Saturday, November 28, 2009

Climbing Yushan

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.

More paintings.

More sunsets.

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.

Winding roads.

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!


Google Maps

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

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Midsummer Madness

Usually, when heading back to the UK, a healthy two-week window is necessary to really get over the jet lag and calm down properly. I didn't quite have that luxury this time, however, and was restricted to one week of British Summer Time, Tour de France and Wimbledon.

Super tent in the garden, filled the space to a tee!

Jess looks cheeky, as ever.

Just super to meet all the family members that I miss out on, while away! ... and play with a silly Holga lens mod present that I had bought for Abe.

However, what it lacked in duration, it more than made up for in intensity. No sooner had I landed, a pig had been slaughtered and spit-roasted in the name of my Dad's 60th birthday, family members had descended from around the UK and I had sunk a few 'test pints' from the professional-quality draft beer tap(s) installed for the event. And thankfully for my Dad, Andy Murray was not in the Wimbledon final, or the party would have surely been significantly less well-attended. A blur of catchings up and barely a moment of sitting down, and the first weekend was dispatched.

A nice cup of tea to round off a good ol' tea party.

After meeting up with Phil, Rich and a couple of other friends in London, I take the fast train up to Birmingham to meet with Mum and Dad for a couple of days of hiking. I had not spent much time in the north of Wales before, so it was great to sleep in the shadow of Snowdon; tallest mountain in England and Wales (I love how England feels it can claim other countries' mountains as its own... Month Blanc, the tallest mountain in England and France).

Sheep sheep sheep. Wales.

I had always thought of Snowdon as a particularly boring hill, such as it is plumbed-in with a train to the summit and images of Victorian ladies getting taking their afternoon constitutional. It was with such a false sense of postcard security that we attempted 'Crib Goch' - the most challenging of the approaches to the summit, and reading here, 'a Class-1 scramble in good weather, it should be considered a climb in poor conditions'.

Happily ignoring this, we attempted it anyway, and fell in behind a group of experienced climbers with ropes. Right then. Ideal conditions for Team Biddle to begin our ascent!

The climbing was not extremely technical, but as we gained altitude, our confidence in the available hand grabs and invisible foot-holds faded somewhat. Trusting yourself to lift yourself up and around tall pillars of rock, when there is a several hundred metre drop on one side was not for the faint-hearted. No matter how firm the holds seemed, we were glad to be shadowing an experienced set of climbers, and shook our head worryingly as we inspected the ridge heading off into the distance.

Starting off slowly.

Almost time for a breather

Planning ahead

Views from half-way along were formidable.

I barely dared take out my big new camera, relying instead on snapping away with my little Ixus!

Incredulous smiles!

Kinky boots

Clouds in the distance

And clouds. Having cleared the first section, and after wedging ourselves into the rocks at a minor summit to gorge and sandwiches and chocolate, the clouds descended and we lost contact with the leading group. An eerily expansive acoustic edge accompanied the final set of pinnacles, and we guessed that through the mist and clouds were drops ever increasing in height. It was with no shortage of glee, then, to happen upon the railway tracks up to the cafe at the top, and the best-tasting cuppa tea in England and Wales.

The North Face.

A long way down

Vultures circling

Looking back, as the clouds roll in

This was definitely a good idea. I am sure.


Dropping in for a final night of food and drink in Birmingham with Jess, I took the slow train back to Cambridge, packed up, and readied myself for one more long flight back to Asia. Fair England, how I do miss thee.

... enjoy this video of some far braver souls, as they traverse the knife edge. Imagine, while watching it, me straddling the apex, legs both pointing straight down to different valleys. Not quite the dare devil!

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Wulai - Sanxia Hike

Suited and booted

After finding the rather great hiking blog, Pashan, we were inspired to go and trek pastures new around Wulai. It's Labour Day weekend here, and the weather has just been impeccable for the whole time, so no excuses could be found not to strap on the boots and get motoring.

Indian Jones-style bridges.

Abe illustrates his bike-handling skills.

The hike was well graded, and punctuated by groups of improbably old Taiwanese hikers coming the other way. It's a sad fact, but hikers that we bump into tend to be old, and complain that the youth today are not interested in Hiking. Although I usually take these types of comments with a grain of salt ('in my day...'), I have to say I agree. However, I do hold out hope that in the grand rollercoaster of Taiwanese trends, hiking will follow folding bikes in rising popularity - perhaps it will be some local tech GPS gadget that kicks it off - who knows.

After reading the Pashan article, detailing the Sanxia-Wulai Trail, we did manage to get one minor detail wrong... the starting point. As a result, the fantsatic diving pools 'in the first third of the trail' were not quite where we expected them to be, but no matter; we'll be back soon to do it properly. Here is a map of the starting point / ending point:

View Wulai - Sanxia Hike in a larger map

Team Taipei

Air conditioning for whom?

After the hike, we headed straight for the smoked chicken roadside restaurant, and devoured all manner of vegetables and delicious bird. It then did not take an enormous amount of persuasion from Tasha to head to Gonguan and rather a special chocolate shop, where we each ordered a brownie large enough for 12 people. Food coma. Bed.

Link to my Flickr set for Wulai-Sanxia

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