Thursday, April 9, 2009


When one thinks of Taiwan, it's only natural to conjure an image of beautiful beaches, electri- fying cities, or maybe even a factory or two (made in taiwan, anyone?). So when I speak of snow and ice, for example along an alpine ridge, I am sure Taiwan would not be the first place you would guess. Nor with it probably be your tenth. Or really anywhere in the double digits placewise for that matter.

In the final week of March, six intrepid idiots decided to scale Northeast Asia's highest peak: Yushan, or, Jade Mountain. Clocking in at just shy of 4,000 meters, we were to test our spirit and endurance against the toughest of elements. Altitude sickness, landslides, freezing temperatures, and falling to an untimely death were all challenges stacked against us. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Our journey began in the small city of Chaiyi, home to chicken rice. Although I can't necessarily claim they invented this award winning combination, I will have to hand it over to them that they have just about perfected. We were picked up by a friend of a friend and taken to Chaiyi's most famous restaurant serving this dish. The chicken was succulent and served with a delicious brown sauce over freshly cooked rice. That same kindly man that picked us up pressured me to drink this traditional Taiwanese licquor called Gaoliang with him. But I was no fool- it was the foulest tasting alcohol ever known; perhards it's closest neighbor is Korean soju mixed with paint thinner. So it was no surprise that I had to pass, time and time again. After dinner and stacking up on snacks, we boarded a minivan and made the winding, three hour long journey to our base camp at the foot of Yushan.

The alarm went of at 5.30 am indicating an early morning wake up call. Already geared up in our hiking clothes, we proceeded into the main hall where breakfast was being served. A heart hiker's meal consisted of roasted nuts, porridge, ginger, cabbage and tofu. Enough to energize even the weakest hearts, if you ask me.

After breakfast, we geared up, registered at the park headquarters, debriefed on the 8.5 kilomoter trek and then took off on a slow but exhilirating pace. We began in a tropical climate with palm trees and monkeys in abundance. We were even greeted by this distant relative to the human race (though he was treated more like the blacksheep of the family).

The scenery was fantastic. Once we reached the temperate climate, Taiwan took on a different shape. Palm trees gave way to conifers the hot humidity dissipated into a cool, dry climate. The sun was shining against these massive mountain ranges shooting up around us. It was hard to imaging we were already 2,000 meters about sea level considering some of these mountains encapsulating us were still another 2,000 meters above us.

After a gruelling few hours, we finally reached our base camp at 3,500 meters above sea level. Here we would acclimitise to the altitude (thus preventing altitude sickness) and prepare for the assault on the summit in the morning. As we sat there and drank our ginger tea, we watched the sun set into the distance. The overwhelming beauty reminded me of the famous saying "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor's delight." Well, with a sunset like that, we were bound for great weather the following day. How wrong I was. How wrong I was. Eventually the sun went down leaving something I have never seen in Taipei in all my years here: stars.

The problems began when we went to sleep. We settled down on what could be described as an elongated plank of wood. No pillows made it quite difficult to get comfortable while 30 other snoring Taiwanese made the rumbling snorts unbearable. Then came the headaches. Altitude sickness? I had hoped not. My friend developed the theory that the generator in the back was pumping higher concentrations of carbon monoxide into the cabin giving us the headaches. I had to agree with her because when I left the cabin to use the restroom, the headache went away.

Not quite ready to go back to bed (or lie endlessly awake in that gas chamber) I took a seat at the picnic table a decided to gaze some more at O'Rien's Belt. But what's this? It disappeared. That can't be, it was there before I went to bed. In fact, now all of the stars had disappeared. Well, this could mean only one dangerous truth- a cloud cover had rolled in. But what's more, that at 3,500 meters, we would be hiking in that cloud cover very soon.

With this disheartening realization, I went back to bed (as best I could). At 1.30 am, we were woken up by our aboriginal guides to begin what I like to call the day of a dozen pains.

After breakfast, and in pitch black, we began our treck for the last 500 meters. A much more intense degree of climbing assured us we would be at the top of the mountain by sunrise. A slow but arduous trek, we began to make progress. However, it wasn't long before our pace slowed and out rate of breathing picked up. Even now, heavy gulps of air seemed useless in providing enough oxygen. The air was thin, the body exhausted, and the prized summit seemed ever elusive. At one point I yawned so hard, I strained a jaw muscle. I have never met anyone that has experienced this (basically my jaw muscle cramps up when I yawn very hard) but it is very painful. It also seems to be doubly painful when it happens when you're climbing a mountain.

At 3,750 meters from the top, things took a drastic change for the worst when our alpine climate delivered us snow and ice. So now, I was gassed, exhausted, suffering from altitude sickness, cramping, and to top it off: freezing. Let me set the scene: we are along the edge of a cliff, in the middle of the dark, covered in ice and snow, scrambling up loose rocks 3,750 meters above sea level (with those palm trees and monkeys). We were being served insanity for breakfast. Eventually, the sun rose revealing that one wrong step would send us plummeting over the edge to our untimely death. This was not comforting as the loose rocks were giving way and the ice was undermining each step we took. I used to joke that, at 4,000 meters, Yushan was about half the size of Mt. Everest. Therefore, by climbing up the mountain and then climbing back down it would be like climbing Everest. What I didn't expect was, that with all the ice and snow, it would actually be like climbing Everest!

There have been a few times in my life where I wasn't sure if I would make it out alive- swimming with Bull Sharks in Thailand, camping on an active volcano in the Philippines. This was, by far, the closest meeting with the end I have thus encountered. It finally got to the point where our guide turned to us and said: ok, it's too dangerous, we need to turn around. Well, a whole host of emotions surged through me. Relief we were going back. Anger we didn't make it to the top. Excitement that I was in a situation that required us to "turn back". Blinding fear that I was in a situation that required us to "turn back". Slow and steady steps ensured we wouldn't fall over the edge as we paced our way back to the base of the mountain.

The return was long and tiresome. Our legs wanted to give out, but we pushed on. Eventually, we arrived back at the camp, greated by our bus and tour guides with delicious fruit and instant noodles, and made our long ride back to Taipei. From your mountaineering adventurer of certain death: Michael.

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