Tackling the highest mountain in Taiwan is both harder and easier than climbing Mount Kinabalu. And, oh yes, watch out for the loose rocks.
THE wind whipped us the moment we emerged from the “cage tunnel”, a shelter from falling rocks and scree. In the darkness, we could hear the clatter of stones, rolling down the rock face and tumbling off into the abyss. Then, silence.
A direct hit by a mere pebble would have the impact of a bullet. Our guide, nicknamed “Black Pig” in Taiwanese, yelled from somewhere in the dark upfront: “Keep your head down, stick close to each other, and try not to kick any loose stones.”
We were at the junction of Feng Kou (Wind Gap), on the final leg of our hike to the summit of Yushan (Mt Jade) in Central Taiwan. A quick glance at my watch showed 5.00am. I peered ahead. The light from my headlamp traced the trail of the metal chain leading sharply up the rocky slope to my right. I steeled my nerves, tightened my grip on the ice-cold chain and tugged hard to commence my ascent to the pinnacle of this mountain of jade.
It all started as a challenge to accomplish the “Asian Trilogy” of peak climbing. It’s the feat of bagging Mt Kinabalu (Mt K, in short,) Mt Jade and Mt Fuji, the tallest mountains in the Far East minus Kamchatka and Australasia.
By definition, a trilogy is a series of three related “works, plays, dramas or tragedies”. That pretty much captures the essence of mountain trekking and climbing.
We had successfully ascended Mt K in September. So here we were in November, once again draped in our Gortex jackets, sweating our butts off, panting for breath, eating our hearts out, frantically clawing ourselves up the west face of Yushan.
Yushan reached its highest international prominence when it was voted into the shortlist of the New Seven Natural Wonders of the World in 2009. It is the tallest point in Taiwan, at 3,952m (143m shorter than Mt K and 176m higher than Mt Fuji).
It is located in the Yushan range, the central backbone of the island of Taiwan. This massif sits in the Yushan National Park, one of the most bio-diverse regions in the country, with numerous climatic and vegetative zones. But, somehow, it is less well-known than the neighbouring Alishan Forest Recreation Area.
Having summited Mt K many times, I was more than prepared to tackle Yushan. Distance-wise, from their respective trail heads, the Yushan trail is a longer 10.7km versus Mt K’s 8.7km. But in terms actual height gained by our huffing and puffing, on Yushan we ascended 1,332m, a third less than that of the Mt K trek of 2,229m.
Both hikes can be completed over two days, although single-day hikes are allowed if performed within the cut-off times set by the park authorities.
It’s interesting that both mountains are honoured in the paper money of both countries. Mt Jade is imprinted on the Taiwanese 1,000 Dollar note, whereas Mt K is featured in the new RM100 and old RM1 notes. Mountains are proud symbols of a nation.
Long road in
After registering at the checkpoint, we boarded a shuttle van which dropped us off at Tataka Saddle (or Tatajia Saddle), the start of the trail. Apart from the usual group photos, we also had individual mug shots taken – for affixing on the certificates of accomplishment, which was rather premature, I thought.
It was 9.15 on a bright sunny morning when we set off. Spirits were high all around, despite the full load of our backpacks. This is the weighty difference when compared to the facilities on the Mt K trek, where porters are at your beck and call.
On Yushan, you’re on your own. With the extra 8kg of overnight stuff on my back, I was glad the initial stage of the trail was a gentle one.
The path hugged the hillside most of the way, grounded in gravel and pebbles. Further in, we encountered steep sections which had given way to landslides, a reminder of the constant danger posed by Taiwan’s earthquakes and fierce typhoons.
There are markings every 500m. Although the trail is so clear that you can’t possibly get lost, we were incessantly reminded by the guide to never walk alone. What’s unexpected is the temperature. Despite being in such sub-tropical latitudes, it was not much colder than Mt K’s – a cool low twenties (Celsius).
As we ascended to higher ground, the views over the valleys opened up. We traversed through a multitude of vegetation, from secondary grassland, bamboo bushes to hemlock and spruce forests. In contrast, such huge swaths of alpine forests are absent from Mt K.
The sun was covered by clouds in the afternoon, casting an eerie shroud over the willowy cypresses.
We stopped for lunch at an observation platform below West Peak. We had many small breaks along the journey, the last of which was at the foot of the Grand Precipice.
From there, the trail became steeper until we finally arrived at Paiyun Lodge, after 6½ hours of trekking, over 8.5km. We spent our night here at an elevation of 3,402m. Food was provided and we shared platform bunk beds, each to his/her own sleeping bag.
There are proper toilets but no hot water for bathing. Even though the lodge here is newly refurbished, overall, Mt K’s cabin at Laban Rata wins hands down.
Treacherous loose stones
The elevation to be climbed the next morning from the lodge to Yushan Main Peak is only 550m, covering a distance of 2.2km, comparatively less demanding than the final assault on Mt K, over 822m of elevation over a 3km trail. And since everyone in the team was in pretty fit condition, except for one who figured sleep was sounder than summiting, the guide decided to delay our start.
After some warm porridge, we set off at 3.30am, under a star-studded sky. The wind had dropped and the temperature was a comfortable 6°C, by my reckoning.
The trail started with countless zigzags, and after we crossed the tree-line, the path became narrower, no more than 15cm wide in some stretches.
Unlike Mt K’s ascent which is over a terrain of hard rock, Yushan’s route is strewn with loose stones and broken slate. The key technique required here is sure-footedness and perfect balance. The effort becomes more deliberate and intense when stepping across ledges, while clinging to an almost vertical cliff-side.
For the final 200m, we abandoned our hiking poles and relied on the fixed metal chain to reel ourselves up. Gloves are therefore indispensable. We pulled up to the Yushan summit at 5.30 in dawn light.
Looking down we could now make out the treacherous route we had surmounted over the last two grueling hours and decided not to worry about the descent, but to drink in the delight of sunrise. Drenched in red rays, we raised cups of coffee to celebrate the second success in our chase of the Asian Trilogy.
We descended the Yushan mountain range and reached Tataka Saddle at 1.00pm that day. Later, lying in a hot spa pool, soaking my aching limbs, my mind began to wonder about the final sequel to our Trilogy. Mt Fuji seemed a thought too distant to contemplate, for the moment.
Lee Meng Lai is an accountant turned marketer who believes both lobes of his brain should be equally utilized in his life’s pursuits. He’s trekked the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro, Mt Kinabalu, and the volcanoes of Indonesia, but hasn’t quite figured out whether it’s the journey or the destination that matters more.