Climbing China’s Yellow Mountain

The sharp pinnacles, twisted pines and omnipresent sea of clouds on the peaks of Huangshan were instantly familiar to me when I viewed them firsthand on a bright October morning.With its 1,200-year history as a tourist attraction and thousands of paintings and photographs shown around the world, the peaks of Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, is a renowned landmark located 200 miles southwest of Shanghai in a 60-square-mile national park.When a friend learned I was planning my second trip to China, he urged me to visit Huangshan. All Chinese, he said, hope to scale the sacred mountain at least once in a lifetime, and it was still his dream to do so.Steep gradient warning
My Lonely Planet guidebook warned: “The extremely steep gradients will turn even an experienced walker’s legs to jelly in six to seven hours.

It doesn’t take that long for my legs to quiver on flat land. Could my 68-year-old, slightly overweight body handle the rigours?

My guide, Victor, had been to Yellow Mountain twice before and agreed to accompany me on this trip. We boarded a bus bound for Tangkou and had one of the wildest ris I’ve ever experienced.

We should have suspected our driver was crazy. His head was shaved except for his bangs that were coloured blue, gelled and combed straight up off his forehead. He drove like a Grand Prix racer, playing chicken with other vehicles on the narrow country road.

Relieved to reach our destination unscathed, we hopped a taxi to the hot springs and the Peach Blossom Hotel. We spent the evening shopping for snacks and Chinese “white lightning” whisky for our two-day stay at the Huangshan summit, and exploring the crooked cobblestone lanes filled with tribal crafts, jade carvings and masks.

Foot massage preparation
Victor insisted that we indulge in a 90-minute foot massage to prepare us for our hike.

Your feet, the Chinese believe, are at the centre of your health. Points on your feet correspond to your internal organs and systems, and by applying pressure, you can bring your body and organs back into balance.

It is also said that if the pressure applied hurts, then the corresponding organ is in ill health. If that’s true, then every one of my internal organs is desperately sick.

After an hour and a half of torment, I went to bed and woke early the next morning resolved to test my mettle against a sacred mountain.

Hot springs to summit
Intrepid hikers climb all the way from the hot springs to the summit, but we chose to take the cable car to the base of the pinnacles.

Huangshan, a 72-peak range, is not especially high. Lotus Flower, the tallest monolith, is only 1,864 metres, low in comparison to the Sierra Nevada or Rocky mountain ranges.

But the pinnacles rising from the summit of Huangshan are sharp and the rock paths almost vertical with few level stretches, leaving some hikers breathless and with aching calves and thighs.

Next page: Descriptive peak names


Descriptive peak names
The names of the peaks are both colourful and descriptive: Beginning-to-Believe Peak, Far-Flying Rock, Bright Summit, Heavenly Lotus, Purple Cloud, Nine Dragons, Taoist Priest, Ox Nose, Hunchback, and Red Cloud, to name only a few.

Victor and I began our ascent at Beginning-to-Believe, and I was proud of myself for ascending the rocky stairs to four or five additional peaks without whining as well as viewing the precipitous depths of a multitude of canyons without giving free rein to my agoraphobia.

Ever since I watched my young sons clamber around the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite years before, I’ve had a fear of heights so intense that my stomach, groin and knees ache horribly when I approach any kind of precipice. I truly believe I will spin off into space.

No turning back
Once you’ve committed to exploring Huangshan, there’s no turning back.

I knew that the journey would be difficult, but I was determined to test myself and it would have been too embarrassing to quit.

All supplies are hauled up to the hotels on the backs of coolies. Their bodies, bent under the weight of baskets that dangle from bamboo poles resting on their shoulders, form a continuous line up the steep paths from Tangkou to the top.

One of these women stopped and asked Victor how old I was. She was the same age as me. She was carrying a load of laundry in her two baskets. I was carrying a camera.

stairway to heaven

Padlocks for lovers
Along the paths, vendors sell padlocks. Lovers lock the shiny brass bolts onto the guard railings and throw the key into the chasm to ensure that their love is “locked in” and that they will never separate.

Thousands of rusty padlocks, tributes to love, line the mountain paths. I was tempted to “lock” my guide to me and throw away the key: I had fallen in love with this tall, handsome 33-year-old Victor on my first trip to Beijing.

Extraordinary sunsets
Sunset on Yellow Mountain is extraordinary. There is no defined horizon other than a distant cloudbank. I’m used to watching the sun set into the Pacific Ocean where it disappears below the waterline.

On Yellow Mountain, the sun dips in front of the clouds and simply drops into a distant canyon.

That night, Victor and I danced and sang the night away in a disco and karaoke club at the Beihai Hotel. I was blissfully unaware of the tough climb ahead on our second day on Huangshan.

Next page: Observing the sunrise

Observing the sunrise
Ritual dictates that all Yellow Mountain travellers witness sunrise. Clad in down jackets provided by the hotel, we climbed to Lion Peak in freezing darkness. Hundreds of ghostly figures wandered around the peaks, looking for the perfect place to view the spectacle.

As the sky lightened about 6:15 a.m. and a speck of red appeared on the edge of a peak, the murmur of hundreds of voices rose, growing as the light washed over us. A ball of fire rose above the peaks and illuminated the sky.

I don’t think I have ever witnessed a more beautiful sight, with the rays of the sun bouncing off the peaks, colouring everything red, orange and yellow against the blue sky and fluffy white clouds. 

Walk in pine forest
After a breakfast of watery rice porridge (xîfan), hard-boiled eggs, dumplings, pickled vegetables, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers washed down with green tea, we took a ride on the Yangusi Temple cable car, which descended into a pine and bamboo forest so beautiful with its rushing stream and granite boulders it enticed us to explore.

The forest was filled with bright green foliage, wildflowers and dilapidated pagodas markings of some by-gone settlement. We found a depression in a rock wall where some forgotten artist had painted a life-sized Buddha in yellow and ochre robes.

After exploring we climbed back up the steep path to where the cable car waited to return us to the summit.

Reciting mantras helps
During the long difficult assents along hand-hewn rock paths, I found that reciting mantras helped. As I climbed, I would mutter “attitude, attitude” with each step.

On the steepest climbs, I used the Buddhist mantra, “Na me o ho ringay keho” (which, roughly translated, means “I trust in Buddha”).

The mantras distracted me from the pain in my legs and shortness of breath. I developed a pattern of taking 30 to 40 steps, then resting, until I reached the top of a pinnacle.

Stairways to heaven
For the next six hours, we ascended and descended what seemed like hundreds of stairways. Then came Heaven’s Ladder—which I dubbed Hell’s Ladder—with its narrow, harrowing, nearly vertical stone steps.

Then came the last peak before we reached the cable car. There were 240 steps—I counted them—to the top.

As I looked upward, I wanted to sit down and cry. I was sweating profusely in the hot sun. I’d developed a charley horse in my left leg. My stomach was in knots and I thought I would be sick.

But going back now would be far worse than going forward. My technique of uttering mantras and taking the climbs in sections worked again, and I gained the summit only to begin the steep descent for a mile and a half to the cable car, which would return us to the Peach Blossom Hotel.

Achieves enormous satisfaction
I am soft. I use elevators and cars, not stairs and bicycles, as the Chinese do. So, every pinnacle I conquered on Huangshan gave me enormous satisfaction. I was euphoric.

I felt confident, strong, capable, magnificent. My 68-year-old body was still functioning well, and I learned from Yellow Mountain that I can still do anything I set my mind to.

I just have to take it slower, that’s all. And chant a lot along the way.