A trip up Jade Mountain
28.09.2014 - 30.09.2014 6 °C
Have you ever felt like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew? I was offered an invitation to climb Jade Mountain (Yushan) in the wee morning hours of a cocktail bar party in Taipei. A few local friends had decided to make the journey and convinced me to tag along. At the time, I didn’t even know what mountain I had agreed to climb. But Taiwan is a small island. I assumed even its highest peaks couldn’t be as demanding as those I mounted in Western China or South East Asia. It was only after doing some investigative work that I realized what I had gotten myself into. Upon typing ‘Jade Mountain’ into the search bar on my computer, the words ‘North East Asia’s highest peak!’ immediately popped up. I thought this must have been a mistake. Japan was home to several giant volcanoes. Eastern China was full of sacred mountains. Even Eastern Russia had a large mountain range. How could the small island of nation of Taiwan hold such a title? But it was true. Rising abruptly from the ocean floor several kilometres below, Yushan’s summit stretched four kilometres above the ground I was standing on.
With that said, the mountain certainly did not seem insurmountable. I read that there are two lodges in the park, one at a rest stop called Tataka just off the road which runs past the base of the mountain and one on the mountain itself six hundred metres from the summit in a settlement aptly named, Paiyun (Line of Clouds). The majority of people hike from Tataka to Paiyun on the first day, then onto the summit and back to Tataka on the second. Apparently, anyone in reasonable good shape can do it. So why was I worried? Well, because we didn’t have two days to finish the hike. We planned to do it in one. In order to obtain a two day permit, a reservation in the Paiyun lodge is required. When my friends applied, the waitlist was two months long. Thus, our group’s only option was to attempt a single day ascent, hiking from Tataka to the summit and back in less than twenty four hours. This undertaking was not to be taken lightly. We had to provide the permit office with photographic evidence of high altitude climbing experience and give assurance that we were physically fit enough to complete the journey. According to travel blogs, the single day hike could take anywhere from eleven to sixteen hours. But these estimates were posted by adventure climbers who clearly had years of climbing experience. How long it would take our ragtag group of city boys to reach the summit, only time would tell. What was clear was that we needed to start training.
We organized three practice hikes to whip our bodies into shape, but they were by no means strenuous. Apparently the Taiwanese method of training for high altitude climbing amounts to strolling up a small peak in the Taipei area and smoking cigarettes at the top for an hour or two. Needless to say, these pleasant day trips were not the rigorous training regimen necessary to prepare us for the difficult climb ahead. But they did give me a chance to get better acquainted with my climbing mates. Two of them I already knew quite well. Yo, the trip organizer, was one of the first friends I made in Taiwan and one of the most amicable people I had met in all of Asia. He was a people magnet to whom others are immediately drawn. Through his events, I had made many other friends. One of those friends was Xiao P, another sociable character who always brought a smile to my face with his cheerful demeanour. Yo and Xiao P owned a graphics design studio together. They were like beacons of positive energy, always making those around them feel at ease. The third member of the group was named Justin. He was much more reserved than Yo and Xiao P but still pleasant company. As a marathon runner and biking enthusiast, he was perhaps the best prepared for the gruelling climb ahead. The last member of the group was George. George had decided not to attempt the climb, but graciously agreed to drive us from Taipei to Tataka. It was a gregarious group of friends. I often had trouble keeping up with their conversation, but I did my best to pick up some local slang and follow the banter.
We began our journey to Yushan at noon on a Sunday. I was full of doubts at the time. Was I in good enough shape? Had I brought everything I needed? Were my climbing mates prepared? What about altitude sickness? I had climbed well above four thousand metres before, but the climbs had always been gradual. Our plan was to go from sea level to four thousand metres in less than twenty four hours. Odds were that at least one of us would be struck with altitude issues. How would we handle such a situation? My climbing mates were surely having similar thoughts. We went through long periods of silence as we sped down the highway. Everyone did their best to keep the doubts at bay, but they lingered above us like dark clouds.
After three hours on the highway, we turned onto a narrow mountain road and began our ascent to Yushan. The road was windy and steep, transporting us up above the clouds to a height of over two thousand five hundred metres in only a couple short hours.
It was dark when we finally arrived at Tataka, the mountainside settlement where we would stay the night. It consisted of only two small buildings; a police station and a hostel. We first stopped at the police station to have our permits checked, then onto the hostel to get settled. The accommodation was basic. There was neither a heating system nor a fire. We had to remain bundled in clothes to battle the near freezing temperatures after dark. There were no beds either, just long wooden planks jam packed full of blankets and pillows. Each individual section was only half a metre wide providing barely enough room for one to sleep on their side.
The hostel was run by a sweet elderly lady. Her chubby little frame was wrapped in so many layers of clothing that she reminded me of the Michelin man. She was kind enough to prepare a large bowl of fried rice and meatball soup when we arrived. It was the hearty meal we needed to warm our bones and relax our minds. After dinner, we quickly prepared our bags and went straight to bed. It wasn’t yet nine o’clock but we had a very early start ahead of us.
Nervous about the long day to come, I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable position. People entering or exiting the dorm often woke me up. I only managed about two solid hours before my alarm clock began to buzz at one in the morning.
Breakfast was simple, just fruit, bread and chocolate. It gave me a nice boost of energy but left my stomach in disarray. I had been dealing with stomach problems for a few days before leaving. The early morning jolt to my system did not help. Unable to relieve myself, I could only hope that there would be outhouses on the trail in the case of an emergency.
We double checked all of our belongings before we left. I had brought several layers of clothing, a poncho, a headlamp, gloves, medical supplies, water and lots of snacks. But I still couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I was forgetting something. The doubts continued to linger.
At two on the dot, we set out into the cold dark night with only moonlight, headlamps and a brilliant starry sky to guide the way. The dry mountain air was refreshing. It reminded me of a late autumn evening back in my hometown of Calgary. Small animals stirred in the brush around us as we trudged down the road. They were likely just as uncertain as us as to what they hell we were doing on this mountain in the middle of night.
Three kilometres separated the hostel from the park entrance, most of which was downward sloping. I never enjoy beginning a hike on a descent. I knew every metre we descended was another metre we would ultimately have to climb again. By the time we reached the trailhead, one thousand seven hundred metres separated us from the peak.
We stopped for a moment at the entrance to stretch and take a commemorative photo. Then we set out on the trail proper. The first couple kilometres gently sloped upwards with only a few switchbacks. It was not terribly demanding. In fact, it felt more like a nice morning stroll. Once I got into a rhythm, my stomach settled and mind was put at ease. I finally allowed myself to relax. My climbing mates, however, were not enjoying the same serenity. They were having some serious difficulties with the incline. Every thirty minutes or so, we had to take a five or ten minute break. They huffed and hawed as if we were running a marathon. Perhaps having grown up next to the mountains, I was more accustomed to high altitude climate, but I really couldn’t understand how they could be having such trouble on what was undoubtedly the easiest part of the trek.
With twenty five kilometres of hiking still ahead of us, I tried to keep a steady pace of about two and a half kilometres an hour. This seemed reasonable if we actually wanted any chance of completing the hike before sunset. Every time I tried to pick up the speed, however, I heard cries from my comrades. “Man yidian… Tai kuai!” (slow down a bit… Too fast!). Our first real test of endurance, a series of steep switchbacks up a rocky slant, nearly killed them. I began to worry that there was no way we could complete the hike in time.
Eventually we came upon a patch of steep cliffs with only a narrow path cut from the surface of a sheer rock face. In the dead of night, it was difficult to determine the size of the cliffs. To our left, they stretched high above our heads, to our right was only a deep abyss. Our headlamps revealed nothing in the darkness. It was only later, after returning in the daylight, that I realized how dangerous this patch of trail actually was. Some sections were less than a metre wide and one slip in the wrong direction would have surely spelled disaster. There was nothing to stop us from tumbling several hundred metres down into the ravine below.
As the sun approached the horizon, our surroundings were slowly revealed. It was a truly stunning setting. An immense mountain range stretched out far below the trail. In between its peaks was a thick sea of mist which swirled about the tree line. In a few short moments, the sky turned from black to dark blue to all shades of orange and red. When the sun finally poked over the horizon, it caught the peaks of several mountains in the distance, painting them a golden yellow. We were caught off guard by the beauty of it all.
Unfortunately, we did not have much time to admire the scenery. Our group had fallen far behind schedule. We were averaging one and a half kilometres an hour. At this pace, it would be impossible to finish the hike in time. In fact, if we did not reach Paiyun before ten in the morning, the park rangers would not allow us to climb to the peak.
Furthermore, one member of our group started feeling ill. Xiao P had developed a bad headache and nausea. Although he did not want to admit it, these were clear signs of altitude sickness. It was an unfortunate turn of events, but we all expected at least one of us to come down with symptoms. The odds were not in our favour. Thus, we had brought along the best treatment available: Viagra. The doctors in Taipei had advised us to bring several caps of this wonder drug onto the mountain. In addition to providing a long lasting hard-on, apparently it also treats altitude sickness. Xiao P took a large dose and a long rest. When he felt a bit better, we slowly continued trekking, taking frequent breaks and constantly checking his status.
Unfortunately, the little blue pill did little to relieve his ailments. As we gained altitude, his condition quickly worsened. The look on his face expressed his discomfort. It became clear that it was not safe for him to continue. It was imperative that we turn back and get him to a lower elevation. If his symptoms continued to worsen, he could be in serious trouble.
My heart sank as I realized that this spelt the end of our attempt to climb Yushan. After so much build-up, it was disappointing to say the least. But safety comes first, and no one wanted to see a friend get seriously ill. Yo, Justin and I made the decision to slowly return to Tataka where better treatment was available. But Xiao P did not want to see everyone turn back. Instead, he suggested that we split into pairs. One team could continue climbing and the other could return to Tataka. We all agreed that this was the best way to handle the situation, but who would continue and who would accompany Xiao P back to the hostel? There was a short moment of silence before Yo stepped up and took the responsibility. He was unwavering in his decision. Even when I protested, he would not have it any other way. “This is your only chance to climb Yushan” he said. “I can come back next year.” It was a noble gesture. After all, it was his idea to climb Jade Mountain in the first place. I was only tagging along. But that’s just Yo. He is a truly selfless person.
Our two teams split ways at about half past seven. Justin and I still had a long uphill battle to make it to Paiyun by ten, but we were ready for the challenge. We picked up the pace and started eating up the kilometres. The higher we climbed, the more difficult the trail became. The gentle slope was replaced by several sections of steep switchbacks, narrow bridges and stone steps, but we maintained a good speed. Just after nine, we arrived at Paiyun with enough time to spare for some snacks and a rest.
The lodge was a barebones establishment. There was no food, no bottled water, no garbage cans and no electricity. Nonetheless, with another six hundred metres of climbing and a long journey back to Tataka ahead of us, one night in Paiyun sounded like a dream.
We only took thirty minutes to regain our composure before beginning the final ascent. We could see the summit, but the trail leading there posed a much greater challenge than the one from which we had come. Although only two and a half kilometres long, it was very steep and rugged. It began with a series of steep switchbacks which brought us above the tree line and out into the open sun. The temperature was no higher than ten degrees but the sub tropical rays were intense. I began tearing off layers of clothing to prevent over heating.
After one hour on the peak trail, my legs began to shake and my knees buckle. My head pounded and my stomach turned. Even with frequent breaks, the pain in my calves never subsided. I didn’t know whether these were symptoms of acute altitude sickness or simply the result of ten hours of hiking on two hours a sleep. In reality, it was likely a combination of both. But I was not about to give up only three hundred metres from the summit. I continued to push my flailing body upwards.
The last couple hundred metres were the most difficult of all. The terrain was very steep, rocky and devoid of vegetation. Chains driven into the cliff face were necessary to pull ourselves up steep inclines and over large boulders. Loose stones were a constant danger, for one slip could easily send us tumbling down the face of the mountain. I carefully stepped from one rock to another, gripping the chains for support, slowly gaining metre after metre. My legs were on fire and my mind was running on fumes. I could never seem to catch my breath in the thin atmosphere. But I forced myself to keep moving.
I became so lost in my own zone that the summit actually snuck up on me. I didn’t realize I was even close until I caught sight of Yushan’s commemorative stone a few steps away. Those final steps were the easiest of the entire journey. I knew I had finally made it. It was high noon, ten hours after we had left Tataka, and I was standing on the highest point in North East Asia.
It took me a second to grasp the beauty of my surroundings. A full three hundred a sixty degree turn revealed a dream like landscape. Layers of rocky peaks poked through the mist as far as I could see. Deep green forests filled the ravines between them. Puffy white clouds floated past us like sea creatures in an aquarium. We had climbed up into a little Taiwanese heaven.
We were lucky to arrive when we did. Since very few people attempt to climb Yushan in one day, thus arriving at the peak around noon, there wasn’t another climber in sight. Furthermore, only thirty minutes after reaching the summit, a thick mist enveloped the mountain, after which visibility was reduced to about a hundred metres. Had we taken any more any more time to reach the peak, the breathtaking view would have been completely obscured.
With limited time, we were only allowed a short break at the top before beginning our descent back to Tataka. Mist followed us the entire way, occasionally splashing us with rain. After our final push to the peak, my legs had been turned to jelly. I fought to get one in front of the other. My stomach growled with hunger, sick and tired of its recent diet of snickers bars, nuts and crackers. Having already conquered my lower extremities, pain invaded my back and shoulders. I struggled to stay alert but exhaustion was fast setting in. The lack of sleep was becoming more and more troublesome.
Despite these difficulties, we kept a good pace, reaching the trailhead at about five thirty. Unfortunately, the bus which transports exhausted hikers from the park entrance to Tataka had stopped service at five. As a result, we were forced to walk another three kilometres, most of which was uphill, to reach the settlement.
We arrived at the hostel at seven in the evening, a full seventeen hours after we had left. The hostel owner prepared for us a large delicious meal of rice, beef stew, cabbage, soup and dried fish. It was exactly what the doctor ordered. The food immediately soothed my aching head and growling stomach. After remaining motionless for a few minutes, however, my legs seized up significantly. I could barely get up from the table after the meal, I nearly fell over in the shower, and three attempts were necessary to reach my top bunk bed. The minute my head hit the pillow, I was out. I slept like a rock for eleven hours straight.
The following morning we started a long trip back to Taipei. Two buses were necessary to get out of the mountains to the city of Jiayi. From there, we caught a train north to the capital. The trip took eight hours total, leaving us in Taipei at dinner time. As exhausted as I was, I could not go straight to sleep. I had a Chinese test the following morning for which I was not prepared. Thus, I capped off my Yushan adventure with a long night of memorizing sentence patterns and stroke orders. It was an abrupt return to reality for which I was not fully prepared. Half way through the chapter, I fell into a deep sleep only to wake up ten hours later, still in pain and still exhausted.
Climbing Jade Mountain certainly wasn’t a walk in the park. I dealt with aches and pains for several days after returning. But the scenery and the adventure were worth the trouble. I recommend anyone who plans to visit Taiwan to work this mountain into your itinerary. Just remember to take two days to get to the top, not one.