After being shutdown on applications for Snow Mountain and Jade Mountain multiple times for varying reasons, I was finally able to get out into the Taiwan backcountry over Chinese New Year. Though just barely. My friend Adrian, who did all the application paperwork (being Taiwanese and an experienced hiker), had originally planned for us to hike the Nengkao trail to Antungchun. Apparently, recent landslides have made the route inaccessible. Or maybe they're just not giving permits. Whatever. In any case, we transferred our permits to Yushan NP, hoping to hike to Dashuiku, with a side trip up Xiugulian. After a few nights of debauchery at a friend's beach house in Wai'ao to bring in the New Year, I packed my bag for an early departure from Taipei, and we were off.
The driver was an interesting fellow to watch. He was sporting a skin-tight Venom t-shirt with the spiderweb design across it, binlang-juice lips, and a supremely cavalier attitude about his experience in Taiwan's mountains. Some of his advice sounded good, some of it a bit dubious, and some of it downright absurd. He claimed to have climbed up and down Batongguanshan in 80 minutes. He claimed to have hiked to and from Jiaming Lake in a day. True or not, all I could do was smile and shrug. Ting bu dong. He drove like he talked: extremely fast, with many distractions, and a heavy hand upon the horn. I put on some Tim Hecker and dozed. The seven of us paid $1800 each to be driven there and back... does that not sound extremely steep to you?
Anyway, we made it to Dongpu in good time, and proceeded to the trail posthaste. The afternoon was cloudy and cold, but dry. The last leaves of the maple trees littered the ground just as the first sprouts of the mountain cherry were beginning to blossom. A strange phenomenon.
We sauntered along, more slowly than I thought even enjoyable. There was a definite language barrier between some of us. There were myself and a traveling Englishman on his second circumnavigation of the globe who could only speak English and very basic Chinese. There was my friend Adrian, whose English is impeccable, and another guy I had met before, who spoke in medical jargon but was hilarious. I communicated with the other three via smiles, gestures, and a 10-word vocabulary in either language. A friend of mine, I call her my Taiwanese mother - who is a big-time couchsurfing host in Xindian, and probably the most popular in all of Taiwan - was supposed to come on the trip, but had to back out just a few days before. Hence, the random couchsurfing guy who became my main company on the trip, and Adrian's role as translator. Well, we Westerners apparently just like to walk fast, because we were constantly waiting on the others to catch up and wondering why we were taking so many breaks. It took us roughly 3.5 hours to get from Dongpu to the Lele Valley cottage. Along the way, we admired the beautiful waterfall that is the main attraction of this early portion of the trail...
... and spotted a gigantic wasps' nest...
... and finally reached the cottage.
We spread out and settled in, not knowing that we would soon be joined by the bane of the hiking purist - the flaunter. You know the type. They're more concerned with what brand they're wearing than its functionality. They cook pre-packaged, freeze-dried meals on their Snow Peak stoves for lunch. They talk loudly well into the night and shine their 70-lumen headlamps down the line of sleeping bags before and after they make their midnight potty run. At least they're easy to impress. My attempt at curry rice with garlic peanuts and mushrooms turned into a bit of a mess, though. Oh well.
The next day, we arose before dawn. Whipped up some oatmeal with butter, peanut butter, brown sugar, and raisins. It had rained quite heavily at night. We hoped this was not a forecast of the next four days. We hit the trail while the Three Stooges ate their pea-corn-and-carrot... meal. The going up to Guangao is relatively straightforward, with a few landslides, but no seriously steep and/or continuous climbs. As we hiked, the weather got better and better, warmer and warmer, until the sun finally started to flicker through the trees...
Erik, the Englishman, and I were starting to get concerned though. The group didn't reach Guangao until about 11am. That's five hours of hiking for about eight km's. And we still had the three huge landslides to traverse over to Batongguan, lunch to eat, and the remaining 6-and-some km's to the Zhongyang cottage. So, we made our way slowly but surely along the treacherous path that lives in infamy amidst the memory of those who have crossed it. Here is a picture of the second slide, at the part where you have to climb a section of super-slick 5th-class terrain with a drop of several hundred meters below...
Of course, we made it to the grassland without event. Two of the guys went off in search of water, not knowing that the creek which the trail passes over was dry. The others got out their cooking equipment to make instant noodles for lunch. There are a few things about backcountry culture in Taiwan that I will never understand. One is the ubiquity of giant DSLR's... with tripods! Another is the incomprehension of weight and space; people brought fresh fruit, the vegan brought nothing but bread, and a few of them were carrying three- or four-person tents, which we never used. The final thing, and this is what struck me at the moment, is their desire to turn every meal into a gear show. These backpacking stoves are immensely popular here because people like to hike a kilometer up the nearest concrete path into whatever park, hack chairs out of nearby trees or just bring their own (and leave them), and spread their banquet all over the place (and leave the garbage). Unfortunately, this has carried over into dedicated backpacking culture as well. Erik and I ate our lunches, relieved ourselves, repacked, and were ready to go in 30 minutes. We then proceeded to shiver and jump around and subtly suggest that we promptly get a move on as the time slipped up to and past 2pm.
When they finally did get their packs on, Erik and I burst out ahead of the group, more to get warm than to inspire a sense of haste. From the grassland, the trail hugs the north slope of the Batongguanshan ridgeline, which continues all the way to Xiugulian and beyond. It's a really flat, wide trail with two major obstacles. The first comes less than a kilometer from the grassland. A bridge has been broken by a fallen tree and the trail has become overgrown. The detour takes you up a steep hillside to a waterfall, which you must descend using dubious roots and knotted webbing, then dance across a log bridge. There are several of these log bridges, and each one gets the heart racing.
Shortly after you pass the trail up to Batongguanshan, a major slide forces you to climb 100 meters up a rough path to a hairy traverse and an even steeper descent. This bit took us a considerably long time. Again, everyone made it past without incident. Then we proceeded to burn trail the last three or four km's to the cottage. Every once in awhile, we would stop and wait for the group, which gave us a chance to chat with Bruce, who seemed to be the most experienced and understanding of the situation. He's a medical student, along with most of the others, and is a really avid outdoorsman, not to mention a great photographer (most of these are courtesy of his facebook) and a funny guy. He also clearly comes from a wealthy background. Finally, we rolled up to the cottage, just as the sun began to dip behind the mountains.
The Zhongyang cottage is quite cozy, although evidence of rodents abound. Adrian fiddled around with the power box, which was supposed to give us lights, but it wouldn't work. I was relieved, honestly. We were having a posh enough time of it as it was. Dinner consisted of spaghetti, pesto, tuna, and butter. Seriously, butter is a winter hiker's best friend, no matter who or where you are. After dinner, Erik and I decided it was time to drop our opinion bomb on the group. The plan for the next day was to hike to Xiugulian, summit, then follow the ridgeline to Dashuiku cottage for the night. At the rate we had been traveling, this would be absolutely impossible. The next day would take us from 2800m to 3400m in 4.5km, then a 450m/3km peak bag, then 5-6km's up and over several 3600m peaks before we reached Dashuiku. Not to mention the unpredictability of the snow conditions. We suggested instead to bring only what we needed for the day in daypacks, climb Xiuguluan, then follow the ridge as far as Dashuikushan, and descend back to camp via a trail shown on Bruce's map that would take us through Tuchun campground and back to the Zhongyang cottage. This would, in essence, cut an entire day out of our itinerary, but it seemed far more feasible given what we had seen the last two days. Thankfully, after only a brief translation and discussion, everyone agreed. After a round of stretches, we all settled into our bags on the thickly padded floors. All of us were out in minutes. We would have slept like the dead, had we not been woken up at 10:30pm when the Stooges came barging into the cottage, lights glaring and voices raised. I moaned loudly, barely able to comprehend how anyone could be so inconsiderate, much less able to figure how to express my desire for them to SHUT THE HELL UP in a successful manner. So I "shh"d them, which they ignored. Then, thankfully, Erik got up the gall to tell them that it was late and they needed to be quiet. They responded with something like, "Well you cooked on the floor where we want to sleep so we have to move all your stuff and bla bla bla." To which he responded, "Okay, just be quiet." They came and went from the cottage for half an hour, whispering incessantly, then finally passed out. The sleep was glorious.
When we woke up, the routine began again. One of the Stooges actually sat up and told us to be quiet. I laughed audibly and continued to talk in a subdued voice. Perhaps not the most culturally-savvy response, but assholes stink no matter where you're from. We began hiking in the dark again, and the trail seemed quite overgrown as we made our way steeply upwards, over roots, logs, and streams. In fact, the way was quite obvious - oh the joys of hiking by headlamp. In the first half-km we realized that we had made the right decision to leave our packs; there were many obstacles, and the trail was continuously steep. We stopped at a rocky clearing, and people snapped some shots. Bruce got this one of Yushan's east peak at sunrise...
Just as the difficulty began to ease off, the trail broke through the trees, and snow covered the trail and everything around us. It was nice and crunchy, which made fairly easy going for us breaking trail. The further we went, the deeper it got, and the longer Erik and I had to wait to even see them coming around a switchback behind us. While waiting, I snapped this one of Erik striking an explorer's pose, with the Dashuikushan ridgeline looming overhead.
We reached the Paiyang cottage at 8:40am. Already, the plan to hike Siougulian and still make it to Dashuikushan was looking unlikely. We ate, refilled water, and waited. We danced to keep warm, we chatted about our experiences in Taiwan, and waited. Finally, well after 9am, they arrived. We had decided that the two of us were going to take off to attempt the mountain, and set very specific deadlines. If we were not at the top by 12pm, we would turn around. We would try to be back to the cottage by 1pm. We suggested they follow the same plan, coming up behind us in our tracks. We made our way up to Shuiku Field, which was a total winter wonderland.
The sign here said that "Siouguluan" was 1.7km away. So we clambered across snow berms and bushes, trying to follow a "path" and the weathered tags beneath the peak in the upper-left of the picture. We found another sign, which when I scraped away the ice seemed to say that "Siouguluan" was in the opposite direction, half a km. Even from here we couldn't see the true summit of the mountain. So, even though there was no trail to speak of up the peak, I decided that this must be it. In actuality, the sign had said "Siouguping," which is the helicopter landing area between Siouguluan and the start of the Dashuiku ridgeline. The sun was beating down on us, and the snow was quickly melting. At this point, it was still decent for kicking steps, though in places it just created a superficial layer over slippery, loose rocks. We were making fairly quick time up the mountain - we were at about halfway at 10:45am, when we finally saw the others beginning up behind us. About halfway up, you had to traverse under an ominous tower of rock and up into the shrubs that blocked any easy line towards the summit. Progress slowed as I had to whack my way through frozen shrubs and crawl under snow-laden branches to find the snow fields that would take me to the top. By 11:30am, I had made it. But there was no marker. After a moment of gazing around me, I realized that we were on the wrong summit. We were not 50m below the peak of Xiuguluan, and barely 1.5km away. However, the ridgeline between the two looked like a seriously hairy venture, and any ascent of Xiuguluan would have to be made up seriously steep snow fields. Erik tried to convince me to do it, but since the others were unaware of this development, and I really didn't want to lead them into something I didn't think they could handle, I opted to descend. This next shot was taken just as I met them, only about 1/3 of the way up, below the rock spire.
I tell them we're on the wrong mountain, that continuing up is no fun, and that we cannot get to Xiuguluan from here. "If the foreigner says it is dangerous, then I think it is very, very dangerous," says Bruce. We both laugh, but he is absolutely right. The most dangerous part is that they've put on their 12-point crampons... in snow that is quickly turning to slush, on a steep slope covered in slate sheets that slide with every step. Eventually, we made it back to the intersection, and sat down to discuss our plans. It was 1pm... too late to attempt Xiuguluan, too late even to attempt Dashuikushan. We had two more days on the mountain. The only way to do Xiuguluan in these conditions would be to reach the base at sunrise and ascend with crampons while the snow was still hard. Which meant that we would have to go back to the Zhongyang cottage, retrieve our sleeping bags, food, and cooking supplies, and stay the night at the Paiyang cottage. When Adrian asked those who wanted to climb the mountain to raise their hand, only Erik and I did. They wanted to take a long lunch, return to Zhongyang cottage later, sleep in the next day, and make their way back to Guangao. We agreed, then took off for Paiyang to sort our gear, eat a quick lunch, and book it back to Zhongyang. It was so warm now that the snow on the trail had almost completely disappeared. Formerly frozen creeks were now flowing smoothly, as if this were normal at 3000m in late January. As I stripped off my layers, I could hardly believe how nice of a day it was.
We made it back to Zhongyang by 3:30pm, an hour-and-a-half after we left. While we packed our bags, I chatted with the Stooges, who were sunbathing on the front porch. They were nice enough people, just with a very different kind of perspective towards the outdoors. They admired my Marmot, Patagonia, and Mountain Hardwear clothes, called us "professionals," and encouraged us on our next day's adventure. Then we took off again, passing all of our fellows on the way back, and finally made it into the cabin at 5:45pm. Another dinner of spaghetti-pesto-tuna-butter ensued, and shortly thereafter we were out. That is, until we were awoken by the scurrying of paws not a few inches from our heads. No sound is more disturbing in a pitch-dark cabin in the middle of nowhere than that of a nocturnal critter willing to do nearly anything to get at your food... including walk over your face or crawl in your sleeping bag. Erik had left out the wrapper to his Super Noodles. Ugh. So I stuffed it into his backpack and hung it from a window, and put my cooking pot on the sill. A few minutes later, the damn thing knocked my pot onto the floor, which gave me a jolt. Finally, I found a more suitable place for it, and we were left in peace.
The next morning, the same routine. We loaded up our crampons, food, and water and hit the trail. When we reached the field, just before sunrise, we were treated to our first ever sight of the "sea of clouds."
We reached the second intersection on the far side of Shuiku field and proceeded downwards, along the tag-marked trail towards our goal. The snow was hard, icy in places - perfect for crampons, if ever we could get out of the rocks. The traverse along the backside of the peak we had climbed the day before was extremely hairy in these conditions, so much so that I decided to forget that the crampons I was carrying weren't mine and just put them on. This is where preparation will serve the ambitious... Erik was essentially wearing cross-trainers with Vibram soles. I had never previously put on my crampons. Erik couldn't figure out how to put his 6-pointers on. We switched. I found out he was putting them on wrong. His shoes weren't rigid enough for the 12-pointers. We switched again. Nearly a half-hour later, we were on our way again, the sun already causing chunks of snow to fall from the shrubs around us. I crossed an icy snow field, searched for the next marker, and looked back to see that Erik was already far behind. He had no confidence in walking on ice with the 6-pointers. The markers became increasingly hard to find as the trail rose steeply upwards, in parts at angles of 45 degrees. Without the ability to kick into the snow and feel secure, Erik really wasn't feeling it. About 200m up, we had to call it off. Xiuguluan simply wasn't going to happen. Maybe we could have done it in softer snow, although Erik was really afraid of slipping and taking a tumble down one of the steep slopes... obviously a very real and dangerous possibility, even with an ice axe.
So we made our way back across the treacherous traverse and onto the field, where we decided to follow the previous day's plan. We would pack all of our gear and make for Dashuikushan, then cut down to the Zhongyang cottage via a shortcut that connected the summit to the Tuchun campground, which we had seen signs for on our way to Zhongyang from Batongguan. If we could reach the peak by 12pm, we would be able to make Guangao before nightfall. So that's what we did. This ridgeline is absolutely stunning, though I really didn't want to even think of doing it with a full pack. The path rises and falls dramatically as you summit twice before even beginning the ascent up the "real" Dashuikushan... which was covered in deep, soft snow. The day was absolutely gorgeous, and I was ecstatic to have finally made it somewhere that I could take my picture next to a sign that verified our achievement. It was 12pm. As I waited for Erik to come up, I searched for the path down toward Tuchun. No signs, no flags, though there was an obvious ridgeline that jutted westward from the peak and down into the valley where we knew the cottage was. From Bruce's map, the trail couldn't be more than a kilometer down this ridge. We ate, searched some more, and eventually decided to go for 15 minutes until we either got scared, didn't find anything, or found the trail. We got scared. So we had to hike all the way back to Paiyang, which we made by 2:30pm, and back to Zhongyang, which we made by 3:30pm. Then we rested and packed til 5pm, set off for Batongguan, and arrived around 7pm. We ate dinner, discussed our options, and decided to continue on to Guangao before the others had too much time to worry about us. We weren't stoked to do it, but it got done. We arrived at the Guangao cottage around 10pm. Bruce had just taken this photo of the back side of the Xiuguluan ridge. Mabolasishan is the leftmost peak, with Xiugulian to the right, the peak I climbed, and finally the peak that looms over Paiyang.
The next day was a simple descent from Guangao to Dongpu. It was again a gorgeous day. We drank Aiyu at the stall at the end of the trail. We survived.