Ever receive a forwarded email containing a dubious photo? An image that solicits a raised eyebrow of disbelief, a vocal "where the hell is that?" It's quite possible you received this one, under the banner of "The World's Most Dangerous Hike" or maybe, "Sunday Walks for the Clinically Insane."
Beneath a chain-link handrail, you see three narrow wooden planks floating against a wall of solid rock. Snow capped mountains appear in the distance, and while you can't determine just how high these planks are, you know they're teetering on the edge, much like the nerves of whoever must have put them there.
This un-credited photo of 2x4 planks against a mountain haunted my imagination. After a few hours of online sleuthing, I discovered the photo is real, the path does in fact exist, and it's located just 120 kilometres from China's historical capital of Xi'an. The city is a popular destination for international tourists, drawn to its 3,000-year old history, along with the nearby Terracotta Warriors. Some foreigners might make the journey to Mount Hua, a local attraction, to enjoy its wild views. Few would think about scaling the mountain's Cliffside Plank Path, renowned as the "No.1 Steep Road on Mount Hua." Fortunately, it requires no climbing experience, and since I have none to give it anyway, I decided to investigate. Some Internet legends are born to be busted.
Every year, millions of Chinese make a pilgrimage to the five great Taoist mountains, which have long been featured in legends, history, and art. Besides the visually striking nature of each mountain, there are temples, teahouses, trails, viewpoints, and plenty of opportunities for reflection and prayer. The West Great "Splendid" Mountain, Huà Shn, attracts thousands of locals every day. I arrive to find a parking lot full of domestic tour buses, where cable cars ferry traffic to the base peak. Innocuous enough, although the optional insurance I could purchase with my day ticket did suggest this wasn't your average walk in the park.
Once atop the base peak, various temples and teahouses are open to the public, accessed by long cement paths that snake to the four peaks of the mountain. Steep, slippery steps are carved directly into rock. Their proximity to 1,000 metre drops did not seem to rattle the cheery Chinese, of all shapes, sizes and ages. "We don't encourage foreigners to visit Huà Shan," a guide explains to me. "Too dangerous."
There are no hiking boots in sight, although everyone does wear thin white gloves to hold onto the cold, heavy iron chains that bracket the paths. Thousands of engraved locks are sealed to the chains, a legacy of rusted blessings through the decades.
When I left Xi'an that morning, it was hot and humid. I simply did not expect Mount Hua's 2,160m elevation to freeze the air, and dust its trees in snow. The higher I walk, the more my thin sweater is inappropriate to the challenge at hand. But I've come a long way, and the helpful signs in bad English direct me forward.
My destination, the Cliff Side Plank Path, sits 2,133 metres high and is located between the south and east peaks. After an hour of walking, heavy tourist traffic peters out to nothing. I exit a beautiful temple, walk around a boulder, and almost spew my pistachio snack right off a sheer rock face. The view is extraordinary, and the narrow path deadly. A sign indicates it will cost 30 RMB ($4.75) to continue. I hand over the cash, and receive a harness and set of caribiners. My hands are freezing, and in an act of compassion, the attendant takes off his thin white gloves and gives them to me. He likely thinks I'm an idiot way over my head, and rightly so.
Iron bars are hammered into a crevice, and I scale down them slowly. I'm not ready to test out the reliability of these caribiners. A few metres down, I reach the thin, cracked planks on the rock face. It matches the photo perfectly. Clipping onto the chain above, I shuffle along the wood, overwhelmed by the silence, the mountains, the beauty, the cold. A two-inch plank of wood is all that separates me from the void.
After a few minutes, I hear a fit of giggles from the crevice above. A half dozen Chinese students emerge, thrilled to find a foreigner on the path. We take some pictures together, and walk carefully to the end of the planks to find a small temple in a cave. I presume this is where one offers thanks for making it alive. To get back, I will have to once again brave the planks, but this time there are more Chinese students making their way from the other side. Detaching our safety harnesses, we squeeze past each other, vulnerable to balance, strong wind, creaky wood, and shattered nerves. Over the years, many people have fallen to their deaths, hence the introduction of the safety harnesses.
I return the gloves, stroll back along the cement trail, and buy some tea to warm my chilled bones. Is this the World's Most Dangerous Hike? No. Wherever that is, I hope it's not open to the general public. Yet there's fun to be had walking the planks atop Mount Hua, and tracking down the truth behind "gee-whiz" emails.
Mount Hua is a two-hour drive or three-hour bus from Xian, China's historical city. It is open daily to the public, year round. Entrance to the national park costs 100 RMB ($14), insurance is 5 RMB (75¢) extra. Bring thin gloves and warm clothing for the top. The trails are steep, slippery, and not for the physically timid.