Taiwan is not an island which usually invokes thoughts of rugged mountains so when Kaylin proposed a 5 day backpacking trip in early July I was very quick to leap on that band wagon. When I agreed to this trip I was living in the dead of winter in Alaska. I pictured the terrain on this hike to be the equivalent of the Teletubbies set. Of course neither Kaylin nor myself did any research to alter this mental image. We had a permit written in Chinese, a borrowed map, and the advice of local English man whose only recent climbing experience was crawling to the back of the beer cooler at the 7 Eleven. This was going to be a breeze, a walk in the park, a piece of cake.
We set off with Kaylin on her scooter, me on a borrowed stallion, Google maps in hand, and 8 hours of scooting ahead of us. Wait, Kaylin forgot her trekking poles…okay, back on track. Arriving at the first hut around 8pm with headlamps blazing we find that the ‘hut’ is a bunkhouse suitable for 180+ people. We hustle through dinner since the Hut Dad decided that we all needed a curfew. Just to reiterate, we cannot speak Chinese, and most people cannot speak English so all of our interactions have been a giant game of charades. So, when I say Hut Dad said it was time to sleep he could have been telling us to stop drinking whiskey, or he hates a friendly game of cribbage…or white people. Either way we hit the sack, very thankful to not be sitting on those cursed scooters any longer.
The next day is an easy haul. After waiting a few minutes for Kaylin to run back and retrieve her trekking poles, we are on our way. We are still in the honeymoon stage of this hike and we are swooning over the views and the surprisingly steep terrain around us. I must point out one cultural similarity between the average American and your typical Taiwanese. Both societies seem to be unhappy with their given skin color. At the hint of sun we start stripping clothes to ‘bronze’, and that slight increase in light has the exact opposite effect on the Taiwanese. Imagine the excessively small bathing suits which are worn by Americans and Europeans to fry the maximum surface area of the body, now take the inverse of that and you have the extent of the covering which occurs in Taiwan. Where we have fake tanner and bronzing lotion, their lotions and soaps have a bleaching effect on the skin. We are dumbfounded by the majority of people which we encounter on the trail wearing long sleeved everything, gloves, umbrellas, even the occasional facemask.
The second night is spent at the last hut before the popular Snow Mountain summit and it was built to support a small legion. It differs from its predecessor by being located in the middle of a high alpine valley with stunning views. We settle in, cook dinner, play some cards and watch the sun go down. By no fault of ours, we end up sitting on the kitchen floor drinking warm kaoliang and talking to the porters for the commercial trips. For those of you with half a head on your shoulders and don’t know what kaoliang is or tastes like, take a trip down to your local Chevron or Costco fuel station, find the pump that is labeled 98 octane, wrap your lips around the nozzle and fire away. By definition it is a local sorghum wine (rice), but in practice it should be categorized as a war crime. Explaining our projected route using the same arm movements to clear a 747 for takeoff and a map, has prompted our hosts to point to certain places on said map and say “Danger!” The term danger can reflect many different situations and we cannot figure out if they are referring to a fire breathing dragon or the presence of poison ivy. The kaoliang goes around again, more dried fish snacks are eaten and we file the “Danger” comment into our brains under the ‘Bridges to burn when we get there’ category.
On the third day Kaylin performs the standard backtrack for trekking poles and then we are on our way. It is a steep but gorgeous ascent to the top of Snow Mountain and we summit just before noon. We spend the next 45 minutes realizing that this is where we leave the masses. The well defined trail can now only be described as a goat path precariously following the cliff edge. I always forget how tiring and unnerving exposure is. An hour of walking on the edge of certain death feels like eternity and when there is an approaching storm announcing its presence with ominous thunder, minutes turn into hours. The electricity has Kaylin’s hair standing straight up as we approach our third hut. A small ‘A’ frame cabin houses the two of us and 10 climbers who are our parents age. We amaze them by cooking pancakes in the morning and they astound us by revealing they have hiked just shy of 18 miles that day…in rubber boots. Once again this term ‘Danger’ is used to describe our upcoming route and we once again begin to worry.
Trekking poles now firmly strapped to the backpack we leave in the early morning. The first ‘Danger’ point has me contemplating the decision to bring a liter of whiskey, Nutella, and fresh apples when I could have instead had my rope. Another 2 hours and we are at the second ‘danger’ point. We are now climbing pitches which can be rated on the rock climbing scale with our stupidly heavy packs. The only consolation we can find is that in the case of a fall we will not need to worry about recovery since the cliff we have found ourselves perched on is 1000 feet above the next landing zone. Fantastic. Kaylin successfully reaches the top with me closely in tow. My last hand placement finds the resting place of a bee and I watch the thing sting me as I pull myself over the last ledge. I swear a lot, kill the bee, look up and swear again. Kaylin is staring at the ridge we must hike across which on a good day is a very daunting cliff face and on this particular day has a charcoal grey cloud bashing the ridge line with lightning. The feelings of fear, frustration, and disappointment have us both on edge. We discuss our options, feel the first raindrops and much to both of our dismay, decide that retreat is our only option.
We return back to our fourth cabin and study the map once more while outside a storm rages on complete with hail. With the delay, our only sensible option is to hike the way we came. Seeing as though we will hiking three days distance in one, we set to the task of reducing our food. Makeshift hot toddies, beef stew and great company prime us for an arduous last day. Surprisingly, the unnerving sections are still unnerving on the second try. The trekking poles which fought so diligently to escape now come in to play and provide relief for both of our knees. The last night is spent in the first cabin. Gassed from the long day we take the obligatory picture with the other guests, make a quick meal and get some sound sleep. At this point I am really curious to see how many Asian families have a framed picture with some awkward redhead in it.
As we drive back dodging landslide zones, cabbage trucks, and what I can only imagine to be drunk drivers, I think about how surprisingly real Taiwan’s mountains are. My respect for them has grown and Kaylin and I agree that next time we will do a little more research. By the time we leave Taiwan I will back to get a rebate on this route…maybe with my own trekking poles.