玉山 Yushan

Hiking Taiwan

After about a year living in Taiwan, I take my shot at its highest peak 玉山 Yushan. 玉 is the Chinese character for jade (you can think of it as three pieces of jade strung together on a string). In winter, the snow-covered top looks like a jade stone, hence the name.

Permits for the overnight stay at 排雲山莊 Paiyun Lodge are notoriously hard to come by. Some might argue it’s harder to get the permit than to actually climb the mountain. Instead, Yushan becomes the latest chapter in my book of insanely long day hikes.

I arrive in Shangdongpu the day before the hike, located half an hour from Alishan Transport Station (infrequent bus 6739 towards Sun Moon Lake). I go for a short walk to explore the area and help my body getting used to the altitude.

After a cloudy day, the sun comes out just in time to perform a gorgeous sunset on top of a sea of clouds hanging over the hills below. This shall remain the most sunshine I’ll get all weekend. I spend the night at Dongpu Lodge and settle in for an early rest.

My alarm is set for 00:40 but I wake up to the first group of hikers getting ready about an hour earlier. Feeling energized and ready, I decide to get going too. I brew a cup of coffee and hit the road at 00:20. For some reason, my trusted hiking boots create a painful pressure point on my right ankle. A mere 5 minutes in, I strap them to the back of my bag and decide to hike in my barefoot shoes until the terrain requires something sturdier. I end up wearing them all the way to the top.

A few minutes later, I pass the 塔塔加小隊 Tataka police station. It’s still closed at this early hour, so I drop my mountain permit in their mailbox and continue along the road to 玉山登山口 Yushan trailhead. Shuttle busses run here but not before 6:30am, so I walk the 3 km along the silent street. Time flies fast, and I soon find myself on the 8.5 km long trek to Paiyun Lodge. The trail slowly zig-zags upwards through the forest; to the right, I can hear water gushing down the mountainside on the opposite side of the valley. Clouds hang in the sky, and the atmosphere is a bit eerie. Lucky for me, the rain never comes; there’s nothing more than a light drizzle.

The trail is well maintained, and there are distance markers every 500 metres. Apart from a few exposed sections secured with metal chains, it’s a straightforward, never too steep uphill stroll. There are some areas with risk of rockfall which you’re recommended to clear quickly. I don’t see much beyond the range of my headlamp as I focus on the trail taking it one step at a time. Multiple signs along the path explain the plant and animal life on the mountain. I snap photos of them to read later.

It always takes a bit longer to get into my rhythm when climbing at night, but once I find my hiking mojo, I cruise up the mountain in no time. I do breathing exercises to help with the acclimatization and pace myself not to go too fast. Still, I soon realize that instead of reaching Paiyun Lodge by daybreak, I’ll likely make it all the way to the summit before sunrise.

I reach Paiyun Lodge shortly after 4am. The hikers who aim for the peak for sunrise have already left, and the ones who plan to start later are still asleep. I have the place to myself and take a short break to eat a granola bar. I adjust my clothing by adding a few layers as the temperature begins to drop.

From the cabin, it’s not far to the summit, and I’m surprised how fast the first kilometre flies by. I pass a few hikers as the trail begins to get rockier. I need to use my arms to climb, and my gloves are soon soaked by the mist that accumulates on the granite rock and metal chains. I walk through the 50-metre long wind tunnel, a metal construction created to protect hikers from rockfall or being blown off their feet by strong winds. The place is called 鳳口 Fengkou (Wind Mouth) for a reason, but it’s not too bad today. From here, another trail leads to 玉山北峰 Yushan North Peak and 玉山北北峰 Yushan North North Peak, but that’s for another adventure. Today, I turn right and complete the last 200 metres to the top of Taiwan’s highest peak.

I reach the summit at 5:40am, in time for sunrise. However, the mountains are covered in dense fog, and there’s no sun in sight. It’s still a great feeling having reached the top of Yushan. I find a spot out of the wind, take a break, chat with some of the locals, re-adjust my clothes once more (it’s time for rain pants and a thicker beanie) and finally switch back to my hiking boots.

After 40 minutes, I begin my descent back to Paiyun Lodge. When I arrive, the park rangers check my permit. I have a second coffee and some more snacks. After that, it’s time for the long way back.

After 6 km, I reach the trailhead to 玉山前峰 Yushan Front Peak. It’s a 1.6 km de-tour (return), but, oh boy, those 800 meters are tough. Having already hiked for 20 km and more than nine hours doesn’t make it any easier.

The trail starts innocent enough, and I soon hit the 0.6k and 0.4k markers before the path turns rocky and I’m climbing through a wide boulder field. After that, there are a few ropes to help me along. It’s not very difficult, but it feels a lot longer than the advertised 800 meters (it’s not). Finally, the trail runs out of mountain, and after 45 minutes, I stand on top of Yushan Front Peak.

The fog has lifted slightly, but it’s still too cloudy to see much of the surrounding landscape, so I soon begin my descent. The rocks are wet, and some are loose, so I take my time, tediously negotiating the trail back down. I meet the occasional day hiker; a local father is doing the trip barefoot, bringing his family along. The youngest kid is maybe 5 years old and navigates the boulder field with ease. I feel clumsy with my heavy hiking boots. After a long 50 minutes, I’m back at the intersection with the main trail.

From here, it’s another 2.5 km back to the trailhead. I skip the opportunity to take the shuttle bus and instead walk a final 4 km back to Dongpu Lodge. After 13.5 hours, I finally get myself into dry clothes, prepare a bowl of cup noodles and take a nap.

Then, I look at my phone and start applying for the Yushan overnight permits again.