Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Yushan (aka Jade Mountain)

Yushan National Park is the largest of Taiwan's parks and contains 30 or so peaks that are over 3000m.  The tallest of these is Yushan, which has a height of 3952m and is the highest peak in northeast Asia.  Derek - a coworker from AST - and I traveled there to get away from the city and possibly summit Yushan.  Grades and the end of the quarter kept us from truly being prepared and we did not have time to apply for the necessary permits.  Would we be able to get in?

frosty Yushan

From Yushan

As we scrambled to get gear, maps and other items for the trip, the persistent question of is there any other way to get to the peak paid off.  Well, yes if you want to walk a longer distance.  What we had plenty of was time so as we left the chaos of Taichung behind and set our sights on the tiny village of Dongpu. This village, at approximately 1000 m, is nestled between peaks and is home to hot springs from the tectonic activity in this area.  Arriving in town, we found a few friendly faces to direct us towards a place to park the car and unloaded our bags.  The plan was to be out for six days.  If we reached the top, great.  If not, OK.  The report from the ranger stations was that winter climbing conditions were in effect.  This meant that to reach the top ice axes and crampons were necessary.  We did not have this equipment with us and agreed that the need would dictate whether or not we summited.

View of Dongpu as we quickly gained elevation

From Yushan

It has been awhile since I've carried a full pack and I felt the weight as we reached the Lolo shelter. Darkness fell while we finished our first camp meal of the trip and we retired to tents for the night. The next morning, we were lucky to begin with blue skies as we continued into the wilderness area.  The scenery was amazing!

Series of Cascades

From Yushan

While beautiful, the terrain was a bit on the sketchy side.  The landscape is rugged and steep, and lots of rain has the tendency to fall in the mountains.  This combination quickly adds up to landslides, which were evident everywhere as the remnants of bridges dotted the trail.  At times, a detour sign would change our course to straight uphill as we had to skirt the landslide.  These detours made us work hard and added serious climbing as we went up and over the washout portion of the trail.  In other instances, the trail would continue through the slide area with minimal footing above a serious penalty.  In many places, the rock was rotten.  Like cardboard left out in the rain for days, the rock -a shale type - was like mush in my hands.  Holding on in an attempt to gain traction was almost pointless.

A section of trail with a bridge holding on...

From Yushan

Our goal for the second day was Patongguan - a meadow between peaks and a crossroads of multiple trails. Arriving in late afternoon, we set up camp in a depressed area that offered some shelter from the chilling wind.    Scattered about were ruins from Japan's occupation of Taiwan.  The little I gathered from signs on the trail indicated that Japan - in an attempt to subdue the aboriginal people - built a series of roads and outposts through the high mountains.  Low rock walls were all that remained.

Enjoying an early dinner, we were treated to a beautiful sunset as the day's clouds disappeared and stars slowly began to appear. Facing south, I marveled at how clear the night was and slowly fixated on a constellation that seemed familiar.  Four stars - the Southern Cross!  Reportedly, Taiwan is one of the most northern places where this constellation is visible and it was shining brightly down upon us.  Turning around, constellation after constellation gleamed in the night sky.  Eventually, the cold air forced us into tents for a night of howling wind that shook my little tent.

From Yushan

Day 3 - grey skies and cold.  The question of the day was whether or not we would be able to reach the summit of Yushan.  Would there be ice?  Would the weather be passable?  How steep would the trail be?  What could we do but get up as early as possible so that we would have enough time.

The scenery continued to impress.  It was like walking through a Chinese landscape painting.  Clouds swept by in all directions - traveling high to low, left to right, low to high... From time to time we caught glimpses of towering peaks high above.

From Yushan

We reached Laonong River Campground and set up tents and grabbed lunch.  Hoping to travel quicker without the heavy packs, we put essentials in one bag and continued climbing.  Breaking above tree line brought several good bits of information.  1- The fog had cleared and the skies were becoming bluer and bluer.  2- The severe winter conditions that we had been threatened with were almost nonexistent.  Patches of snow covered some of the ground on the approach but these were minimal and provided more of an opportunity to huck snowballs.

Reaching the ridge joining the Main and North peaks of Yushan, we headed up the steep scree trail as wind pushed down on us.  At this point, we were still unsure whether we would actually reach the summit. Coming from the north, we could not see the trail to the top.  The face in front of us showed ice on the rock.

From Yushan

At the top of this climb, we joined the trail from Tataka - the "normal" ascent.  It was empty!  No one else was on the mountain. The route to the summit appeared to be clear and a short while later we were on the top of Taiwan.  The view was amazing!

After running around a bit on the ridge, we descended back to camp with decisions to make regarding the remainder of the trip.  The weather the next day dictated our choice - it was cold and the visibility was limited so instead of returning to summit other peaks of Yushan, we headed back towards Patongguan.  From there, we continued south with the hope of better weather the next day to summit Hsiukuluan Mountain.  On the way we were treated to a rare appearance of the sun as we crossed a bridge over a nice series of pools and cascades.  A bit yucky from the days outside, we each grabbed a pool to wash off.  Imagine my surprise as I'm changing and suddenly a group of people come trudging down the trail.  These were the first people we've seen since two at the beginning of the hike.

That night, we camped at Banaiyike Cottage.  Doesn't the word cottage bring out thoughts of a nice quaint building tucked into a meadow?  Not the case.  This ramshackle building was no eye candy, but we managed to find some level ground to pitch our tents.  Sometime in the middle of the night, I registered the faint pitter-patter of rain on the tent.  Ugh.

The rain continued as the day our fifth day breaked and we debated whether or not to begin our return to Dongpu or to day hike towards Hsiukuluan.  Not wanting to return to civilization, we grabbed one bag and headed out.  Reaching Chungyang Cottage (future reference - this would be a great place to visit in the summer.  Beautiful river setting and nice structure), the trail's gradual ascent turned serious and we began climbing.  Clearing tree line, the weather worsened and the lack of cover found us quickly soaked through.  With higher elevation came a strong, cold wind.  Fortunately, we reached Paiyang Cottage just as my core temperature started to decline and we refueled.  Deciding the peak could wait for another trip, we returned to camp with the intent of packing our tents and making our way out.  As we reached camp and considered packing, a surprise arrived.

Seven Taiwanese men came marching around the corner.  One spoke some English and as we offered to share the small area with them, they quickly began working.  Within moments, their lunch was prepared and a raging bonfire was drying everyone out.  What a game changer!  We joined the circle around the fire and slowly began to warm up.  Well, not too slowly as it turned out.  Derek managed to burn a hole through his socks and as I stood by the fire one of the men pointed at my leg.  My rain pants were slowly melting away!

Body fires put out, we decided to stay the night to maintain some sense of warmth and walk out the next day. Questions again began pouring through.  Would the rain make trail conditions worse?  What was the possibility of landslides either sweeping the trail or us down to the river?  Would the rain continue?  This last question kept us up all night as the rain continued without pause.

Hoping that we would have enough time to make it to the car, we woke early the next morning and quickly packed camp.  The task was simple - descend 2000 meters in 20 kilometers.  The rain persisted but the trail conditions did not deteriorate.

We crossed back over bridges

From Yushan

and made our way through former landslide areas.  Six hours later, our knees ached as we reached Dongpu and the car!

Parting shot - Yushan East Peak on a clearer day

From Yushan


  1. Sounds like an epic trip! Fantastic!

  2. Nice trip, looks really fun! :)