Monday, January 30, 2012

Climb Any Mountain

For a couple of reasons (which I shall go into later) I am staying in Taiwan until the 7th of February. Having done a loop of the island already I needed something to fill my time constructively, as I am not one to be able to sit on a beach for days on end. Luckily Taiwan has its mountains that I had mentioned previously, and this was the perfect opportunity to see them up close and personal. In Taiwan, however, going into the mountains is not simply a question of turning up at a trailhead and setting off at random. Perhaps it is a way of ensuring safety by knowing who is on the mountain should anything unfortunate happen, perhaps it is an environmentally-friendly way of limiting the human impact on a fragile ecosystem, or perhaps it is just the Taiwanese love of officialdom, but anyone heading to the higher mountains needs to get a permit. Sometimes two. The process is Byzantine, requires numerous forms to be filled out in triplicate, and, for the more popular trails (such as Yu Shan - Jade mountain), needs to be done several months in advance. Luckily through my host in Taipei I was able to find a group of people who were heading off on a 5-day hike and was able to join up with them.

View of the snowy peaks of Yu Shan (Jade Mountain), Taiwan's highest mountain.

The original plan was to hike part of the Nanggao Trail, a cross-island path blazed by the Japanese during their period of occupation to keep an eye on the aboriginal tribes of the interior. This being the holiday season though many people are having the same idea to go hiking and so we had to change our itinerary to fit in with available permit quotas. In the end we had to settle for a go at climbing Siouguluan Shan, Taiwan's third-highest mountain at a respectable 3860m. I wasn't too concerned as my main desire was to get out and wander the mountains for a few days and I was quite happy to let someone else organise and plan the travel details for once.

The crew somewhere in the lower reaches of the trail, where the jungle is still lush and the bamboos tall.

I had never done such a long hike before, previously only staying out for no more than three days at a time since carrying that much food, as well as my entire pack, just isn't viable. This time I was doubly lucky with my hosts Samantha and David, who not only allowed me to leave a host of unnecessary items at their flat in Taipei, but were also able to lend me a few pieces of gear, such as a camping stove and pot as well as more esoteric items like crampons and an ice axe. To be honest I wasn't expecting to use either of the last two, Taiwan is a subtropical island and my previous use of either had been for very different purposes, but the organiser had insisted and I wasn't going to argue. I bought my supplies for the trip - super noodles, porridge and a big bag of gorp - and packed my rucksack in anticipation. We left Taipei in the early hours under a leaden, drizzly sky. Not a good sign. The weather wasn't much better at the trailhead, although the rain had abated somewhat, but it was too late to turn back. Plus the weather forecast, if such things can be trusted, was predicting better things to come.

One of the nuerous landslides we had to negotiate on our way up the mountain. A mis-step could lead to a very long and terminally painful fall.

There were seven of us in the group: five Taiwanese med students (Adrian, Brian, Amy, Wei and Zhong-yi) as well as an American, Nate, who is teaching English in Taipei. The first day was pretty easy, making our way up to a cabin at 1700m and settling down for the night. The next day had us walking 16km and rising to another cabin at 2800m and at the same time afforded us a perfect demonstration of why typhoons can wreck so much damage in Taiwan. The mountains are relatively young, steep and friable and so very prone to landslides. On several occasions the path had been swept aside by landslides that we had to traverse with only a foot of loose scree separating us from drops of several hundreds of metres. And the river valleys below, though wider than most rivers in Europe, were host to only small streams, indicating that, under the right circumstances, they could easily become raging floods.

Getting up early does have its benefits, such as seeing the sun rise over  a sea of clouds as we stop for a minute during our ascent of Siouguluan Shan to put on our crampons.

Whilst camping out in nature your circadian rhythm gets severely realigned. Whilst in "civilisation" I will often go to bed around midnight or later, but out in the wild, with no electricity to provide you with light, TV or internet there is precious little to do once the sun goes down, so that by 7pm I am already snuggled up in my sleeping bag. On the other hand I get up at 4am so that I can prepare breakfast, pack my bags and get going before it begins to get light. It wasn't early enough for Siouguluan Shan  There was plenty of snow around the peak from about 3000m onwards. Crisp, fresh and crunchy it gave plenty of purchase for walking on. But as soon as the sun rose over the sea of clouds beneath us, the snow began to melt, becoming slushier and more slippery, making ascending the steep slope so treacherous that we had to turn back. Not to be totally defeated by something as simple as a mountain Nate and I decided to scale the next one along which was slightly less covered in snow, steep and high. Our success rate duly improved as did our level of sunburn - I certainly hadn't thought I'd have to beware of snow-glare on a subtropical island.

Finally at the summit of something. Dashuiku Shan may not be the highest mountain, but at 3630m it still required a bit of effort to get up it in the snow. Tired and sunburnt it was time to head back.

Our mountains climbed we turned around and headed back the way we came, descending 2500m in 27km in a tiring 24 hours to get back to our waiting van, finally dump our rucksacks, have some quick eats from a 7-Eleven and a cool beer as we passed out on the back seats on the drive back to Taipei. My body still dully aches two days after my return, my lips are cracked and sore and my back is in need of the ministrations of a skilled masseuse, but I am happy at what I've seen and achieved and can't wait for my next tussle with a mountain, although hopefully without the snow this time (or at least with shoes that are waterproof).

Possibly my favourite photo of the trip to the mountains: Nate at the start of the Siouguluan ascent before it got ridiculous and we had to turn back.

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