It was my brother Ethan’s idea.
He was getting married in Jinan, China, and Taishan, or Mt. Tai in English, was a quick bullet train ride away. “We’ll climb it a few days before the wedding,” he said. “We’ll be too hung-over after.” He meant he’d be too hung-over after, referring to the Chinese tradition of taking shot after shot of 105-proof spirits in honor of his many guests.
Rising over 5,000 feet, Taishan is one of the five sacred mountains of China and is associated with birth and renewal. In photos online, a red temple crests its peak with ancient stone steps cut into the rock curving up to it—all 6,660 of them. My cousin Rachel and I clicked through the photos trepidatiously while discussing it on the phone. To some, 5,000 feet is nothing. But to us, women who had not begun to develop physical confidence until our 30s, this would be the highest peak we’d ever climbed.
We were going at the end of July, the temperature a fire-breathing 95°F, the sticky humidity and stifling smog cranking it up even higher. Despite that, my brother told us to pack down coats for the mountain’s peak. We searched online for confirmation of his frigid proclamation, finding instead that the mountain’s lowest temperature was in the 50s. “That’s at the base,” my brother said. “I’m telling you, it will be cold up there.” So we packed long hiking pants, and zip-up fleece, and waterproof, wind-resistant shells, weighing down our backpacks and taking up precious luggage space needed for our bridesmaid gowns and gifts for our one night on the mountain.
Approximately two months before our trip, my brother tore the medial meniscus in his knee, requiring surgery. He thought he’d be recovered in time to hike the mountain with us, but one day in Beijing, wandering the expansive grounds of the Forbidden City, was enough to dissuade him of this notion. “You two should still go,” he told Rachel and me. “Jason will hike it with you.”
Nineteen and a philosophy student at prestigious Peking University, Jason, or Xiaokang as he’s known in Chinese, is the son of one of my brother’s old friends and practically fluent in English. Full of energy and excitement at sharing his culture and its history with us, and picking up the intricacies of our language in exchange, Jason generously agreed to act as our translator and guide.
When the day approached for us to climb Taishan, we woke early and headed to the Beijing train station. Ethan and Audrey, my future sister-in-law, immediately booked tickets to Jinan where they’d prepare for the wedding. But the earliest available seats for the train Rachel, Jason and I needed were at 6:00pm, nearly seven hours away.
“You’ll climb Taishan at night,” my brother exclaimed. “It’ll be so Chinese. Everyone climbs it at night to see the sunrise.”
“That’s how I climbed it,” Audrey, a native of Jinan who had climbed Taishan as a teenager, added.
Rachel and I stared at them dubiously. Jason and Ethan had worked hard to secure us a hotel reservation at Taishan’s peak, not an inexpensive or easy thing to acquire, but, “Everything I’ve read says it can take four to six hours to climb,” I protested.
My brother and Audrey waved that away. “It doesn’t take that long at all,” she said.
And so we were locked in to a night climb. “You’ll avoid the heat this way,” my brother added.
By the time we arrived at Tai’an, the city closest to Taishan, grabbed dinner, took a cab to the base of the mountain and queued up to pay our entry fee it was nearly half past nine. My brother and Audrey had been right about the Chinese hiking Taishan at night. The mountain was packed with people, and not just young people—entire families, from elderly grandmothers to toddlers, were gearing up to make a pilgrimage to the temple at the top. We stood out among the crowd, Westerners decked out in REI and EMS gear while everyone else wore street clothes, some climbing in as little as shorts and flip flops. We paused to buy bottled water and a small flashlight from a small stand. Hawkers like this lined the route, their brightly lit booths and sales cries giving the sense of stumbling across tiny villages, saving us from lugging food and water up the mountain.
While the sun had set, the humidity was as thick and wet as mid-day, the lights at the base quickly fading behind us as we started out. “I don’t know if I can do this,” Rachel grumbled, affected by the heat, the two of us dripping sweat after the first few steps, our packs, stuffed with the warm clothing Ethan had cautioned us we’d need, heavy on our backs. “You’ll be okay. You’ve hiked a ton this summer,” I replied, trying to keep a positive mindset, knowing from my time running marathons years ago that my thoughts could undermine my efforts more swiftly than any physical weakness.
And climbing 6,660 steps takes a mental toll. They stretched out endlessly before us, mild enough in grade at the bottom, but steep and treacherous near the top. These are old steps, cut in a different time, worn down and slick and not made for feet encased in size 11 hiking boots. Only the front half of my foot fit on most of them and I feared I’d slip and crack my knee open as I pushed upward. The steps could fit a good six to eight people across and while flanked by handrails and low stone walls, they weren’t always easy to reach. The higher we went, the more people surrounded us, and often we’d get stuck behind someone climbing slower than us, or we’d have to dodge around someone taking a breather, trying hard to contain our groans from the extra effort involved in moving toward the center of the stairs and then back out to the handrail.
Rachel’s knees were taking a beating from all those stairs and were screaming with pain at each step. We took frequent breaks to rest, Jason exceedingly patient with us. He could have booked up the mountain in one go, his young body primed for it, but I was grateful for the downtime. I had not trained enough and each break gave me a chance to recover, reducing the slow-building burn in my legs from the never-ending Stairmaster.
Two hours into the climb we reached the cable car station and it was clear we should take it to reach the top. It had always been our back-up option, our escape valve if things got too rough, and Rachel’s knee pain more than qualified. Stumbling across the wide, flat landing, we sighed with relief, until Jason, who had gone ahead to buy tickets, came back to tell us it had stopped running at sunset and wouldn’t start up again until morning.
“How much further to the top?” I asked, naively thinking it couldn’t be that far.
Jason unfolded his entry ticket, which had a map on the back, various points marked along the way in Chinese. He looked at it, looked up at the words chiseled into a wall near us, looked back at the map, tracing with his finger how far we’d come. “We’re halfway there,” he said. “We probably have another two hours.”
“No!” Rachel practically shouted. “I’ll spend the night here. I don’t care.”
She wasn’t the only one calling it quits. It was near midnight and others were renting long down coats from vendors, or wrapping themselves in tarps, or cuddling up in sleeping bags to camp out for the night. Jason and I exchanged a look, both of us thinking of the comfy hotel rooms waiting for us at the peak that we’d already laid out a hefty sum for on our bankcards.
“You can go on without me,” Rachel said. “I’ll meet you in the morning.”
But of course we couldn’t abandon her, in pain, speaking no Chinese and without a cell phone, to spend the night alone huddled in a puffy coat. We bought her a walking stick, and somehow, digging deep, she rallied, cursing my brother’s breezy confidence about the ease of the climb under her breath. It was this confidence that had gotten me in trouble a few times before—most notably on a double black diamond ski run when we were teens—and here I was again, sucked in by one of his pronouncements, climbing a Chinese mountain in the middle of the night with him nowhere in sight, having forgotten to take everything he said with a grain of salt, a phrase Rachel and I taught Jason to help pass the time.
Because time seemed to be slowing, each second stretching out before us. Unlike hiking in the daytime where spiraling higher and higher allots you more and more breathtaking views, providing payoff for the pain, we did not have the benefit of seeing the effects of our progress. We plunged on step-by-step, the heat oppressive, our clothes soaked with sweat and sticking to us as if we’d taken a swim in them, our heavy packs chafing. Mist crept slowly in, its tendrils wrapping around the mountain, gradually trimming back our field of vision till only the steps and a bit of the mountain on either side of them remained visible. As beautiful as the Buddhist and Taoist temples scattered along the path, and as awe-inspiring the carvings chiseled into the rocks, there was little to distract us from the pain of ascending that staircase, its grade slowly increasing till it felt nearly vertical.
There’s a breakdown that happens deep in my soul when I come up against my own limits, straining to push past exhaustion, a hollowing out that often brings me to the precipice of tears. I could feel it approaching as I told myself to climb just one more section and then, on reaching the topmost step and spying another long, steep section ascending onward into the obscuring mist, telling myself to climb just one section more. That’s how it went, on and on: a disheartening glance up, a push to climb thirty or more steps, a pause to rest and recover, a wavering question of doubt—Could I do this?—that had to be forcibly suppressed, and then, glancing up, steeling myself to climb again. Until, suddenly, a large red gate loomed out of the haze before us, double arched and rife with large Chinese characters, whoops of glee floating down from the people who had crossed through it. “This is it,” Jason said. “This is the top.” Rachel and I nearly collapsed with relief as we stepped through the gate’s welcoming arches.
But of course that wasn’t the end. The top of the mountain is not a steep pinnacle so much as a wide maze of stone walkways and yet more stairs. Hotels and shops surround the red temple I’d seen in photos and our hotel was a good twenty-minute walk away, luckily across relatively flat ground. The mist had thickened to fog, forming a dense stew we could barely see through, figures emerging from it and then vanishing like the dead in a ghost story. Jason pulled on a jacket, but Rachel and I didn’t want another piece of clothing touching us, too warm to need much of anything we’d stuffed in our packs; but others were bundled up in those long puffy coats, tucked in along the stone walls that surrounded the precipice, using them to break the wind as they waited for sunrise. It seemed a miserable way to spend the night, cold and wet in the creeping fog, and I was grateful when we finally reached our hotel, the security guard unlocking the doors to let us in.
Rachel and I stumbled into our room approximately four and a half hours after we started hiking. I gave Rachel first pass at the shower, well-earned after pushing through so much pain, and explored the room, surprised by the hotel’s prominent offering of condoms on the night stand—was climbing a sacred mountain a sexual rite of passage as well?—and huffing a quick bark of laughter at what I found in the closet. When Rachel re-emerged, happily clean of the sweat and grime of the trail, I dragged her over to it and slid back the door to reveal two down coats provided gratis by the hotel to keep guests warm come sunrise. All those layers we’d hauled up with us? We hadn’t needed them at all. The coats had always been there, waiting for us. We both lost it, the strain of the climb lifting as we giggled uncontrollably, falling over, exhausted, on our (somewhat) clean beds.
Ninety minutes after we’d fallen asleep, we were up again, determined to see the sunrise. The three of us ambled groggily down to the lobby, only to have the security guard shake his head, gesturing out the doors to the fog pressed against the glass, concealing everything beyond it. We stood there in stunned silence—really, we should have known, the fog had been coming in, not rolling out—and then burst out in curses and laughter before stumbling back to bed, grateful for more sleep.
The fog had lifted some by breakfast when we had to make our way back to the train. We could see a good ten feet, making out the people and buildings around us, but no further, the view from the peak hidden from us in the dense clouds. There was no way we were hiking down—we weren’t sure we had enough time, and going down is always worse on the knees then going up. Neither Rachel nor I wanted to tackle it. So we took the cable car, now in full operation during normal business hours, gliding through the fog until we suddenly pierced it and found ourselves bobbing high above a valley, a narrow river cutting through it. The view was lush and green and gorgeous with mountains rising high in the distance, giving us a sense of Taishan’s majesty enshrouded behind us in the morning mist.
At some point, Rachel and I will go back to Taishan. We’ll take a bus to the cable car, and the cable car to the top. We’ll watch sunset, and then sunrise—seeing that orange glow break across the horizon, revealing the world in all its sacred glory—before hiking our way down, completing a full loop of the mountain. It will be beautiful, and Instagram-worthy, but it won’t match the picture we can’t share, the one embedded deep within us, the view of our internal vista and its horizon and how it stretches wider and wider the more we test our beliefs and personal boundaries, achieving even greater summits of the soul.
If You Go
- Americans need a visa to visit China, which can be obtained, either in-person at a Chinese consulate or through a travel agency.
- Few people in China outside of the major cities speak English and web translators may or may not work. If you plan to travel without a guide, have someone write out all the addresses you’ll need to get around in Chinese to hand to cab and bus drivers.
- The Tai’an train station has lockers where you can store your luggage overnight for a fee. You can rent warm jackets on the mountain.
- Buses run regularly from the Tai’an train station to the base of Taishan. There is also a bus that runs to the cable car if you prefer to skip the climb.
- There is an entry fee for visiting the mountain.
- The hotels at the top of Taishan are expensive, hard to book and akin to a roadside motel in cleanliness. Sleeping wherever you can find a spot at the top of the mountain is routine for the Chinese and an inexpensive, if uncomfortable, option. If you go this route, bring warm clothes, a sleeping bag and a pad to cushion you.
- Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Ruth Gallogly is a writer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. Most weekends she can be found hiking trails in the Hudson Valley or Shawangunk range.