the insanity of this climb and that we actually did it!

After a short visit to all the remaining peaks of Hua Shan (there are five in total), we headed back to Xi'an and rewarded ourselves with a nice dinner, followed by a massage, where they performed one of my favourite things: They cut off the blood supply to your hand by pressing hard on the vein on your lower arms, and as they release the blood a little later they gently blow on your finger tips. The sensation of this combined with the blood flowing back is amazing. I had only experienced this once before, and was happy to receive this treatment once again.

I crashed at Jen's and Eric's place for the night, and after a lazy next day boarded a train to Nanning in the very south of China. Also, if ypu want to read Jen's and Eric's account of the day, have a look at their blog.

And in case you wondered what was the most terrifying experience of my life (this one being the second scariest): A few years back, I was hiking with my good friend Tino in the Austrian Alps on a mountain called Wilder Kaiser, when I lost my grip whilst traversing a snowfield. I fell on my back and slid down the snowfield towards a sheer cliff at an insane speed, and there was nothing I could do to slow myself down. Out of pure luck, the cliff I went over was only about three meters high with some soft snow below to cushion my landing, and apart from some scratches and a sprained finger I sustained no major injury. But the cliff could as well have been 100 meters high. So sliding towards the cliff not knowing what kind of drop awaits me below was by far the scariest experience of my life.

Next stop: Nanning (Guangxi Province, China).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


24th October 2008

Wonderful experience!
7th April 2009

Your Hua Shan trip
Hey Ben, I just read your travel blog about your climb up Hua Shan in China. It is totally different from what I expected after reading all the Chinese sites. Must a tourist climb through the chains of death before getting to the top? There is so little information about climbing Hua Shan that I am now contemplating whether or not to abandon the trip all in all. Would you be so kind to provide me with some insights? Accommodation, how to get to the top, etc? Thanks a lot for reading this message from a passerby. Love your writing, Maggie
13th July 2009

too scary
looking at this makes me want to close my eyes and pretend it doesn't exist. too scary. I live in Suzhou and looked up Shangri la and saw your blog - I'm aiming to go down there in Sept and meet a group and walk the Kawa Karpo Kora - apparently, it purifies a life time of negative karma. starting at deqin. anyway, your blog is great.
23rd July 2009

Mt. Hua Shan
Do you mind answering a question about the dangerous Mt. Hua Shan hike? I have seen pictures of the trail showing dangerous-looking parts of the climb. My wife likes to hike, but fortunately/unfortunately she does not want to try a section that’s "too" risky. I have read about the 5 peaks, and I’ve seen pictures of sections of the trails, but I'm still having trouble visualizing how it all comes together and where the different pictures were taken. Can you advise how the paths go, how the peaks are connected, what options the hikers have, etc? I’m reading about people who do it in 5 hours, but then also people who take 23 hours. (?) Also, if you take the cable car up (I know, true hikers would never do this but we may have to), how much more hiking to the top (of the North Peak??) and how dangerous is that part? I guess I'm asking, what peaks make your heart race vs. what peaks just have really steep steps? Finally, if someone does avoid the most treacherous spots, is it still even worth it to go up? Thank you.
16th February 2010
I love your blog and your flickr photos. Among the most famous 4 mountains in China, Hua Shan is the only one I haven't visited. I have planned to visit China this August and climb HuaShan; after reading your blog, I will need to replan my trip...Enjoy your journey.
4th May 2012

I was just showing my student some of the most remote areas in China and voila, I came across your Blog..... i was scare just by looking at the photos but hats off to you.. i read about climbs on Mt. Everest but this is by far the most interesting climb i read....
11th April 2014

Need to know some details
Planning to have a trek to this mountain. Is it enough if we start in the morning to cover all peaks by walk?

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