Jiuhua Shan, Greater Tiantai Peak(天梯) : Terror on the Ice Step Slope

Trail Map

jiuhuashan elevation chart
Tiantai temple reflects the golden sunlight, framed by pine trees

Jiuhuashan (literally nine glorious mountains) is a temple complex unlike any other. At its centre is an enormous concrete square with a giant-sized gateway coloured emerald, ruby and cloaked in dragons. It's a sight to behold. Look around from here and you're encircled by the nine peaks Jiuhua mountain draws its name from. Shrines and temples are scattered across the hillside. Extravagant pagodas burst out of snow-topped pines. However, I couldn't see any of this when I set off at 3am for Tiantai peak. This was to be my first night hike. My goal: to catch the sunrise from the summit. I was grateful to be joined by Ming. It was nearing Chinese New Year and so Ming's goal was to reach the temple on top of Tiantai. She was going to wish for good fortune and health for her and her family and this was the best place to do it. In Buddism this peak is regarded as the most important, in part because Zhiyi (who lived there for four years around 500AD) is considered to have started the Tiantai tradition of Buddism in China. We had no idea of the perils that lie in wait for us.

A row of three images: Jiuhua's temples and Ming descending the peak

As we set off down deserted red-green neon streets, the night stung with cold. Our stiff limbs thawed as we marched on, our breath heavy in the air and illuminated by torchlight. Our departure from civilisation was marked by a pair of gargoyle-like lion statues shrouded in the glow of an amber lamppost. Occasionally we'd catch a glimpse of an icicle cluster or a snow bank at the far reaches of the torchlight, but there wasn't much to look at. We passed the time by getting to know one another. Ming told a famous Chinese legend. The legend of the Monkey King, king of demons. He fought Buddha, lost, and was locked away by the five elements: Wood (木 mù), Fire (火 huǒ), Earth (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water (水 shuǐ)

We passed an abandoned looking ropeway and soon found ourselves at the foot of Tiantai. As it seems is customary with holy Chinese mountains, this was signalled by the presence of stone steps. Navigating the warren of houses and temples that followed proved a difficult task in the dark. Ming called out to a candlelit window and a little old nun poked her head out, squinting into the cold. They exchanged a short burst of mandarin before the nun retreated inside, folding the shutters of the window in behind her. "This way!" smiled Ming excitedly. We passed temple after temple, many of them beginning to stir in the early hours. The sound of gongs resonated in the distance. We were living an adventure.

Tiantai Peak and a rainbow sky

As we exited the village the way opened up, but we made careful progress - the steps were incredibly icy. Whilst trying to circumnavigate one such staircase, Ming struck her leg through a hole in the snow. We had to dig her back out, she was buried up to the thigh. We strapped on crude, elasticated crampons and continued on hands and knees up the ice step slope. It was a tense ten minutes or so before we made it halfway up a 10m section of ice. Either side of us was a fair drop, enough to break a bone if you landed awkwardly. The crampons did their job and were keeping us secure, but we worried about returning downhill if the ice worsened ahead. Going up was one thing, but coming down would be like trying to find friction on a slide.

Just as we were discussing this, something glinted in the torchlight. A chorus of low rumbling growls sounded above our heads. Disbelievingly, I focused the torch beam. Standing not 5 meters from us was a snarling pack of feral dogs. Their eyes glinted like gems in the night. I looked around desperately. Spit erupted from their snapping jaws. The volley of barks was overwhelming. We were helpless, completely stranded. To the left and right, a sheer drop. Behind us, the hazardous ice slide. We were as frozen as the world around us. Ming spoke to them softly and backed away, crouching over on tiptoes with hands sprawling for purchase. In the darkness and with one torch between us, we couldn't retreat whilst simultaneously watching the aggressive pack. Then I noticed the pups in their midst. Maybe that was why they were so riled up? We were careful not to make any sudden movements, afraid they would pounce, but our retreat wasn't working. The ice was too treacherous. I flashed my torch, aiming for their eyes in a desperate attempt to daze and confuse them. Their violent barking was filling my ears, echoing around us. We changed tactics, approaching them carefully. We only dared get so close so sat, waiting, perched on the precarious icy gradient. The stand-off seemed to last forever. Their growling and snarling only intensified as we waited. All I could think was fangs and claws. Suddenly, miraculously, they turned tail and fled up the mountain. Ming and I exchanged a look of relief. We climbed the remaining ice and slumped to the floor, mentally exhausted from the confrontation.

A red sun rises over a snowy Jiuhuashan

Looking past space the dogs had occupied we could now see handrails on the next set of steps. I've never been so happy to see handrails. We deliberated a while at the wisdom of continuing, but decided that the dogs were not so much of a threat now they had retreated. Besides, if we couldn't descend with motivation like that, we weren't going back down the same way. We were confident we could make it to the handrails. We agreed we would find another route up Jiuhuashan if we came across terrain as treacherous as the ice slide again. Luckily, we did not, but we did bump into the dog pack a couple more times. Although as hoped, they were a lot more submissive.

The events of the night had put us behind schedule and we began to see the blue of morning pushing back the black of night. Streaks of winter snow decorated the cliff faces. We passed a temple built into the side of Tiantai, which was somehow equal parts elegant and modest. Monks welcomed us inside, offering for our wishes to be heard. We politely declined and pressed on. We were unmistakably close to the top now and I still hoped we might somehow see the sun peak over the horizon. We did not, but it mattered little. The sun was magnificent that morning: a raw red ball watching over a cold white snowscape. Ming visited Tiantai temple to make her wish and, feeling it were the wiser option, we rode the ropeway downhill.

I learnt many things that day. Namely the strength of companionship in the face of hardship and the importance of being well informed of the dangers ahead. I could not have completed this hike alone and I'll never forget Ming's help. The winter holds many secrets.

        Words & Photography: Scott Norris (@radventuresofficial) // spring 2016