A climber stands on a narrow platform during a hiker up Hua Shan in China

A climber stands on a narrow platform during a hike up Hua Shan in China. (Photo: AdventurousHuman/Reddit/Imgur)

Hua Shan (Hua Mountain), in China's Shaanxi province, is one of the region's headline attractions thanks to its mountaintop temples, its resemblance to the peaks seen in the background of many classical Chinese landscape paintings and its unusual shape. The five summits, when viewed from a certain angle, resemble the petals of a flower. 

As one of the steepest mountains in Asia, Hua Shan would seem best appreciated from afar. But people have been scaling its nearly vertical cliffs for centuries. Taoists, who consider the mountain holy, erected temples and shrines at the base and on the slopes and summits.

Pilgrims and monks nailed wooden planks to the rock and carved out inches-wide walkways to make the perilous journey (slightly) easier. These little-used routes were reserved for people making the climb for religious reasons. It was too dangerous for others to even consider. But in the early 1980s, thrill-seekers — mostly Chinese university students — started to attempt ascents. 

A peak in Hua Shan

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The occasional fatal fall didn't dissuade new trekkers, most of whom lacked alpine skills, mountaineering experience and safety equipment of any sort. 

Despite the fatalities, some local authorities began to see tourism potential in Hua Shan. 

Paths were widened and chains and rails attached to the most precarious sections. New routes were developed in less-steep sections. The number of fatalities began to fall and the number of visitors to rise. An aerial tram network was added, making it easy to reach the North Peak, which boasts some of the best views, and the West Peak, the site of an ancient Taoist temple. 

The tallest of the summits, South Peak, sits at just over 7,000 feet above sea level. The narrow paths and nailed-on walkways can still be found on one of its ascent routes, but a sturdier path has been carved out of the stone, making it possible to reach the peak with much less risk to life and limb. 

A western summit in Hua Shan

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hua Shan is not as dangerous as it once was, but it still offers a high-altitude rush. A few of the most precarious routes are still open, though they have been re-enforced and safety rails and lines have been added. Most critically, the narrowest trails have been marked "one way." This might seem like a minor change, but it solved one of the most dangerous problems hikers encountered on Hua Shan. Many falls were caused by people ascending and descending at the same time on the same barely-there trail. When they crossed paths, someone had to step out over the abyss to let the other by. 

Even the newest trails are still very steep and climbing in winter, when snow and ice are present, can pose a serious challenge. Adding an extra layer of difficulty is the tradition of setting out in the middle of the night. Climbers do it mainly to view the stunning sunrise, though some appreciate being spared the sight of the sheer, terror-inducing drops. 

Hua Shan is located near the historic city if Xian (home of the famous Terra Cotta Warriors). The mountain can be reached by bus in about two hours. Costs include entrance fees and tram tickets.

Related on MNN:

MNN tease photo: mararie/Flickr