Cheryl, a novice climber, conquers her very first mountain, Taiwan’s Xueshan.
Know before you go:
- Apply for a mountain entry permit at Taiwan National Park Official Website at least a month in advance.
- A backpack rain cover, a sturdy raincoat and waterproof pants are crucial for Xueshan’s unusually high humidity.
- Bring a plastic bag to dispose trash during your hike and take it down the mountain when you leave.
- Bring earplugs for your stay at the lodge; the snoring does get to be a little too much!
IT IS LATE SPRING when my motley band of companions and I arrive at the foot of Xueshan, Taiwan’s second tallest peak, after a half-hour drive along narrow, winding roads from Wuling Farm.
The morning of our climb is a cold, wet one, with white, unrelenting fog.
My backpack already feels like a deadweight on my shoulders, immovable and solid against my spine.
The climb begins with blocks of stone paths that soon disintegrate into moist, zig-zagging dirt tracks that squelch underfoot. The rising altitude quickly begins to squeeze my lungs dry.
The ecology in the lower parts of Xueshan is abundant: soft green moss encapsulating rock faces, mini waterfalls flowing through mounds of leaves and gravel, alpine slopes peppered with loud, purple blossoms, beautiful networks of tree roots woven into the dirt.
Two kilometres and about an hour in, we pass Qika Lodge – the first of Xueshan’s sparse accommodation – a white, wooden hut outside which a small congregation of hikers have gathered to rest.
At the four-kilometre mark where the sharp rise of Crying Slope begins, I can see how it derived its ominous moniker. The short but intimidatingly precipitous stretch is a craggy, winding path strewn with branches and crumbling gravel, making for a tough upward scramble.
Soon, I am huffing and puffing onto the 3201-metre East Peak, atop which a glorious wooden plaque announces my very first mountainous achievement.
Struck by the breathtaking view before me, the tough hike seems worth all the effort now. Rolling green plains rise and fall before us as far as the eye can see, fading into the wall of fog. Yonder, the mist-shrouded tips of mountains beckon.
Along the gradual, easier descent, I soon glimpse 369 Lodge, a cluster of three huts nestled in a dip in the slopes: a pungent outhouse, a long rectangular main hut and below a flight of wooden steps, a little cookhouse.
I step into the living quarters, leading off to two gloomily lit rectangular rooms, with patchy, stained ceilings and small windows. Two wooden platforms, above and below, line each side of the room, with numbered sleeping spots and small notches in the bed frame to clamber onto the upper deck.
At dusk, the toasty kitchen below is thick with the aroma of hot dinner: a clear pork and bamboo broth, simmering pumpkin stew, fried home-grown long beans, cubes of greasy Chinese sausage and freshly-brewed sweet ginger tea.
The foggy blackness at night is all-encompassing; headlamps only afford barely a few feet of visibility. Sleep is futile for me as a cacophony of snoring, coughing and rustling erupts.
Our mission the next day is Xueshan’s mighty Main Peak.
The trail seems less strenuous today, forging a meandering path up that helps strip away the strain of the steep slope. Perhaps it is because I am feeling a little more accustomed today, both to the intensity of the hike and the breathlessness accompanying the mounting altitude.
The very top of this slope marks the entrance into the eerie Black Forest, which carries a weighty, almost deafening silence, save for our rhythmic footfall and clicking trekking poles.
All around us are ramrod straight Taiwanese fir that shoot up into the mist above, some snapped in half about their sodden trunks, roots unceremoniously ripped clean out of the earth. The path, no longer as singularly clear-cut as the day before, is scattered with stone slabs, boulders, and running water.
Two difficult hours in unveils the Glacial Cirque, the site of the largest glacial traces in Taiwan. It is a bowl-shaped valley, a stunningly blanketed vista of vivid, blooming pink and white indian azaleas, only found in these mountainous regions.
Where the beautiful meadow ends, the final ascent to the summit of Xueshan’s Main Peak rises. The path up is lost in the murky, impenetrable fog; I cannot see how far up it goes or exactly where the peak is. Without a clear end, you just have to keep going.
Again, it is a snaking trail but this time, the most challenging of all: an impossibly steep, monstrous collection of large rocks and boulders that shift and crumble. Struggling against the harshly biting gales makes the last kilometre to the summit feel a decade long. My hands are numb, knuckles white, feet leaden and my ears have lost their feeling.
Eventually, pushing past the bushes and figuring out the unclear rocky path, we emerge onto Main Peak. I cannot believe I made it up a mountain, and not an easy one too. My legs are shaky, my breathing laboured but my heart is warm and full.
We are surrounded by a fast-moving fog that the wind tousles and hurries along, revealing an arresting landscape of the vibrant flower-studded fields below and blue skies melting into the soft shades of craggy silhouettes afar.
The rewarding slab of grey stone sits atop messily fashioned stone steps, proudly declaring our conquest of Xueshan, a peak of 3886 metres – a true triumph for my maiden climb.
The day of our descent from Xueshan, we leave before dawn breaks. As the first huge, persistent drops of rain become a full-blown downpour, we are thankful to already be decked out in rain pants and ponchos.
The gravel slackens into running mud puddles we either sink into or avoid by fighting through the tall grass. The dripping wooden posts counting down the remaining distance seem too few and far between. My waterproof hat quickly succumbs and running rainwater drips into my eyes.
At long last, the rustling green overhead opens before us to finally reveal the trailhead where our Xueshan conquest began two days ago, now drawing to a very wet but contented close.