Is it REALLY the world’s most dangerous hike?
The short answer: No, not these days. Certainly not with a bit of caution and common sense.
The really dangerous sections of this hike are completely optional. Safety has been improved on the *ferrata sections (again, mostly optional) in recent years and I think it’s time we shook of this mountains bad reputation!
*NOTE – A ferrata is a mountain route equipped with fixtures such as ladders, cables and wooden walkways etc. so that inexperienced climbers or hikers can get to awesome places with no knowledge of the climbing techniques that are usually required.
Mt Huashan is located in the Shaanxi province in China. If you are visiting Xi’An (most likely to see the Terracotta Warriers), then it’s easily accessible by a 45 minute bullet train ride from there.
With an altitude of 2,160 metres, it is considered to be one of China’s five holy mountains. It is well known for its Taoist temples and five peaks of East, South, West, North (Cloud Terrace Peak) and Middle Peak (Jade Lady Peak). Hiking to each of these peaks is a memorable experience.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Mount Hua Shan is not a remote walk on a dirt path with switch backs up the mountain. The path is man made and brutally steep in spots. If you visit in peak season, it will be over-run with local tourists.
There are little huts and temples dotted at the peaks and also along the mountain ridges. An abundance of persistent stray cats seem to have found their way up here and should you wish to multi-day hike, there is very basic accommodation available.
I have awarded one of the toilets on this mountain with the prestige reward of being the grossest toilets I have ever experienced. The lucky runner up belongs to a crowded train in Vietnam. The best technique is to hold your breath, get in there and do your business and get out quick.
WHY WE SHOULD SHAKE THIS MOUNTAINS BAD REPUTATION
You may have seen articles on the internet with headlines such as “world’s most dangerous hike“. The headline is usually accompanied by images of foreign thrill seekers and young Chinese people edging their way across a vertical cliff face on a few questionable looking planks of wood, hammered into the side of the mountain.
These headlines are fairly misleading. What they don’t mention, is that these dangerous sections are completely optional. In fact, you can even take a cable car up this mountain and hike to the various peaks from there in relative safety.
GETTING TO NORTH PEAK
If you choose to hike to North Peak, it will take a grueling 2 to 5 hours, depending on your fitness level. You are basically climbing stairs from the foot of the mountain up to North Peak at 1,614 metres and you will be pulling yourself up by chains in some sections. I visited Mount Huashan in Winter, and whilst this meant no crowds, it also meant this section of the hike was closed due to snow on this particular day. As mentioned above, there is a cable car that bypasses this section and deposits you just below North Peak.
Whilst it’s disappointing not to have attempted this section of the hike, after seeing the path as viewed from the cable car, I think it was for the best. I don’t think my legs would have managed the hike to the other four peaks after doing this steep climb. I was also worried that if someone above me fell, that we would all topple down the mountain like dominoes.
NORTH PEAK TO CENTRAL PEAK
This walk sees you descend a little and then climb back up a spine-like ridge. There are great views of North Peak if you turn around and look behind you. Central Peak doesn’t really feel like a peak, it’s kind of a flat section with a lovely temple.
CENTRAL PEAK TO EAST PEAK
Chinese tourists often start out in the dark to ensure they reach East Peak by sunrise. There is a viewing area and a guest house you can stay in over night. East Peak has a beautiful chess pavilion that needs to be seen to be believed. You will need to lower yourself down a risky looking ferrata section to get to it. These days, you can hire a safety cable to clip yourself in as you are going backwards down the vertical cliff ladder to reach it.
Unfortunately, this section was closed due to snow when I reached East Peak so I had to be content with admiring it from afar. This is also where I experienced the grossest toilet ever. One of the hazards of travelling that you laugh about afterwards.
EAST PEAK TO SOUTH PEAK (and the PLANK WALK)
This is the path that gives Mt Huashan its bad reputation of world’s most dangerous hike. Please remember, the plank walk is entirely optional and you don’t have to traverse it to reach all five peaks. In fact; you have to go out of your way to experience this thrill and then come back across it to get back on path. There is a fee to walk the plank.
I’m sure in previous years this plank walk probably deserved its reputation, especially in peak periods where you basically have to hang off the side of the vertical cliff face with only one foot on the plank to pass someone returning. These days there is a safety cable that you can hook yourself onto. Providing the safety line and footing holds up, I don’t see why this can’t be crossed reasonably safely with common sense.
This plank walk was also closed due to snow on the mountains when I visited. If you don’t want to experience the plank walk, just follow the signs to South Peak. This is the highest peak so make sure to take some photos at the top!
SOUTH PEAK TO WEST PEAK
You will need to descend slightly again and walk along another spine type ridge to reach West Peak. There is a coffee shop, temple and a guest house here. If your legs have had enough, you can take a cable car back down the mountain from here or you can loop back around to North Peak where you started.
Of course, you don’t have to follow this exact route. You can start your journey at West Peak after taking the cable car up. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the West Peak cable car. I have been told it’s really memorable as when you are going back down, the journey starts in a mountain tunnel which means you emerge out the other side dangling very high up in the sky.
This mountain hike is absolutely memorable even without hiking the more riskier sections. It can be achieved with no specialised equipment, a reasonable level of fitness and a decent amount of determination.
I’m certainly not saying that hiking up a mountain is safe. However due to the fact that the path is man-made, the ground is hard underfoot, there is handrail for the majority of the walk and the ‘dangerous’ ferrata sections are mostly optional. I certainly don’t think Mt Huashan deserves the title of world’s most dangerous hike.
It’s hard to get accurate statistics on the amount of lives that the mountain claims annualy. Most articles refer to a figure of ‘over 100 lives a year’ but I am yet to find anything official.
What I do know, is that I felt completely safe doing the sections that I completed and that I witnessed other visitors doing things that I would consider dangerous. This includes but is not limited too; hiking in small heels and ignoring signs warning that a route is currently closed.
Would it be less dangerous if people used more common sense? I suspect so.
Here are some ways to reduce risk when hiking Mt Huashan:
- Take the cable car up. Even if you are fit enough for the grueling climb, if someone above you fell; I’m pretty sure it would be like a dominoes falling off the mountain.
- Don’t do the ferrata sections. You can still see a lot of great views and experience the beauty of the mountain without traversing these particular paths.
- If you do choose to do the ferrata sections, fork out the small amount of money for the safety cable
- Don’t do the hike in peak season. I went in January when there was still snow on the mountains. Due to the cold, whilst there were most definitely other hikers on the mountain, there was absolutely no squeezing past anybody.
- Don’t over-estimate your fitness levels. Make sure your body is up for long sets of steep stairs and that you can hold your own body weight for the riskier sections. You don’t need to be an athlete, I am certainly not! However, the hike is very up and down and there are some sections where you will pull yourself up a vertical wall using chains and grooves cut into the side of the mountain for your feet.
- Don’t do stupid things on the mountain like hike in heels, even low ones. Hiking the less risky paths will still provide you with Instagram worthy images.
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