"...near-vertical staircases..."

Aching from the days previous, Adrian and I dragged ourselves out of bed early that morning to meet Moe and attempt the feat we had come to Xi’an to accomplish – climbing the mountain known as Huashan.

A long walk, a bullet train ride and a bus journey later, we found ourselves at the foot of the monolith. My knowledge of Huashan until that point had been hazy and it wasn’t until we were standing before it that I realised how enormous this mountain actually was. At 2000 metres above sea level, the peak faded off into the distance, completely towering over us. As I strained my neck upwards to see the mountain top, I realised I’d obviously had no idea what I was in for. And now I was supposed to climb this thing.

Moses, despite his old age, was sprightly as usual and bounded towards the steep incline that would eventually lead us to the top of this mountain. Adrian followed along, doing his best to keep up and I brought up the rear, reeling already from the knowledge of what I was about to endure. As it turns out, it was even harder than I thought. Resting every five minutes is, unfortunately, not a viable option on a climb like this and soon I was lagging behind severely. Adrian, taking pity on me and struggling to match Moses’ gait himself, slowed down with me as Moe carried on ahead without us.

Despite my body telling me otherwise, Adrian convinced me that I could tackle the feat at hand and we steadily made our way up the ever-steepening path. Catching up with Moe briefly, we shared noodle soup and watermelon before Moe powered onwards once again and Adrian and I enjoyed a few more moments of blissful rest before we resolved to keep going. Pushing myself upwards was difficult but I was looking forward to the famed Huashan Plank Walk – a treacherous climb edging along a cliff face overlooking the valley below. This thin path suspended in the sky was the proverbial carrot and I happened to be the donkey, and so on we pressed.

The guide book describes the ascent as a two to five hour climb, depending on your fitness level. Adrian and I were steadily falling into the latter of those estimates, indicating our fitness level is perhaps not quite up to scratch for a couple of twenty-somethings. After four hours of climbing near-vertical staircases, traversing steep slopes, lots of heavy breathing and numerous snack breaks, we finally made it to the North Peak. Unfortunately, we were aiming for the East Peak and had managed to miss a turn-off somewhere along the way. Instead, we had taken one of the more challenging routes and ended up in the wrong place via two very steep and narrow staircases.

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Realising our error to much disdain, we headed back down the other side of the ridge and aimed for the East Peak where we’d agreed to meet Moses. Every time we came across a map, we checked eagerly to see how much ground we’d covered. And every time we were disappointed. The trail to the East Peak was long – much longer than we’d thought and the trek was beginning to really take its toll. Willing our fatiguing muscles not to fail, we urged ourselves and each other on (Adrian admittedly doing more urging and me doing more fatiguing). In an attempt to bolster my spirits I asked some passing hikers how long it was to the East Peak. They told us it was only an hour away but that we’d need to make it back to the North Peak in time for the last cable car at 7pm. Apparently the West Peak cable cars were closed for maintenance. Our plan until then had been to reach the East Peak, explore some of the surrounding features, do the plank walk and then head towards the West Peak to catch the cable car down by the time they stopped running at 7pm. In an instant our plans were thwarted and our remaining hours thrown into disarray.

This newly gathered information effectively hit the panic button as we realised we needed to reach Moe in time to turn around again and catch the last car down. Unable to get through by phone, we put every ounce effort we had into rushing towards the East Peak. Our muscles were burning, sweat dripping from every inch of us; pushing ourselves up every next step was agony. And then, my phone rang. Alerting Moe to the cable car situation we agreed to instead meet at the North Peak by 7pm, thus buying us some time. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and we had to decide what to do with the remaining hours. With some inexplicable supply of renewed energy, we resolved to do the plank walk, if we could get there in time.

I have no idea how we did it but we walked, ran, stumbled, and limped our way towards the plank walk. Feeling dizzy from the physical exertion, we climbed, panting, up the last set of stairs and found ourselves on a narrow path overlooking the valley below and the Southern Peak of Huashan opposite. We had just enough time to traverse the plank walk before we had to turn back towards the cable cars.

Approaching the gate, we waited eagerly for the attendants to hand us our harnesses and usher us through to the long-awaited carrot on the other side. When we were ignored, I gestured towards the path, indicating our intentions. Without so much as a glance in our direction the gate was slammed shut with a decisive, “No”, and we were left staring at a sign that, presumably, read “Closed” in Chinese.

Absolutely crestfallen, our hopes of adventure shattered, Adrian and I cursed the attendant who, we decided, must have closed early, and sullenly turned back towards the path. By this time it was approaching 5:30 and we knew we didn’t have much time on our hands. Determined not to let the rejection ruin the moment though, we took a few minutes to appreciate the view. Regardless of whether or not we were dangling over it, the valley below and the mountains opposite were breathtaking. And the CCTV camera perched atop the cliff face was a charming addition to the scenery. Trying our best to laugh it off, we watched sparrows wheeling around the sky, and breathed in the thin mountain air, taking in our last glimpses of the view from up there.

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And then, it was back to it. Going downhill was certainly quicker but it presented new physical challenges. Our legs turned to jelly quickly as we rushed down thousands of stone steps towards the North Peak in a bid to catch the last cable car home. Not wanting to spend the night sleeping on the mountain, we rushed onwards, our legs threatening to collapse at any moment. We picked up Moses along the way who inexplicably had reached the Plank Walk in time and then turned out ‘not to be bothered’. I held aside my incredulity to focus on staying upright for as long as it took to make it to the North Peak.

Finally, off in the distance, we saw the shining boxes hoisted through the sky via steel cables and happily made our way towards them. Collapsing into the cable car and knowing that was the end of the climb was sheer relief. Our feet were blistered, our joints ached and our muscles were cramped and fatigued. But we had made it. I had been so doubtful that morning that I could reach the peak that I’d peered up at from the ground, but I had done it. Sore all over, I climbed into the bus back to Xi’an and spent the rest of the night beaming and thinking of what else might be possible.


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