There’s that running joke where grandparents always tell their grandchildren how when they went to school, they had to walk five miles each way, in the snow, uphill. For some dedicated children in a remote Chinese village, that fictional trip to school would be an improvement. Instead, their reality includes death-defying climbs on unsecured vine ladders on the side of a cliff.
Located in southwestern China, the 200-year-old village of Atule’er is known as a cliff village, and for good reason. It is on top of a 2,624-foot-tall peak. The population is small and consists of around 70 families. The community is completely self-sufficient and most people make a living growing chilies and corn on the fertile land. The local government of Zhaojue County, which is located in Sichuan Province, recently spent $155,000 on sheep for the residents. In a way, those animals are an apology, since the county does not have the necessary $9 million to construct a road that would connect the village with its school.
As a result, only the bravest and fittest children in the village are able to receive an education. At the foot of the mountain rests Le’er Primary School. The only way to get up or down the mountain is by climbing along 17 vine ladders, the longest of which is known as ‘heaven ladder’. For the fifteen children in the village who attend school, the process takes 2 nerve racking hours. Once they arrive at school, they stay for two weeks. Then they reverse their climb up the mountain. Parents of the school-age kids alternate taking turns accompanying the children, the youngest of whom is only six-years-old. When they’re not overseeing the children, adults can make it up the mountain in ninety minutes and down in one hour.
When the children are climbing the unsecured vine ladders, however, everything slows down. There are always three parents climbing with the children. The best they can offer in terms of safety are ropes tied to the children’s backpacks or pants. Unfortunately, this safety option has its limits. As a result, eight residents have fallen to their deaths in the last two years. The situation is made even more perilous by the frequent rain and snow. While this precipitation helps keep the land fertile, it significantly increases the time it takes to climb up or down.