Anyone who’s even a bit serious about hiking in Taiwan will sooner or later make a start on the island’s greatest and most tempting hiking challenge: the Top One Hundred Peaks (百岳).
Hiking, like hot spring bathing, was pioneered in Taiwan by the Japanese, who made first ascents and established trails up the island’s tallest mountains, Jade and Snow, and first coined the term “Holy Ridge” to describe one of the island’s most iconic high mountain routes. The small but extraordinarily rugged island of Taiwan is said to have the highest density of high mountains of any country in the world, with 286 named summits over 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) – far more than most mountain climbers are likely to conquer, especially considering how remote and inaccessible many of them are. Perhaps it was because of this that in 1971 members of local hiking clubs made a list of the “top hundred peaks,” a selection of the 3,000 meter-plus mountain summits they considered the finest, most distinctive, most beautiful, and generally worthiest of climbing. The final selection has its puzzles – for instance countless hikers bagging the magnificent peaks of Mt. Nanhuda have wondered what possessed the team to include one of them, the insignificant bump of Mt. Shemazhen (no. 83 ) – but the list contains many magnificent summits, and has provided several generations of keen hikers with an irresistible challenge – to bag all one hundred. By the way, the last two summits on the list fall below the three-thousand-meter mark simply because they were originally included on the basis of an inaccurate survey, which over-estimated their height. The two peaks were retained despite later measurements that showed that they fell just short. Slightly different heights are sometimes given for other peaks on the list too.
GETTING READY FOR THE CHALLENGE
Taiwan’s two highest summits, the main peak of Yushan (Jade Mountain) and Snow Mountain, are both quite straightforward climbs when tackled from the most popular route, and neither will pose any great problems for any reasonably fit person. The other 98 peaks, however, vary wildly in difficulty, and the best way to prepare for the harder ones is to do a load of the easier summits first. Before attempting any but the easiest peaks on the top hundred though, make sure not only that you have suitable footwear, adequate protection against rain and cold, and all the other essential gear, but also the stamina and endurance to tackle some mighty long and steep climbs, and the experience and confidence to take on some very rough and sometimes terrifyingly exposed terrain.
Luckily there are plenty of ways to get used to Taiwan’s uniquely rugged and exhilarating high mountain trails on the relatively safe and accessible lower mountains around the island’s big cities. The peaks and ridges around Taipei city are a superb playground for hikers to hone their skills; the area around Taichung city is also quite good. Kaohsiung, in my experience, comes a distant third, although I’d love to be proved wrong!
These classic day hikes are not only routes that many serious Taipei-based hikers do regularly, but are also among the finest day hikes on the whole island. An old standby training ground for Hundred Peak trekkers is Mount Beichatian (北插天山; 1,727 meters), the highest peak within easy day-hike reach of Taipei city. The altitude gain of over a thousand meters from trailhead to summit makes it a great muscle and stamina booster, although it’s a slightly dull hike, compared with the other, more thrilling trails described below.
Climbing up and down a vertical kilometer in a day isn’t the only way to train for the high mountains, though. Here’s a few great ways to get fit (and, just as important, improve stamina, confidence in exposed, dangerous situations, and experience route-finding along overgrown trails) on a one-day hike from the big city.
- Stegosaurus Ridge: Perhaps the finest day hike in the Taipei area, this has some (very easy) scrambling, lots of exposure, and demands stamina, especially in hot weather.
- Wuliaojian: The old favorite, before Steg Ridge took over, Wuliaojian is an amazing playground for gaining confidence on small but exposed rock faces (climbed by fixed ropes) and gives the upper body muscles a great workout.
- Fengtoujian Ridge: Hiking the complete length of the Fengtoujian Ridge (adding an ascent of the pyramidal little peak of Zhongyangjian on at the end) is a tough and exhilarating day’s hike on some very rough, steep, overgrown trails, with quite a bit of exposure, slippery rock faces and all kinds of small obstacles to overcome.
- Huangdidian: An old standby, Huangdidian (like the Mount Bijia ridge nearby) has been tampered with so much by the authorities that it’s more of a family adventure these days than a serious hiker’s training ground, but doing the whole ridge still makes for a good half-day’s leg-stretcher, especially if you add on the short, rough and very steep descent to the amazing Bat Cave. Better still, take the very steep and tough alternative dirt trail that leaves the East Peak trail on the right shortly after the trailhead and reaches the ridge close to the Bat Cave.
- Guguan Seven Heroes: These are disappointingly unrugged heroes by Taiwanese (mountain) standards, although since four of these day hikes have a thousand meters or more of elevation gain, they’re great stamina boosters. Curiously the easiest and gentlest climb of the seven, Mount Dongmao, is the only peak that offers any exposed scrambling – an alternative trail on the left approaching the peak follows the edge of the crumbling cliffs on the mountain’s far side. Mount Wuwowei also has some fun (although easy) scrambling up rocks en route.
- Mount Yuanzui: A short, sharp and exciting prelude to Taiwan’s magnificent higher mountains, 2,307 meter-high Mount Yuanzui is the last flourish of the magnificent western ridge of Snow Mountain. Hiking the best bits of this ridge only takes a couple of hours (although it’s worth continuing east to the next summit, Mount Xiaolai, about 2 hours further east, before descending), but offers more exposure and excitement than anything around Taipei city.
These seven wonderful adventure playgrounds are the cream of the crop, but there are many more places to build up those muscles and that confidence before tackling one of monsters in the interior. Once the worst that Wuliaojian, Fengtoujian Ridge and Mount Yuanzui can throw at you ceases to strike terror, you’re probably ready for something a little more challenging than Jade or Snow. However, more on a few of those summits in another blog, soon.