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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  • http://www.bohemiantravelers.com/ Mary

    Holy crap!! That is absolutely amazing! Mad props for facing your fear. I love to do that but not sure I could get past it for this.

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      Thanks Mary! I’m sure if you put your mind to it, you would do it :)

  • http://eurapart.com John Williams

    Hi Andrew, what sort of harness did you wear? It seems to be just around your chest? How extensive were the cables to fix a harness to?

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      Hi John, it was just around the chest. I think I annoyed the safety guy because I insisted he tighten the harness almost to the point I couldn’t breath (I had visions of me slipping through, but that was more anxiety than any real threat). The cables are quite extensive; there is never a point where you have to be unconnected to a safety line. The only tricky part can be when manoeuvring around people when the trail is full. You have to negotiate around, under or over people. Some people unclip totally to do this. I thought they were a bit stupid for doing that, but to each their own. I certainly stayed hooked in the ENTIRE time. As to the safety of the lines attached to the mountain, some people lean back and totally rely on the harness and the attached safety lines. I’ve seen many pictures of people doing this and the lines held them easily. I imagine the lines could absorb a fall if needed (still I would be reluctant to test that ;)) Attached, are two pictures from fellow backpackers I met while in Xian.

      • http://eurapart.com John Williams

        Chest harnesses aren’t the most effective. A Via Ferrata harness with two lanyards might well be a good purchase or hire for anyone wanting some more security on this route. It’s sad to see the waste of good locks in the photos.

        • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

          Great advice John! Thanks for that.

          p.s. As a side benefit, the lock industry is booming near sacred mountains.

  • http://www.visionology.net Wendy Krueger

    Great vertigo inducing photos (especially the last one). I actually have this walk on my bucket list but every time I see photos of this hike I am glad I am looking at them from the comfort of my home. I think it is less the height (although that is intimidating) than the ramshackle look of those planks and chains. Do they seem as suspect looking in person?

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to the boards (the adrenaline was pumping pretty good). At the very least, they felt sturdy enough that I didn’t take much notice of them. I do remember that some boards appeared newer than others, meaning that they do replace them (at least occasionally).

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      As for the chains, I do remember they were less rusty than I expected. So there’s that.

  • Katie Featherstone

    Great, honestly written article. This place looks incredible. There was a time when I didn’t have much interest in visiting China, but the travel blogging community keeps changing my mind! Well done for facing your fear. I’m scared of eels, not sure what to do about that one!

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      Katie, you must go to China. The culture, history and unreal landscapes make it a must visit.

      As for the eels, I think you should go eel fishing in New England! The Discovery Channel even has a show about it (actually not that surprising – it seems the discovery channel has a show for EVERYTHING now a days).

  • huetz

    Drew, how are you mate… Well done. I mean both, the article and the plank road… I’ve actually been to one of the sacred mountains. Taishan. Not that thrilling though. Hope you are well mate… hüsrev

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      Hey Hues! I was at Taishan too. Yea, for being the most sacred of the sacred mountains, I also found Taishan a bit disappointing. Great view though and the stairs to the top are pretty iconic. Huashan was my favorite out of all of them. Hope all is well in your neck of the woods as well…

      • huetz

        Yo Drew, I’ve been living in Tai’an for some time when I was a student…. I think I took the ~6000 stairs 2-3 times…

        Mate, let me know when you are targeting South-East Asia. Count me in for Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos…. Ideally at a time it is warm and cosy in that region and cold in Europe… ;) I would join you for about 2,5 weeks… You know, I`m still stuck in this corporate thing…

        Have you been to Qufu, hometown of Confucius? That’s the place I got the dragon painting.

        bon voyage bro…

        • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

          Sending you an email.

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  • Trevor Barre

    wow, excellent post and photos, well done

    Trevor Barre

    http://www.liveeachadventure.com/

    • Andrew Delmenhorst

      Thanks Trevor. Like the name of your blog!

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      Thanks Trevor. Love the name of your blog.

      • Trevor Barre

        thanks Andrew

    • NeutralDensity

      Stop advertising your shit. Whore.

      • Trevor Barre

        What! Did you just have a bad day or are you always so obnoxious!

        • NeutralDensity

          Fed up of idiots like you using other articles to just advertise your own shit.

          Pathetic.

          • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

            Leave Troll. Not wanted or needed.

          • NeutralDensity

            I want to sex you up…

          • NeutralDensity

            PS. Fuck you nosey cunt.

          • NeutralDensity

            Troll? TROLL? look at you using an Internet term. Big man.

  • http://travelwithkat.com Kathryn Burrington

    That looks a lot less then two foot wide in one of those photos! Don’t think I could do it – I go wobbly just looking down an escalator but dearly wish to visit China one day as my grandparents lived there and Dad was born there. I loved listening to my granmother’s tales of China.

    • http://www.PassportChronicles.com Andrew

      Maybe, you might be right… Butttt, just to be sure, I think I will need you to go measure it and report back. Sorry, there is no other way.

      • http://travelwithkat.com Kathryn Burrington

        Oh! An excellent reply, that I’m going to ignore (but it did make me chuckle).

  • KyleOlsen14

    I’m not sure that’s a fear I could overcome doing it that way, but it IS something I’ve read about before, and was told I couldn’t miss doing before I die… so by my weird reasoning, I’m going to parasail/hangglide, and skydive before attempting this one. I’m still not sure about zip lining. I think I need to get myself up so high that I can’t tell how high up I really am until I’m close enough to the ground that it’s too late, and it’s up to my chute and landing skills at that stage. I really want to say I’ve braved this, kudos to you for doing it.