You don’t need to be an experienced hiker or hardcore endurance athlete to know that climbing a mountain is probably going to require some form of physical stamina. While I’m not in bad shape, I’d never previously attempted something of this magnitude before. It was a long time since my high school days when I would cut corners during the cross-country run in P.E. class and then lie about my finishing time. Even then, ten minutes of intense exertion was enough to bust my lungs so I would be lying again if I said I wasn’t a wee bit concerned about the prospect of climbing the tallest mountain in Taiwan.
However, the day was approaching fast and as it was a highlight of our time together, Diana and I were both eagerly anticipating the trip.
Yushan Mountain, common known as Mount Jade, towers some 3,952 meters above sea level, earning it the title of the tallest mountain in Taiwan. Quite remarkable in a tiny island that has over 280 mountains with peaks above 3000 meters.
The original plan was to stay overnight at a hostel in Dongpu on the Saturday night, before meeting Diana’s friends at the base of Mount Jade early on Sunday morning.
From there we would make the ascent. If we survived, we’d stay overnight at the lodge near the top before descending and going camping at Sun Moon Lake on the Monday evening.
Even the best laid plans can go awry and as the day drew close, our preparations began to unravel a little…
A quick check on the logistics concluded that we would have to drive almost two hours to reach the hostel on the Saturday night. That’s two people, with a butt-load of camping gear driving two hours along twisting mountain roads on an old scooter that had been showing signs of its old age.
With a few deep sighs, we sucked it up and thought we’d take the gamble, regardless of how uncomfortable a ride it would be.
We could leave with plenty of time and break up the journey, taking it easy on the bike and allowing ourselves plenty of rest from the added weight of the gear we would be lumbered with.
Two days before the hike, just as we were returning from Taichung with our new camping gear, disaster struck.
Taking an old scooter on such a mission was concerning enough to begin with.
The thought of taking a newly-reincarnated bike on its maiden journey to the base of a remote mountain did not fill me with the same hope as Polly Pooper’s return from the dead had.
Later that night, after the bike had been restored to some semblance of life, we trundled home cautiously to enjoy some cheap supermarket food.
Thinking I had struck gold by finding a cooked, roasted, sliced chicken at the deli, I gladly snapped it up. It was slashed to almost half-price and still had a day before its end date. If that’s not a bargain then I don’t know what is.
I ate about half before deciding it was pretty bland and flavorless, dumping the rest and thinking little more about it before going to bed.
Earlier, we had purchased a mosquito net and as I hid safely underneath its protective curtain, I smiled to myself knowing the little bastards would not get me tonight. Four nights in a row they had come for me about 3 A.M., relentlessly attacking my fingers and elbows until they had ruined my dreams.
Not tonight though!
At about 3am, I woke up. My dreams were disturbed once again as I awoke on the precipice of a nightmare. I bolted upright in the bed, sitting still for a moment, assessing the peculiar aura that circled the darkness around me, feeling its invisible talons take grip of my mind. The unmistakable metallic taste invaded my mouth and my stomach churned menacingly. I was wide awake now. I knew I had to run.
The next couple of hours were the worst of my vacation. Looking at the silver lining, I’m a fast enough runner when I need to be (no lies this time!) and there just so happened to be a random, spare mattress downstairs near the bathroom.
Taking my new sleeping bag for a test ride, I camped out there with a basin and bottle of water within arm’s reach. My intermittent sprints to the lavatory grew less frequent and by 5AM I was yelling to Hughie on the big white telephone for the last time.
Staring through teary eyes, I flushed my soul down the tubes and crawled back to my mattress, broken and beaten, but thankfully emptied and exhausted beyond further torture.
I felt more ginger than the toilet water the next day, even more so when the turmeric & ginger root potion that now haunts my memories made a return to my bedside. My loving nurse quickly whipped her patented health juice away again on seeing the horror it induced and then started me on a diet of water, toast and TLC to get me back in the game. A yoga meditation retreat was on the schedule for Friday and I powered through to make it and find some balance again.
Unfortunately, another blow came on our journey to Taichung for the retreat.
A call from Diana’s buds let us know that if we wanted to stay at the hostel, we need to get there by 5pm, before the road is closed. Recalling a scene from Irish sitcom Father Ted when they take the roads in on Craggy Island, I felt as bewildered as old Dougal when faced the prospect of doing our bike mission in the early hours of the morning.
Luckily, a new plan was hatched and we would only have to drive half the distance. Diana’s buddies would pick us up in their car at a 7-11 on the Sunday morning then return us to the meet to retrieve old Polly Pooper the next day.
All we had to do was go to bed early. I mean, if you’re going to climb the tallest mountain in Taiwan you’ll probably need a good night’s sleep, right? Especially if you spent the previous night being ravaged by food poisoning.
So, on the Saturday night we went to a barbecue and drank some wine. Only a few bottles between us though so it wasn’t too bad. Oh yeah, there was a few beers also. But not to worry because we’d be getting plenty of time to sleep it off.
Falling into bed around something past midnight, we had all the alarms set. I blinked a few times and then they went off. It was around 4 A.M.
Three-ish hours of sleep after a brutal bout of food poisoning and a hearty slap of wine and beer. Bring it on Mount Jade!
No wait, we had to get there first.
Climbing aboard Polly Pooper at 4.30 A.M., I assumed the role of pack mule, bracing my back to carry the overloaded, bulging backpack that threatened to pull me back off the bike.
Clinging on to Diana, I closed my eyes on the dark of the early morning roads, feeling the wind rush against my face as we sped along the deserted highway.
The scooter was so overloaded it was difficult to keep my feet on the rests either side of Diana’s feet. The weight of the backpack began to tell on my body as I held the same position in the face of the headwinds for 45 minutes, my legs frantically fighting the desire to give out and buckle under the pressure.
With my eyes shut tight I clung onto Diana and slipped into a trance, envisioning myself as a mother chimpanzee desperately hanging onto a tree during a hurricane. A mother chimp with a ridiculously heavy child that was too damn lazy and useless to hold onto the tree by itself.
Somehow, this helped. If you ever find yourself riding high-speed on the back of a bike with a heavy backpack you should try it.
Rolling up to 7-11 felt great. My legs did not. Had I actually just taxed out my main weapons for the mountain climb that lay ahead?
Not to worry, it was time for breakfast. That’s all I need, some good fuel to kick-start the day.
I am going to say something that may shock you now. Brace yourself.
7-11 does not do good breakfast food. I know, I know, shocking.
Finding good breakfast food at the only 7-11 in a rural town in Taiwan would have been a find worthy of its own blog post. Sadly, there was no such luck. I believe coffee and Ferrero Rocher was my choice from the limited menu.
Some time passed before our companions arrived. Enough for a seated snooze but far from enough to harvest the energy sources required for the mission before us.
It was some small mercy that there were another two hours of driving ahead and of course we tried to sleep the entire way. Diana had some measure of success but my body refused me such remorse.
Mount Jade lay in wait. The tallest mountain in Taiwan, towering tall as the dawn broke. Meanwhile, I yawned as wide as the mountain stood tall. My belly rumbled loud enough to start an avalanche and my legs were already pining for corners to be cut.
They say failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
When your bike breaks down that’s just unfortunate. Getting food poisoning is also unlucky but probably avoidable. However, to follow that up by putting your body through the ringer should be avoided.
Taking more alcohol than food, more coffees than hours of sleep and embracing a 45 minute endurance seated-squat-with-a-backpack-on-a-motorbike challenge at 5 A.M. is just plain ridiculous.
At the very least you’d be sure to have a hearty breakfast to fuel up for the mission. A Ferrero Rocher won’t cut it. Make sure you get a three-pack between two of you.
Amazingly, we made it to the top. Alive.
Powering ahead of our Taiwanese companions, Diana and I had a great adventure. Enjoying the spectacular views and deep conversations along the way, we made light work of the tallest mountain in Taiwan.
Taking a few breaks for our life-saving homemade trail mix of nuts, dark chocolate and dried fruit, we kept the water flowing. Eventually we hit Paiyun lodge at around 2pm. With 3400 metres behind us, we had completed almost 90% of the mountain in little over 5 hours.
Weary, with heavy lungs and leaden legs, we shuffled our well-wrapped bodies and rosy cheeks into the lodge to plea our case for a bed and sleeping bag. So keen as we were to go off on our own, we hadn’t waited around long enough to get our tickets from Diana’s friend that confirmed our booking at the lodge.
The old language barrier looked set to condemn us to a corner in the barren, baltic lunch-room as the mountain lodge staff struggled to pull the rabbit out of the hat. Listening to their Mandarin mumblings, we sighed with fatigued faces feint of hope.
Luckily, an bilingual speaker appeared from the dark shadows of the icy cavern and got the ball rolling in the right direction. Initially offering his own room and sleeping bag, he was able to get things in order before we collapsed. Before long we were wrapped up in sleeping bags, finally getting some much-needed rest.
Awakening several hours later, we greeted the evening and a crowded lodge full of despondent hikers as the news of the weather filtered through the groups of hikers that had stopped for the night.
When we arrived, we learnt that the summit of the mountain was off-limits to anyone without snow-shoes. The ice and snow meant the last 500 metres of the ascent were perilously dangerous, nigh on impossible.
As everyone chowed down on the grub that evening, many agreed that an early rise around 3 A.M. would be required to make it to the top for dawn. Grimacing at the thought, we headed for a very early night. Almost all lights were out by 7 P.M.
Between snorers and farters, we lay on a wooden shelf. The room was full of restless bodies in bags, who shuffled and snuffled their way through the night. Dawn rolled around and the sun rose. Diana and I did not.
The mediocre breakfast set us up for another day and the clouded skies and cool air awaited.
Before we set off from the lodge, our Taiwanese companions weighed up the merits of trying to reach the summit.
They were seasoned hikers and we could see they were keen to make it to the top. I understood. Even as weary as I had felt on reaching our base yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel the twinge of disappointment on learning the summit was a no-go zone.
To reach the top and see the sunrise would have been pretty special. Even to go up now and look across the horizon from the very top of the tallest mountain in Taiwan would surely be a photo opportunity worth having.
As we mulled over the pros and cons, some experienced hikers returned to the lodge.
Their hair was frozen and their clothes and faces chilled and wet. Already exhausted, they had taken 5 hours to go up and down the last 500 metres – the same length of time we had ascended the 3400 metres to the lodge.
“Was it worth it?” asked Diana
They shivered and nodded, “Yeah, yeah, it was worth it!”
“Could you see the sunrise?” she asked.
“No, you couldn’t see anything. It was just cloud everywhere.”
“Ah, I see”, says I.
Decision made. Down we go!
Delighted that we enjoyed our lie in, we felt rejuvenated and ready for the leisurely stroll down the mountain.
Everything may not have went our way and of course we might have been a little better prepared, but in the end we still conquered all that was worth doing of the tallest mountain in Taiwan that day. I’m not an experienced hiker, but climbing Mount Jade will live long in the memory. Whether you make it to the top or not doesn’t really matter, you’ll still have a great time.
Just stay away from the low-price chicken the week before though.