The first afternoon was bad. It didn't take me long to realize that I wouldn't be able to dry out my soaking sleeping bag while the torrential downpour continued just outside the shelter. The floors were nice hardwood, but at this point they had become a little muddy and wet from ten people's clothes hung up to dry in a two-hundred square foot space. The first night bordered on slightly miserable in a soggy sleeping bag at five degrees Celsius. At least two inches of rain fell between eleven AM, when we were halfway up the Chiyou Shan Trail, and early that evening.
Twenty minutes of high-altitude, low-latitude sun on the second afternoon at Taoshan Shelter was all it took to dry out my sleeping bag. Only twenty-four hours had passed, and I had gone from exhausted, hungry, and miserable to exhausted, hungry, and borderline ecstatic. Just the previous night I wasn't sure whether I would be able to summit any of this set of Taiwan's Hundred Peaks; that second night, I was tired but satisfied that I was just one last peak away from completing the quadruple.
After my sleeping bag finished drying, I walked the final couple hundred meters uphill to the open meadows at the windy summit of Taoshan. The wind bit and tugged at me as it pushed clouds into the two-mile deep valley below my feet. To the west, the setting sun's rays created a dazzling silhouette of the sharp peak of Dabajianshan. To the south and the east was the grandest sweep of mountains imaginable: from this 3325-meter high vantage point, I could see down the length of Taiwan's Central Mountain Range, from the great Nanhuda Shan in the north to the south at Yushan, the highest mountain in northeast Asia. Hours later, in the middle of the night, I woke up to see a bucket of stars splashed onto the dark canvas of the sky.
|Sea of clouds below Nanhuda Shan and Zhongyangjian Shan|
|The urban face of Taiwan: Taipei's Xinyi District|
The great supply of incredible hiking and climbing has led to a great supply of local hikers in Taiwan, eager to tackle the list of Taiwan's Hundred Peaks (Baiyue). Compiled by a set of Taiwanese mountaineers in the mid-twentieth century, the list contains slightly less than half of Taiwan's over 200 peaks that are taller than 3,000 meters. Peaks were chosen either for their scenery, history, or merely for the extreme challenge; completing the list has become a mark of highest accomplishment in Taiwan's hiking community. Some of the most popular climbs in Taiwan, including the Wuling Quadruple (Wuling Sixiu, 武陵四秀), have well-constructed hiking shelters high on the mountain that make multi-day peakbagging a bit easier and more comfortable.
|Dawn light on Xueshan, the second highest mountain in Taiwan|
|The full Holy Ridge from Kalahei: Xueshan on the left and Dabajianshan on the right|
The next morning, we began our three-day adventure. At the trailhead, the path we were about to take seemed tauntingly simple: a steep climb from the valley bottom up to the ridge and an overnight at Xinda Shelter the first night, summit the westernmost two peaks the second day and come to Taoshan Shelter, just short of Taoshan's summit, on the second day, and hike out to the easternmost summit, Kalahei, on the morning of the third day before descending back to the trailhead that afternoon. On paper, it sounded incredibly straightforward. And for the first hour, it was very straightforward: we followed a broad, paved, gentle hiking trail up towards the Taoshan Waterfall. But just before reaching the waterfall, we left the beaten path and started our way up a narrow trail through the Wuling forest up Chiyou Shan's north ridge. The trail was very direct: in the next three kilometers, we climbed a thousand meters, an incredible average 20-degree grade.
|The slopes of Chiyou Shan|
Yet just before the sunset, the sky very suddenly cleared. Nanhudashan and Zhongyangjian Shan, two of the most impressive members of the northern Central Mountain Range, rose across the valley from us above a small cloud sea.
|The view from Xinda Shelter|
But as dawn approached, I started to feel better, and as we reached the meadows high on the slopes of Pintian Shan, it finally became light enough for me to appreciate the view. And what a view! We stopped right before the Pintian U-shaped cliffs to watch the sun rise over an endless array of mountains. Pintian Shan was just across a small chasm and behind Pintian Shan was the incredible chain of peaks of the Holy Ridge, bathed in a fiery red dawn light. The sight was both beautiful and encouraging; my mild altitude sickness began to fade a little and summiting Pintian didn't seem so crazy after all.
|Sunrise at Pintian Shan|
|The summit of Pintian Shan in morning light|
|Pintian U-shaped cliffs|
|Descending the Pintian cliffs|
|View of Zhongyangjian from Pintian Shan|
|The view eastward|
|Mutebulu, one of the great peaks of the Holy Ridge|
|Dabajianshan from Chiyou Shan|
|Rhododendrons and Pintian Shan|
|What passed for a trail|
The 1.9-km stretch of trail between Chiyou Shan and Taoshan had some of the roughest terrain of the entire hike. The ridgeline between the peaks was not a straightforward descent and ascent; instead, it involved numerous rocky humps requiring treacherous scrambling and descents down wet, slippery rock slopes interlaced with tree roots at angles greater than 45 degrees. It took one hour and two tumbles to descend to the saddle; afterward, we just had to do the same thing again, only uphill. As we did, the clouds began to roll in, raising the threat of rain.
With an extra dose of luck, we did reach the shelter before any rain hit, arriving at just after noon. Instead of raining, the sky ended up clearing a little, letting in enough intense sun for me to dry out my gear.
|Dying rays of the sun from Taoshan|
The Wuling Quadruple trail is not impressive in length: it is a 3-day hike that covers less than 20 miles. But those three days involved about 10,000 feet of elevation gain across extremely rough terrain. The rewards were incredible, but the effort required was also incredible. It remains one of the most difficult hikes I've done. Yet at some point when I stood on Kalahei, looking out over a sea of clouds on the Lanyang Plain and then back at the rugged mountains of the Holy Ridge, I felt a wave of contentment settle in and that the post-descent creaky knees, slipping and falling on the rocky Kalahei terrain, endless ascents, even longer descents, spending a night in a wet sleeping bag, altitude-induced uncomfort- all of that was worth this one moment.
|Dawn over a sea of clouds at Kalahei|
|Views of the Central Mountain Range from Kalahei|
He was right. The mountains in Taiwan are a challenge for any hiker. But if you put up with the difficulty of getting to the trailhead, lugging a pack up a vertical mile in slippery terrain, and a torrential downpour, it will only get better. And the inspiring views were only enhanced when I realized what I had to go through to get there.
|The descent back to Wuling|