Occasionally, just very occasionally, so many good things happen all at once to make an event so amazing and unexpectedly awesome, that even the hardest of sceptics are won over. Such was our ascent of Taiwan’s highest mountain, Yushan / Jade Mountain 玉山 these past few days. Incredible!
If you’ve been reading this blog over the last month, you’ll see I’ve braved the intense heat and humidity of Taipei to climb a few mountains. Endurance, resilience, stamina all put to good use. But without telling you why. Just in case. Don’t want to say too much. Well, it was all because of Yushan. Because after years of applying for a permit to stay at the Paiyun Cabin / Lodge (2.4 km below the Yushan Main Peak – and the place to stay in order to make an early final ascent to the summit), we finally got THE permit. YES! And for 12 people no less. No mean feat, I can assure you. And what’s more, we got permits for two nights!
My good friend, Jasmine Yu, who has kindly included me on her mountain expeditions with her extended family over the past few years, also invited me to join them this time. Their dream has long been for a trip to Yushan, really ever since Jasmine climbed Yushan for the first time in 2010 with a group of her colleagues. And so, nearly every summer she spends hours and hours applying for the chance to get a permit. But there’s only bunk spaces for less than 100 people at Paiyun, and summer is a popular time. Two years ago, we did actually get the Paiyun permit, but then a typhoon came and we had to cancel the whole trip. This time, Jasmine started applying about 6 weeks ago, and applied every day for 2 weeks. The applications have to be made one month in advance. But every day, the answer was ‘no’. Then suddenly on the last day, we got news. Yes! 12 permits for Paiyun, and not just for Thursday July 27 only, but it turned out for the previous night too. 2 nights? At Paiyun? Are you sure? How did that happen? Well, we were first on the waiting list for Wednesday night, but still eligible to apply for Thursday night. We hit the jackpot on Thursday night – then 12 people in different groups cancelled for Wednesday, so we had permits for both nights.
But we were still a little nervous. Anxiously watching the weather forecast…..
Last weekend, it seemed like the whole of the western Pacific was roaring with typhoons and tropical storms blowing this way and that. Three were up near Japan. One was down near Vietnam. And a low pressure area east of the Philippines might possibly strengthen into a typhoon and be coming this way.
But by Monday, the weather forecasters were announcing that it wasn’t coming after all. Phew. We could go!
So on Tuesday we breathed a huge sigh of relief, packed our rucksacks and set off. Our group included Jasmine’s husband, their 2 children, her 76-year-old mother and 2 of her sisters, one husband, one nephew, one friend, and of course our guide and leader, Lai San 賴桑 ~ who did an amazing job leading the way, carrying 30 kg of luggage too. We had applied for our permit using our new group name, Edelweiss – the flower grows all over the high mountains of Taiwan – including Yushan, and the song was performed by Jasmine’s son at a recent musical event. So we were the Edelweiss Group!
On Tuesday night, we stayed at a small guest house in the Bunun Tribe’s Wangxiang Village (望鄉部落) in Xinyi Township, Nantou, where many of the men work as porters or guides for people climbing in the high mountains. We had already met two of them on previous trips. The villagers are mostly all members of the Presbyterian Church. From the place where we stayed, we got our first view of Yushan early the next morning…. excited YAH!
By 9:00 am on Wednesday morning, we were at Yushan trail-head (at 2,600 m above sea-level) ready to start our 8.5 km climb to Paiyun. The sun was out, the skies were blue, the clouds were white, the path was clear, the weather was cool, and we were smiling away ~ and all in yellow!
The trail is well-marked and has very helpful signboards all along it explaining things. It also has a few rest places with eco-toilets ~ and of course lots of people going up and down. Our ascent to Paiyun Lodge took us about 6 hours. Most amazing of all the people who we met on the trail were the guys who work at Paiyun, they have to carry everything up on their backs – 35 kg at a time. Respect.
Most afternoons in summer, the mists come rolling in and it rains. We got to Paiyun just in time. We watched the rain from our sleeping bags!
Paiyun provides meals, sleeping bags, toilets, hot water (for drinking, not bathing) and shelter from the cold. It was 15°C when we arrived – and falling.
Paiyun is 3,402m in altitude – that’s High with a capital ‘H’! At that altitude ~ and on the wooden boards that we laid our sleeping bags on, sleep is difficult and headaches are common, and all the people around on each side are busy snoring away (ha ha, actually my neighbours were quite quiet!) Anyway, it really means that nobody can expect a 5 star night’s sleep. Plus, at 1:00 am, we were all getting up. Yes, 1:00 am! Breakfast was at 1:30 am and by 2:30 am we were all ready, with our headlights on, for a day on the Yushan mountain tops.
The idea is to do the final push (2.4 km) to the summit in the darkness, and arrive on the top to see the sunrise. Most people are then descending all the way down back to the trail-head and going home. But we had 2 nights at Paiyun, so we had a whole day. Yes a whole day! Jasmine’s mother stayed at Paiyun all day, resting and talking to everyone (she’s very friendly!) but she got up to see us off. It was 10°C at 2:30 am and cold ~ but the slopes are steep, and soon we were removing layers.
The stars were bright, amazingly beautiful. But we had to focus on the trail ahead of us. It’s not easy to climb a mountain by headlight only! Up and up the trail went, on and on. All 100 (seemed like it anyway) of us, on the route upwards. A long line of headlights moving slowly upwards. Some going faster than us – and we let them pass. It was possibly the only place in Taiwan where there was a serious traffic jam at 3:00 am on an early Thursday morning. We passed along – and up – steep scree slopes, where metal chains are provided to haul ourselves up – gloves came in handy. Edelweiss came into view. My only photo in the total darkness.
Relieved that actually we couldn’t see much. It was very steep!
And so we arrived at the top of the ridge, Fengkou (‘Wind Mouth’) at 4:30 am. Glimpses of orange in the sky were appearing in the far distance. Everyone else was turning right for the final 200 m to the summit. But with zillions of people up there, we had already decided to head instead to the Yushan North Peak first. For us, this meant a STEEP Descent. Unbelievably steep. Felt like it was vertical. All scree and rocks. A fence with metal chains guided us down. By the time we were down there, it was daylight. Headlights off. A sigh of relief!
And we headed up to the North Peak. Didn’t get too far till we turned round and saw the early morning sun hitting the main peak. THE view!
People and websites in Taiwan will tell you that Yushan is nothing special. In fact, they say that nobody would bother to climb it at all if it wasn’t the highest peak in the country. It’s not particularly difficult or beautiful or dramatic. So I have heard a million times. How wrong they are! That’s because people who say such things have only gone to the top of the main peak and back down again. They can’t have seen the view of the Yushan Main Peak from the north. In the early morning sun. Because this is the view to surpass all views. In fact it is so beautiful, that the NT$ 1,000 note has a picture of this view on it.
We spent ages just admiring the view and taking a zillion photos. And enjoying the fact that we were not with the masses of people on the main summit having to take turns for photos on the summit market. Piccadilly Circus right there. Instead, this is us!
Celebrated with everyone by eating my huge Mauritius chocolate bar which my good friend, Alice had kindly brought and which was still in one whole piece even after all those hours in my rucksack – this is me holding it!
And then up and on we went, heading to the North Peak….
On the top there’s a weather station ~ apparently the highest permanently manned (didn’t see any women, so ‘manned’ is the word) weather station in the country.
Three men stay there for a month at a time. Year round. They walk there and they walk back. Occasionally a helicopter comes and delivers things. They are there through snow, rain, hail, sun and even throughout typhoons. We had heard that the tropical storm had finally decided to spring into action and was on its way – but not expected until Saturday. The weathermen assured us that we’d be fine. Very heavy rain expected. But not until late Friday. Y’know what? Usually 2-3 days before a typhoon, the weather is fantastic. The views are always so clear. Blue skies and crystal clear views. You can see for miles and miles. Well, it was like that on Thursday. Isn’t that amazing? That an approaching typhoon should bring such amazing weather beforehand ~ and that we should be on Yushan to experience it. Anyway, the men kindly gave us coffee and let us make some of our own. How’s this for a coffee location?!
They’ve planted white daisies around the place and a few vegetables too. Isn’t this beautiful?!
And they send their weather reports to Taipei to the Central Weather Bureau (check here). Just look at this location ~ it’s just got to be the weather station with THE view!
Just behind it is the North Peak summit at 3,858 m….
By then it was 8:30 am and if we wanted to get to the main summit before the clouds came rolling in, then we needed to move on…. so back down the slope and up that nightmare of a scree slope that we had slithered down in the darkness earlier that morning. The final 200 m is so steep that the metal chains are constantly in use. It’s more like scrambling than walking. But oh the views. Just don’t look down!
Got to the very top just before 11:00 am, and just before the clouds, fast rolling in!
Yes we had done it. At last. After all these years of waiting in great expectation, we had done it. YES YES YES! Yushan, Jade Mountain, 玉山 3,952 m, 12,966 ft. Mission accomplished. Thanks be to Almighty God!
And so we slowly returned back to Paiyun, back down the same trail we had come up in the darkness…. past tons of Taiwan Edelweiss too (玉山薄雪草 Leontopodium microphyllum, endemic to Taiwan, related to European Edelweiss) ~ the views were stunning!
Arrived back at Paiyun at 1:30 pm, after 11 hours on the go. Time for a nap. We was, all of us, totally exhausted!
And then after dinner, a little walk to a viewpoint to see the North Peak and a bit of Main Peak, where we’d been earlier in the day. The clouds rolled away and the sun came out ~ YES!
This is Paiyun from just above….
Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. So they say. On Thursday night, we were in bed soon after 7:00 pm, and up with the alarm yesterday morning, Friday, at 3:00 am. But none the healthier, wealthier or wiser. Sorry about that. At such altitude, sleep is not easy to come by, and anyway, an early start gets us to see the views – and the sunrise! So 8 of us from our group set off before 4:00 am to the West Peak, 3,518m, a 3-hour round trip. West Peak is all covered in forest, but through the gaps in the trees, there were some amazing views.
From the summit we looked down on a sea of clouds above Xinyi Township….
The wind was strong, and I was wearing 4 layers of clothes! But well worth it for the views ~ and the achievement of our third mountain summit of the trip!
And so back for breakfast and packing up. By then, the Central Weather Bureau had declared a sea warning for the typhoon, so after 8:30 am nobody could set off to climb to the summit. A few people came rushing up to Paiyun just in time to set off for the summit before the deadline came. They were trying to do the whole trek in one day rather than cancel altogether. No wonder they looked exhausted. And they would have had no views at the top, it was already clouding over as we started our descent.
We had a group photo taken outside Paiyun Lodge. Y’know, this is a great achievement for Jasmine’s mum, after all, she’s 76! Our greatest cheerleader ~ even if she couldn’t come all the way to the summits, she was up each day to see us off on our way. Hope I’m like her at that age!
So bye bye to Paiyun. Farewell. We started our descent, and down we went. The clouds were behind us. Mostly. A typical pre-typhoon day. Usually immediately before a typhoon, we have alternating rain and sunny spells. That is what we had yesterday. A few minutes of drizzle then the sun came out. Repeat. All day. Fortunately we had sufficient rain to make it worthwhile getting into our rainproof over-trousers. Even for 5 minutes, it was worth it. After all, I do not like to carry something all the way up to a huge mountain and not use it, ha ha!
There were flowers growing everywhere. Not easy to photograph ~ partly cos they are small, also because I had to bend down and it’s not easy with a rucksack – balance, man, balance!
By 1:00 pm we were back at the trail-head, just ahead of the clouds. Relieved. Happy. Ah yes, time for a photo!
And so to the carpark and off to find a place for lunch / dinner combined. Yummy! And then back to Taipei. Got home about 8:30 pm.
Today, we have alternating heavy rain and sun all day in Sanzhi. The typhoon is well on its way. Due to pass over central Taiwan overnight tonight. Hoping it’s not too bad.
Much appreciation to those who made this trip possible, and those who made this trip fun. To Jasmine for her hard work in applying, planning, organizing and leading us. To her husband, Kenny for being the official chief photographer. To Lai San for his calmness and professional leadership. To Jasmine’s extended family for their ongoing cheerfulness, amiability, friendliness and warm welcome. To the children for their enthusiasm to take part in a family event with relatives of all ages. Not every teenager would be so keen!
I am forever grateful to be able to live in Taiwan and to have had this amazing opportunity to climb Yushan. It is without doubt an extraordinary mountain. Just climbing to the top in itself is an incredible achievement. But it is easy to dismiss it as just something everyone does – once in a lifetime, a kind of rite of passage. To appreciate the mountain and its grandeur, it’s massiveness, its presence, you have to see it from its northern side, from the slopes of the North Peak. From there, you can truly appreciate it in all its glory ~ and magnificence and beauty.
We spent much of our trip in awesome wonder at how everything had all worked out. The Paiyun permits for 2 nights ~ and the timing of the typhoon and the timing of our visit. All was just so perfect. If we had had only the one night at Paiyun, we’d have been trying to do it all in 24 hours, so we would have been on the summit on Friday morning, as the typhoon was approaching, and the views already obscured, and everyone a little concerned. And the wonderful weather on Thursday was so perfect – possibly because there was, in fact, a typhoon coming!
Grateful thanks to Almighty God. Truly an awe-inspiring experience. We saw so much. Experienced so much. Wondered in amazement at so much beauty. Truly humbled by God’s mercy and grace shown towards us. Privileged to have seen what others can only dream of. Honoured to have known God’s guiding hand, protection and safe-keeping throughout. To God be the glory.
And one last photo ~ a stone in the shape of Taiwan found by Jasmine’s daughter on the North Peak!
PS Monday July 31: an update on the typhoon ~ turned out to be 2 weather events, Typhoon Nesat and Tropical Storm Haitang both came sweeping through Taiwan over this weekend. One person missing, over 100 injured, lots of damage to buildings, crops and power lines, and severe flooding particularly in Pingtung.
Article in the Taipei Times here: Storms deal damage, injure 111 – Taipei Times