Monday, Mar 27, 2017, 8:35 PM CST – China

Outside In

Thrilling Taiwan

ABOVE THE SNOWLINE

Snow Mountain, Taiwan’s second-highest peak, is a paradise for intrepid hikers and those wishing to see a different, wilder side of the island

Determined to seize every opportunity to explore Taiwan, when my language school announced it was organizing a three-day hike up Snow Mountain, I immediately signed up. At an elevation of 3,886 meters, Snow Mountain is the highest peak of the Xueshan mountain range, and the second-highest mountain in Taiwan, after the main peak, Yushan. Of the two, Snow Mountain is regarded as the more scenic.

Justifiably concerned about our state of physical fitness after two months of Taipei street food, our school organized a few “warm-up” hikes. These mainly took place in the mountains of Yilan county on the island’s northeast coast, and were often eventful in themselves. On one occasion the heavens opened, and we decided to take a “short cut.” This, in hindsight, was a mistake. We should have been forewarned by the fact that our teachers remained on the straight and narrow, cheerfully waving the rest of us off as we headed down what would best be described as a two-kilometer, sometimes almost vertical, mud slide! It took us about two hours to reach the train station at the bottom, where our group’s generally filthy appearance all but cleared the carriage for the trip back to Taipei.

Thankfully, the trial hikes brought us much closer together as a group, although we were slightly skeptical at the thought of embarking on an excursion at least three times as long so soon afterward. On Snow Mountain, of course, there would be no hope of shower facilities to remove the fauna and flora that we would, according to past experience, invariably be caked in by the end of Day One.

The Big Tamale

So it was that 20 of us congregated at the main gates of National Taiwan University one Saturday morning, and journeyed by bus to Shei-Pa National Park in the island’s mountainous interior. The journey took about four hours, including two stops, before we checked in at the police station in Wuling Farm (hikers are required to do this for their own safety).

After lurching its way along mountain roads, our bus finally arrived at the lodge that was to mark the start of our trek. Here we were joined by our guides, and began our ascent. In single file we marched up two kilometers of stairways through beautiful pine forests to the Qika Cabin, where we left the gathering dusk outside and stumbled into our lodgings for the night. All of us bunked down in a single long, dark room with bunks on either side, our personal space delineated by white painted numbers. Kitted out in headlamps, we packed into the “kitchen” and drank hot ginger tea, courtesy of our guides, who also – somehow – produced a steam-wreathed feast of various toothsome dishes seemingly out of thin air.

All of us were wearing items of clothing scavenged from friends, having arrived in Taipei totally unprepared for the cooler temperatures in the mountains, and we huddled together, playing cards. Sleeping bags were promptly hurled in all directions by one of the guides, and by 9 PM we were all curled up, struggling to get warm.

We awoke the next morning, thrilled to find that monkeys had invaded the girls’ bathroom. Despite their forwardness, however, they did not like having their photos taken. Not one bit. Our attempts to secure selfies with these simian intruders thwarted, we steeled ourselves for a longer hike than on the previous day, as we marched on the peak. As we climbed, the scenery became increasingly alpine, and the air delightfully fresh. Although it was nearing the end of November, the weather was clement enough that most of us climbed in shorts and T-shirts.

A slog up the precipitous and aptly named “Crying Hill” left our thighs burning but our eyes stoically dry, and we continued on to the mountain’s east peak, where we stopped for lunch and the obligatory photo-op. From there, an undulating path through evocative bamboo forests led us to our second cabin, which was crowded as it’s the only essential stop on a trail that is impossible to complete in a single day’s climb (meaning all kinds of mountaineers, from beginners to pros, make a weekend of it).

The crowds lent a somewhat, shall we say, “lived-in” smell to the room. The mountain views, however, were absolutely stunning from the front entrance of the cabin, though as temperatures swung towards freezing and the toilet situation was even worse than at the previous shelter, we were beginning to feel like true adventurers (lavatory pits over vats of raw sewage tend to have that effect).

A wonderful symphony of snoring echoed throughout the room that night as we lay, row upon row, cocooned in sleeping bags. At the ungodly hour of 1:30 AM, the cocoons hatched, and an army of hikers climbed from their wooden perches and out into the night.

Home Stretch

A glittering frost covered the earth as we lined up for hot rice outside the hut, which was designed to fuel us for the next few hours. Thankfully, we were able to leave our backpacks behind for collection on the way down, as the peak is a sprint finish.

A shimmering array of stars hung in the sky above us, matched by the glittering snake of headlamps and flashlights meandering upwards on the path ahead, making their way through the Black Forest (home to the elusive Formosan black bear), and up the magnificent glacial cirque of the peak itself.

After around three hours, we summitted, just as the first rays of sunlight broke over the horizon. The views from the top were absolutely breathtaking, with Yushan to the south, the Nanhu mountain range to the north and Daba Mountain nearby. Despite Snow Mountain’s name, and the freezing temperatures at sunrise, however, there was no snow in sight.

The 10-kilometer hike back down to the trailhead was completed a lot faster than the ascent, and by 3 PM we were back at our starting point, even though we were constantly stopping to drink in the beautiful scenery along with our bottled water. Whether you’re a seasoned trekker or you just want to experience the astonishing stillness of Taiwan’s mountainous hinterland, Snow Mountain offers a truly unmatchable experience.

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