His left hand clutching rock, a foot searching for purchase on an icy plank below, writer and TV host Robin Esrock looked down from his precipitous position on China’s Mount Huashan. A spiraling fall, hundreds of feet to a canyon floor, would be the result of any misstep. “This is the moment where I’ve officially lost my mind,” he said, recording his adventure with a handheld camera.
The Mount Huashan trail, popular with domestic tourists, trudges up steep staircases cut into rock. It climbs ladders bolted into stone. Eventually, it becomes a dicey balancing act where hikers traverse a vertical face on wooden planks fastened to a sheer cliff wall. Esrock hiked and ascended for hours to complete the route and reach a temple at the peak.
Risking your life to go for a hike may seem extreme. But around the world, thousands of travelers boot up and take a gamble for a walk in a magical place like Mount Huashan. These hikes, though frightening, are accessible to almost anyone in moderate physical shape.
A good example is the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, an 11-mile route along the island’s remote Na Pali Coast that is among the most paradisiacal paths on earth. Green walls rise 4,000 feet from the ocean waves, but loose rock, cliff falls, and flash floods are dangers on the winding tropical trip. Fit hikers complete the Kalalau Trail in a long day. Backpackers camp halfway through.
The trail itself is not the only danger. A couple miles into the Kalalau hike you’ll find Hanakapiai Beach, an epic and remote strip of sand below Kauai’s cliffs. Powerful riptides can carry swimmers away, and the beach has been the unfortunate site of many drownings. Despite the dangers, the trail is safely traversed by thousands of hikers each year.
In Canada, another infamous trail follows Pacific Ocean waters on a remote stretch of Vancouver Island. The 48-mile West Coast Trail was built decades back as a route to rescue shipwreck victims. Today, the WCT is within the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Along the rugged route, animals haunt many hikers’ fears. Three potential man-eating beasts—bears, wolves, and cougars—lurk in the thick woods along the path. But you’re more likely to twist an ankle than encounter a wolf. Terrain on the WCT is notoriously harsh. Muddy trails, hand-over-hand ascents, and wooden ladders positioned for passage up vertical valley walls offer multiple venues to tempt fate and test Murphy’s Law.
In China, on Mount Huashan, Robin Esrock knew he was tempting the gods. He hiked and climbed on the edge for hours. At the end of his self-filmed production, Esrock kneeled at a temple on the peak and uttered a quiet prayer. “Thank you for letting me survive that,” he whispers, a soft voice trailing as the wind picked up.