One of Taiwan’s more notorious high mountains, reams have been written about ‘black’ Qilai and it’s been a goal of mine to climb it for myself for many years. About a decade ago, during my first spate of high mountain climbs, I did almost tackle it with a local hiking club, but I came down with a nasty cold two days before the off and missed the trip.
The problem with Mount Qilai (or Chilai) is probably less due to the actual dangers of climbing it (although the North Peak does have a few dicey moments!) than with the experience (or lack of) among the people who used to climb it. For some strange reason Mount Qilai was once a favorite of student hiking clubs. It seems the nearby Hohuan Mountains (five 3,000 meter peaks in two easy days – the perfect kick-start to anyone’s Baiyue (‘hundred peaks’) collection!) were obviously not challenging enough. Now Qilai would be fine for hikers with reasonable experience: climbing say Yushan and Snow Mountain first together with some rock scrambling around Taipei such as at Wuliaojian or Full Moon Mountain would, I think, be a minimum requirement for anyone contemplating coming here. Tragically, for whatever reason, an alarming number of hikers either fell off the mountain’s awesome, cloud-kissing precipices or took the wrong trail in the expanse of low arrow bamboo that cushions the summit ridge and got lost, maybe to perish when the notoriously unpredictable weather here took a turn for the worse.
All in all, Qilai has perhaps the worst reputation of any mountain in Taiwan, which we were reminded of at an info board at the trailhead to the mountain, near the top of Route 14 at Mount Hohuan. The English version of the sign talked about how the mountain is haunted by the tears of relatives who lost loved ones on the mountain, or some such melodramatic language. It was all very Taiwanese in its flowery rhetoric, but it also made me at least consider just what was lying in wait for us up there behind the clouds.
While some a few people manage to squeeze the climb into two days (with a very long second day) Qilai generally needs three, as although the route is quite short in kilometers it’s a steep, rough and tiring climb. We travelled down in a minibus on Thursday night, staying in a basic homestay near Lushan Hot Springs whose most memorable feature were the pillow cases we slept on, which for some bizarre reason were emblazoned with the phrase ‘Love Molasses’.
Only in Taiwan!
The weather forecast was pretty dire for the three days we were climbing, but our guide (and a guide is strongly recommended here, as there are several places on the summit ridge where there’s a 50/50 chance of taking the wrong trail and getting possibly very lost – signage up there is not so hot) reassured us that the really bad weather wouldn’t come in until the afternoon of the second day, when we’d be safely coming down from the ridge after bagging our two objectives: Qilai North and Main Peaks.
The weather was surprisingly good as we set off from the trailhead on Friday morning about 8:30. The mountain was only partially hidden behind the clouds, and the walk, first level, then up over the little grassy peak of Little Qilai (小奇, even casting off our heavy backpacks and prancing up the final few meters to the top) was easy and very scenic, across beautiful green meadows covered in thick, low hummocks of dwarf arrow bamboo.
After Little Qilai, the trail – still pretty clear and smooth – descends for an hour or more down into the deep valley dividing the Hohuan and Qilai ridges, and the small, damp and dark Black Water Pond Hut, 3.8 kilometers from the trailhead.
After a quick rest we continued and almost immediately the trail starts climbing and becomes more strenuous. It’s not especially steep, but pretty rough, with numerous muddy hauls up rough banks or up ‘ladders’ of tree roots. The forest though is beautiful, especially in the gathering mist (or rather cloud) that was now surrounding us.
After an hour of clambering and slipping up the muddy, rocky hillside and down the other side, we reached our sleeping place for the next two nights, Chenggong Hut (成功山屋), beside a picturesque mountain stream. It was only lunchtime, so we had a free afternoon, which we spent ambling up the rock-choked streambed to a pretty small waterfall.
After 5 pm the thick mist miraculously cleared to reveal one of the most spectacular, if ominous, sunsets I’ve ever seen. The sun, coincidentally shining directly through the crack of the narrow, wooded valley in which the hut lay, set below the horizon in a sea of fiery orange which was quite unforgettable, although also a little unsettling.
Unfortunately that was the last we saw of the sun until – I swear! – the moment I returned to the van at the end of the hike two days later, when it emerged through the clouds and Mount Qilai, for the first time on the trip, revealed itself briefly to us from behind a thick blanket of cloud. The remainder of the weekend served up some fairly wild weather of thick, billowing water vapor which kept us permanently soaked, and awesome, gale-force winds.
Day two, Saturday, the BIG day, started at 3 am with an unfortunate accident, after one of those endless, uncomfortable, near-sleepless mountain-hut nights that always temporarily make me swear to never climb in the mountains again.
Using the long-drop loo down the path from the hut, in my early morning daze I thoughtlessly put my hand out behind me to lean against the aluminium wall of the makeshift toilet shed to stabilize myself while I did what I had to do, but as soon as I leaned my weight against the metal panel of the wall, the whole thing came crashing down, and I landed heavily on my right hand, cutting the palm slightly and heavily bruising the side below the pinky. It was very painful, but only caused real concern when it became swollen and very sore the following day, after putting up with hours of abuse, hauling on ropes up and down the mountain. We actually had unusually bad luck with toilets on this trip: Ashley, our Canadian contingent on this trip, slipped on the way to the bathroom on the first night and gashed her hand rather badly on a rock; fortunately fellow climbing team member Greg ‘The Doc’ Meier was on hand to dress the wound, and with the application of some miracle-working Chinese medicine powder called Yunnan Baiyao (雲南白藥) stemmed the bleeding and averted a small medical crisis.
Notwithstanding these early misadventures, the ascent of Mount Qilai only really gets started after Chenggong Hut; the terrain above the hut is quite a bit harder than the first, easy prelude of the first 4.8 kilometers. After Chenggong Hut (which we left at 4 am), it’s basically straight up, and we were glad to have only day packs. It’s a kilometer or so up to the first fork, where we turned left. It’s now steeper than ever – mostly on rough, steep scree or up short but very rough rocky pitches, and in the dark quite an adventure. Far easier, however, than the trail to the right, which heads up to the hut up on Qilai main ridge: we enjoyed that stretch of ‘trail’ (perhaps the toughest one kilometer of the whole trip) on the way back at the end of the summit assault.
The sky was just lightening as we reached the expanse of arrow bamboo that covers the ridge. The world was reduced to a thick, billowing mass of water vapor (we were deep in the clouds), whipped into a face-stinging frenzy by gusts of gale-force wind. On the way up the guide had warned us it was probably too dangerous to try to summit either peak, since the wind was too strong, but up on the top it wasn’t quite as bad as expected, and at the next junction we turned left and headed for the North Peak, Qilai’s more challenging climb.
This is an astonishing stretch, and I’d bet source of most of the horror stories and deaths on the mountain. Shortly the trail lays beside a couple of truly awe-inspiring sheer cliff edges, and although the trail was level for once the fixed ropes proved an essential safety precaution in the turbulent winds blowing on and off the astonishing precipices, which fell away right beside our feet in a few places.
Shortly the path leads away from the brink, and descends round the back below shapely cliffs and pinnacles before striking suddenly up the precipitous rocky bluff to Qilai North Peak (3,607 meters). In fine, calm weather, I can imagine this would be a fantastically exhilarating and fun experience, hauling up the rock faces on the fixed ropes which are strung up the whole ascent. Today, lashed by gales and soaked in cloud-water, it was a wrestle with a nature every bit as angry and wild as I’ve ever experienced her.
At one point, before the climb to the summit of the pyramid of rock that forms the peak, I hauled myself up a rockface straight into a broken tree branch, which left a bleeding, 2 inch-long scratch on my forehead that the others later christened my ‘Harry Potter’ scar. Up here though we’ve changed, become different people; priorities have changed, the adrenaline is streaming and the determination to conquer so strong that I simply laugh it off (it doesn’t hurt much anyway) and we continue towards the top.
After the thrill and exertion of the climb, it’s almost a disappointment to see the flat, grassy area at the top, and the large, carefully engraved plaque at the summit. In any event we’re not long there. After a quick, triumphal photo at the summit plaque the howling wind and rain send us back over the edge, gingerly working our way down the rock faces and along the edge of dizzying cliffs to the relative safety of the ridge path below.
The trail south along the ridge towards Qilai Main Peak is remarkably gentle and undulating for this mountain, with fantastic views (I assume) down the precipitous, arrow bamboo-covered slopes that fall away below the path into the valley to the west, while in places there are glimpses of the fearful Qilai cliffs that drop away on the other side. At intervals we pass through wind funnels where all traces of vegetation have been blasted away by the howling gales that roar through. These places are utterly unearthly, particularly as we force our way through, holding the fixed rope for protection against being blown off the ridge as we’re buffeted by the incredible force of wind, which is blowing the steadily increasing rain upwards and over the lip of the cliffs into our faces.
Finally the trail heads straight into the tempest, veering around to the right of a great dome of a peak, making its way cautiously around the wind-blasted scree slopes at the top of the mighty cliffs of Qilai’s eastern face, and in a few minutes a large metal sign – which would be more at home in a Taipei city street than in this wild and forbidding place – points the way straight up the rocky bluff to the summit of Qilai Main Peak (3,560 meters). We’ve been hard at it for 5 or 6 hours already (it’s about two hours’ trek here from the junction below Qilai North Peak) and climbing up the rock faces to the summit of the main peak, although a good bit simpler than on the earlier Peak, was a punishing and exhausting challenge – especially since the weather had deteriorated even further.
Once again the summit is a strange surprise. After battling up the rocky bluffs, the summit is surprisingly large and flat – a large, wide open expanse of the same low cushions of arrow bamboo, with another rather neat and civilized plaque engraved with the mountain’s name and height. We took the necessary photos and gladly got out of there, I for one eager, now we’d somehow managed to bag both peaks despite the conditions, to get down to safety.
With the main objective obtained, getting down the mountain always seems to take far longer than getting up, and it appeared to take an age to get back to the junction near the basic and damp Qilai Hut, where a second trail descends the cliffs back to Chenggong Hut and the promise of a comforting hot cup of ginger tea. Just before we got there, we met a party of four – the only other people who had stayed at the hut with us the night before. They’d started far too late to have any realistic and safe chance of bagging the summits – the weather was fast closing in – and they decided to turn back. One of them, an old chap in his late sixties perhaps, was in an almost comically bad mood. I’d remembered him from the evening before, when he seemed a bit irritated at our politeness in refusing him when he offered us his bag of peanuts. Now he was definitely far from happy, continuously exclaiming that the trip was ‘不好玩’ (no fun). When we eventually returned to the hut, I overheard him still repeating it like a mantra, as his little group prepared to trudge down the mountain back to civilisation that day, in the rain. I was impressed though that he made it up here at all!
The sign at the junction for the quick return to Chenggong Hut and the shelter of the forest explained it’s apparently only 1.2 kilometers back to the hut, which, we found out, was suspiciously wrong. It’s more like that down to the next junction below the shattered cliffs of the west face of the ridge, and after a deceptively easy start, nearly every meter was rough, steep, precariously perched on the edge of a scary drop, or (usually) all three at once. It took over an hour to do that short section of path, during which we saw, to our amazement, another group of hikers scrambling up the rocks (they’d be spending the night in the hut on the ridge – good luck with that!).
Finally back on the outward route at the junction above Chenggong Hut, a muddy but relatively straightforward clamber down the steep wooded slopes and we were back at the hut to enjoy that cup of tea.
Despite almost ten hours of solid hiking and scrambling, the whole group was in great spirits that night, and it was only the arrival of another group (who turned in to sleep by 6 pm) that put a stop to our conversation. The long day’s work did wonders for getting me through the night; sleeping maybe half of the long hours of darkness, this second night was merely long rather than endless, like night one.
It was raining hard, with a howling wind during the night, but by 6 am the conditions had softened a bit, and after adjusting to the shock of the initial short climb above the hut with heavy backpacks, the return to the trailhead was easier than expected. Having said that, the long climb from Black Water Pool Hut to Little Qilai was a trying postlude to the hike – a lengthy climb of about five hundred meters of vertical ascent.
With that final test over, the clouds began clearing magically during the final, blissfully level and easy couple of hundred meters, and as we changed into dry clothes back at the minivan, the great mass of the mountain we’d just climbed appeared briefly for the first and only time this three days: a fitting conclusion to a damn fine trek!
The two northern summits of Mount Qilai (the North and Main Peaks; Qilai South Peak, further along the ridge and reached from a completely different route, is a simpler climb) aren’t that bad really – the nasty weather and gale force winds made it harder for us, and in fact the guide came close to turning back when the conditions deteriorated on the way to the second summit. Having said that, the two peaks are categorically NOT beginners’ climbs. The hike is a bigger challenge than any of the embarrassingly meager group of 3,000 meter peaks (Yushan, Snow Mountain, Dabajianshan, Jiaming Lake etc) I’ve conquered in the past; it’s several notches harder in every way. But it’s also definitely the best trip I’ve had so far in the central mountains. Beautiful? Only in places. Spectacular? Absolutely! Qilai is an awesome place, a ‘real’ mountain and absolutely recommended. Do a couple of the easier 3,000 meter peaks first, take a guide so you don’t get lost, and it well be an unforgettable experience. It’s certainly fired up my enthusiasm to get up into the high peaks once again (endless, uncomfortable nights ‘n’ all). Can’t wait for the next challenge!