Yushan National Park, Taiwan
It's easy to get stuck in Taipei, and not make it out to see the rest of the island. Since I am regularly mountain biking in the hills around Taipei, I do make a better job than most at getting into nature; but I have not done a good job at getting into the high mountains of Taiwan.
Yushan is the highest peak in East Asia, but is obviously beaten out by peaks in the Himalayas and several in SE Asia (see Wikipedia for some more info). In the last few years, I have signed up on a couple of different climbing trips, but was never successful at getting a place in the hut at the base of the final climb, subject as it is to lottery. Luckily (or unluckily) a Scottish friend was leaving Taiwan, and she decided to apply for climbing access, with success. Good news, and a perfect excuse for me to go and buy more hiking equipment.
Rather than rush straight up on Friday, and begin the hike the next day, we opted to leave a day early and buy some time kicking around the Alishan Town area. At 2274m, it is already at a respectable altitude, and indeed some people on the team did not deal especially well with the lack of air. I could certainly sympathise, but was at least aware of the effects from previous skiing holidays; Val Thorens in France is located at about 2300m altitude.
Forested Alishan was quiet - no doubt because the train was knocked out by Typhoon Morakot.
Team Chris & Co.
With an early-ish start the next day, we bussed it up to the start of the hike at 2595m. The mountains in that part of Taiwan are stunning, and beginning the hike was pure pleasure in the cool air and warm sunlight. Slowly gaining altitude, we passed bamboo forests, thickets of ancient trees (the ones that Japanese didn't cut down in WWII) and stopped to gaze at ever more dramatic views of pristine forested valleys stretching into the distance.
Due in no small part to our large ruck-sacks, concerns about how much water and food we needed, and plenty of extra dry clothes and insulation, we probably did over-pack a touch, and it was pretty slow going. We decided to keep it steady, however, and redistribute some of the extra weight between the stronger members of the group. None-the-less, we reached the point where daylight was beginning to fade and decided that an 'avant-garde' group should make it to the lodge and return to collect the other members - it was a decision I was not completely happy with, so I was delighted when the final pair of head-torches came bobbing up the hill through the darkness, 10km west of the starting point and 900-odd metres higher, at Paiyun Lodge (3402m).
Shadows of my former-self.
Views across the valleys were splendid.
Granny gearing it up the hill.
As clouds rolled in, everywhere looked like a scene from a traditional Chinese painting ... and frankly the Taiwan I was expecting to see when I arrived a few years ago!
Old-growth trees were pretty spiritually-uplifting.
One or two moments of more extreme climbing, but nothing too hazardous.
You'll have to check the Flickr feed to get the full effect I think.
After a not especially hearty meal of instant noodles, freeze-dried rice curry, and chunks of dried fruit, washed down with ginger tea, it was time to hit the sack at about 8:30pm. I had certainly never slept at such elevation before, and sadly spent the night tossing and turning, tormented by an epic headache, mild nausea, a dry throat, and subsequent trips to the toilet to try and expel the water that I was knocking back to counteract it. Altitude sickness.
Just to see the sunrise, waking at 2:30am therefore seemed like a bad joke. Beginning the hike, my heavy head and bags / luggage under my eyes were slightly relieved by Chris' thoughtful packing of Diamox to counteract the effects (reading the Wikipedia entry now explains why I was peeing every ten minutes after taking it). It helped, but the pounding returned every time my heart rate went up, and as such climbing was an exercise in restraint, as my legs felt so much stronger than what my pounding head could handle.
All-in-all, it felt like the final approach to Mordor, surrounded by near-darkness and staring up at pin-pricks of light coming from the head torches of teams of people that had managed to get up a little earlier than us. I was by far the coldest I have ever been in Taiwan; but was wearing just about enough clothes to fend off the shivers.
Coming up to the final few hundred metres of the peak (sadly lacking a huge, burning, all-seeing eye), we again split up, and I left Tasha and Chris behind to make the final ascent. The rocks surrounding the peak require a bit of a scramble, but I felt pretty confident after the training session in Wales earlier in the year, up Snowdon, which is the highest mountain in Wales, and a lofty 1085m (Ben Nevis in Scotland is 1344m, which puts the whole endeavour in perspective).
After several hours of climbing in the dark, it was a relief to make it to the top, and the sun duly emerged from behind the clouds to allow some respite from the frosty and sub-zero temperatures - the first encounter in Taiwan, bizarrely. I was expecting to be more 'in the mood' to compose more considered pictures, but the cold, blurry head and mild desire to get back down meant I rattled off a bunch of shots; and with the extremely high-contrast between light and dark up there it was not that easy to nail shots I was really happy with.
Sunrise - finally! - we were immensely lucky with the weather, considering it is mid-November.
Tasha - yay!
Tasha and Chris - our heroines of the day.
In the mist.
Descending down the initial track was not that straightforward.
The views were magnificent.
Beginning the descent, I was delighted to see the purple hood of Tasha and Chris slowly winching themselves up the final climb. Accompanying them to the top, I retraced my steps to the top, and I was glowing with pride to see them reach the top together. Very satisfying.
Heading back down was harder on the knees, but it did not load the lungs in the same way, so we avoided the nausea and headaches. Noodles, drinks, dried fruit were doled out back at the lodge, and with a mild spring in our step we headed back down the hill, cutting about two hours from the ascent time. Getting back into Taipei, the only thing I could think of was sleep ... deserved, I do believe.
So, I broke my duck on the high mountains, and I am extremely keen to make it back down there at some point to bag some more hills and trails.
More atmospheric forests.
And one last one.
Big mountains. Bigger skies.
Almost there ...
The bus to the final meeting point ... and looking a little bedraggled.
Inexplicably, this was our ride back to the train station in Jiayi - a San Francisco-style tourist bus. We got some strange looks!
View Yushan in a larger map
A few links if you want to do it yourself:
Wikitravel - Yushan
Yushan National Park Protected Area - Application Site
Everytrail - Yushan - Some GPS maps and tech wizardry