On the Roof of Taiwan Mt. Jade
Text / Richard Saunders
Photos / Tourism Bureau, Vision Int'l, Liao Chin-kai, George Huang
Ask a traveler to name a mountain in Northeast Asia, and the odds are Japan's Mount Fuji will first spring to mind. Some well-informed souls may think of one of China's great sacred mountains, such as Mt. Emei or Mt. Tai (Taishan). Now ask them to hazard a guess as to where the highest peak in the region is. No, it's not Mount Fuji. The highest point in Northeast Asia, rising almost 4,000 meters above sea level, is Taiwan's Yushan (Mount Jade, sometimes called Mount Morrison).
Look for Taiwan in a world atlas and the island, less than 400 kilometers long by about 150 broad at its widest point, looks a rather inconspicuous dot of land, dwarfed by the great mass of mainland China and the far bigger islands that make up the Japanese archipelago to the north. Taiwan owes its existence to the violent action over the millennia of two tectonic plates, one of which has been forced under the other, heaving up the island and its uncommonly mountainous back. In fact, the plates are still moving, forcing the island's awesome chains ever higher above the surrounding ocean, albeit very slowly. For now at least, Yushan - located on the border of Nantou, Chiayi, and Kaohsiung counties in south-central Taiwan-measures an impressive 3,952 meters above sea level, and is attracting ever larger numbers of hikers to take up the challenge of scaling Northeast Asia's highest, and one of its most beautiful, peaks. (We speak of the main peak here; there are in fact nine, as we'll explain later.)
Two Routes to the Summit
Perhaps it's the sheer beauty of Yushan that makes scaling it such a memorable as well as rewarding experience. The two- or three-day trip to the top of the mountain and back is quite different from, say, the crowded, rough, and often dull trudge up Japan's Mount Fuji. Firstly, the much longer trekking season on Yushan (the mountain is accessible most of the year, although premium periods are spring and fall) ensures that numbers never approach the crush that compromises the enjoyment of many hikers on Fuji. Secondly, much of the enjoyment of climbing Mt. Jade is in the walk up (assuming the weather cooperates). There's a choice of two main routes to the main summit. The first starts at the hot-spring village of Dongpu and follows an old aboriginal trading route today called Batongguan, spectacularly cut into the rocky mountainside, often seeming to dangle halfway up a cliff with a sheer drop of hundreds of meters below. The trail passes a series of tall and very impressive waterfalls, then an alpine meadow studded with countless delicate blossoms in May and June, where campsites are normally set up on the two nights of the trip. On the last leg there's a long slog to the summit of the mountain via the awesome scree at Fongkou (literally, "wind mouth").
The second route, shorter and more popular but equally beautiful, starts at Tatajia on the New Central Cross-Island Highway (Provincial Road 18/21), which connects the city of Chiayi on the flat western plains of Taiwan with the town of Shueili in the center. After an initial short, sharp zigzag climb up the steep mountainside, the path is relatively gentle as it contours the grassy mountainside, giving stupendous views up the alpine valley and across to 3,000-meter-plus peaks opposite. After a little more uphill climbing, there's an overnight in the Paiyun Cottage before the final slow but spectacular hike to the summit in the early hours of the following morning.
Good Preparation Essential
So how difficult is Yushan to climb? Well, a friend of mine remarked after coming back from a hike to the summit many years ago that it must be one of the easiest really big mountains in the world to climb. It's certainly one of the most straightforward ascents among Taiwan's hundred 3,000-meter-plus mountains (largely due to the wide, amazingly well-engineered path underfoot for most of the climb). Certainly it's an easier proposition than, say, the Inca Trail in Peru or Mount Kilimanjaro, without sacrificing anything in terms of spectacle to those world-famous hikes. It is still worth remembering, however, that it is nearly 4,000 meters high, and will never be a walk in the park.
Good preparation is essential before hiking Yushan. A permit system (limited to 100 people a day) is in force, encompassing all Yushan trails, and hikers won't even be allowed to pass a trailhead unless they carry a valid permit covering all members of the party. In recent years it's become easier to get the necessary permits for hiking the 3,000 meter-plus peaks of Taiwan, but in the case of Yushan demand so far exceeds supply that it's best to go through one of the countless licensed hiking clubs in Taiwan, or through a local company like FreshTreks, that lead hikes of Yushan in English.
Hikes are staged throughout the year, but beware going between January and March, as heavy snowfall is not uncommon during those months and unless your group can supply crampons for all members (many don't) you may end up turning back within sight of the summit. Another less-than-perfect time is summer, when typhoons are more likely to cause cancellations or detours. The most popular period for hiking Yushan (and most peaks in Taiwan, for that matter) is during the long, balmy, and clear days of fall (from around early October to early December). Temperatures at night don't plummet to the bone-chilling negative temperatures of winter, and the sky is often clear and blue, making for optimal prospects for the enjoyment of an incredible 360-degree daybreak view over the surrounding mountains. There is one other especially magical time to trek the mountain, especially the longer, tougher route from the east ?in late spring (May to early June), when the mountain flowers are in full bloom on Batongguan meadow, about half-way to the summit.
Nine Peaks to Choose From
Whichever route is taken, the goal of all groups is the main summit of Yushan, but it's worth asking at the time of booking whether any of the mountain's other eight peaks are to be included. On the regular two- or three-day trips, more active hikers can easily scale Yushan Lower and West peaks as shortish detours on the first day. Longer trips of four or five days cover some remoter peaks, and in about seven days it's possible to conquer all nine peaks. If there's time to explore only one other summit, however, make it Yushan North Peak. Since it's only a ninety-minute trek from the main summit, the north peak is included in most trips if the weather is fine, and the short walk is truly spectacular. After a long, chain-assisted descent down the great, scree-filled "wind mouth" below Yushan's awesome northern crags, the trail follows the narrow spine of the ridge past a series of conifer trees severely stunted and twisted by the inhospitable weather. The north peak itself is crowned by Taiwan's highest weather station, but look back; this is the classic place to view Yushan-the great cockscomb crest of the summit cliffs, rearing up into the sky ahead, will be familiar to all residents and travelers in Taiwan from many a postcard, advertisement, and glossy travel magazine.
Whichever route you follow up Yushan, the last stretch is perhaps the highlight of the entire trek; for the final few hundred meters of the ascent, the trail is narrowed to a ledge zigzagging up an enormous slope of loose scree. Fixed chains (and at one point an iron cage) provide welcome security as the trail rises towards the cliffs above. At first there seems no way to negotiate the sheer cliffs that guard Yushan's summit on all sides, but then the trail slips into a crack in the rocky bluff, and shortly emerges again close to the roof of Taiwan. The summit plateau is so small it seems it can hardly hold the crowds who gather here to watch the sunrise during peak climbing months.
No one complains about the company, however. If the weather is clear, the panorama over Yushan's eight secondary peaks and the countless other rocky mountains of the surrounding Yushan National Park provides a spectacle equal to that atop many far more famous mountains around the world. Slowly the word is getting around, and Yushan is becoming more popular with foreign as well as Taiwanese climbers. Take up the challenge and see just what it is that is beginning to draw international hikers to this magical spot. You'll be glad you did.
Hikers intending to climb Yushan should get in contact with a local hiking group, which can arrange permits, transport, mountain-hut reservations, etc. Non-Chinese speakers can contact FreshTreks (02-2719-4488; www.freshtreks.com), a Taipei-based company which organizes regular treks up Yushan (and other mountains in Taiwan) with English-speaking guides.
For those who don't want to walk, there's a distant view of the main Yushan summit from Alishan's famous sunrise-viewing spot, Jhushan. Those with private transport can make the twenty-kilometer drive along the spectacular New Central Cross-Island Highway from Alishan to Tatajia for a closer view.