In certain areas, the staircases are actually quite dangerous. Only wide enough for single file hiking, iron chains stood as railings for the steepest sections. Some of the steps were only 6 inches wide, promising a quick fall to the bottom if someone up above slipped. The steepest sections felt more like climbing a ladder, where the incline increased to 70 degrees, where the previous person’s head would be pushing upwards against your butt. Zero stopping allowed.
The old staircase on the right speaks to a much more difficult climb
This older lady didn't make it all the way to top, but enjoyed the hike anyway
Around 12:30 am, I arrived at 北峰 (North Summit), slightly ahead of schedule. And it was a mad house. The cable car arrives at this summit, and there are two hostels situated in the area as well. As such, it becomes a natural staging area for people to continue towards the 东峰 (East Summit) to watch the sunrise. People eating late-night dinners, people yelling loudly to find friends they lost along the way, people napping on the granite benches everywhere, the scene was one of total chaos. Figuring that I would wait out the crowds slowly making their way up, I sat down on a bench and slept. Feeling cold, I sat up after an hour to put on a sweatshirt. The moment I sat up, someone lay down right beside me, taking my sleeping spot. I glared a thousand daggers at her, but she had already shut her eyes, pretending that I wasn’t there. I did my best to get some rest sitting upright, pretending that it was as comfortable as lying down. By 3 am, most of the crowds had already left to continue upwards, and I finally started my own journey towards the top.
I slept like this guy until someone took my spot
At 5 am, I reached the 金琐关 (Golden Locks), the intersection from which you head off to either the Western, Eastern, or Southern summits. Along the chain railings lining the path, there are thousands of golden-colored brass padlocks attached, each with a long red ribbon. The locks and ribbons are inscribed with blessings; the belief is that if the padlocks and ribbons are left on the top of 华山, the blessings will come true. The fact that you can buy them on the summit doesn’t make a difference. At 20 RMB (3.50 USD) for the smallest padlock up to 100 RMB (17 USD) for the largest, the vendors are obviously doing a roaring business.
金琐关 - Golden Locks
Heading towards the 东峰 (East Summit), the fringes of the crowd gathered there began to come into view. Hundreds of tourists had begun to stumble out of their hotel dorm rooms, or had joined me in the long crawl from the base nearly 3000 feet below. People were jostling for the best position at which to see the sun rise, while trying to avoid being blocked by the sea of black-haired heads. Rather than join the fray, I came to the conclusion that the best way to see the summit at sunrise is actually to stand below the summit. That way, I can take pictures of both the sun rising and the 东峰 as the morning glow hits the granite walls. I meandered back down to the 金琐关, where nearly no one was.
I sat down on the steps, looked out to the east, and stared in awe as the sky changed its colors from a deep pink, glowing orange, fiery red, and finally to a beautiful blue. Latecomers continued to hustle towards the proper summit, oblivious to the show that was happening along the horizon. At that moment, I forgot the hunger in my stomach, the thirst in my throat, and all the troubles that I encountered along the way. The majesty of God’s creation will always leave me breathless. I took as many pictures as I could, trying to cement the memory, though photographs will never do the experience justice.
东峰 - Eastern Summit
Sunrise over the horizon
A glow of color
After a good hour, I began to head back down, anxious to continue avoiding the crowds. I needn’t have worried, nearly all of them lined up to take the cable car down, leaving me to hike down in peace. I later heard that the line stretched back in the hundreds, with many people waiting over an hour to spend 80 RMB (14.50 USD) for the quick ride down.
Somehow hiked that ridge on the left with 500 other people
The hike down was much easier than going up, and was actually quite pleasant. I passed many people sleeping off the trail, collapsed on the ground, too tired to make it up to the summit the previous night. The sounds of the cicada was deafening, and spoke to the life that the mountain held. I enjoyed all the views that weren’t available in the dark, and looked in awe at the sheer staircases that looked so much steeper in the light.
Too tired to continue
Cicada - the most obnoxioius insect ever
华山 is made of the most incredible granite; golden medium-sized crystals had perfect texture, and just begged to be climbed. Some of the boulders that I passed on the hike down rivaled the Cacodemon boulder of Squamish in size, and boasted features unique as those found in Hueco Tanks. The cracks in the mountainside held obvious lines up towards the summit, even though they were quite dirty with vegetation. 杨老师 of the 西安 rock climbing gym said he’s climbed the mountain in a 6-day push before, and that the rock is really stellar. Unfortunately, the Chinese seem to be more interested in developing money-making hotels and selling Red Bull than investing in the natural resources right under their feet. I would love to make a multi-pitch ascent of 华山 some day, but imagining reaching the summit after 6 days only to be greeted by a tourist fresh out of his hotel room left a sour taste in my mouth. As such, next to zero development has been done on the mountain, other than the one multi-pitch route to the top, and a smattering of shorter lines.
Oh really? I didn't know there was stone here
On the way down, I passed a few temples and abandoned homes, speaking to the Taoists that used to frequent the mountain in search of enlightenment. I also saw these porters, carrying loads of watermelon, Red Bull, and other foodstuffs and souvenirs up the trail. Speaking to an older gentleman who must have been at least 60 years old, I learned that they each earn 60 RMB a day, working for 8 hours. The accessibility to 华山 stems from the back-breaking work that these men endure every day.
These men carry goods all day
While this man cleans up garbage
Finally reaching the base of the mountain at 8:30 am, I looked back up at the summit, and marveled at the fact that I had thought it was a good idea to go up and down 3000 feet in just 7 hours of hiking. But the beauty and majesty of 华山demanded it. Even with all its quirks and misgivings, the adultery it suffers at the hands of tourists, and the broken backs of men who made it the way it is today, 华山 stands with pride. When society crumbles, hotels fall into disrepair, and vendors abandon their wares, the mountain will remain the same. I hope some day that 华山 can return to its natural state: wild and free. Only then can it have peace, the same peace that I found on its summit.
Cooling off after the hike
Back at the trailhead
He who climbs 华山 will forever have peace
Note: Once again, all photos and more can be found on my Flickr stream.