Hua Shan: The Most Dangerous Mountain in China

Bill Pfeffer climbs Hua Shan, a dangerous and picturesque mountain in China. Steep trails, slippery steps, and great heights make for an exhilarating trip.

look out
The entry to Dangerous Lookout on Hua Shan, China's 'Splendid Mountain.' Photo by Bill Pfeffer.

As the aluminum cable cars hummed into the platform, swiveled around and stopped, I held up two fingers, and pointed to my wife.

We hustled to the rocky car, as the young man smiled, nodded, and held open the door. I distributed my weight, while my wife did her best ostrich imitation by covering her head with a jacket and pretending to be somewhere else.

Jerking forward, we lurched off the platform and began the steep ascent. Startled by the vibration as we passed through the first tower, I scanned for metal debris in the gut-wrenching granite abyss.

Crossing myself, while mentally donating to Saint Christopher, I exhaled and kept reassuring thoughts that more people probably die on the mountain than the ride up.

Hua Shan, a two-hour bus ride from Xian, is one of five sacred Taoist mountains in China. Taoism is a 2,500 year-old spiritual practice whose way of life explores the relationship between the forceful yang and the passive yin. ‘Go with the flow’ is its mantra, one’s life a constant gyroscope between these contending forces.

It’s founder, Lao Tzu, allegedly lived and preached from these mountains in 500 BCE. Little is known of Honorable Tzu, and there is some question whether he even existed.

Nonetheless, on Hua Shan Mountain, I expected to see descendants of this teacher – contemplative holy men sitting cross-legged on rocks, pondering the universe and reconciling their place within it.

Hua Shan is reputed to be the most dangerous hiking mountain in China. Narrow trails, sheer drop-offs, marginal safety, and wet slippery conditions, all contribute to this dubious reputation. Therefore, we had to see for ourselves. Surely, such a reverent mountain would dare not endanger its worshipers. Besides, if it is so dangerous, why is it so popular?

Hua Shan village, the home base for any climb, nestles against the mountain, with several guesthouses sprinkled around the main intersection. Our guesthouse had a bathroom with a window that took up the entire wall.

The window both provided a panorama of Hua Shan Mountain and allowed anyone on the street below to intrude on our privacy. We laughed at the absurdity of it, and reminded ourselves not to use the light at night.

Both scenic and strenuous, a four-mile path (4-6 hours) to the top of Hua Shan Mountain begins at the Jade Fountain Temple in the village.

Alternatively, you can take a bus from the village to the cable car station for the mechanical ten-minute ascent. Many hikers embark at midnight to arrive at the peak for sunrise. Others, eager to catch the sunset, overnight at one of the dormitory style hostels on the mountain.

Hua Shan: The Most Dangerous Mountain in China