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