Mount Nanhuda, the fifth highest mountain in Taiwan (behind Yushan, Snow Mountain, Mt Xiuguluan and the little-climbed Mt Mabolasi) seems to be amongst the best-loved of all Taiwan’s highest mountains, and I’ve heard many people over the last decade or more claim that it’s the one of the most beautiful. Unfortunately it’s a much longer hike than either Yushan or Snow Mountain, taking four days. Some crazy locals make the dash to the main summit and back in just three, but that’s really pushing it – five days would probably be the best option, allowing a full day to fully explore the spellbinding moonscape of the summit ridges around Nanhu Hut at the top, and maybe bag a fifth or sixth ‘Top Hundred’ peak as well. Perhaps most problematic is the mountain’s position, straddling the tri-border between Yilan, Hualian and Taichung Counties, and towering over Taiwan’s northeast coast, with its famously unstable weather. Like Chilai to the south, a hike up Mount Nanhuda needs not just a good pair of legs and some healthy determination, but the goodwill of the gods as well, as too often the weather here would make the long, long trudge (the summit trail is nearly three times as long as Mount Chilai, at almost fifty kilometers for the return trip) a penance at best, and, quite possibly very dangerous as well, considering all the sheer cliffs up there.
So it was an amazing piece of luck (considering the whiteout conditions that accompanied us on the climb up Mount Chilai’s Main and North Peaks just the weekend before) to find the weather forecast promised some near-perfect conditions for our four-day march to the top over the Thanksgiving weekend.
For awhile on the first day the forecast conditions didn’t bear out in practice on the ground. Leaving Tianmu by minibus at 5 am on the Thursday, it took four hours to make the journey through Yilan, and up the branch of the Central Cross-island Highway (route 7甲) to the trailhead at the pass, Siyuan Yakou (思源埡口). We were already in the clouds, and at around 2,000 meters, it was chilly and clammy. Not the best conditions to start my longest trek to date in Taiwan.
The first part of the route doesn’t get easier either. Within the first 300 meters of the old, long-abandoned logging road that heads 6.8 kilometers into the mountains to reach the ‘official’ trailhead for climbing Nanhuda, we’ve crossed a swollen stream twice, and I’ve slipped on the slippery rocks and dunked one foot in the water, assuring wet feet for the rest of the day. On the map this route looks like a road, but in reality the track has long gone in most places, and there’s no way to get a motorbike more than a couple of meters off Route 7, let alone a bigger vehicle. About half-an-hour into the trip, at the 1.6 kilometer point, the first (and it turned out the longest and worst) of a series of landslides sent a makeshift trail climbing steeply up the wooded mountainside – a muddy clamber of five minutes or so that deflated spirits eager to get this lengthy, seven-kilometer prelude over and get onto the ‘real’ trail beyond. At least we’d picked a great season to be here – the autumn tints in the trees overhanging the path were enchanting, and surpassed in sheer beauty perhaps only during May, when the rhododendrons are in bloom on the high summits ahead (still nearly twenty kilometers further down the trail!).
After a slow and fitful start, we got into our rhythm and the kilometers started to mount up (the entire route up Nanhuda is usefully marked by posts every hundred meters: that’s over 240 posts!), our progress only briefly slowed by a sequence of small landslides, bypassed by temporary trails, tricky but brief scrambles with fixed ropes, and even a wooden ladder.
After about the five-kilometer point, the worst of the landslide sections were behind us, and as we gradually climbed, leaving the misty cloud below us, the sun began to break through and I finally began to really enjoy the walk; at one point two of us (ahead of the rest of the group) even came across a rare Mikado Pheasant (which almost became the national bird of Taiwan) foraging in the forest beside the trail in front of us. Unfortunately there was only time for a hurried blurred photo of it before it disappeared. The last couple of kilometers passed lightly, admiring the russet tints of the trees and glimpses through the tree cover into a deep valley on our right, and around 10 am or so we reached the signpost marking the ‘true’ trailhead of Mount Nanhuda.
From here the trail, until now level or gently rising, becomes a hard slog (at least while lugging 15kg backpacks), zigzagging straight up the steep, wooded mountainside. The hundred meter markers suddenly seem few and far between, and a rest is essential every couple of minutes, but the sun is shining, the sense of isolation and peace of the deep mountains is inspiring, and it feels great to be here!
At the top we paused in a small patch of warm sunshine shining through the canopy of a coniferous forest, sitting on a soft carpet of pine needles, before resuming the climb, following the ridgeline uphill stiffly past a procession of ancient old trees, sometimes climbing up natural staircases made of their gnarled old roots. Not too far away we reach a tiny hikers’ hut near the first, minor summit on the route, Mount Duojiatun (多加屯山, 2,795 meters). It’s too low to be on the Big List, but the view from in front of the hut was the highlight, so far, of the hike, overlooking the deep gorge of the Lanyang River valley up which we’d toiled earlier today in the minibus while driving up from Yilan, buried in the damp, gloomy clouds. From way up here they took on a far more appealing appearance, transformed into a magical brilliant white sea under a bright blue, utterly cloudless sky.
Past the little summit of Mount Duojiatun is the one truly monotonous, even unpleasant stretch of the entire 24 kilometer trail to Mount Nanhuda, as the trail climbs and drops (sometimes quite steeply) along the ridge through a thick sea of arrow bamboo. There are some fine, if fleeting, views into the Lanyang River Gorge well over a thousand meters below, and a few views of the higher mountains above on the other side, but mostly, it was a dull trudge for the next hour or two. In places the woody vegetation forms a tunnel over the trail, and the easiest way is to bend heads and pass underneath. The recent continuous rains meant almost all of this section had been whipped by countless hikers’ boots into a quagmire – a real mud bath – and it was a blessed relief to emerge at the next major landmark, a signposted junction pointing the way down into the valley on the right that gives access to the formidable rocky pyramid of Mount Zhongyangjian (中央尖山, 3,705 meters).
Sticking to the ridge-top trail here, it rises over a small, wooded peak, then drops down the other side for a few minutes to reach Yunling Hut, and the end of our first day on the mountain. In contrast to the drafty, leaky apology for a mountain hut at Chenggong on Mount Chilai, this one is big, light, airy and – for a Taiwanese mountain hut – positively luxurious, with plenty of room for the forty or so hikers that it’s designed for. It also gives partial views of rocky peaks further into the mountains. I rather embarrassingly wrote-off the rocky eminence that is a conspicuous sight from the hut as an insignificant peak; later it turned out to be mighty Mount Zhongyangjian, although admittedly it looks much, much more impressive from much further along the trail, at the summit of Nanhuda itself.
After a surprisingly good night’s sleep (it helps that the hut is only at about (2,600 meters) we started the second day at the relatively civilized time of 6 am. The remaining hikers in the cabin, a Taiwanese group, had set off an hour earlier, yet seemed extraordinarily slow – we passed them even before reaching the first big peak of the day, Mount Nanhubei. If we thought yesterday’s short, sharp hike was quite tough, today’s was still tougher, but even more stunning. To get to the fantastic views, though there was a short, sharp descent followed by the second long climb of the trip, up another endless wooded mountainside. At the end of this one, however, the trail emerges onto the high alpine pastures, Mounts Nanhuda and Zhongyangjian both pop into view (to be constant companions for the remainder of the route) and we bagged the first of the four Top Hundred peaks on this trip, Mt Shenmazhen (審馬陣山, 3,141 meters). It commands a good view north into Yilan, but in most ways it’s a thoroughly prosaic spot, and it’s hard to understand how this place was chosen for the Big List, when many other peaks are surely more deserving of inclusion.
Beyond Mt Shenmazhen, the trail climbs steadily and continuously, mostly through high alpine pastures interspersed with small areas of rough woodland, and soon the trail strikes uphill to the end of the conspicuous steep ridge ahead, and the finer summit of Mount Nanhubei (南湖北山, 3,536 meters) , the second Listed summit of the trip. Behind, across the great dividing valley in which Siyuan Yakou lies, the mountain buttress of the Holy Ridge, with the tooth-like tower of Dabajianshan and the fine, domed mass of Snow Mountain bookending it at either side, stole the attention every time I looked back.
The 360-degree view from the summit of Mount Nanhubei is awesome, although the rugged outlines of Mount Nanhuda and Zhongyangjian to the south briefly lost our full attention as we gazed at a fantastic sea – no, ocean– of billowing clouds stretching away in the opposite direction as far as the eye could see.
Leaving Mount Nanhubei, the terrain becomes both tougher and more exhilarating, as the trail follows the long, sawtooth ridge southwards towards Mount Nanhuda North Peak. The general trend is still to gain altitude, with a series of rocky small peaks to conquer, with fixed ropes, vertical drops and an awesome precipice on the left, dropping away in great expanses of near vertical scree into the lowlands to the east. It’s thrilling and very exhilarating hiking, but not difficult or especially strenuous coming on the heels of the more scary climbs at Mount Chilai the weekend before.
Strangely beautiful stunted trees, their trunks bent grotesquely by the gales that blow over the side of the cliff below, live a hard life in relatively sheltered spots along the ridge, while low hummocks of rhododendron bushes cling to the rocky mountainside. This must be an incredible place to be while they’re flowering, during May, and a really wild, forbidding place during a wind-blasted storm. Today though, the fantastic weather is holding up and it was a marvellous, inspiring walk.
Finally we reached the rocky little summit of Mt Nanhuda North Peak (南湖大山北峰, 3,592 meters), where the famous glacier-cut valleys below the summit of Mount Nanhuda itself finally, magically appeared at our feet. It’s the best moment so far on the hike.
After a long rest, marvelling at the grandeur of the surroundings, we start the final thirty-minute clamber down to Nanhu Hut, clearly visible below, at the foot of the summit ridge of the main peak of Mt Nanhuda. It’s a steep and awkward scramble (I was grateful for the fixed ropes!) down a mighty talus slope; even as I stumbled down, I couldn’t help but think how much tougher it would be climbing back up here on our retreat tomorrow….
Once safely down, Nanhu Hut proved perfectly comfortable – a slightly smaller, slightly less roomy copy of the Yunling Hut further down the mountain. The main problem was that the hut was officially fully booked and there was a good chance we’d all be sleeping outside. We’d come prepared for this, with tents, but after arriving, the cold, thin air and the promise of a long, freezing night made the hut somehow seem far more inviting than the prospect of sleeping under canvas. In the end, five or six spots did open up in the hut, and half of us ended up sleeping inside, while the remainder camped out. In the end sleeping in the hut turned out to be the wrong decision. Up here in the remoteness of the high mountains, life is pared down to its bare essentials. Normal life is left far behind, and within an hour of the sun going down, everyone is in bed trying to get through the long, long night. In late November, this means everyone is in their sleeping bags by 6:30 or 7 pm at the latest. The surrounding intense calm and darkness is palpable, and the city and everyday life seem light years away. Laying in my bag (at least it’s warm enough!) my mind boggles as I consider that on any other Friday at this time of the evening I’d still be teaching, and would head home to surf the Internet or do some work, only heading to bed four or five hours later! It’s quite impossible to reconcile my experience in this terribly remote spot with the life I know so well back in Taipei, just eighty kilometers north of here, and continuing as normal, even as I lay there. It might as well be another world. The inevitable long, long nights are the only aspect of multi-day hikes in the mountains that I truly find hard to take. Claustrophobic nightmare-nights-that-never-seem-to-end (the worst to date have been sanity-threatening experiences in the cramped Yuanfeng hut near Yushan South Peak and on Mount Fuji in Japan). These two have, I think, left me permanently scarred, but the ordeal does become more bearable the more you face it – and the more prepared you are for it. Certainly the twelve hours cramped up in Nanhu Hut wasn’t pleasant – one hiker opposite was snoring like a fog horn and the old bloke trying to sleep next to me was so affected by the high altitude that at one time I thought he’d either throw-up all over me or have a heart attack – but it’s amazing how, with experience, you find ways to get through the night. Practice, I suppose, makes perfect.
Meanwhile the walk up here, although quite steep and unrelenting, had taken only about seven hours, and it was not yet three pm, so I passed the couple of remaining hours before dark exploring the lovely stream that tumbles down the rocky slopes behind the hut, sheltering more of those artistically stunted conifers that are a familiar feature in many of Taiwan’s high mountains. After about twenty minutes of clambering, the stream emerged onto the upper of the two glacial valleys – an extraordinary moonscape of rock and sandy soil almost totally devoid of greenery.
Not-so-well rested, we greeted day three at 6 am and eagerly awaited daylight with a quick breakfast. By 7 am we had our day packs packed and were marching up the trail through the moonscape of the upper valley below the crumbling cliffs of Mount Nanhuda East Peak.
It was good to have the lightest of backpacks as we climbed through the thin air, and we made the saddle between the Main and East Peaks in good time, to be confronted with a panorama over the barren wilderness of the Nanhuda back peaks (Mts Baba and Mabisan, and Nanhuda South Peak, all of which would have to wait for another visit).
It would have been hard to leave the summit were it not for the freezing wind buffeting us and the prospect of Mount Nanhuda itself, directly opposite. We could even see the twin figures of two of our party, who had split off early in sly bid to be first to the top of the Big One!
The final climb to the summit of Mount Nanhuda is steep and fun, with mighty, smooth sloping faces of ice-shattered rock, and some easy but exciting rock scrambling towards the top. There are several false summits to contend with. The true summit, when it finally comes, is a surprisingly mild little rise, free from the rock faces and sheer drops that grace the lower reaches of the ridge.
The view from the top though, is simply stunning! An extraordinary panorama unmatched by any I’ve seen in Taiwan so far, not only for the stark, wild beauty of splintered rock and jagged, ice-carved peaks, but also because of the complete absence anywhere in the 360-degree field of view of anything manmade (apart from the summit plaque). Mount Nanhuda is very far from any road and farther still from any settlement or tourist development.
Just beyond the summit we found a huge cleft rock, a perfect natural chair commanding the best view one could wish to sit and contemplate the scene. The weather was finally closing in – Snow Mountain and the Holy Ridge were already shrouded in thick cloud and squally winds were blowing a light dusting of snow in our faces, but there was no question of heading down until we’d fully taken in this magnificent place.
By around 10 am we were back in the valley at the foot of the twin peaks at Nanhu Hut, boiling water for a hot drink and preparing for the 23 kilometer hike back to civilization. It was heavily overcast by now, with a brooding atmosphere absolutely right for this starkly grand place, but after the punishing scramble back up the talus slope to the North Peak, we made good time negotiating the fun rocky pitches of the North Peak ridge, and met several parties climbing up from Yunling Hut. I privately thanked my lucky stars that we too didn’t start a day later. We somehow caught the short window of fine weather just right. It’s a lot quicker heading down, and I arrived at Yunling Hut at the usual arrival time for this trip of about 3 pm – plenty of time to organise myself for a third night in the hills and to contemplate the trip – and our luck. As we headed down the mountain on the fourth and last day, bound for the trailhead and a waiting minibus, it was raining lightly and clouds blotted out the view from the hut of the peak that is in fact Mount Zhongyangjian. We couldn’t have hoped for a better trip! Loads more photos of the trip are on my Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/29712358@N04/sets/72157628261150891/
CLIMBING MOUNT NANHUDA Mount Nanhuda is best attempted only after climbing a few much easier peaks like Yushan, Snow Mountain or the Hehuanshan peaks. The rocky scrambles and the terrain in general are certainly a lot easier to negotiate than on Chilai North and Main Peaks, but it’s a long, long trek, mostly uphill (about 48 kilometers return) and you’ll need a lot of stamina and determination to get through some of the harder sections. Unlike on Chilai, with its treacherous side trails where there’s a real chance of getting lost, the route up Nanhuda is pretty clear all the way, and a good map was quite adequate for us to find the way. Perhaps the greatest challenge on Nanhuda is getting good weather. We were supremely lucky, but I’ve spoken to local hikers who have had to postpone the trip several times before they finally summited.