AND we lived to tell the tale ~ and all still smiling, just!
Can’t believe I’ve never been to Hehuanshan ever before, because it’s just, oh so famous! It’s Taiwan’s highest road, linking west and east coasts, and gets heavy snow in winter ~ so it’s become a major tourist destination especially for families wanting to show their children some real snow. And in summer the place is full of flowers, and it’s lovely and cool. End result is horrendous traffic jams all day every day. But it’s so beautiful that who can deny people a chance to come and see for themselves?
Even on Saturday, it was busy…
Taiwan has a list called ‘100 Peaks of Taiwan‘ (Bai Yue 百岳), which are the 100 best of the 260 mountains in Taiwan over 3,000m, chosen mainly for their ‘uniqueness, danger, height, beauty and prominence’. Hehuanshan is the best place to start, because the road is so high up that it’s just a short walk to the top of the Hehuan Main Peak and hoards of families, youth groups and passers-by find themselves there every year. Hehuanshan is also a big cycling destination, the route over the central mountains being considered one of Taiwan’s main cycling challenges. All those cyclists seem to stop at Taiwan’s official highest 7-Eleven. Forget Alishan, where I was a few months ago at their unofficial highest 7-Eleven, the one on the Hehuanshan Road even has a plaque to show they are the highest, at 2,050m. We went there on Saturday, and this is it!
Yes, this past weekend I’ve been up at Hehuanshan, invited by our good friend Jasmine, from our neighboring junior high school. For the past few years, she and her extended family have kindly invited me to join them for a few days climbing up some of Taiwan’s 100 peaks. They invited me this time too, and off we went on Friday afternoon, driving first to Lushan 廬山 in Nantou County. Lushan used to be a thriving hot spring resort, set in a deep valley high up in the mountains and surrounded by cherry blossom. But they’ve had a succession of devastating typhoons and landslides, and now, with less visitors, it has a neglected atmosphere. We stayed in one of the hot springs hotels, ideal for our early start the next day.
Saturday early morning, up we got and off we set, up and up, following hundreds of cars and zillions of lycra-ed cyclists, all of us all heading upwards to Hehuanshan, via the famous 7-Eleven! Hehuanshan is part of the Taroko National Park, and we arrived at the Hehuan National Park Center at ShiaoFongKou 小風口 ready for our big trip!
Our aim was Hehuan North Peak @ 3,422m and then along to the West Peak @ 3,145m, but that was for yesterday, Sunday. First we needed a bit of altitude acclimatization, which meant we carried all our big rucksacks to the main North Peak campsite at 小溪營地 (approx 3,200m), set on the east side, some way below the summit. Ideal for sunrises!
Here we all are, setting off, note our oldest member, Jasmine’s mother, aged 76, and our youngest, her daughter about 16, and all ages in-between. 3 generations in one family. Amazing. Her mother was planning on climbing the North Peak but not the West Peak, to be accompanied by one of the young men. All of us led by Lai San, our esteemed guide, he’s the one whose rucksack is so big and so heavy, he supports it with a strap round his head, amazing!
The environment up there is distinctly Alpine, and the grassy meadows make it look like scenery from the Sound of Music, except there’s no cows with bells round their necks like you’d kind of expect. But there is eidelweiss and lots of special high-mountain flowers. The rhododendron season is over, but there were still many pink azaleas in flower. Beautiful!
We arrived at the campsite by lunchtime, set up the tents, had instant noodles for lunch, followed soon after by afternoon tea, well, actually coffee. The most helpful, gracious and kindest A-Kuei had brought along Hawaiian Coffee, specially ground the night before, plus a very elegant long-spouted teapot to pour the water, which really upgraded the tone of the coffee ceremony!
Coffee was closely followed by dinner, and then it was dark. But all this time, lots of other campers had been arriving and setting up their tents and cooking. It was a very busy place ~ in a stunning location!
One group had decided that this was to be the location of their wedding photo shoot. Taiwan custom is to take your wedding photos at special locations and in different special outfits several months before the wedding. Turned out that this couple had met climbing mountains, so a group of their friends had organised this weekend, and had arranged to bring the bride’s dress, the groom’s suit, balloons and of course bubbles. I was so impressed I joined in the photo shoot too. And it turned out that the bride teaches just down the road from us at TamKang University in Tamsui!
After dark, time for a quick look at the view and the clouds, and flashes of lightning – I even got one in this photo! At this time of year, the early mornings start off clear, but by mid-morning the clouds start coming in, and apparently around 6:00pm almost every evening there are torrential rains. Amazingly, the clouds on Saturday night may have brought rain elsewhere, but not to us. Just flashes of lightning and thunder in the distance…
And so to bed. But be warned, staying in a campsite of over 30 small tents, dozens of people and at over 3,000m high is not luxury. I took photos of the 2 toilets to show you the luxuries available ha ha! The main luxury is water, down a steep slope at the stream. Other campers in other places in Hehuanshan have to bring all their water with them, which would be a nightmare. Camping with so many people is also not conducive to any kind of sleep. Unless you are naturally a heavy sleeper who can sleep through small children crying in the next tent, students chatting until midnight round their fire, and even an accompanying dog barking, forget sleep. By 3:00am our alarms were going off, and we were the first group up. Bleary-eyed and wondering what had hit us, by 4:30am we were headlighted and rucksacked up and in our warmest clothes, ready for the off. Off to see the sunrise which was starting just as we were departing the camp…
The sunrise was truly spectacular. Worth the sleepless night, the heavy rucksacks and the unluxurious toilets, yes worth every penny!
And so, off we went to the North Peak, leaving our heavy rucksacks in a hidden valley to be picked up later on the descent. Such a relief to drop them off.
The North Peak (3,422 m /11,227 ft) is No. 34 of Taiwan’s 100 Peaks, and by 6:00am it was already full of people, me too!
Many, like us, were on their way along the North-West Ridge Line to the West Peak. We knew it would be challenging and steep. But it well exceeded all our expectations, groan groan! There is only really one path there – and the same path back. In between the 2 peaks are officially about 5 or 6 smaller peaks (all over 3,100m in elevation) but it felt like hundreds. All very steep, sharp and yep, totally exhausting. Many have fixed ropes up / down the steepest parts….
A steep ravine on one side reminded us that in mist, it would be dangerous. Every peak we slithered down grabbing onto the ropes only reminded us that in a few hours time, we would have to come back up again. But the views were certainly spectacular, in every direction. We could even see Yushan in the far distance, Taiwan’s highest mountain. Other more familiar peaks also stood out. Familiar because in the last few years, we’ve done several of them (雪山 Syue Shan in 2011, 南湖大山 Nanhu Big Mountain in 2012 and 奇萊南峰 Chilai South Peak in 2014), and this time we seemed to be in the middle of them all!
And so we arrived at West Peak (3,145 m / 10,318 ft) about 11:00 am for a quick lunch and then back the way we came. This is the view of where we had to return to, and that’s the ravine in the distance…
It was long, long, oh so long. And so exhausting. Every time we stopped, well, a chance to have a little nap!
Up and down, up and down. Several of our group struggled with altitude problems, lack of sleep and sore feet, so our going was slow, and from North Peak to West Peak it took us 5 hours in each direction. We thought we’d never ever get there. And having got there, we never thought we could make it back. Energy zero. Speed virtually at a standstill. Certainly the number of photos taken on the way back is in single figures. Just putting one foot in front of the other was enough of an effort! But we arrived back where we’d started at the same time as an 80-year-old man walking the same route with his son and 12-year-old grandson, and the old man was wearing wellington boots. That put us in our place!
And so back to pick up our rucksacks and to get some longed-for water. We’d all been down to our last drop hours before. We started on the route back to the car. It was almost dark, and at 6:30pm, the heavy dark clouds did what they’d been promising to do for hours, and that is let loose their wrath upon us. The rain came down in such torrents that we had no time to do much other than just get wet. Soaked through in fact. The paths became rivers in seconds. At that moment I had just arrived at the road, and we waited for the minibus to come in the pouring rain. There was no shelter, so we just stood there. Others behind me were worse off cos they had to walk in the water rather than just wait in it. What a relief to go and change our clothes, have a yummy dinner to celebrate our survival, and head back to Taipei. Home at 1:30am!
This morning of course the word is ‘stiff stiff stiff, ache ache ache’. Can hardly walk or bend! 14 hours more or less non-stop walking yesterday, with about an hour’s sleep on Saturday night and 3 last night ~ now I’m paying the price ha ha!
But y’know, it was fantastic, truly fantastic! How can I delete any photo that reminds me so well of yesterday’s sunrise, the flowers or the views. Spectacular, truly spectacular!
And here they are!
See that last photo of all them big clouds? That’s the last photo I took. After that, it was all I could do to keep the camera and myself from being washed away in the rains ha ha!
There’s a blog post in Chinese with great photos here of all the same route as we did. Worth checking out!
Just to prove we did it, our 2 summit group photos…
And so, a wonderful trip, lovely people, amazing views and so many blessings.
Thanks to them all, and thanks be to Almighty God YES YES YES!