Walking the Plank Road in the Sky: A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

The most amazing view in the world on the Plank Road in the sky

Think of something you fear.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

Conjure up the images, sounds and smells that accompany that fear.

Did you hands start to sweat? Or your stomach turn flips?

That's how I felt whenever I thought about doing the Plank Road in the sky on a mountain called Huashan in China.

Now that we are on the same page,

What is the Plank Road in the Sky?

Picture a two foot wide plank of wood stitched together with huge, but rusty, nails suspended 1,000 meters above a craggy mountain rangeThe 60 meter long Plank Road in the Sky, located on the South Peak of Huashan (near Xian, China), is a major draw on the backpacking circuit. 

It is an attraction akin to the Death Road in Bolivia - a borderline right of passage for those that make a trip to the respective areas. 

The mountain itself is no slouch. It is one of the five sacred mountains of China and is considered one of the most beautiful mountains in all of China.

Just look at the sunrise from the South Peak (The sunrise from a Sacred Mountain is kind of a big deal to the Chinese).

Lessons on fear climbing Huashan in China

So I knew I had to hike Huashan. I just had to.

What I didn't know was whether or not I would be able to do the optional Plank Road section while I was there. 

In the months and days leading up to the hike, I went back and forth in my mind about whether I could do it.

Some people may find the Plank Road nothing more than an elevated stroll with a beautiful view. 

Let me be clear - I hate these people and their ability to baulk at heights.

So I tried to reason with myself in order to bolster my confidence - "you'll have a harness, nothing bad can happen", or "If kids can do this (which they do), so can you".

Unfortunately, it's really hard to reason with fear.

Rationally attacking fear that borders on phobia does little to alleviate it. Try telling a person that is afraid of snakes that he should hold your harmless family pet python and see his face drain white.

To make matters worse, hiking the mountain itself is often branded (I think misleadingly) as the "World's most dangerous hike". Everywhere on the internet, people were saying how dangerous the mountain is.

Which brings me to my next point.

Lessons in Fear on hiking Huashan and the Plank Road in the Sky

The internet is the worst place to alleviate fears.

(Pause for ironic recognition that I am writing a post on the internet which I hope will help people deal with their own fear.)

Ok, lets continue.

It doesn't matter if it's a fear about hiking a mountain or about a red rash on your lower back (I should really get that checked out), the internet is mostly doom and gloom.

Fast Forward to the day of the hike.

While ascending, I met two Englishmen who were on their way back down. After a second or two of chit chat, I asked them whether they walked the Plank Road. 

One of the friends had supposedly "Chickened out". Or so his buddy had said.

In response, the affronted friend told me "No way. It's just the line was really long and you have to pay 30 Yuan. It just didn't seem worth it to me".

Which taught me, 

Don't seek advice from people who haven't done what you want to do.

They just give you excuses on why you don't have to do it.

Whether or not he was making an excuse for himself, didn't really matter. He had provided one for me. If I couldn't do it, I could always say that the line was too long. I mean, I am here to hike Huashan and not spend all day waiting to walk the Plank Road!? Or so I told myself. Which taught me.

On top of the North Peak of Huashan

Excuses can obscure your goal.

If they are strong enough, they can reroute it completely. I almost began to believe the Plank Road was not a major reason, if not the reason, for coming to Huashan. Of course it was, but the excuse was a tempting way to diffuse my fear by saying that my goal was never a goal in the first place.

Gain confidence by doing something small.

Just before I arrived at the plank road, I stumbled upon "Sparrow Hawk Flipping Over", a twisting and turning decent on the side of a mountain. 

Long ago, holes were dug by industrious trailblazers in the side of a cliff face, allowing one to descend 30 meters while hugging the rock face to a Chess pavilion below. The recent addition of chains and harness up'd the safety quotient. 

Before I arrived on the mountain, I knew nothing about Sparrow Hawk flipping over, but I decided to give it a go.

My knees wobbled and I may have farted a couple times on the way down, but I did it.

Sparrow Hawk flipping over hardest part

A challenge buddy who shares your fear may be exactly what's needed.

At the bottom of Sparrow Hawk, I met a fellow hiker that shared my aversion to death from falling off tall things. When we reached the Chess pavilion at the bottom of Sparrow Hawk, he told me that he too wanted to do the plank walk, but was afraid of it. 

What if we did it together?

As we walked to the entrance gate of the Plank Road, my new height-phobic comrade in arms levelled with me. He was having second thoughts of going through with it.

It was a strange thing. Instead of concentrating on my fear, I was now concentrating on the fact that we both needed to accomplish our goal. I started thinking more about ways to help motivate him and less and less about my own fear of heights. With that idea slowly taking root, we headed off to the trail head. 

The trail head to the Plank Road includes a small taoist temple...

just in case you need a quick spot of spiritual courage. After my new buddy lit some incense and bowed three times, we found the man with the harnesses and paid our 30 yuan rental fee. 

Instead of describing the steps and the view and how we both mustered courage, and all that jazz, let me just say this:  

How to overcome fears Plank Road in the Sky

The anticipatory fear of doing an act is often worse than the actual act of doing it.

I had thought about the plank road so often, that I had built it up into something that it wasn't. It had grown into something larger than reality, that lived only in my mind.

When I actually walked across the wood beams, and saw the people slightly afraid yet with these totally mischievous smiles, I didn't feel fear anymore. My hands weren't sweating, my mind wasn't racing. I was exhilarated, and there was that cliched, but ever so true, adrenaline rush, but fear wasn't there. 

On the plank road in the sky

Why not look down...

because fuck it. You've made it this far. 

The view was beautiful and I learned one final lesson in fear. Once you've conquered something that you were afraid to do, your confidence snowballs. Don't let that confidence go to waste.

Building on that success makes your ability to do things you didn't think possible a characteristic of yourself rather than just something you once did. For me, that means thinking of heights no longer gives me severe heart palpitations. 

So go ahead and drink your own kool-aid. Then take that confidence and do something with it. You'll be glad you did.

Overcoming fears on the plank road in the sky huashan


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Below, are a few of my favorite photos from that day. It should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect on the Plank Road in the Sky.

  • The beginning, harness on.
  • A via ferrata leads down.
  • Descending to the Plank Road.
  • Foot holes leading to the plank (looking back).
  • On the Plank Road.
  • The view is unforgettable.
  • My challenge buddy rocking it (looking back).
  • A little craziness on the route lightness the mood.
  • Locks are a sign of love and remembrance.
  • Stairs leading to,
  • Foot-holes cut into the mountain (looking back).
  • Finally, you reach a small temple and
  • this view. Turn around and do it again.

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