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Published: February 4th 2013
Friday, a day like any other; 9 to 7, work/pressure/deadlines/stress compounding, and hardly have I had a moment to exhale before I’m being escorted along a winding road up the side of the mountain in the pitch-dark Taiwanese night. We are en route to climb Snow Mountain (雪山), Taiwan’s second highest peak at 3886m. Landslides have taken some roads and left others, but fortune is on our side and, besides some fog obscuring the roadway at times, our arrival is obstacle free. A pit stop yields refreshingly cool, crisp air that brings life to these city lungs with every inhalation.
I am in the company of a mosaic of nationalities: Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Thailand, Scotland, England, Finland, Germany, France, America, and Canada (but somehow not Taiwan) are all represented in our crew, with Neil and Ross of locally reputed Taiwan Adventures guiding us.
Our post-midnight arrival to the Snow Mountain Park office is enlightened with a tongue-bitingly ridiculous Chinese-only safety video; now headlamps are on and we are marching up and away, single file through the spooky forest. Extra layers are peeled off within minutes as we
begin sweating under the weight of our heavy packs.
No sooner is my heart pounding in my chest than we have arrived at the Qika Hut (2463m) and it is time to retire. Being a light sleeper at the best of times, I don’t even count on getting a wink of sleep under these conditions: 50+ sweaty, headlamp-sporting trekkers crammed into a single chamber, with sleeping bags laid out on two long wooden bunk-planks, and people moving about throughout the duration of the night, packing and unpacking a million trekking gadgets, individual wrapped in crinkly plastic bags. My expectations are not defied.
Rising to sunny skies on the first day of a trek always sets the mood for a marvelous day on the trails. The first few hours take us through pretty subalpine forests, with oak, pine and fir our primary companions. A lunch break comes with striking views down over the Ilan Valley, and before us lies the “crying slope”, steep but certainly not to the degree of inducing tears. A few more ups and downs and we are standing on the Snow Mountain East
Peak (3201m). Clouds in all directions interrupt our views but spirits are still running high.
The 369 Hut is now within sight, with another stretch of forest and a 100-meter descent remaining, we press forward. The 369 Hut (3100m) is a slightly more rustic version of the first night’s accommodation, with slightly more cramped sleeping quarters. Sitting still brings on the chills, and after an early dinner of rice, soup, and cooked vegetables, the cold and lack of light/entertainment puts every person in camp to bed before the clock says seven PM.
I can feel the initial symptoms of altitude sickness taking effect: mild headache, restlessness, insomnia. I have to pee, toss and turn, woken by a fart in the room and headlamps in my face, ear plugs falling out, shoulder blade cramped; 7pm turns into 2am, without so much as a wink of sleep, and it is time to rise. I suspect I am not alone in my discomfort, as half my hutmates seem no less eager than I to get out of their sleeping bags and out on the trail. “下雪了” (it’s snowing) is
the rumor spreading through the cabin. It appears Snow Mountain will live up to its name!
A hot breakfast of coffee and congee garnished with Taiwanese pickles, honey dried tofu and peanuts proves the perfect remedy to my fatigue. I get the excitement tingles as I scarf down the hot food, snowflakes landing on my gloves and the tip of my nose. I am ready to do this!
Taiwanese trekking groups surround their leaders, who guide them in hip-thrusting stretches and lecture them on safety. Our group heads out last, but quickly bypasses the others as we maintain a steady pace. The Black Forest is black as can be, seeing as we are passing through in the middle of the night. A few vertical bits of trail require hanging on to ropes, but otherwise it is a steady climb, eased by the fact that we are pack-free.
Suddenly we emerge into a clearing, and things get really interesting. We stop to put on our crampons as the snow gets heavier and the trail more intense. Zigzagging our way up
the face of the peak, my pace is reduced to that of a snail’s. The first morning’s light begins revealing our surroundings to us just at the most terrifying section—a straight stretch along a tiny, snow-covered ledge within an immense bowl on the upper portion of the mountain. It is light enough now to note that to my right the mountain only goes down, down, down the mountain and into a pre-dawn foggy abyss. Only the spikes of my crampons, which I purposely jab as deeply as I can into the icy snow with every step, keep me from plunging into obscurity. I feel a combination of exhilaration and fear, the precise recipe that transforms common trekkers into height junkies.
The trail steepens further, and every single step becomes a challenge. I have to pause every minute on average, breathing heavily and cursing aloud. I console myself by fantasizing about a warm embrace in a soft bed with my loved one. A final heave and I am standing on a summit; not quite the summit, but it is gorgeous nonetheless. Snowy bushes form maze-like paths that lead the way to the
absolute summit only a few hundred meters away, the 2nd
highest point on the island of Taiwan.
I stumble to the peak not unlike an injured soldier slowly but ever so determinedly fleeing from battle, and it is blood-chillingly cold. Bearing -30 degree weather in Canada only 3 weeks earlier did not adequately prepare me for the windy chills blasting upon us. We spend just enough time on the summit to pose for group and individual shots with the summit sign. My gloves are only off for a few minutes to snap photos and my fingers have begun to freeze. Realizing my faux pas, I am forced to rub them back to warmth, and it is only once we get moving downhill and my blood starts flowing again that the pain subsides.
I feel as though I am practically running down the mountain now, or rather falling in a semi-controlled manner. I do the entire descent back to the 369 Hut on my own, loving every moment of solitude, snapping photo upon photo, conversing freely with the Black Forest. Just prior to arriving back at the
hut, I take a big step and a sharp pain rips through my right knee, the one that has been sore for a few months. I am forced to proceed with caution to avoid further injury.
Entering the cabin area feeling like a marathon record-setter that lacks an audience or single eyewitness, I inhale some hot noodles and then find that my sleeping ability has returned in all its capacity. I pass out on the bunk, and within what feels like mere seconds, have to wake again for the remaining descent. My pants, soaked in sweat, are steaming in the chilly, high-altitude air as I get out of sleeping bag and pack up my belongings. I am dreading walking another foot, especially under the weight of my huge pack and soaking wet gear.
The final descent is pleasant and unhurried, until I make a second awkward step and twist my knee again. “Going down is harder than going up” is a hiker’s favorite expression that I never subscribed to, until now. Slowing right down, with my fragile knee feeling the impact of every step, my descent
becomes a mental exercise of counting the distance signs, posted every 100 meters, which seemed to countdown ever so slowly. Compensating for the injury by stepping down with my left leg, the latter becomes sore as well. For the final hour, I suffer sheer physical exhaustion, with every muscle in my body aching and screaming for rest. I rejoice at the sight of the parking lot, all of this a reminder of the seriousness of the 3-week advance notification given by Taiwan Adventures to exercise and adequately prepare the body for the tough trek.
As we cruise off Taipei-bound, we pass through the gorgeous area of Wuling Farm, once commissioned by Chiang Kai-Shek for the production of fruits and vegetables and now a locally-renowned cherry blossom viewing ground. The cherry trees are on the verge of blossoming, an annual occurrence that motivates thousands of Taiwanese motorists to clog the narrow roads leading up the region. Fortunately for us we are a few weeks short of that time, not to mention that fact that several other fruit trees are in full blossom, including pretty pink and white plum and apple blossoms respectively.
Back in Taipei, the city streets feel smoggy, rushed and surreal, considering only this morning I was standing atop mighty Snow Mountain, looking down upon clouds as they snowed down on the valleys far below. For more of my photos and travel stories, or to buy my book "Taiwan in the Eyes of a Foreigner", visit www.nickkembel.com
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