Sunday, April 20, 2014

Taiwan's Wuling Quadruple (武陵四秀)

View of the Central Mountain Range from the Wuling Quadruple
(I know this is supposed to be a Shenandoah hiking blog- but I'm taking two diversions to introduce two interesting international hikes that you might not have heard of.)

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
Taiwan is not the first place most people think of when they think mountains. Yet when I think of Taiwan, it is hard for me to think of anything but mountains: after all, over two-thirds of the island is mountainous. Spend a day in the western coastal plain of Taiwan, at Ximending in Taipei or at the docks in Kaohsiung, and it's hard to imagine there's anything remotely close to wilderness on this side of the strait. Mid-day smog fills the skyscrapper-littered basins of Taipei and Taichung, honking motor scooter traffic crowds the streets, and the direct beams of June sun shine down into the humid, heavy air of the lowlands. But hop in a car or on a scooter and head east onto the roads that narrow into a thread and before long, civilization evaporates and the mountains envelop everything.

The urban face of Taiwan: Taipei's Xinyi District
Taiwan may be a small island, but its mountains are certainly outsized. Formed by the subduction of the Philippines Plate under Eurasia, Taiwan boasts many parallel ranges of mountains, of which two, the Zhongyang Mountain Range (or the Central Mountain Range) and the Xueshan Range (or the Snow Mountain Range), have peaks that reach over 3,000 meters high (10,000 feet). The mountains top out at Yushan, which is just shy of 4,000 meters high- a height comparable to that of America's Rockies. Yet unlike the Rockies, which rise from the mile-high Plains west of Denver, the Central Mountain Range and the Snow Mountain Range both rise straight from the sea. The east coast of Taiwan is a rare place where nearly 10,000-foot high peaks stand just a longer stone's throw from the ocean. The mountains are thus incredibly sheer and steep, making for dramatic scenery and challenging hiking.

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
During a summer visit to Taiwan, I decided to knock off four of the Hundred Peaks by attempting the Wuling Quadruple: a set of four challenging peaks along a ridgeline high above the Wuling Valley in the Snow Mountain Range. While these peaks are nowhere near the highest in Taiwan, they were located in the heart of one of the most famously scenic regions of the Snow Mountain Range. While the Wuling Quadruple is quite well known to Taiwan's hikers, it's often overshadowed by its more famous neighbors: Xueshan, or Snow Mountain, which is the second highest peak in Taiwan, and Dabajianshan, a distinct barrel-shaped sharp peak featured on the back of the five-hundred New Taiwan Dollar note. The most celebrated high-mountain route in Taiwan links these two summits: the Holy Ridge. This line of 3,000-meter high peaks has some of Taiwan's most beautiful mountains and most difficult hiking, with roped descents of the Sumida cliffs and trails on the ridge's narrow spine north of Xueshan. The Wuling Quadruple is set perpendicular to the Holy Ridge and is the perfect location to study the ridge's great peaks.

The full Holy Ridge from Kalahei: Xueshan on the left and Dabajianshan on the right
The three-day-long hike began the evening before we hit the trail, at the train station in the small city of Fengyuan. Our guide, who told us to call him A-liang, picked us up at 7 PM that Thursday evening. The group was me and a handful of weekend warriors from all around Taiwan: a software engineer from Hsinchu, a couple from Tainan, a woman from Muzha who had just climbed Nanhuda Shan a few months earlier and fallen for hiking in the island's highest mountains. Each carried a 30-pound pack of gear and clothes that they would have to lug up two vertical miles in the coming days. The drive to Wuling was long and uncomfortable. Although Wuling Valley is in Taichung County, the same county as Fengyuan, the easiest and least dangerous way to get to it was to go around the entire north end of the island and loop down. The mountains in Taiwan are so steep and the geological events in Taiwan are so extreme that many of the routes leading into the deep mountains have been severed: earthquakes and torrential typhoon rains bring massive landslides that pull down the slopes of many mountains. The safest route in the mountains was thus one that stuck to the coast for hours before a final two-hour winding ascent to the valley. By the time we pulled out our sleeping bags for the night's rest, it was already 2 AM.

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
As we climbed, views began opening behind us on occasion. The jagged peak of Zhongyangjian Shan stuck out above the clouds at first. But as the day progressed, the mountains began gathering the clouds, and by shortly before noon, the sky was looking ominous. Just after we transitioned from hiking in a subtropical rain forest to hiking in a subalpine hemlock forest, the rain arrived: gentle at first, then downpours. We picked up the pace to cover the rest of the distance to Xinda Shelter as quickly as possible. The trail became a mudpit laced with slippery roots and unstable rock ledges. I stumbled forward through the ridgetop fields of cane until arriving at the shelter. Waterproof gear was almost useless against the two-inch downpour that had just occurred: everything I had brought was soaked.

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
Mountaineering in Taiwan always means early mornings. We were on the trail before 4 AM the next morning, heading towards the summit of Pintian Shan. The second day did not start well: I didn't sleep well because my sleeping bag was soaked and I was beginning to feel the altitude, since Xinda Shelter was at over 10,000 feet in elevation. When we hit the trail in headlamps, I wasn't sure at all that I would have enough energy to summit any of the four peaks. I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into: I was cold, a little wet, very tired, quite out of breath, and going further still up a mountain.

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
Well, it didn't seem so crazy until I looked down. The Pintian U-shaped cliffs are exactly what they sound like: the ridgeline of the Wuling Quadruple makes a steep drop just before the summit of Pintian that takes the shape of a U. Reaching the summit involved descending a crumbling shale face by rope and then ascending another cliff of loose scree to reach the summit. A very narrow saddle connected the two sides of the U and on both sides of the saddle, there were deep, thousand-foot drop-offs. I would have to navigate this last obstacle just to summit my first peak of the set.
Descending the Pintian cliffs
It didn't end up being as bad as it sounded. Twenty minutes later, I had scrambled to the very highest of Pintian's many layers of sedimentary rock and I stood a full vertical mile above the bottom of Wuling Valley. The 360-view was a mindblowing set of endless peaks, including both Xueshan, Taiwan's second highest peak, Yushan, its highest peak, and Dabajianshan, its most interestingly shaped mountain. The early morning light scattered bits of gold throughout the mountainscape. With the exception of a few white and red specks that were high mountain shelters, there was no sign of human civilization anywhere. Even an island with a population density greater than Dallas, Texas can have vast expanses of wilderness.

View of Zhongyangjian from Pintian Shan
The view eastward
Mutebulu, one of the great peaks of the Holy Ridge
We arrived back at Xinda Shelter at 8 in the morning- just in time for lunch. After a brief lunch, we hiked to the summit of Chiyou Shan, the second of the quadruple. This summit was easily attained and featured superb views of Dabajianshan and Xueshan, as well as the sedimentary layers of Pintian Shan, where we had been earlier in the day. The top of the mountain was littered with rhododendrons: we had come just in time to see the most beautiful of Taiwan's high mountain wildflowers bloom.

Dabajianshan from Chiyou Shan
Rhododendrons and Pintian Shan
What passed for a trail
As if the hike hadn't been physically demanding enough up to that point, the trail leaving Chiyou Shan plunged down into a deep saddle before climbing back uphill to Taoshan Shelter, our destination for the second day. On paper, it looked manageable: a little over a thousand feet of descent in a kilometer, followed by a little over a thousand feet of uphill in less than a kilometer to reach the shelter. It approached living hell.

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
We were up again at 3 AM the next morning, stumbling in the dark up to the summit of Taoshan and then down the incredibly steep trail on the northeast face of the mountain. The trail from Taoshan to Kalahei is a story of roots, roots, blowdowns, rocks, and more roots on long stretches of descent. Kalahei is the lowest of the quadruple and thus climbing this mountain meant going downhill.

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
On our way back from Kalahei, we all reveled in the incredible scenery and our newly minted bond from the shared struggle of finishing the quadruple. The sky was bluer than ever. Our guide, A-liang turned to us and joked, "The weather is getting better each day we hike! Let's not go back today and just keep hiking, then it will only get better."

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
Want to go? You'll need a mountain-entry police permit and a Shei-Pa National Park permit to hike up. And if it's your first time hiking in Taiwan, don't think about going without a guide. Wa-ha Mountain Friends leads decent Chinese-language guided hikes, while Taiwan Adventures has English-speaking guides. I have not hiked with Taiwan Adventures before; this is for your reference and not a recommendation.

3 comments:

  1. Hi there! How did you find your guide ?

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    1. I went with a group called Waha Mountain Friends (wahamf.pixnet.net), but they only have Mandarin and Taiwanese-language guides. Taiwan Adventures (www.taiwan-adventures.com) has English-language guides and can arrange trips to the Wuling Quadruple.

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    2. Thanks lot! :) interested to hike Wuling Quadruple! :D

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