Tuesday, July 13, 2010

July 13th: Stairs and Survival

Hua Shan (Mount Hua in English) is one of the five sacred mountains of Taoism.  It has five peaks, with the south being the highest at 2160 meters. It is in the Qin Ling mountains, about 120 kilometers from the ancient city of Xi'an.  It is also famous for being the steepest mountain in China--the south face is a sheer rock cliff plunging 2000 meters.  The other sides aren't much better.  It also has a dangerous reputation: on one section, called the Soldier's Path, there are sections that are made up of three 2x4s nailed together and attached to the side of a sheer cliff.  There is a chain to hold on to, but no rails of any sort.  You slip, and you will die.  Another section, the 1000 foot precipice, involved one long steep staircase--if that doesn't give you a heart attack, I don't know what will.  And the old Chinese tradition (that fortunately most people choose not to do today) is to climb it at night with flashlights, timing it so as to arrive at the peak in time for the sunrise. 

I was planning to go to Xi'an already, and I love mountains, so when I heard that it was within a reachable distance, I decided I had to see it.  On July 13th, I set out.  I left everything nonessential to hiking at the hostel in the city.  I carried my faithful backpack--I've drug it around the world for five, no, six years, and it's never let me down. I knew it would be better for hiking than my smaller day bag, because I could strap it to myself and it wouldn't swing around or hang unevenly.  I caught a bus from the Xi'an train station.  I had hoped for good weather, but it was gray and cloudy when we left.

After a couple hours of driving, we finally arrived at the small town at the edge of the mountains.  I bought my tickets from the visitors center and got on the bus heading to the base of the mountain.  Still it was cloudy and hazy, and I feared that the views wouldn't be worth all the time to get there.  However, as the bus wound into the mountains, the clouds began to clear and the sun shone brilliantly through patches of blue.  As we rounded the first hill, we passed a rocky mountain spring sparkling in the sunlight, and then the windows were filled with a wall of rocky cliffs, soaring above us higher and higher.  I couldn't help but have a huge smile on my face--mountains bring me so much joy.  I tried to snap a few pictures out the window.

Finally we wound our way to the base where the cable car was located.  Now, I know I'm no athlete.  I knew I was in no shape to climb this mountain, but I had to see it for myself.  I didn't take the soldier's path--I'm not crazy, after all.  Most people don't, these days; it's just not worth the risk.  So, I took the cable car up to near the north peak. 

However, the north peak is the lowest of the peaks, and is isolated at one end of the mountain.  My goal for the day was the reach the east peak by dark, which meant crossing the mountain while winding higher and higher.  I thought by taking the cable car up that I would avoid the worst of the trail.  I suppose I had, but it was still a hard and long climb. 

I suppose it was a good thing that when I set out, I had only a hazy idea of how far I had to go.  If I had realized, there are some times I might have decided to turn back.  One thing in my favor was that I wasn't in too big of a hurry--my only deadline was to get to the peak before dark.  It was a little after three when I got to the top of the cable car, so I had a few hours.  So, I set off.  Quite a few stairs to the next viewing platform, but then I could rest there and take pictures along with the hordes of Chinese tourists.  Then quite a few stairs on to the next, and the next, and the next, and then the way stations grew further and further apart.  At about the point where I started to get tired, I passed another foreigner heading the opposite direction.  "Keep going!" he encouraged me. I asked him how much further it was, and he said probably another couple of hours.  Goodness, I was already getting tired.  It's a good thing I didn't know then that I had really only come about a quarter of the way. 

At that point, there was a choice of paths.  There was the shorter but steeper (one long stairway), or the longer but not quite so steep.  I went for the longer, hoping for places to stop and rest along the way.  Stairway after stairway after stairway.  I would push myself up one and then stop and breathe.  I took plenty of pictures just for the excuse to stop.  Luckily, the further I went, the less crowded it was.  I just kept telling myself--just make it up this one and then you can rest.  Just make it up this one...just make it up this one...
I finally reached a point where I started wondering if I could really do this.  I was so tired, my leg muscles were burning.  I'm just not in good enough shape to keep going.  And I know there's still a good ways to go (I thought I was further along, but I was only a bit over half at this point).  Should I turn back?  I've come too far to turn around now.  So, as I've done before when I have gotten myself into one of these situations, I began to pray as I walked.  "I can't do this.  I don't have any strength left.  If I'm going to make it up this mountain, I'm going to have to use YOUR strength."  I kept praying as I took the next staircase and the next: it's not my strength, but yours.  And it seemed to help--I made it up another and another.  Now, after that burst of sunlight when I first arrived in the mountains, it had clouded over again and been cloudy all afternoon.  But now the sun broke through just a bit, lighting up the mountains and giving a soft glow through the trees.  I wanted to reach that sunlight.  I began praying, giving thanks to God for that sunlight that was encouragement to me to remind me of the beauty ahead if I could just keep going.  Not long after I began praying, I felt like I got a second wind.  Yes, it still hurt, but I could do a few more.  And the views only got better the higher I got. 

As I got closer and closer to the peak, the path leveled out a bit and ran through some peaceful wooded areas.  I was praising God in my mind for these, such a beautiful rest from the stairs.  And then there was one final challenge of my faith and of my strength: I came to a part of the trail where, to get to the East peak, you have to climb a vertical section of cliff.  It's probably about one hundred feet tall, maybe a bit more.  There are two ways: one, toe holds carved into the rock, with a chain to help pull yourself up.  The other, a ladder of sorts against the cliff, with handrails, but still higher and further than any ladder I've ever climbed.  I took the second choice; I know I don't have the upper arm strength for the first.  Still, this was not something for someone afraid of heights (good thing I'm not); but, I am human, and I do have the normal fear of falling.  And I was so tired already--my legs already were a bit rubbery--what if I slipped? What if I couldn't go on in the middle?  Standing around considering it wouldn't help.  After I gave a last incredulous look at the park employee who was grinning at the climbers' expressions upon seeing their latest obstacle, I strode over and started climbed.  Just hold on tight to the handrails, take one step at a time.  Don't look down, don't look up to see how far to go.  Just keep a tight hold, go one step higher.  One step higher.  And finally I made it to the top.  There was still a tricky section of letting go of the ladder and reaching out for the toe holds and chain for the last twenty feet or so of not-quite-vertical but steep enough you couldn't stand up part.  But I had to keep going. 

After that, I knew I would make it.  I was tired yes, the stairs still hurt, but I could do it.  I was almost there.  Every stair case I thought, this could be it, this could be it.  And finally I was there.  And it was sunset--I had made it before dark.  I quickly checked into a hostel at the peak.  I was the only foreigner in my room; a couple of Chinese families took up the rest of the beds.  Oooh, meiguoren!  I heard as I was showed in.  Wow, and American in here with us!  It turned out to be a fairly rough place--no running water (but there was a big jug off hot water in each room to be used), and the beds were a thin pallet on top of hard wood bunks, so I didn't sleep too well.  Also, I wasn't quite sure what time I should get up.  The thing to do on the East peak is to get up before dawn and climb on top of the huge rock behind the  hostel to see the sunrise.  I woke up hourly through the night, trying to find a way to get comfortable.  I changed my alarm a few times.  Around four I woke up and listened to the wind outside.  It sounded like it was raining to me--maybe I should just turn the alarm off--there would be no sunrise to see in the rain.  But it turned out to be just the wind.  I needn't have worried about when to wake up--everyone else in the room knew.  The lights went on at 4:45.  I scrambled into warm clothes (cool at that elevation early in the morning, and a strong wind blowing): I had brought a sweater and a scarf.  I was one of the first to clamber up the rock (not as easy as it looked, and my muscles still not recovered from the day before) and I took my place at the rail. The wind was blowing hard in the first light.  Small clouds scudded by in a hurry.  I was afraid that clouds would obscure the sunrise, but each cloud banks was blown by so quickly that there was soon a clear view again.  Many of us huddled against the rail to see the beautiful light as the sky turned orange and the sun began to rise.  However difficult the climb had been, it was worth it.  I knew it would be, if I could only keep going. 

I was rewarded with a beautiful morning.  I got back on the trail by a little after six, and hiked on to the west peak (more beautiful views) before starting the trek back down the mountain.  This time it was down hill, but still my legs turned to rubber during the steepest section.  I wondered how in the world I had ever made it up the same trail the day before.  It was a long hard hike, but I made it.  My legs were sore for a few days afterward (today is the first day they aren't, actually--it's Saturday; the hike was Tuesday-Wednesday).  It was worth it all for the euphoria of reaching the summit, of knowing that I had done it.  I survived.

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