Saturday, May 27, 2017, 12:10 PM CST – China

Essay

An Uphill Struggle

There was a chance we would not make it before the first snowfall rendered access to the mountain even more perilous.

Climbing Jade Mountain (Yushan), Taiwan’s highest peak at almost 4,000 meters, is one of those things you feel you ought to do before leaving Ilha Formosa. The hike itself is one of the most picturesque on the island, and on a clear day, the views are breathtaking throughout. 

While the route is one of the world’s easiest as far as gaining significant elevation, the paper trail that needs to be negotiated before setting foot on the slope is a thing of marvelous complexity.

For a start, the pages on the Yushan National Park website are as dangerously unintelligible as the most hard-to-read alpine weather system. In the English version, information is repeated, contradicted or omitted entirely (when compared with the Chinese), leaving baffled team leaders to scour the web for firsthand accounts.

The first order of business was to ask my team of 12 (later whittled down to seven due to timing and people being lost forever in the maze of red tape) to complete a mandatory online safety test, the answers for which are secreted within three videos, each about 45 minutes long. Every member has as many chances as they like to get eight out of 10 questions correct, with puzzlers ranging from the fines commensurate with feeding the monkeys, to the symptoms and alleviative measures for altitude sickness, and the appropriate action if you encounter a Formosan black bear (answer: exit stage left, quietly).

Access to the mountain is so oversubscribed that berths within Paiyun Lodge, the retreat perched on the edge of the vegetation line in which weary hikers can pass a night and acclimatize, are allocated by lottery exactly one month in advance of the date hikers intend to make their ascent.

This adds an extra frisson of disquiet due to the time pressure related to getting your application in order, particularly as with winter fast approaching, there was a chance we would not make it before the first snowfall rendered access to the mountain even more perilous and permit-orientated.

Having analyzed the composition of applicants to the lodge on various days, it became clear that odds of about 10 to one meant there was little chance of winning a place on a Saturday evening. The uncanny similarity of the team names applying for places also suggested that some people were adopting an “apply early, apply often” approach, which, while not entirely in the spirit of the thing, was admirable for the sheer bloodymindedness required to complete the applications multiple times.

After twice failing to win the lottery, and having to ask my team to resubmit their details each time, I resorted to calling the national park directly and asking them for guidance. This approach is highly recommended. The park representative acknowledged the lottery system is almost comically frustrating, and suggested that our team take the option available to groups of foreigners (plus a maximum of one Taiwanese national) of skipping the queue by booking even further than a month ahead. I readily agreed, calling only twice more just to confirm that, yes, everything was in order and our places were secure.

A couple of weeks later, I received a reminder to complete all my team members’ details. Just for giggles, a system glitch ensures that once a request is accepted, all team members must re-enter their emergency contact details or risk having the entire application nullified. I was also asked to submit a list of passport page photos as a single PDF, a task I dutifully fulfilled. I won’t go into the meal-ordering process, suffice it to say that single PDFs are the way to go here as well, despite this not being mentioned at any point in the web instructions.

It is possible to circumvent these torments by hiring a tour company to handle the bureaucracy for you. One suspects these entities are responsible for block-booking the lodge. The tours will furnish you with a guide for the princely sum of US$360 for trips from Taipei, but for those with the required patience and fortitude, the whole expedition for a small group, including van rental, can be done for about US$60.

On the day of the ascent, we arrived early and negotiated obtaining a permit to enter the park from the local police headquarters, which sits at the bottom of the trail. All that was left was to actually climb the mountain. After a solid five-hour march up to an altitude of 3,700 meters on a beautiful, crystal-clear day, we arrived at Paiyun Lodge tired, hungry and elated. 

Given the arduous nature of the process that had gotten us there, the group agreed we should make the most of our time on the mountain and climb as many of the four or five peaks around Jade Mountain itself as possible.

We sidled up to the desk in the lodge to ask about the conditions on the route and which extra peaks they recommend we tackle in the time we had. “Well,” they said. “We would recommend the North Peak and the West Peak, but you should have applied for permits to climb them back at the police station…” 

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