Thursday, February 13, 2014



 This particular interest in Mt Huashan was sparked by a Facebook entry posted by my nephew Joe Brown:  the photo he found on the internet absolutely blew my mind.  Such physical insanity, I decided, needed further investigation.

I don’t want to spoil your fun; you will have to wait awhile for the horror part.

Now it’s fair to say I’m not beyond a little madness myself and indeed Machu Pichu proved a point to me about climbing steep stairs.  There’s many a reason why septuagenarian knees baulk at the sight of a towering incline, in my case its sheer terror at the thought of taking a most undignified and fatal fall.

In China there is another epic mountain climb, it too involves stairs, lots of stairs; but these stairs are only a precursor to a terrifying optional extra; one that I’m sure would cause many a mother to collapse in a heap if she knew her offspring were even contemplating its attempt. 

These few are just a sample of the stairs on offer on Mt Huashan.

 The exercise in question is in the first instance the scaling of China’s Huashan Mountain, almost 2 kms high and comprising 5 peaks...  and secondly it’s accompanying piece de la resistance, the crossing of the infamous Cliffside Plank Walk.

This climb is the Mecca of young university students, adventurous back packers and thrill seekers from all parts of the globe.  To take on the more dangerous sections of this particular climb you need to be incredibly brave either blithely ignorant or remarkably stupid.

A great deal has been written about the Huashan Trek and rightly so; it is without a doubt an incredibly beautiful part of China’s Shaanxi Province and known as it’s Number One Precipitous Mountain under Heaven.

For the most part the trek is only moderately arduous, indeed the peaks can even be traversed by cable car; the sting in its tail is virtually an optional extra, the hair-raising, nail biting section known for good reason as The Plank Walk.

You will see why in a moment. For now feast your eyes on the more straightforward sections, the easy parts of a climb that given the opportunity even I in my dotage may have attempted.

Don’t be lulled by the milling throng nor the safer aspects of graded stairways.  In fact the climb’s popularity makes it more akin to a bun rush at a New Year Sale.  The Huashan hike takes in four or five sections.  Some you can choose not to take, others you can soar happily above, or below on a cable car… but to appreciate fully the devilish adrenalin rush of Huashan you simply have to bite the bullet, take your life into your own hands and brave the utterly impossible and terrifying plank walk.

Countless many have made the trip and lived to tell the tale: I’ve plucked a voyeurs description of the Plank Walk from the experience of others (in my opinion as a confirmed scaredy cat the only way to climb.)  Read and be amazed at either their bravery or fool hardiness.


ANDRE HYCENKO… now here is a young man from Los Angeles who in his own words said… “our only goal was the plank walk on the south peak and since we had climbed the mountain before in 2008 we took the cable car to the north peak and walked to the start of the plank walk from there”. 

Andre on the ladder

 Andre Hycenko
“Before starting this section known as the ‘Changong Zhandao’or ‘Floating-in-Air Road’ ” he advised his readers, “we rented out a harness (absolutely mad not to do this…) and without further ado found ourselves on a vertical ladder going down, below us a thousand meter drop down to the valley.  I was shaking badly and gripped on tight to the handrail.”

He then describes the flimsy ladder leading down to the planks, the narrow wood pathway, the breathtaking view and the thousand meter drop below him.  He describes a moment on a precarious wooden plank path nailed haphazardly to the side of a sheer cliff face when he “tried not to drop the camera with my hands shaking as if I had just drunk 20 cups of coffee”.

Andre’s foot.

Conclusion: Andre is a braver person than me.


Ben Beiske is another intrepid traveller who braved the Plank Walk.  He began his story with the words… “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.” He goes on to add…” 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 (friend) Eric later called it "High risk, low probability", which sums it up pretty well how I felt. “

Ben made this hair raising walk with friends Eric and Jen and it’s Eric who lays claim to the best story I’ve heard yet of how not to make a comfort stop whilst 1000 meters up in the air.

The three had made the trek inching their way across the planks and reaching the end, a shrine at the end of the precarious path when it finally dawned on them that it was a dead end, as Ben added… “we realised we had to go back the same way we came. Argh! There was no escaping it, after taking a few pictures we headed back.”

But first, Eric needing to do what a man had sometimes to do wandered off a bit and undid his belt.  Unfortunately he forgot his camera strap was attached to the belt.  The case fell, gathering speed as it raced away down the mountain, never to be seen again… camera, spare batteries, memory cards…all gone forever. 

Ben, as his blog page says, living the dream!


Alan Grainger travels the world with his camera and even though he claims to be colour blind his many photographs provide a veritable kaleidoscope to feast one’s eyes on.

 “In the morning I got up early to see the sunrise but there was nothing but fog. So I grabbed my pack and headed for the plank path to get there before the crowds arrived. It was incredible. They had a harness you had to hire for Y30. I didn't use it. No way I'd (not) come this far to take all the fear out of it by clipping on a safety harness.”

Look ma, no harness!
It starts with a nice gentle descent down iron bars wedged between two cliff faces.

 (The harness was required for this photo :)

It was completely foggy when I was there which actually made the whole thing even more awesome. The photos aren't as good, but you couldn't see where you were going and everything was wet.
I had my lock with me and put it on the chain at the end of the trail.  It's the one with the big red ribbon coming off it: Going to Huashan was a dream of mine since 2010. It was an amazing experience both physically and emotionally. It took me over 60 hours on buses to get there but it was worth every second.

Alan, your mother and I are so glad you at least wore the safety harness when it was most needed.

4th BRAVE SOUL      
The next blog author I pluck from the many who braved the planks is Mike Kowalski…

“My name is Mike Kowalski, I’m a thirty something introverted individual who is trying to broaden his horizons. I know nothing about travel or blogging but I love to read and watch movies. I’m something of a cheapskate and actually like to budget. I like to try new things and will try anything once.
 2000 meters in the air, I peer over the edge of the rickety wooden planking and wonder why I am on this insane cliff walk. Moments before, I had been carefully stepping in small footholds carved into the side of the mountain. I pause a moment to catch my breath. Hugging the cliff face, I slowly inch my way across the planking. Small careful steps take me the few hundred yards to solid ground. I have completed the first half of the Hua Shan cliff walk.

I pay the 30 yuan ($4.69) entrance fee and prepare for the walk. Thankfully, two straps attach you to the cliff wall. The straps hook on a wire set into the cliff. I hook up and set (off) down the smallest set of stairs I’ve ever encountered. They are literally small steel rods hammered into the rock.

Making my way down the steps as I fight down my fear of heights and descend one slow step at a time, an older Chinese gentleman appears below and starts climbing up. I take the time to note that he has no safety straps. We meet and he gestures for me to move aside. I make myself as small as possible and he scampers up the metal stairs. Continuing down, I find myself at the actual path. It begins with the footholds carved into the mountain and then continues with a thin wooden plank path attached to the cliff.

The few hundred feet to the end take over ten minutes. As I find myself stepping on solid ground, I realize I was at a dead-end. I would have to  (return and) cross the path again.

I’ve been skydiving and bungee jumping, but, for some reason, this cliff walk was more frightening than either of those activities. 

Yes, two cables secured me to the cliff. 

Yes, I watched several people cross the path quickly and safely. 

However, my brain wasn’t accepting those facts. I knew it was thousands of feet to the bottom if I somehow fell off. I knew I was going to make a misstep at any time. However, I also recognized this was an incredible experience. I knew the plank path was wide enough to safely walk across. I realize I must finish the walk.

I take a deep breath and step back on the planks”.

Mike, all I can say is that was one hell of a narrow path.


5th and 6th BRAVE SOULS



Jonathan and Natalia are a couple who “specialize in taming temple monkeys, finding the best back alley deals in South East Asia and cycling across any country they decide to live in”.  On a visit to Mt Huashan Natalia not only came to grips with her fear of heights, she also received a marriage proposal in the most unlikely setting. 

This is her story in her words.

“We were dumb enough to climb Huashan on a national holiday. When we got to the ticket office, we stood in line for over an hour…Most of the “hikers” in line were out buying gondola tickets. We planned to start the hike at the West entrance and when our shuttle bus brought us to the west gates, we realized that our efforts were in vain. There was a ticket office at the start of the trail. Rats! 

“There is absolutely no information about this. Frustration aside our climb was steady and steep. There was a fun stair section that was 80 degrees, but you can avoid it by taking the detour for pussies. Oh yes, there were families doing this hike with their toddlers…We made it to the North Peak in about 2 hours (suck it, Lonely Planet!). Since the climb wasn’t strenuous we decided to do the plank walk that day. I knew I had to get it out of the way as soon as possible otherwise my fear of heights would completely immobilize me.

On the East Peak, I wanted a little warm up act before the “Plank Walk in the Sky” and we made a detour to the first adrenaline section of the peak. The Chess Pavilion involves a 90 degree 20m descent. I was pretty terrified but with another 20 climbers quickly descending above me I had no choice but to proceed. When my feet touched solid ground, I was elated! With adrenaline pumping through my veins I was ready for anything. I was ready for the plank walk! No more sweaty palms, it was time to get serious. 

After all this build up I was finally within walking distance of the mountain.
 … The worst part for me was the actual plank walk and the fact that we were the last ones in our group and we spent a lot longer than most on the plank since we had to let everyone make their way around us to come back.  Seeing the plank in real life felt like I was meeting a celebrity: After months of looking at pictures of the plank walk online, it’s easy to recognize every nail in the wood.

I could feel wood flex under my feet and at one point I imagined the wood breaking due to the amount of people and everyone tumbling to their death. I kept thinking that on the way back I would have to pass the oncoming traffic on the outside of the plank. I was petrified!

 After about 10 minutes of shuffling along we reached the end. The sun was already setting and the “plankies” were yelling at us to make our way back. Thankfully, the last group of the day wasn’t being let onto the plank until we made our exit. I shuffled along the plank, happy that the terror was almost over but Jonathan kept insisting that the hiker ahead of us take a picture.


 I didn’t want any pictures, I wanted to get to flat ground. Jonathan boosted (on) ahead and hung a camera on a hiker’s neck who (then) took a picture of us. Then Jonathan got down on one knee and asked me to marry him.”

Natalia and Jon… ‘Ain’t Love Grand’…


There you have it - four firsthand accounts of the Plank Walk… makes you want to hop on the first plane to China and make a beeline for the Plank Walk… you not me!
 I know pictures don’t lie, but still it is hard to believe the extraordinary number of blithe young people who attempt this dangerous stretch of the Mt Huashan Trek.  There again it’s nice to know the spirit of adventure is alive and well and still beating strong in the hearts of the world’s youth.
I’ll close this tribute to their bravery with more random shots of this unbelievable ‘optional extra’.  Enjoy.
Robyn Mortimer – who certainly isn’t game enough to do what all these amazing young people did do!

PS:  Links to their blog sites are included after these next photos.