Xue Shan 雪山, Taiwan

A light rain, fine as fur (毛毛雨), pitter-pattered down as we drove to Yilan from Taoyuan airport. We stayed a night at the hot spring town of Jiaoxi (street food galore!), where snacking appears to be a national sport. The next day, as we made our way to the trail head at Wuling Farm where we would start our trek, the rain got heavier still. Winter was late this year and snow had yet to fall in the mountains, dashing my hopes of scaling a snowy peak. These were of course born more out of association with Xueshan’s name (that directly translates to Snow Mountain), than with the weather report. Things were looking bleak as I thought of spending the next three days walking in the rain, with my 8kg 40L pack stuffed to the brim with more warm clothing than was necessary. 

Xueshan is part of the Shei-Pa 雪霸 mountain range and national park. Standing at 3,886m, it is the second highest peak in Taiwan, just a few metres shy of Yushan or Jade Mountain which stands at 3,952m. In fact, the national park contains more than 50 peaks above 3,000m, with options for all levels of adventure. I had joined a Singaporean adventure group that was doing a twin peak hike of Xueshan and Yushan. After some reading, I decided (perhaps misguidedly) that the Xueshan trail would be more rugged and less touristy and due to time constraints, only signed up for the first climb.

Prior to Xueshan, I’d only been to Taiwan once for a New Years’ Party. The memories I had of Taipei were of a grey, slightly gritty industrial city, so venturing out into this pristine wilderness was an eye opener for me. I had not known that Taiwan is formed on a convergent boundary of two tectonic plates and 70% of its territory is rugged and mountainous. The beauty surrounding us was astonishing.

My objectives for this climb were rather basic: First, I just wanted to climb something / anything before the end of the year. The hiking season in Sichuan was ending which left me with few options for a last-minute long-weekend trip, while Taiwan was just a short flight away with relatively accessible mountains. Second, I figured it would be good training to hike with a heavier 8-10kg pack, something I had not done before. As Taiwan is a developed country, porters here are relatively expensive (~$200/day), most people do not hike with guides and also carry everything themselves.

Fortunately enough, as we reached the trail head (~2,000m), the weather started to clear up and the sun came out. We spotted the first of many rainbows to come as we embarked on our trek. Rainbows seem to be more prevalent here because of the high humidity and we even witnessed a circular ‘Guanyin’ rainbow which is so named for its aura or halo-like glow. Over the next two days, we would continue to have good weather, just a short burst of rainfall and would experience first snow as we made our way to the summit.

The main trail up Xueshan, also known as the East trail is gradual but relentless. It is a moderate climb and graded A in Taiwan – The national parks grade their trails from A-C, with C being the most challenging (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/100_Peaks_of_Taiwan). We had a mixed group, the youngest 15 and the oldest >60, and we walked at a comfortable pace with few breaks.

On the first day, we walked a 7km trail, passing the first Cabin (Cika Cabin, 2,463m) for lunch and ending at 369 Cabin where we would spend the next two nights. We crossed through pine forests, grassy slopes, golden meadows and up a slope called the Crying slope which was supposed to make you cry but really wasn’t that bad. We then made our first mini summit of Xueshan’s East Peak (3,150m), and ventured through dwarf bamboo forests and fields of yushan cane to get to our resting place. The trails were clearly marked, clean, orderly and well-maintained as a result of strict enforcement of LNT (leave no trace) by the national park.

It was an extremely beautiful hike, with varied terrain and stunning views of high mountains all around. But, if I were to remember only one thing about Xueshan, it would be the clouds. Set against the grand backdrop of the Shei-Pa mountain range, engulfing clouds rose and fell, almost like a dance. In winter, a strong northeastern monsoon brings large amounts of moist air from the north to accumulate among the mountains here. Sheets and sheets of moisture overflow into the Wuling valley, resulting in seas of clouds, fast-moving clouds and ever-changing mountain views.

The next morning, we had a relatively late 6am start, passing through the Black Forest, an ancient forest of tall arrow-like firs (that are supposed to be even more beautiful when the floor is covered with a blanket of snow), on our 3km hike to the top.

The summit of Xueshan 雪山主峰 is probably where things get a bit more interesting for the intrepid adventurer. From the top, there is an alternative 4-hour detour down a grade B trail to Cui Lake 翠池, the highest alpine lake in East Asia (ex-China). Or if you’re even more adventurous and up for a multi-day hike, the grade C Holy Ridge trail, possibly the toughest Taiwan has to offer. Unfortunately for us, our guide was not flexible and did not allow us to take the Cui Lake deviation. Said guide was also insistent we stick with the group and not walk in front of her, and so we got back to 369 cabin around mid-day with too much time to kill.

With the benefit of hindsight, and also a better understanding of Taiwan’s mountains and its grading system, there are some things I would have done differently. For those with some hiking experience, the hike is doable in 2D1N, and 3D2N for our itinerary felt a little excessive. Also, especially for the A trails, it is probably more enjoyable without a guide and you can apply for permits directly with the national park (https://npm.cpami.gov.tw/en/open.aspx).

Day 1: Taipei -> Jiaoxi

Day 2: Jiaoxi -> Wuling Farm trail head -> 369 Cabin (3,150m)

Day 3: 369 Cabin -> Summit (3,889m) -> 369 Cabin

Day 4: 369 Cabin -> Wuling Farm trail head -> Jiaoxi / Taipei

Difficulty Level: 2/10

Ao Tai Na 奥太娜, China

I love exploring China. And Chengdu has always held a special place in my heart since my first visit en-route to 九寨沟 Jiu Zhai Gou (the most beautiful valley in China) and again last year to 峨眉山 E Mei Shan (one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China). This adventure once again began in Chengdu, home of pandas and the gateway to Western China and it’s myriad attractions.

奥太娜 Ao Tai Na (5210m) is a 7 hour drive from Chengdu and is situated in 阿坝 Aba, an autonomous Tibetan and Qiang prefecture in Sichuan. The Aba region is extremely scenic: Blackwater (or Hei Shui Xian) is a less touristy destination renowned for its fiery Autumn colours, but the region also houses the more well-known 四姑娘山 Si Gu Niang Mountains and Jiu Zhai Gou. Ao Tai Na is one of the three main peaks of the 三奥 San Ao mountain range, a spiritual mountain for the Jia Rong Tibetans who live in this area. It is the smallest of the three, flanked by 奥太基 Ao Tai Ji (5286m) and 奥太美 Ao Tai Mei (5257m). In Tibetan, their names translate to the father, mother and child of the mountains 群山之父,母,子 respectively, with Ao Tai Na being the child.

As we drove to our destination, the hills were aflame and we were greeted by vibrant bursts of red, yellow and orange. The drive is not for the faint of heart with windy roads and our driver’s (and other Chinese drivers’) penchant for overtaking around sharp turns. We finally arrived in one piece at the homestay in Blackwater and were warmly welcomed with white scarves and a hearty Tibetan hotpot dinner before we turned in for the night.

The next day, on our warm-up walk to the base camp hut, I felt very heavy. It wasn’t so much of a hike than a walk up a dirt road, while the car took our bags. Before the road was developed, the second day had been a lot more strenuous, our guides said. Now, they could drive all the way up to the hut, but even so, we were advised to walk in order to acclimatise. At the time, I wasn’t sure why I was feeling so bad. We were only at around 3500m and I was taking half a diamox each morning and night on a friend’s advice. I figured I had underestimated the climb and not trained hard enough, was fatigued, or perhaps (and more likely) it was because I had been cutting carbs going into the trip.

Our base camp was better than expected – I had mentally prepared myself to sleep in a tent in sub zero temperatures, but here we had wooden huts. One with a stove for cooking and warming our hands by the fire and another for us to sleep. It snowed from time to time as we sat around drinking ginger tea, eating spicy packet tofu snacks, and enjoying the mountains. Our guides whipped up a hearty chicken and cucumber soup (complete with crown, head and claws), we drank lots of warm water and doubled down on the rice, helpful tips to avoid altitude sickness.

The night was cold, even in my heavy down sleeping bag with my down jacket draped over and two heat packs tossed inside. “You need a minimum of 1000g of down in your sleeping bag and 200g in your jacket or it won’t be enough”, they had emphasised. For a first time alpine climber, this was where I had struggled most with buying my gear for the trip and figuring out what was adequate. Most of the international brands and sites that I looked at showed down fill ratios but not down weight, so you could end up with a light 800 fill down jacket that was insufficient. However, if you managed to find the same item on a Chinese site, they were much more precise about this metric, shedding light on one of the many subtle differences between Chinese vs international consumers.

We rose just after two for the summit climb on the third morning, also the only day of actual climbing on the trip. Not wanting to repeat my performance the day before, I had a few portions of a surprisingly yummy boiled cereal and off we went. They always say it’s best to start climbing when it’s dark, not only to get an early start before the sun comes up and snow starts to melt, but also so you don’t really know what you’re getting yourself into and feel less intimidated by the mountain. The summit path started just behind our huts and was a three hour trudge up a steep muddy path till we reached a flat lookout point where a few yaks had come to graze. The only light was from our headlamps and the stars overhead, occasionally shining on the snow and making it glitter. It was so dark that we could only faintly make out the outlines of the peaks around us.

And then… That moment – When dawn started to break and the mountains gradually lit up. It was possibly one of the most perfect moments I’ve experienced. We stood around mesmerised, taking in the pink hues cast on fresh snow, and the panoramic views, staying for a bit longer than we should have. The fresh air was invigorating and I felt much better than I had the day before. It wasn’t easy, but I had a spring in my step and walking through calf-deep snow felt somewhat natural. Another three hours of walking in the snow took us over the ridge to the final summit push.

The peak of Ao Tai Na is a curved rocky outcrop, which reminded me of a snow-capped Kinabalu, one of my first climbs way back in 2011. While China officially recognises it to be 5210m, Ao Tai Na actually stands at an elevation of 4800m. From our perfect vantage point, we saw never-ending mountain ranges and a sea of clouds 云海 rising from below. My newfound friends, Mushroom 蘑菇 and Stone 石头, got engaged at the top and everyone was feeling light as we begun our descent back to base camp.

Firsts are always special, and this first snow mountain of mine was more than I could have asked for.

Day 1: 成都 Chengdu (500m) -> Homestay at 黑水县 Blackwater (2500m)

Day 2: 黑水县 Aba/Blackwater -> Base Camp (3800m)

Day 3: 奥太娜 Aotaina Summit Day (4800m/5210m) -> 黑水县 Aba/Blackwater

Day 4: Journey back to 成都 Chengdu

Difficulty Level: 4/10